Getting to know… Derek Lau, Animator
Derek is the creator of Meat/Culture, the animated film which produced much media attention for New Harvest. He is currently in the process of developing the next animation for New Harvest.
“There seems to be a deep seated fear of cultured meat that I wanted to address in my video. It is not really a intuitive thing to tell people about, meat has always come from animals.”
Derek Lau is a motion graphics designer from Australia, who recently graduated from the University of Technology, Sydney with a bachelor’s degree in Visual Communications. He wants to use his talents to improve society one step at a time by effectively explaining and communicating ideas. He decided to start with cultured meat, because he sees it as the best way to be able to eat the meat he loves and sidestep the guilt associated with the moral and ethical issues regarding it.
New Harvest: Hey Derek! Tell us how you first discovered cultured meat & New Harvest.
Derek Lau: I had discussed the idea of cultured meat with a friend of mine before I even started my degree, so its been on the back of my mind for years. I never knew it was actually in development. But when Dr. Mark Post unveiled his hamburger in London I realized it was a real thing. I was developing a video about cultured meat for a graduate project, and we were encouraged to work with other people. I saw Isha’s involvement so I reached out to New Harvest just to ask a couple questions. I chatted with Isha and she ended up being really helpful. She didn’t feel a need to control it in any way but she gave me perspective on the real ongoing science and development. I was surprised to learn it was a collaboration of scientists across the world as people seem to think of the food industry as this monolithic conglomerate of money; really big companies with large amounts of control. To hear that this was more of a proper community was great. I’m glad New Harvest was able to lend their name to my video.
NH: What elements served as inspiration for Meat/Culture?
D: I knew the media tends to take this stupid, sensationalist view of cultured meat- calling it frankenmeat and concerned about the cost but never addressing the proper issues that everyone else seems to be on the same wavelength about. They don’t seem to appreciate the forward thinking behind it. I wanted to bring that into my video. And there seems to be a deep seated fear of it that I wanted to address. Cultured meat is not really a intuitive thing to tell people, meat has always come from animals. People often don’t even think it’s possible.
NH: Tell us a bit about the design process.
D: Originally the way I designed it in the early stages, I was adamant that you would see just random images with cows and then cells growing, in a way that’s not disturbing but definitely confronting. I didn’t want text at all, I was thinking that people would just see all this imagery and be inspired and it could reach across all these different language barriers. But I realized it’s a very complex idea to try and sell with just images so the language part became important.
NH: What feedback have you received about the animation?
D: The feedback has all been positive. I at first was afraid I would get a flood of angry emails. There is an anger directed towards vegetarians that is unwarranted. People get really defensive about their meat; they take it really personally. Vegetarians tend to tell people how awful and unethical eating meat is, telling people to stop and making them feel guilty. So that directed me to take a different route than the traditional vegetarian route. I tried to make it as positive and forward thinking as possible, saying this won’t be the one solution to everything but it is a great solution and it will solve many problems.
NH: Did you notice common reactions among people who watched Meat/Culture?
D: Some people seemed to be appalled as they watched. My video glossed over much of the reality of factory farming, I would say my version was highly sensitive about the subject relative to many others. People still were shaking their heads at the animated animals being killed. Some environmental science people came up to me and said yes, the world really needs this. The video actually blew up on Reddit a couple months ago, it hit like 20,000 views in one day. It started a lot of discussion about cultured meat and its implications. It was great to see people debating about how we got to this point. And then you get the people concerned about costs again, and you draw yourself back and think as long as people are talking about it then good.
NH: Did people have a lot of questions?
D: One issue was: What is going to happen to the cows? They are all going to go extinct! Of course cows will still exist, just not in the billions! Then people would ask what about the jobs for farmers? Look at past examples, margarine didn’t completely phase out butter. And farmers aren’t the same as they were 50 years ago. Are we still looking for blacksmiths? This is just an inevitability of discovering new things. The picture painted in marketing doesn’t exist. There are no chickens running around in a nicely spaced paddock. Actually, chickens come from the indian jungle fowl which is a jungle bird. So they would be more comfortable hiding in trees rather than out in the open, that would probably be terrifying for them. The whole natural chickens in their natural habitat idea is obscured.
NH: What is the attitude towards cultured meat in Australia?
D: I think the problem with Australia is that because of its geographic isolation it has a certain view of itself, similar to America maybe. When it comes to Australia, they are proud of their farming heritage, farming is quite a big deal in this country. We don’t have many factory farms here, especially for beef, so many of our cows are truly raised on large amounts of land. People in the media take it like the Americans; they see a novelty aspect of it. They don’t see it as being a completely game-changing product like the Europeans who more see it as an inevitability. I find it an inevitability — it’s just going to happen at some point.
NH: What do you think of Australian agriculture?
D: Unfortunately I think there’s a conservative culture of agriculture here. The only progressive sort of agriculture is that they are looking at phasing out battery cages and cage eggs. Free-range animals and cage-free eggs. In terms of viable alternatives; it’s not really big here. We have Quorn, that exists. It’s difficult to understand where we sit, we only have 30 million in our country although we have the same land mass as the US. The view of alternative agriculture starts in urban areas where there is not much space but everyone is keen on looking at new ideas. The only urban centers are the capitals of each state and they are all on the fringes of the coast, so only hotspots of forward thinking are really Sydney and Melbourne.
NH: What can you tell us about your second animation?
D: It is about chickens. In the first video we tried to tackle the ethical and environmental issues and this one is more about the logic. It’s trying to relate that when you get the meat from chicken, you get a single product but you invest all this time, energy and money into creating this complex animal with beaks, eyes, feathers and bones. All these things that we end up stripping away to get the muscle tissue so why waste all the time, energy and life just to get a tissue we could grow? i’m trying to diverge away from the first one, figuring out where to draw the line between consistency and new material. I’m considering the slogan- single process for a single product. I might add in the jungle fowl aspect as well.
NH: I can’t wait to see it! Is there anything else you are working on that you’d like to talk about?
D: I’m currently working for an number of non for profits, the last project was for one of my old tutors from university. Her new business is to get philanthropic investments as she provides design solutions. It’s called design to change behavior, designing and shaping the environment in order to improve behavior. It creates a proper sense of community and involves strategic thinking. Basically her business assesses communities that are in need for a design solution, and they source money from investors to avoid needing money from the government.
Thanks Derek, you contribute something unique to New Harvest & we are grateful!