Serious students of history can still take in hours of a documentary series such as the BBC’s epic 26-part The World at War, which featured interviews with historians, participants and veterans and was narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. For others it was the war that wouldn’t end – and unfortunately today many documentary filmmakers still follow that same tradition of mixing real footage with talking head experts to bring history to life.
In the era of video games and action movies such efforts could kill any interest in history. Fortunately this is where the YouTube channel Simple History fills a void in teaching history. It features animated videos that make events from the past engaging and more importantly, entertaining.
The channel, which was created by Dan Turner, grew out of his Simple History books back in September 2013.
“We used to draw comic strip timelines to bring historical events to life in school classes and I found it a novel way to cement the history into my mind,” said Turner, whose parents were very much into history, and even militaria and military antiques.
His father was a re-enactor and took the family to military history shows, museums and of course the family watched a lot of those movies and documentaries. While Turner studied history at the University College London, he also learned how to edit and make short films at the same film society that director Christopher Nolan, the director of 2017’s Dunkirk, learned the filmmaking ropes.
“It was around then that the idea for the channel was being formed,” added Turner. “My idea was to get more people interested in history, through the charming medium of animation.”
Turner said that he came up with the idea to use animation because it was such a powerful way to bring history alive in people’s imaginations – not to mention the fact that many moments from before the First World War weren’t documented on film, while events from before the middle of the 19th century weren’t even captured in photographs.
“I am a visual learner and have an interest in both art and history, so I found that combining these two made a good way to learn about history,” Turner explained.
“From my days in school and university years ago I remember it being difficult for my fellow students to get the image of what an event looked like,” he noted. “You can read about ‘soldiers in this and that battle’ and a ‘leader making this law’ but it’s more engaging seeing it visualized.”
While some larger budget productions have used re-enactments to create short sequences, and more recently CGI has come to be used – Turner went another direction with cartoon-style animations.
“Utilizing the medium of animation can make the story telling more engaging, and the viewers tell us how they love the new animation or details on uniforms and weapons,” he added. “The further back we go, going beyond the invention of photography, gives us less visual sources to go off. In school textbooks you often get a sea of black and white text with the odd photo or etching.”
For today’s younger generation, those who see epic films created with the aforementioned CGI, black and white photos simply aren’t engaging enough.
“It is difficult sometimes to portray a history topic through more traditional means, because you are either relying on limited amount of archive footage, paintings or photos which may not relate to what you are talking about, with animation and cartoon artwork you can accurately depict an event,” said Turner.
“This may be why I think we get so many viewers and schools saying that their teachers love to show Simple History episodes in their history classes to convey and teach the subject,” Turner noted. “We also get a lot of military personnel around the world telling us they watch the show and some episodes have been used in classes for new recruits.”
What Turner also found when he went from producing books to videos was that even in 2013 no one was really using animation to share history. He decided this could be a good way to create full-on animated episodes on a variety of topics – from weapons to events to historical figures – and cover it in a way that wasn’t being done.
His videos also cover thousands of years of history, something few documentary filmmakers would ever consider attempting.
He worked with professional voice talent including Chris Kane of Vocal forge and Lazlo Beauregard who Turner said brought the scripts to life narrating the topics.
Even with today’s DIY software, producing the segments is still real work, however.
“The video production is an intense progress that takes weeks of planning, research, script writing, recording, drawing of artwork assets and our most unique and difficult aspect – the animation,” said Turner. “People of different talents whether its animation, voice narration and writing come together to create an educational cartoon in a very short amount of time.”
However, with nearly three million subscribers it has become Turner’s full time career, and one he doesn’t plan on giving up any time soon. He admits it was a matter of skill and luck, but one that has proven worthwhile.
“Most YouTubers find it difficult to take the leap but it is worth it,” he added. “Learning history is for everyone!”