How Vox Video uses Earth Studio for dynamic visual storytelling

Google Earth
Jul 12, 2019 · 6 min read

Editor’s note: Vox Video is using Google Earth Studio to add animated 3D maps to its storytelling videos on Michael Tavendale, Program Manager for Earth Studio, interviewed Sam Ellis, Senior Producer at Vox, to find out how the tool brings stories involving spatial data to life.

Mike: Hi Sam! What do you do at Vox Video?

Sam: Thanks, Mike! I’m a video journalist who produces a series called Vox Atlas, which uses maps to explain international news stories and geopolitics. Vox is all about explaining the news, which means we bring context to the really fast-moving headlines you see every day. Over at Vox Video we do the same thing, but we have the luxury of also showing you what a story is about, how it’s unfolding, and why it’s important.

We use this same approach to cover topics like science, culture, tech, and history. So if we’re not explaining a current news story, then we’re finding the answers to really interesting questions that you didn’t realize you wanted to ask — like how Leonardo da Vinci created a “satellite map” in 1502.

Vox Almanac: How Leonardo da Vinci made a “satellite” map in 1502

Mike: Tell us how animated maps help you add this context and tell your stories. What can they do that static maps can’t?

Sam: Maps have been used in journalism for a long time, but really only to do one thing: show the viewer where something is taking place. That’s a pretty straightforward thing to do on a static map.

But if we’re going to explain how and why something is taking place, then we need to move around — zooming out to explain how other countries are playing a role in a certain story, or zooming in to show what a story looks like on the ground.

Using satellite and aerial imagery to zoom into Imola, Italy.

We also need to draw, identify, and overlay things. Perhaps a story has to do with a region’s changing borders, so I want to demonstrate to the viewer what the old borders looked like, how they changed, and why that’s creating a problem. Or maybe a city is changing, so we want the ability to move around, add labels, and draw on top of specific buildings.

In our most complicated stories, we love the ability to add spatial datasets. That’s the kind of “visual gold” we love to use. All of these things require a lot of flexibility that only animated maps have.

The Event Horizon Telescope: showing where two of the eight ground-based radio telescopes are.

Mike: Why do you like using Earth Studio?

Sam: Personally, I love the close-up details I can show with Google Earth. A lot of my Vox Atlas stories are explainers about geopolitical events, so I spend a lot of time zoomed out in “world map” mode, moving from country to country, and region to region. But it’s not a complete explanation if I don’t show what these policies, histories, and forces look like on the ground.

The best example is a story I did about Brazil’s Car Wash scandal, a massive corruption scheme where governments colluded with oil and construction companies to inflate Latin American infrastructure project prices and embezzle huge amounts of public money. When the scheme was uncovered, it shut down dozens of enormous projects all over Latin America, and thousands of people were laid off.

After I explained how the scheme worked and why it became such a big deal, I really needed to show where these projects were and what they looked like. Instead of simply creating a boring list or a table, I showed the real projects themselves using Google Earth Studio. I zoomed in on a bunch of them to show the viewer that this power plant was shut down, this nuclear energy plant closed, and this river-dredging project had to lay off hundreds of workers. It added really powerful visual evidence to the story.

Vox Atlas S1-E13: The biggest corruption scandal in Latin America’s history

Mike: Can you walk us through how you built the maps for the Car Wash scandal story?

Sam: I used the map mostly to show some of the specific infrastructure projects that were closed due to the corruption scandal — the most important being the Comperj Petrochemical Plant in Itaborai, Brazil. It was pretty easy to find the plant and set up a slow orbit, to make it look like we were monitoring it from a drone. I did the same for other projects across Latin America.

Orbiting the Comperj Petrochemical Plant in Itaborai, Brazil.

Then I exported the JPEG series into Adobe After Effects where I linked it to my master world map. That way, I could start zooming out over the whole country of Brazil and quickly move in to see Comperj. I was able to simply draw lines and arrows to point out important parts of Comperj, like refineries and the petrochemical plant.

I also used Earth Studio to show a Brasilia gas station where the Car Wash investigation began. Usually I’d use headlines or a news article, but Studio allowed me to zoom into a 3D render of the gas station, then using After Effects, draw a demonstration of how money was laundered through the gas station.

Gas station in Brasilia that was used to launder money.

These kinds of visuals just add so much dynamism and production value to the videos — without a ton of effort.

Mike: What Earth Studio features are most useful — or fun?

Sam: By far the most useful feature is the keyframe design. It’s essentially the same as Adobe After Effects, which is the program we use to animate our videos, so it was super-easy to jump in and use Earth Studio.

I also love the orbit and spiral functions. They’re an easy way to add a lot of dynamism and production value to our animations, which goes a long way to keep the viewers interested.

Mike: What were your first impressions of the tool?

Sam: I can’t overemphasize how excited I was to see that Earth Studio used the same keyframe process as After Effects. It immediately opened the door to trying a lot of cool things because I was comfortable using it.

Mike: Any other stories where you used Earth Studio?

Sam: There’s Why this black hole photo is such a big deal, and also, The Problems with Rebuilding Beaches. In the beach story, our video producer, Carlos Waters, sent Earth Studio animations to a drone operator to pre-visualize flight paths.

Mike: If we could add a feature to Earth Studio that would make your day, what would it be?

Sam: I use Google Earth Timelapse a lot because it lets me look at satellite photos back in time. This is super-useful for our videos, which use a lot of historical comparisons. Adding this ability to Earth Studio would be absolutely incredible.

Mike: Are there other features you want to try out that you haven’t already?

Sam: I’d like to take more advantage of the 3D rendered spaces. I’ve usually kept my animations at a pretty high altitude, but would love to dive in even closer and explain a story about a specific building or city.

Mike: Lastly, any advice for someone getting started with Earth Studio?

Sam: Just dive in and play around with it! Zoom in on any place in the world that interests you and think about how you would try to tell a story about it. For journalists, this tool gets you closer than any other mapping tool, and it’s the most dynamic. Embedding these images in stories will really help aid your articles and videos, and engage readers and viewers.

Google Earth and Earth Engine

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