Cranfield University

Reinvent The Toilet

In 2014 Nextshoot was approached by Cranfield University’s Water & Sanitation to create a video to illustrate their response to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’. Cranfield’s product, The Nanomembrane Toilet, enables those with no plumbing to benefit from hygienic and safe facilities through an innovative solution which uses nanotechnology to convert human waste to water and ash.

Our response to the brief was to create a video with animation, CGI and voiceover elements. We told the story from the perspective of a West African child, which forced us to develop a clear and simple narrative, while reminding the viewer of the profound impact the product could have on real families and their children in the developing world.

The story takes place on a school blackboard, which allowed for clear visual transitions. The board itself was built in 3D, while the imagery and characters presented on the board were in 2D with a chalky finish. 3D graphics of the toilet were also created, based on the CAD files supplied to us, that demonstrated the function and mechanics of the system. Once the animation and CGI elements were laid down with music and a guide voiceover, we recorded the actual voices in a studio and brought all the elements together in the edit. The different versions of The Nanomembrane Toilet have been viewed more than 710,000 times on YouTube alone.
The Brief
Funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge' set out to promote new approaches for toilet technologies that could effectively and safely manage human waste for the billions of people today who still lack safe sanitation. With over 40 years of experience in the sector, Cranfield University’s Water & Sanitation department responded to the challenge in September 2012 with its prototype. They succeeded to win successive grants from the Gates Foundation for their project, progressing to new stages of development and field testing.

Cranfield approached Nextshoot to create an original video in 2014 and then an updated version in 2016 that illustrated the functionality of their product, The Nanomembrane Toilet. Their toilet was developed to enable those without plumbing to have access to safe and hygienic facilities through an innovative solution which uses nanotechnology to convert human waste to water and ash.

The videos were to serve different functions - to sit on the university’s website, to be played at the fairs organised by the Gates Foundation, and for dissemination via Social Media. The brief was that the content was accessible to all viewers, and that it clearly explained the functionality of The Nanomembrane Toilet and its USPs.
Cranfield University Reinvent the Toilet Cranfield University Reinvent the Toilet
Cranfield University Reinvent the Toilet Cranfield University Reinvent the Toilet
Our Approach
Initially we considered an interview, archive, b-roll and computer graphic approach to the video. However, when we reviewed the assets that were available to tell the story and visited the lab location, we felt that the best approach would in fact be an animation, CGI and voiceover.

One of the elements of the brief was that the video should have a simplicity to it, and so we played with the idea that the story was told from the perspective of a child from the West Afican region in which Cranfield were doing their field tests. This decision framed the story from a simplified viewpoint, forcing us to develop a clear narrative. It also reminded the viewer that this product would have a profound impact on real families and their children.

We developed the idea of telling the story on a blackboard, which fitted nicely with the child’s perspective and gave the output an educational, explainer video feel also. The blackboard allowed for easy transitions from one visual cue to another. The board itself was built in 3D, surrounded by the artwork you would expect in to find in a classroom in West Africa, while the characters and imagery presented on the board were animated in 2D with a chalky look & feel.

We transitioned from the blackboard to 3D graphics of the toilet, based on the CAD files supplied to us, against a clean white background. Representing urine and faecal matter required a little sensitivity, and our graphics team also needed to fully understand the function and mechanics in the system to animate the moving parts correctly. Admittedly, getting this right required a lot of liaising with the team at Cranfield.

One the animation and CGI graphics were laid down with music and a guide voice for timing, we recorded the actual voices in a studio in London’s West End, including with child actors.
The Results
At one level, the views for the videos speak for themselves. The original video from 2014 has had over 460,000 views, while the updated video from 2016 was watched a further 250,000 times. However, we appreciate that much of this traffic was generated by the Tweets from Bill Gates’s Twitter account. Stories about toilets are also surprisingly popular.

The metrics aside, what we feel was successful about the videos was that they explained a potentially complex story in a clear and engaging way and, given the subject matter, with the right tone. The conceit was bold and well executed. The story-telling and the quality of the animation and the 3D CGI gave the video a considered and quality feel that reflected well on Cranfield’s programme and end product.

As a video production company in London we are constantly challenged by our clients to come up with innovative ideas to promote their brands, organisations or products. Of course, it’s always a pleasure to work on content that is challenging and creative and that is ultimately contributing to a worthy cause. We hope that Cranfield’s product, and those prototypes developed by other grantees in the ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’, will go a long way to supporting the 4.5 billion people who lack basic and safe sanitation options across the globe.
Cranfield University Reinvent the Toilet Cranfield University Reinvent the Toilet


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