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Water, Water, Everywhere: A Visual Explanation

john gruen

Table Table of Contents of Contents Design Brief Getting Started Research Pt. 1 Research Pt. 2 Storyboarding Script and Voice Music Design Concepts Learning After Effects Project Overview Lessons & Conclusions

3 4-5 6-7 8-9 10 - 11 12 - 13 14 - 15 16 - 17 18 - 19 20 - 21 22 - 23

Design Brief, Briefly



Time plus information equals...What, exactly? This book documents the process of research, planning, and execution of a time-based design project utilizing audio, text, illustration, and motion to create a visual explanation. For the project, conceived by Prof. Dan Boyarski for Graduate Design Studio, each student was given an expansive topic and asked to reseach it and deliver a ninety second video describing that topic, or some aspect of it, to the general public. Eachof us was a asked to focus on answering the following questions for our audience:

This project posed numerous challenges both practical and technical. Sifting through mountains of information, creating a compelling narrative from that information and putting it all together in After Effects proved daunting. This book follows my process through this project and sketches out the various stages of its execution. Oh, and by the way, the topic I had to explain in ninety seconds: water.

• What is it?

• Can you explain it to me? • Why should I care?

•What can I do about it?


Getting Started: H2Uh-Oh After spending a bit of time pondering the series of events in my life that led me to design school, I began to think about the scope of my project. Water, the sine qua non of all life, is an awfully big topic to distill into a ninety second video. Doing so coherently seemed nearly impossible. Of course, this was the intent of the assignment. Could I reduce this extremely broad, diffuse topic into something digestible? Could I make it meaningful?

Above H20, the molecule itself Opposite, clockwise from top Ionian Sea - Hiroshi Sugimoto Moby Dick - Tom Neely Rainbow Pollution - flicker user gambier20 Grey Angel Fish - U.S. Nat’l Archive

At the outset I started thinking about the various ways we perceive water: as a tool; as a giver of life; as something transcendent; as fodder for great works of literature, poetry, and art. My mind also went to questions around how we use water and how we pollute it. Studying in Pittsburgh, one is constantly confronted with heated rhetoric on both sides of the debate around hydraulic fracturing and water pollution. Initially, I though I might limit the scope of my video to fracking, but much to my chagrin I discovered that this topic was already assigned to one of my fellow students. Nevertheless, I saw an opening. We utilize water in many ways that most people never think about. Showers, dish washers, and other domestic water usage only account for a small fraction—11% in the developed world, and less in the developing world—of global water use. I decided to begin research the ways we use and abuse the global water and how these uses affect us.


Above Early notes on water pollution Even at this juncture, there are two sets of data coming into focus: pollution as both a global and domestic problem

Research Pt. 1 Sympathy for the Mariner Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down, ‘Twas sad as sad could be; And we did speak only to break The silence of the sea! All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody sun, at noon, Right up above the mast did stand, No bigger than the moon. Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink. – From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge

As I began to research, I was overwhelmed with the various data about water usage, shortage, and pollution. Even within the these topics there were innumerable areas of concern. Furthermore, water seems so very abundant. Earth is covered in the stuff after all. How could I construct my project to make people take notice of these issues? I felt a bit like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: Water, water, everywhere, Not any drop to drink. I was casting about for some anchorage, but having trouble finding anything. Fittingly enough, the Mariner provided a great way for me to start my project. Sure, Earth is covered in water, but there is very little that we can actually use. Approximately 96.5% of water is in the oceans. We cannot drink this water and we canot use if for agriculture or industry. Of the remaining 3.5%, most is frozen near the poles in glaciers or permafrost. Really, less than 1% of all water on earth is usable by humans. My other insight about water had to do with, for lack of a better term, karma. Water, it turns out, is at the bottom of every hill. That means that almost all of our uncaptured waste winds up—one way or another—getting into the water. Because all of us need water to live, these pollutants come back to haunt us. They cause disease, famine, agricultural die offs, &c. With water, what goes around comes around.


worldwide, 300-500 million tons of heavy metals, solvents and other wastes accumulate in the water each year from industry

only 1 in 43 US power plants limit the amount of barium they dump. barium causes heart disease and organ failure

worldwide, 2 million tons of sewage the clean water act has been drain into waterways every day violated 500,000 times since 2004 by 23,000 companies

in developing countries, 20% of industrial waste is dumped untreated

30 million americans are exposed to radioactive water

in sub-saharan africa, 50% of hospital beds are used by patients with diarrhea, the leading cause of death worldwide

up to 19 million americans are made ill each year by water-bourne parasites and bacteria

by 2025, 1.8 billion people worldwide will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity

...when exposed to extracts of catfish caught in heavily polluted waters, breast cancer cells multiply wildly.

Research Pt. 2 Wind in My Sails Three sources in particular proved invaluable for my reseach. Both National Geographic and United Nations agencies provided much of the material essential to construct a global picture of water usage and pollution. In 2009 and 2010, the New York Times published Toxic Waters, a series on pollution and regulation of water in the United States. In order to tell the story of water, I would need to utilize both a global and domestic perspectives. As I began to dig deeper I started to understand just how blurry this distinction is becoming. In the developing world, water issues are often related to lack of access and unsanitary conditions caused by agricultural pollutants, while in the America, problems tend to be caused by industrial pollution and the lack of enforcement of existing laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Above I gathered much of my research from The UN, the New York Times, and National Geographic, each of which does tremendous work to draw attention to water pollution issues. Opposite Some of my findings. The modularity of these findings proved helpful as I began to construct a narrative.

As population grows, agriculture transforms onto a global commodity, and the developing world rapidly industrializes, water pollution finds ways to touch all of us in alarming ways. While water-bourne diseases like diarrhea and malaria are not problems in America like they are in the developing world, the lack of access to clean drinking water is something that affects the lives of billions of people globally. Worryingly, this lack is being felt more and more in our own backyard.


Storyboarding: Going With the Flow My research was coming together and I needed too begin arranging the various facts and figures I’d uncovered into some sort of visual form. From the outset, I’d wanted to keep the visuals of my presentation simple. Partly this was a logistical consideration: I needed to create a compelling video with a limited amount of time and little background in video editing and compositing. Moreover, I wanted to make my piece feel iconographic. I have learned from previous projects that simpler is often better, and that clarity is often derived from a uniform visual logic. I focussed on telling a story with clear visuals attending to my research. My first storyboard took the idea of global-to-local problems of water pollution to the extreme point of actually showing water inside the human body. Though this concept did not make it into the final sketch, the overall arc remained as did the simple graphic elements and reduced color pallette of blues, greys, and greens.

Opposite An early storyboard. While the overall flow of my video changed once I started writing a script, the visual style seen here remained throughout.


Writing the Script, Finding a Voice

? Opposite This was one of the last draft scripts I wrote before I began working with After Effects. It’s rough looking, but it largely captures the narrative of my final project.

I’m a big fan of nature documentaries, and of the British documentarian David Attenborough in particular. At the start of this project, I imagined an authoritative British voice narrating my visual explanation about water. I suggested to my professor that older British womanmight read my script. He rightly gave me a quizzical look and nixed the idea. He was right to do so. I was having a very difficult time writing a script for such a voice. Apparently, I lack the ability to write for geriatric British naturalists. If I got things wrong, I would be writing a needlessly pedantic script. I started to think about my own voice—my speaking voice as well as my voice on the page. I’m a pretty conversational guy given the right circumstances. I also tend to pepper my speech with asides and (sometimes failed) attempts at humor. Once I decided that I’d act as my own narrator, the script flowed rather easily. It is my sense that conversation rather than brute force is critical in creating both attention and persuasion. I wanted to create a script which engaged my viewers as individuals capable of understanding and participating in dialogue.


Music: Finding the Right Tone As I progressed through the stages of writing and my script and refining the aesthetics of my project, selecting music became more and more a central concern. Music, as much as the text and visuals could make or break my project. While my topic was relatively dire, I tried to eschew anything overly grim. I wanted the music to impact the tone of my piece, but I didn’t want it to feel like I was using music as a form of heavy handed emotional trickery. I spent hours and hours going through my music collection and digging around online.

Opposite l to r top to bottom Music I considered and ultimately ruled out. No Mas - Javelin (too poppy) Yanqui UXO - Godspeed You Black Emperor (too grim) Negativ - Proem (too glitchy) Bromst - Dan Deacon (too weird) Geogaddi - Boards of Canada (too spooky) The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place - Explosions in the Sky (too maudlin) Finally, the winning choice. Kensington Blues: Jack Rose (just right)

Ultimately, I settled on the track Kensington Blues by the guitarist Jack Rose. The song is medium tempo, folksy and bluesy. For my purposes, it struck the right balance between major and minor chord progressions: wistful without being cloying and bouncy without being exuberant. I took this audio and tried to mix down rough recordings of my script on top of it. Two things became instantly apparent. First, the combination of the song and my voice proved garbled and hard to understand. Second, I don’t really like the sound of my own voice all that much. At this point, I decided to do away with spoke narration all together and communicate my message through text, image, and music. I could remain conversational while making sure not to annoy my audience. 15

Design Concepts: Turning on the Computer Armed with a rough script, music, and a preparatory sketches, I took to Adobe Illustrator to figure out the color and visual style of my project. I developed simple, iconic graphics and text that were both legible and lighthearted. I settled on a variant of Helvetica Neue Bold for the typography thinking that this would be clear and legible without distracting from the overall message of my video project. The colors in this book are the CMYK equivalents of the RGB color values used in the actual video.




Previous Pages Various graphic assets, most of which wound up in the final product, along with an overview of the color palette. This Page Some of my copious notes on After Effects. Opposite The ‘executive summary’ of my video. I used this to keep me grounded while working in After Effects. Next Page An overview of my visual explanation

After Effects: How Does This Thing Work? 1. Intro: how much water is there? 2. Every living thing uses water • Slides of animals/fir tree • People need water as well 3. First call to action • we use water for all sorts of things...uses images 4. Developing world problems. •text slides of developing world facts and statstics •but America’s okay, right? 5. Not really: America Stuff •CWA and SDWA not enforced •America Stats 6. Call to Action pt. 2 • resources for education • charities • call your congressman, seriously

We were given free reign to chose how to make our visual explanations. This meant choosing between After Effects and Flash. Both posed serious problems. I really dislike Flash. I’m a competent programmer, but I do not care for Flash’s hybrid UI. I find it to be clunky, unintuitive, and worst of all, unstable. On the other hand, prior to this project, I’d never even opened After Effects. Without a firm understanding of the fundamentals of After Effects, this project could go downhill very fast. I set about on a crash course of After Effects, pouring over tutorials and watching video after video until I developed a bit of comfort with he environment. I quickly realized that it was going to be difficult to keep to a precise script and get this project completed quickly. I decided to take the structure of my piece, going from global to local, along with the individual text blocks I’d previously scripted and use these elements to create a road map to help guide me through the narrative arc of my video. Creating this executive summary allowed a bit more freedom once I began compositing in After Effects. At some point, there was nothing left but to put on a giant pot of coffee and start making the video.




Conclusions & Lessons All in all, I feel that this project was successful. The feedback I’ve received from my peers has been positive. The only critique I’ve heard thus far is that some of the text moved too quickly off the screen, making it hard to understand. Overall though, people were pleased with the graphic style, tone, and scope of my project. There are a few places where I could have tightened things up. Even after watching my project over and over again before handing it in, I still managed to miss one or two typos. Given the restricted time frame and the steep learning curve on After Effects, I managed for the most part to create a polished deliverable. With regards to the four questions posed in the design brief, I think my project went a long way toward providing clear answers. Certainly, I framed the overall problem of water use and pollution well. Further, I was able to display the scope of the problem as well as connect with the audience through example and tone. The one area where I’m not sure I fully succeeded has to do with the question: ‘what can I do about it?’ I tried

• What is it?

•What can I do about it?

I’m not totally satisfied with my answer to this question, but given the scope of the problem, it is still hard for me to imagine what exactly an individual might do. Monitoring individual waste, energy consumption, and shopping habits can play some small part, but such a small percentage of water usage is domestic. Water pollution seems to be one of the most wicked problems we face. It may well be that water pollution and scarcity shape the all of our futures for a long time to come. One final note. I believe that this project shows marked signs of development over my previous efforts in terms of both preparation and execution. I’m excited with the way my work has progressed throughout my first semester and hope to continue improving. Thank you, John Gruen

• Can you explain it to me? • Why should I care?

to hint at an answer by showing just how much water every day products consume, and in the conclusion of my video asked my audience to demand enforcement of existing legislation. I also provided links to further information.


Water Process Book  
Water Process Book  

Process Book documenting video effects projects