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January 03, 2014
Jen Kerbo's thesis film helps families understand disease and the need for research
By Carolyn Jack
For her senior thesis, Jennifer Kerbo created a memorable video about Alzheimer’s disease.
Ironically, memory is exactly what Alzheimer’s slowly and tragically erases in those afflicted by the illness. Kerbo knows that all too intimately. The Biomedical Art major who graduated from CIA in the spring of 2013, lost her father to Alzheimer’s in her sophomore year. But that makes remembering – her father, the plight of other patients and families, the importance of research in the effort to find an eventual cure – all the more important to Kerbo.
And it gave her a motivation for crafting the video that was more than academic. The film has become a valuable tool for the Alzheimer’s Association Cleveland Area Chapter as it tries to educate patients and their families about the disease and the importance of clinical research.
“This project was very personal to me,” said Kerbo on a mid-December morning over a cup of chai latte in a University Circle coffee shop. She explained that she had started considering possible thesis projects the summer before she graduated and had entertained ideas besides the Alzheimer’s video. But they “sort of paled in comparison.”
Kerbo, from Orange Spring, Fla., near Ocala, has been interested in art since age three – her father had a BFA, too. But she also likes science. When a teacher at the arts magnet school she attended suggested the field of biomedical art and recommended CIA as the place to study it, Kerbo realized she had found the right program.
As at almost no other undergraduate school, Kerbo was able to study art at CIA in combination with science courses at Case Western Reserve University and pursue an internship at the Cleveland Clinic. She developed an interest in neurology and other biological fields that has led her to some post-graduate work at Case, helping to create an educational application about embryo genesis, for which she has been illustrating late-stage development of fetal head and neck areas.
“People say, ‘Why not take a photo?’” said Amanda Almon, associate professor of biomedical art and game design at CIA and adjunct faculty in Case Western Reserve University’s anatomy department. But photos, Almon pointed out, contain a lot of unfiltered information that can be confusing, while medical illustrations can take complex topics and present them clearly, simply and effectively.
Biomedical illustrators such as Kerbo “operate as translators,” Almon said.
Almon and other CIA faculty members gave Kerbo more than instruction, the young video-maker said. She also got their commitment. “I don’t think I could have asked for more from the faculty in the Biomedical Art Department – how they pushed us and how they pushed themselves,” including putting in many extra hours to help her and other students, Kerbo explained.
Her BFA thesis video, “Involved in ALZ,” reflects both how well her professors taught and how well she learned. But in addition to Kerbo’s technical skills is another that seems to be inborn: an ability to explain complex scientific facts through simple visual metaphors. She’s learned to make medical processes – such as the breakdown of neural pathways – immediately understandable by comparing them to familiar concepts from everyday life, such as railroad tracks and garbage piles
Where does she get this talent for demystifying a baffling illness such as Alzheimer’s?
“I think it comes from how I learn complex material,” she said, which is to visualize it for other people, such as her mother. By intuitively recognizing the basic similarities between two processes, Kerbo can visually translate the rarer, more complicated one into the imagery of the simpler, more common one. “If it makes sense to me in that way,” she said, “it will make sense to others.”
These effects are heightened in the video by fascinating animation techniques including rotoscoping, a process from the early 20th century in which an artist traces over the outlines of filmed images, creating moving line drawings that have the shape and truth of real objects and bodies. Instead of film, artists such as Kerbo now use a computer process for tracing and saving the outlined images from video footage shot with digital cameras.
Together, Kerbo’s intuitive abilities and her mastery of digital visual techniques have resulted in a video that matters. “This video is tremendously valuable to our organization and to the community,” Cheryl Kanetsky, program director of the Alzheimer’s Association Cleveland Chapter, wrote in an email, “because it describes the processes of the disease in simple, easy-to-understand terms and explains the urgency and importance for people to support research efforts to one day find a cure.”
The nonprofit organization hosts a link to Kerbo’s video from the homepage of its website, alz.org/cleveland.
Kerbo had contacted the local Alzheimer’s organization early in the process of her project, Kanetshy explained. The two of them met periodically to discuss content; Kanetsky provided advice about explaining the disease and working with patient caregivers.
“After the video was completed, we were so impressed with the final product that we invited her to present the video at our annual meeting in June 2013,” Kanetsky added. “Board, staff and volunteers at the Alzheimer's Association have been thoroughly impressed with the video and we have been so thankful to Jennifer for having given us permission to show the video to community audiences as we have the opportunity.”
Effective as the video is on a technical basis, there’s one other element that sets Kerbo’s video above many other such informational pieces. And that is feeling.
“Each time it is shown, we get tremendous feedback about how impactful the video is,” Kanetsky notes.
Family friends of Kerbo’s – a Florida woman with Alzheimer’s and her daughter – played the rotoscoped roles of patient and caregiver in the video because Kerbo wanted to depict a genuine relationship. With the help of another friend from Florida State University, who helped with camera work and lighting, Kerbo shot footage of the two women from 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 in the evening of one day, she said, capturing real interactions and events such as the patient’s placing of her keys in the refrigerator.
Though it was a long day for the pair, Kerbo said, “I think they were really happy with what they helped out with” – even the patient, who understood that she was assisting with a school project.
Their participation and Kerbo’s hand-drawn images give the video the personal quality she had hoped for, letting viewers see themselves in the characters. And the bond between the two women comes through movingly.
“That last shot where they’re embracing,” Kerbo reflected, “it’s so sweet to watch, because you can tell they really love each other.”
Watch Kerbo’s video, “Involved in ALZ,” below.
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