Students Elevate Work on Groundbreaking Times Piece with Animation
February 20, 2013

Students Elevate Work on Groundbreaking Times Piece with Animation

When "Snow Fall" went live on The New York Times' website on December 20, 2012, the online world went wild.

Packed with breathtaking images, gripping raw video and informative animated graphics, the immersive story about a deadly avalanche in Washington's Cascade Mountains exploded the news site's usual format, offering a reading experience that some observers went so far as to call "the future of online journalism." Readers took to social media to share their delight in the sheer depth and power of the piece, and "Snow Fall" generated a whopping 3.5 million page views in its first six days, according to The Times.

Such a story isn't put together overnight. It required coordination across the newsroom, with 11 graphic artists and designers lending their talents to the project. Jeremy White, a Ph.D. student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Geography, was the first of the paper's graphics editors to get involved with the project - way back in July.

"We didn't know the scale of the project at that time," he says. "It just continued to grow."

When readers visit the "Snow Fall" page [], they're greeted by a looped video of snow blowing across a mountain on a blustery day.

"Snow Fall" grew to include a multitude of multimedia elements. Among them: photos of the survivors and victims of the February 19, 2012 avalanche outside Stevens Pass ski area in Washington's Cascade Mountains; raw video from several skiers' helmet cameras; video interviews with survivors and relatives of the victims (the project's videographer was Catherine Spangler, whose parents met while studying at UW-Madison); animated graphics showing the layers of snow on the mountain; and a 3D simulation of the avalanche.

White's contributions were three 3D flyover maps - the first displaying the mountain and the surrounding area; the second showing the skiers' and snowboarders' journey to the back side of the mountain (an out-of-bounds area known as Tunnel Creek); and the third charting each person's path down the mountain. He also helped build the model of the mountain for the avalanche simulation, and created several graphics for the print edition of The Times.

To build the 3D models, White tracked down Lidar data from King County GIS Center in Washington and blended it with elevation data from the United States Geological Survey. Then, he used satellite photos from the USGS to add texture - although since the photos were taken in the summer, he had to generate fake snow. White posted a YouTube video [] outlining all the steps.

"Near the end, this was all of my time," says White, who worked 60-hour weeks in the closing stages of the project.

As White notes, supporting graphics were essential, merely to help readers digest an incredibly detailed, nearly 17,000-word story.

What really sets "Snow Fall" apart from other long-form, web-tailored stories - a growing trend in online journalism - is how seamlessly all the elements coalesce with the writing to tell the story, says Susan Robinson, an assistant professor in the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"The piece combined so many narrative elements and traditional journalistic qualities that it makes it a real candidate for some major awards," says Robinson, whose work focuses on online journalism. "Because it has all of those elements - it has the accuracy and the credibility and the solid basis for reporting, along with these other characteristics of the web that allow us to engage multiple senses within that narrative experience."

However, Robinson disputes the notion that "Snow Fall" represents the future of online reading. Not all stories merit - or are suited for - such an extensive treatment, and not many media outlets can devote the necessary time and resources to pull off comparable projects. The reporting alone for the story took six months, and 16 Times staff members are credited at the end of the piece - and that's not even including reporter John Branch or any of the editors who contributed.

"It is sort of an overstatement to say that everything we're going to read now is going to be multi-dimensional, because writing is still so important and so powerful and just a lot faster, frankly, than trying to combine all these different kinds of elements," Robinson says. "But I think we've already started to see a lot more experimentation with narrative form in a number of these news outlets."

For his part, White agrees that "you have to have the right kind of event, the right kind of story, to present it this way." Based on the online response to "Snow Fall," it would seem The Times chose the right story. An expanded version of the story is also now available as an e-book.

"We thought that it would get some attention, because of the nature of the project, that we were tying together so many elements to help tell the story," White says. "I really enjoyed seeing this come together because there were so many people working on it in so many different ways."