Envision science animation: Why is C4 Photosynthesis so Rare in Trees

In collaboration with researchers from the Lancaster University, we created this engaging and informative animation that illustrates the research being conducted into the different types of photosynthesis: C3, the most common form, and C4, a more efficient process used by certain crops. Research into C4 photosynthesis has potential for improving crop yields and resistance to climate change.

This is one of the four animations we created for Envision PhD researchers in 2022. Envision ran a competition where candidates submitted a brief for an animated film. The winners were selected by a judging panel and the prize was to have an animation produced about their research work.



Stills from the Animation:

Visual Approach:

Rubisco is the key enzyme in the Photosynthesis process. Sophie was keen for rubisco to be depicted as a character to make the chemical interaction explanations around the different types of photosynthesis more engaging. The design for rubisco led the style for the rest of the animation with a block shaded, vector look.

This animation simplifies the complex science of photosynthesis, making it accessible and engaging. It’s part of our commitment to science communication, helping to bridge the gap between scientific research and the public. Produced with animation production techniques that bring scientific concepts to life, this video is perfect for anyone curious about how plants help sustain life on our planet.


Photoshop and Boords were used for the sketched storyboards. The artwork was designed in Adobe Illustrator then Adobe After Effects was used to bring it life through animation and motion design.

Image of leaf and photosynthesis formula

Understanding Photosynthesis:

Photosynthesis fuels life on Earth, converting sunlight into energy. However, not all plants do this the same way. C3 photosynthesis, common in many plants including soybean and wheat, is less efficient under certain conditions due to a process called photorespiration. C4 photosynthesis, found in crops like maize and sugarcane, is more efficient, especially in warm, dry environments. This animation explores the science behind these processes and the research into making more plants more productive.


The Future of Crops:

Scientists are exploring ways to make C3 crops, such as rice, use C4 photosynthesis. This could lead to higher yields and crops that are more resilient to climate change. Our animation highlights the challenges and opportunities in this area of science research, making it a key resource for anyone interested in the future of food security.

C4 Photosynthesis in trees on Hawaii islands

C4 Photosynthesis and Trees:

While C4 photosynthesis offers advantages for some crops, it’s rare in trees and doesn’t necessarily make them more resilient to drought and heat. The animation touches on the unique C4 trees found in Hawaii, their limitations, and the ongoing research to understand why C4 photosynthesis is so uncommon in trees. This is part of our broader effort to support science research and communication through engaging animation production.

Public Engagement:

Commissioned by researcher, Sophie Young, this animation was created as a communication tool to explain their scientific work and the potential to help conserve these vital ecosystems. Aimed at a general audience of all ages, it will mainly be used in presentations to other academics and school pupils.

Image of researcher doing field work

Production Process:

Script & style concept 

We collaborated with Sophie to write a 2 minute script for the animation based on the competition entry that explained her research and pitched the storyline concept. A style concept was designed to give an idea of how the animation would look. 

Sketched Storyboards and Animatic Video 

A storyboard was sketched out based on the script in Photoshop then uploaded to Boords. The storyboard images were then put into a video sequence with a draft voiceover recording so we could test the timings and ensure the script and images made sense when played together.

At this point we made some script and image revisions before moving to the next stage.

Sketched storyboards

Illustration of Animation Assets


Once the sketched storyboards were signed off, the storyboards were illustrated in the style design.

The illustrations were created using Adobe Photoshop and the iPad app Adobe Fresco.

Some revisions were made before moving onto the next production phase.


The animation phase started by preparing all the illustrations for animation. This involved separating artwork out onto layers and naming them.

Illustrator files were imported into Adobe After Effects then animated.

The Rubisco molecule character was created in After effects using shape layers and some character rigging tools.

A professional voice over artist recorded the script then the audio track was mixed and edited so it could be animated in time to.

A screenshot of the animation software, After Effects, with the Rubisco molecule character and rig controls. A screenshot of the animation software, After Effects, with the C4 crops and landscape set up in a 3D viewing space.