What happened to quicksand?
As we started to collect our ideas for the structure of the project, the multimedia group agreed that we didn’t want to create a bunch of different overlapping pieces and hang them all off the text. We wanted to make a single story out of all the assets, including the text. So the larger project wasn’t a typical design effort. It was an editing project that required us to weave things together so that text, video, photography and graphics could all be consumed in a way that was similar to reading—a different kind of reading.
Last month, the NY Times created a beautifully compelling story on avalanches and skiing in Washington State. This morning, we get to read about exactly how they did it. Most fascinating is their discussion of how to pace the story so it would feel like a seamless reading experience:
Q. There’s a ton of audio and moving-image work in Snow Fall, and you used a lot of techniques from filmmaking, but within a very reading-centric experience. What kind of challenges did those elements present?
Catherine Spangler, Video Journalist: The challenges of crafting multimedia to compliment a text-based story were the same challenges faced in any storytelling endeavor. We focused on the pacing, narrative tension and story arc—all while ensuring that each element gave the user a different experience of the story. The moving images provided a much-needed pause at critical moments in the text, adding a subtle atmospheric quality. The team often asked whether a video or piece of audio was adding value to the project, and we edited elements out that felt duplicative. Having a tight edit that slowly built the tension of the narrative was the overall goal.
Graham Roberts, Graphics Editor: With the visuals, especially ones that would actually interrupt the reading, we wanted it to feel like a natural continuation. This required choosing appropriate color palettes, and the right kind of fluid movements. The reader would hopefully feel that they were reading into the graphic, and not see it as a distraction. Content wise, these elements needed to occur in passages that were challenging to express with words alone, like the layout of the terrain, and the shape, speed and duration of the avalanche itself. Or something that was very hard to follow without a visual aid, like the trajectory and timing of each skier’s path down the mountain.
A great story is like a great melody: it announces its inevitable greatness and you recognize it the first time you hear it. Most stories aren’t that. They do not announce their obvious greatness. 60% are in the limbo region where they might GET great or they might flop, and the only way to figure it out is to start making the story. So you launch in, hoping for that winning combination of great moments, charm, funny, and X factor.
As a result, we go through tons of stories on our way to the few that end up on the air. It’s like harnessing luck as an industrial product. You want to get hit by lightning, so you have to wander around for a long time in the rain.
Next week, while we’re all watching NBC, a nuclear-powered, MINI-Cooper-sized super rover will land on Mars. We accurately guided this monster from 200 million miles away (that’s 7.6 million marathons). It requires better accuracy than an Olympic golfer teeing off in London and hitting a hole-in-one in Auckland, New Zealand. It will use a laser to blast rocks, a chemical nose to sniff out the potential for life, and hundreds of other feats of near-magic. Will these discoveries lead us down a path to confirming life on other planets? Wouldn’t that be a good story that might make people care about science? But telling us this story means more than just the composition of the rocks (sorry, Mars geologists). It’s about the team that makes it happen.
No one producing an Olympic teaser asks, “What’s the importance of 100 meters?” No, they tell us about the athletes who dedicate their lives to running the race, because dedication and triumph are what make a human running 100 meters interesting. If NBC can get us all misty-eyed about 100 meters, imagine what NASA could do with 200 million miles.
The Mars race is about human survival and understanding our place in a vast and terrifyingly beautiful universe. And the stories of its athletes (mathletes?) should be world-class, because they accomplish near-impossible tasks on a cosmic scale — the hardest sport you could ever compete in. It requires dedication and doggedness that only the most passionate people in the universe could deliver. Unfortunately, this drama plays out behind closed doors. We won’t have insights into the sacrifice, scandal, discovery, divorce, hardship, and drama that it takes to work for a decade delivering a one-ton super rover to another planet. It’s the biggest irony that the most junior engineer at NASA is fearless in the face of trying to send a robot to Mars, but the career bureaucrats are afraid to tell that engineer’s story of failure or success.
NASA will say that they’re doing the best they can and stretching their education and outreach budgets to the max. But if they hope to stay in business, they need to tell us how they’re pushing the limits of humanity with over-the-top, risky-ass missions that will answer questions about who we are as a species on this planet.
Andrew Kessler, The Huffington Post. Why You Should Be More Interested in Mars Than the Olympics.
Kessler, who spent ninety days inside NASA to write Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission, believes the agency is “so frightened of failure that they’re willing to sacrifice their greatest asset: the ability to inspire.” In other words, they no longer tell a good story.
Know who could help? Kick ass science journalists.
Sidenote: AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards applications are due tomorrow.