What is this?

Wondering what my evolution project is about? Here are a bunch of posts I made explaining how it all works, but in a nutshell: the project uses copied drawings to ‘evolve’ creatures over time, and teaches evolution in the process by letting you experience it yourself! You can see the actual animation here,

Also a special thanks to all the people over the years who made drawings for the project! including…

Patrick Henry School of Science & Art
William Fox Elementary
VCU Kinetic Imaging
VCU Lobs and Lessons Program
VCU Discovery Program
the Science Museum of Virginia
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Lighthouse Studios
Mid-Atlantic Bioanthropology Interest Group
SouthEastern Evolutionary Perspectives Society
and MAGFest!

Evolution! “Game”

The Virtual Reality versions of this game are too old at this point, but you can play an old non-VR version for Windows by downloading it here! https://uvwar.itch.io/evolution

If you’d rather listen than read, you can hear me talk about the project in this radio interview, here

And if you want the whole project summed up in one image, take a look at this! These are the all the creatures descended from my original creature (in the middle there)

tyler rhodes evolution phylogenetic tree extendedand here are some plant evolutions

tyler rhodes phylo tree plants extended

In the Beginning

Back in March of 2011 I was taking an animation course at VCU in which I could spend the entire semester working on one project. Where some people had to come up with an idea, I had one percolating for some time. Years earlier I had known I wanted to do some kind of animation based on evolution, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. In the meantime I collected a bunch of inspirational images, and by the time the class rolled around, I had an idea of what I wanted.

I didn’t want this. Most of the time when people think of “evolution” they think of something like the animation above, from Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” Or more specifically, this…

The “Ascent of Man” by Rudolph Zallinger, for the 1965 Time Life book, “Early Man.”

I’m sure you’ve seen it before. It’s more or less all over the place. Just like this image!



Although a powerful image that instantly evokes the idea of evolution, it is, in fact, “wrong”. Not just for the fact that a vast majority of the “ancestors” weren’t actually a part of human family tree, or that they’re shown walking upright, but that they’re shown in a successive line. This “parade of evolution” is something that shows up over and over again; a linear progression or advancement of lifeforms that invariably ends in an upright, close-shaven white guy.

As you can see from Mr. Darwin’s own sketch book, evolution is best depicted as a sort of tree. There is no “end goal” to evolution, and one form of life isn’t necessarily more ‘advanced’ than another. Instead, life evolves in all directions constantly; branching out into multiple forms, as well as truncating with extinction. So the question then becomes: How can I use this idea in my animation?

Inspiration and Method

As I mentioned in my last post, I was looking to make some kind of animation that wasn’t simply linear, but instead represented the true “tree” of life. But in the meantime, I was grabbing anything that looked interesting.

Here you can see Ishu Patel’s “Bead Game” and….

Sheila Graber’s “Evolution”

Both are nice animations that go into varying detail of the course of evolution, as well as ending with man’s mastery of the atom, and perhaps an uncertain future. But again they follow a”linear” representational model of how people think of evolution.  I wanted to do something similar, and yet different. But how? At first I was thinking of having animals march through time, set to some kind of music like Ravel’s “Bolero.” Eventually I ran across this, which was pretty much exactly what I was thinking of!

Allegro non troppo – Bolero (1977) by Cartoonzof2006

Scene from Bruno Bozzetto’s “Allegro Non Troppo”

Naturally, I had to do something different.

Here are some of my early ideas. I essentially ended up going with a combination of the top left and parts of the right page, coming up with a sort of game. Much like the whispered game “telephone” where one person whispers a message down the line until its very different by the end due to small “mutations” along the way, I would create a game of telephone using visual imagery. I did this by creating a nondescript salamander-like creature to start of us, as you can see here…

From there, I had my various groups make copies. The copies, of course, would not be exact, simulating slight mutations in the offspring of this parent, progenitor species.

Here you can see my creature with some of the variations it spawned. From here I would take these new images and tape them up on a wall so everyone could get a good look. Then, I would give some kind of excuse for their extinction, and eliminate all but a few.

Here I am putting some of the creatures up before immediately taking them down again.

Around this time I also decided that I wanted to include children somehow with the animation, and fortunately I was able to work through various groups and schools to get a wide range of children to participate. One thing I had began to notice again and again was that when a scientist was asked “What was the defining moment that made you want to become a scientist?” they almost invariably answered “When I was a child.” There always seemed to be some kind of event or situation that would stick in their mind as a kid, and would help shape their interests and ambitions late in life. I hoped my little evolution game would have a similar effect on the kids I was working with, because although I wasn’t implicitly explaining evolution or “teaching” them anything, I knew they would internalize it and at least remember it later.

In any case, everyone seemed to take their creature going extinct personally, and would plead for me to leave theirs up. I would, as an unbending force of nature, refuse to acknowledge them. From there we would take the next creature and make copies of that. By now everyone would be fairly comfortable with the game and begin trying to make their creature “the best” (by some metric of their own), and I would mix things up by throwing them a curve ball. At this point I say the world has turned into a desert and once again 98% of the animals die out. Of the few remaining, they must choose the creature they think is best suited for this desert environment. In this way, even being suited to the environment of that generation is no guarantee you’ll succeed into the next, as you can’t fully predict which way I’ll change the environmental factors.

Some creatures best chosen to start the “desert” generation

This continues for 6 generations, with each group have 2 generations exclusive to them. The group I used in the final animation had the “ice age” ending, but others included the sea, the mountains, or underground. Next I’ll discuss the actual process of getting the drawings, as well as the wider range of creatures that were produced.

The Blind Watchmaker

Originally I wasn’t sure  how I should go about the animation. As I mentioned in my first post I wanted something that at least represented branching structure instead of linearity, but I was blanking on how to actually pull this off. I also added the challenge of specifically trying to get children to make a majority of the drawings. One thing I kept noticing was that when various scientists were asked “What was the defining moment in your life when you knew you wanted to be a scientist?” they always gave the same answer: when they were kids. There was always some formative and usually highly specific and memorable event that seemed to spark their fascination with science when they were younger. So I set out to find myself a group of kids in the hopes that, maybe someday, they’ll think back and remember the activity fondly when they think of evolution. Perhaps even in a few I would have planted the seeds of a future scientist. But wrangling up some kids was secondary to actually coming up with something they could DO.

I had toyed with the idea of rotoscoping initially. The idea was that I would animate a linear, traditional evolution animation and have the kids trace over my drawings, “completing” it. My thinking was that I would have underforms that were fairly boring and acting merely as guides, allowing the kids to come up with something interesting to overlay on top, as long as it “followed the lines.” The result would have been a strange jittery flash of different forms changing over time.

But, as you can probably guess, I figured this would be a little too boring. I wanted the activity to move with a certain amount of speed, which rotoscoping isnt known for. I also couldn’t really think of a quick and easy way to trace a zillion frames with people that had never done it before, and besides it gave me this weird child labor vibe, so I abandoned it.

Around this point I was coming up with the ideas that you can see in my sketchpad picture in the other posts, but still wasn’t sure what to do. That’s when I stumbled upon Mr.Dawkins in his documentary “The Blind Watchmaker.”

Coming out around the same time as Dawkins book “The Blind Watchmaker,” the BBC documentary goes into William Paley’s assertion that complicated things must have a designer. So, in his example, if you were to find a watch out in nature you would assume someone had designed it, and that it didn’t naturally appear as a watch with all its complex parts as-is. This naturally leads into the idea that to look around you and see the various complex forms in nature, then its right to assume that there must equally be a designer for that too, for its too much to assume such complex designs could happen on their own.

William Paley, philosopher on Natural Theology

Naturally that’s exactly what Dawkins attempts to do. He goes through the documentary explaining things that seem impossible on the surface, but are actually quite possible within the confines of evolution. So elements such as the eye or the wing which seem tremendously complex at first, can be explained through relatively simple methods of slight modification over time.

It was when Dawkins got to the simulated lifeforms that he called “Biomorphs,” however, that my animation ideas began to sync. Dawkins shows of Jeremy Ruston’s little programmed “creatures” who have digital genes which he can manipulate into various forms. On the surface they don’t look like much of anything, but using your imagination you can begin to see familiar shapes or patterns. He then begins to “select” for a form he likes the most. The genes are set and new permutations come up on the screen, and he selects again.

A young Dawkins selecting some Biomorphs and fiddling with their genes

I used this to full effect in my own animation of course, only using paper and crayon instead of a computer.  Of course by now computers have all sorts of cool evolving lifeforms on them, and a few programs have this very same ‘evolving’ capacity to help guide you towards something you like but aren’t entirely sure what that may be! Oh and if you haven’t seen the Dawkins documentary, check it out; it’s good!

Speaking of simulated evolution, I recently came across this the other day.

I love the fractal patterns of plants (succulents and ferns being my favs, naturally) and this instantly caught my attention. Created as a school project back in 2008 by Markus Jonsson, Jonatan Nyberg and Jakob Rogstadius, Linnaeus simulates plant evolution, using little genes just like Dawkins’ Biomorphs up there. You can open the XML file and goof off with the parameters to make truly strange plants but because they evolve on their own, they tend to do it regardless! The patterns of the bark and the shape of the leaves and flowers  are what intrigued me the most, and I spent hours mesmerized by these little virtual plants. Although the link doesn’t seem to be working for me at the moment, you can (or could) download Linnaeus here http://hci.uma.pt/~jakob/?p=projects to try it out for youself, which I suggest you do!

Whew! Anyway, I’ll try to get some stuff from the library up here soon as well as posting up a ‘how-to’ guide in case any of you decide to try this on you own. Not that it’s astoundingly complicated or anything, but I never went into any real detail on my process, so I think it might be helpful. If anyone does create any critters I’d love to see them! Toss some scans my way at tylerrhodesart@gmail(dot)com if you’d like! And if you’re feeling extra contributive you can start with my same salamander-like creature and keep the ball rolling! Until next time.

Evolution! A How-To Guide

People keep mentioning of wanting to do something similar themselves, or asking me what programs I used, so I figured I’d go into the entire process from start to finish in more detail.

Evolution! A How-To Guide

Here is a step by step guide of how I typically do my “evolution!” activity with the salamander-like creatures. In the years since I initially started, I have also done plants, flowers, insects, fish, fungus, and all manner of different things, so do not feel limited by my subject matter, the iterative process I use here can be applied to most everything!


You will need~

1. A whole lot of crayons.I chose crayons mainly because I could get a lot of them. They were colorful, and they usually are not a medium people spend a lot of time on, as I want them to move quickly while drawing. The name of the game with this is speed, and something like colored pencils or markers and pens could slow people down, but you can use whatever you have available. I use two Crayola 96 packs, and gave every 2 people or so their own mini-carton of crayons. This usually meant they had enough colors to make something without fighting over crayons, but eventually people tend to lend or trade each other the colors they need.

2. A whole lot of paper.With six generations times X number of participants you will be going through a lot of paper. Generally speaking at least 100 or so creatures were made in an average group, but it can always be more or less depending.

3. A partitioned folder.I got a bunch of folders with little partitions in them to keep each generation separate, along with a section for the final “timeline” of the group. This includes the direct lineage of chosen creatures for each generation. This is important for later!

4. Tape!(or Magnets)Just some regular scotch tape will do but something like painters or artists tape is even better if you don’t want to risk damaging the original drawings(or surface you’re taping to). You’ll be using this to put up the drawings on a wall or something so everyone else can see. Magnets work even better if you have a magnetic board because you can quickly and easily move drawings around without damaging the artwork in any way.

(optional) 5. Microphone If you wanted to get some recorded sound effects like I had, you’ll need a mic of some kind. I used a ZOOM H2 Mic. You’d also need headphones if you wanted to hear it as you were recording.

And….that’s it! Pretty simple really. Now for the actual process…


STEP 1: Hand Everyone 6 Sheets of Paper

Once you have everyone in one place and ready to go, give them each 6 sheets of paper. Each sheet is for one generation of drawings, so you may not get through all your sheets, or people may need more later. Part of the game is to move quickly and not allow for ‘mistakes.’ If anyone seemed to be second-guessing themselves or trying to flip their page to start over I would try to prevent it and have them keep fleshing out their original idea. I wanted their initial and gut instinct in what they drew.

STEP 2: Give the People Their Crayons

As I mentioned earlier I had two 96 packs of Crayola crayons which are divided into little sub-boxes holding about 16 crayons each. I would pass these out however it seemed to work, but it usually boiled down to something like 1 little box for every 2 people.

STEP 3: Reveal Your Starting Creature

Once everyone is settled, you can begin. I try to have simple drawings to start off with so that people don’t feel too intimidated, and will eventually get a little bored and start producing more and more complex drawings as we go.

From here, I typically hold up my initial salamander (projector/camera setups can also be handy here) and tell them to copy it the best they can, but that it didn’t have to be perfect. I stress that they should copy what they see, but I’m not very specific beyond that. Usually someone will ask if it has to be the same color, as they will panic when they realize they don’t have any of those crayons in their box, but you can just re-assure them that it doesn’t have to be (or not!) If anyone seemed hesitant to draw I would prod them along. Once people start drawing something they usually finish it.

STEP 4: Mark Each Round

Be sure to have everyone label what round it is as they draw. This ensures that even if the drawings get jumbled you can resort them later. To do this, simply ask for everyone to write a 1 in the corner somewhere. This is to mark round 1! Do this for each consecutive round up to round 6, or wherever it is that you stop.

STEP 5: Watch the Clock

I had about an hour for every group, so I had to make sure I moved quickly. I would give them only a few minutes to draw, but as we kept going and things tend to get more ‘complex’ I would allow for a little more time. Usually if someone ‘finishes’ I would stop the round right there, tape/magnet their drawing up, and announce it. This typically sends everyone into a mad rush to get theirs done “in time.” I would let them keep drawing as I would collect all the sketches. If you have anyone helping you, you can start collecting and have them fed to you to start taping up, or have one person taping, another collecting, etc. In any case, don’t give the audience too much time to overthink, overdraw, or do their drawing over.

STEP 6: The Tape/Magnets

After collecting your drawings, begin to tape/magnet them to a wall in rows and columns.

STEP 7: The Mass Extinction

Give everyone a few seconds to look at everyone else’s drawings, as it’s always have fun seeing what other people came up with. Here you can pause for a bit and  say what you’d like about variation or genes or environmental factors, and then give some reason for the lifeforms to go extinct (something generic is best like “The swamp they were in has dried up over time”). Pull off most of the drawings from the wall. You’ll probably get a lot of cries of anguish and pleading, but don‘t stop for anything! Now I generally would leave maybe 3 or 4 left, but if time was short or the group seemed very indecisive I would only leave 2. I would essentially be pulling drawings down at random, but I would also go for drawings I thought would be better at illustrating my final point than others (whatever that may be). For instance, I would avoid the more abstract drawings because I knew people would have a hard time copying it. Bold, clear drawings tend to work best. I would also removed anything that went “too far” from the vague rules I had established. So any pop-culture references, high-tech machinery, or wild deviations etc. would be the first to go.


So, let’s say you have 2 or 3 creatures left. Initially I tend to have people pick a creature with no further explanation, but after this first generation I begin to add the various environmental impacts, and to ask them why they chose a creature. This gets people to think about why the creature would be better adapted, or at least defend their position (things they probably weren’t considering very strongly before this point). This is where you can catch people staunchly defending their own drawing, or picking something and then sheepishly admitting they don’t really have a good reason for picking it. I do this line of questioning with all remaining creatures before the final elimination so that people can always get a sense of what other people are thinking. Once a drawing gets the most votes, that drawing then becomes to progenitor for every subsequent drawing for the rest of the activity!


Every generation you’ll be mixing up the environments as you see fit (I tend to go with a desert, then a forest, then perhaps a cave, or an ice age, pick what you like!), and because the audience will tend to try to create the “perfect creature” for the given scenario, you can keep them guessing by continually changing the environment on them. This means that the new “ideal” creature for the new environment is probably a fluke, and happened to have to right advantages at the right time.

STEP 8: File Them Away!

Be sure to check that everyone’s drawing has a 1 for stage 1 marked on the drawing (if they don’t fill one in or you can do it later), and file all the drawings away in your GENERATION 1 section of your partitioned folder.

STEP 9: Repeat Steps 3-8!

From here, do as before. Hold up the new starting creature and ask them to copy it once more. By now they’ll understand the game a little bit more and should start moving faster and being more comfortable with the process overall. Be sure to ask them to mark these new drawings with a 2 for generation 2, 3 for 3, etc. I would also keep mixing up the scenarios, however, as we went along, in this order.

GENERATION 1: The first copy, usually a salamander type thing if you use a picture like mine. End with having them pick a creature they like

GENERATION 2:Typically similar to the first generation, more salamander creatures, but here, people tend to start deviating a little more. End with saying that “It is now a desert, which creature would better survive in a desert?” You can also give them some mental imagery by asking them to think of what desert animals do to survive on earth, and now that resources are scarce, they may have to be more fierce to survive. Generally the creature chosen at the end of the round has ‘desert-like’ colors.

GENERATION 3:Now you should start to see some wild creatures! Typically lots of spines, spikes, teeth and nails. The occasional background element tends to creep in now as well in the form of a cactus. Eliminate the creatures as usual and ask them to now select for a forest environment. Try to include creatures that vary a lot in how they look beforehand so you aren’t stuck with 4 sand colored lizards.

GENERATION 4: It’s usually a greenish lizard that starts this generation. Lots of trees tend to enter the drawings now and sometimes the creatures are interacting directly with the background in some way. At this point narrow down your creatures again, but the final generations I left open. Each group had a different “ending,” with the one in the animation being “Ice Age.” Others included the Underground, The Sky, The Deep Sea, and The Mountains.

GENERATION 5-6:Similar to the first two generations, things just tend to reinforce themselves here. At generation 5 you usually get some kind of transitional form looking animals, and for Gen 6 just keep pushing it ‘deeper’ into that new area. So the ice age creatures get even more hairy and tusky, the sea creatures get even more aquatic, and so on.

End with everyone’s final creatures on the wall, and pull out the rest of the chosen creatures that led up this point, which there should be 7 (6 including your original, which I internally refer to as Generation 0). Here it’s quite easy to see the small but dramatic changes made over time to get to where everyone ended up, and you can have a nice chat about evolution etc. at this time.

From there get your drawings packed away and you’re done!

(OPTIONAL) Sound Recording: Generally at the last second I would record some sounds. I would just pull out my mic and either have everyone file by in a line or they would just crowd around me and record one sound each. Just have everyone be as quiet as possible and record one sound each. If there are only a few people you can keep recording multiple sounds. Of course, there will be laughter, but I left all of that in my final animation.

And that’s about it! You should now have a folder jammed full of drawings, all organized by generation, which you can even then arrange into a kind of phylogenetic tree afterwards, if you’d like! From here we’ll get into my actual animating process and the programs I used, the background elements, and the music.


Time to Animate

People had asked me what I used to animate the drawings, so I thought I’d do a brief run-down of my process.

At first I scanned all 460 drawings, which as you can guess takes a while. Depending on the colors used and how timid the artist was drawing it, the resulting image would sometimes be less than ideal. Lighter colors like yellow and pink are especially problematic, but I could usually get the drawings look decent. At first I would end up with something like this…

And get it looking more like this…

From here I “cut them out” in Adobe Photoshop so that the only thing Im working with is a nicely trimmed creature on a transparent background. From there, we move into Adobe After Effects.

After Effects is a program most people use for motion graphics and whatnot, but you can also do snazzy animations and special effects with it. Once I import all my cut out creatures and scenery I can begin. Normally you can move images over an x and y axis (up and down, left and right), and with a button press, you can go into the Z plane. This is how everything looks 3-D, with a virtual camera flying through a virtual space. In the image up there you can see how I set up all the objects in their proper spots and flew the camera through the scene, with things popping into view as needed. The view on the right is what the camera see, but the view on the left shows you all the elements lined up. You can see the bushes in the front there that block you view as the scene begins, and those two little rectangles on the bigger rectangle in the far back there are those two creatures in the tree that get eaten later on.

The camera itself has a bunch of controls that can do things like a “real camera”, and here you can see I have a really low F-Stop and Depth of Field enabled which will allow for the extremely shallow focus and blur that you can see in the animation.

But the main thing I used to actually make the creatures move is called the Puppet Tool. The Puppet Tool is now in both the newer versions of Photoshop as well as After Effects, and when you activate it, it breaks any image down into a series of polygons, like so.

It also works by the placing of “pins.” Here you can see the creature broken into polygons, and the pins Ive placed at his hips, shoulders, and feet. You can up the triangle count to get a smoother bend, but usually it isn’t necessary in something like this. Each pin adds a reference point that the others will bend around. You can use other tools like a stiffener if you don’t want to things to move, but because I wanted to extreme rubberyness I just tried to place minimal pins and let them do their thing.

By pulling a pin, you can see how the foot stretches out, but also how the head moves, as well as the rest of the body besides the area surrounding a pin. Again, this is something I want to give it those charming silly movements.

Look at him go! But that’s more or less “all there is to it.” Once I had my music selected, I went through and marked the timecodes on any heavy or interesting beat, and made sure to animate each little scene within those strict frame allowances. Once I was done with that, I just plopped them all down in a timeline, and they already synced correctly to the music because I had specifically designed them to!

Here is a basic tutorial from the handy guys at VideoCopilot if you wanted to try 3-D layers in After effects yourself, so give it a look if you’re interesting in getting into some basic After Effectsing. Good Luck and have fun animating!


3 thoughts on “What is this?

  1. […] For more information about Evolution!, visit Tyler’s website at: Evolution! […]

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