A Rockland couple uses humor and parody to focus attention on a serious subject – global warming’s threat to Maine’s lobster industry.
By Tom Bell, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
ROCKLAND — A new four-minute cartoon is winning praise for the way it uses humor to convey the latest science about the impact of climate change on Maine’s lobster fishery.
The animation, “A Climate Calamity in the Gulf of Maine: The Lobster Pot Heats Up,” was produced by a husband-and-wife animation team in Rockland and funded by the Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine.
The narrator of the cartoon delivers a factual summary of a 2015 report on Maine climate by university researchers. But the images – a “South Park”-like parody of Maine people and the state’s billion-dollar lobster industry – are absurd.
Lobsters on beach chairs fan themselves to keep cool. Other lobsters trek northward in covered wagons pulled by sea horses. In one scene, lobsters lounging on pool floats scream in tiny voices as the pool transforms into a cauldron of boiling water.
A shivering ice fisherman looks puzzled as the narrator announces that 2014 was the hottest year on record globally and that the Gulf of Maine will heat up by 4 degrees by the end of the century.
“For our cool-water-loving lobsters, that could be catastrophic,” says the narrator, voiced by Andy O’Brien, 36, who wrote the script.
His wife, Hanji Chang, 29, who graduated last year from the Maine College of Art, directed and animated the video on her laptop computer in the couple’s home near downtown Rockland. Their animation company is called O’Chang Studios.
Chang’s style is influenced by Japanese Anime, particularly the facial expressions of the characters, but she uses American animation techniques, such as flat cutout characters, props and backgrounds made famous by “South Park,” an animated comedy intended for mature audiences.
Adam deGrandis, a Portland-based game developer who met Chang while teaching a digital art class at the Maine College of Art, said he loves the speed and energy of Chang’s work.
“It’s really energetic, lively and fun,” he said.
Esperanza Stancioff, a climate educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine Sea Grant College Program, said the video uses humor to reach people who normally don’t want to read a scientific report.
“It really gets the science across in a meaningful way,” she said.
O’Brien, who grew up on a farm in Lincolnville, met Chang while working as an English teacher in 2006 in Taiwan.
He belonged to a punk rock band at the time. She was a punk rock fan, complete with a Mohawk haircut and fishnet stockings. They married the following year and moved to Maine in 2009.
In Taiwan, everybody accepts as scientific fact that the Earth’s climate is warming because of greenhouse gases, Chang said. She was surprised that it’s a controversial subject in the United States.
“I never knew there was a debate about it at all,” she said.
Their video was funded with a $6,000 grant from the Maine Sea Grant College Program, which receives funding for communications from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It’s hard to reach people today because they’re overwhelmed with information, said Katherine Schmitt, the program’s communications director.
She said humor can be used successfully to break through barriers people often put up when it comes to new information. Another plus, she said, is that O’Chang Studios’ animation is popular among rural Mainers, a group that is hard to reach.
The couple’s animated series, “Temp Tales,” is inspired by their experience working low-wage jobs in Maine, and much of the dialogue comes from the people they worked with. Their most popular video, “Fantasy Island,” features a pot-smoking painting contractor who tries to do his wealthy client a favor by shooting some great blue herons in his backyard. The video has a half-million views on YouTube.
The characters speak with thick Maine accents and love smelt fishing, big trucks and snowmobiles. People who live outside rural Maine don’t get the humor, O’Brien said.
“Our fans are our friends,” O’Brien said. “We’re all in on the joke.”
Carl Wilson, who for 15 years worked as the lead lobster biologist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said he has struggled to communicate the impact of climate change on lobsters.
He said the O’Brien and Chang video breaks the issue down to the basic elements without getting bogged down in explaining the science.
“They get the point across in a way that someone like myself can’t,” he said.