Motion graphics: New weapons of visual journalism

Who doesn’t love a good superhero story?

Let’s see, there is Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Super Girl, Super … well, there are actually a lot of them. Take your pick! One thing that they all have in common is weapons or tactics to help them achieve success.

In newsrooms everywhere, the weapons and tactics for storytelling can be like that of a super heroine. Like Batman with his utility belt there are some old weapons, but eventually as times change, the weapons change. Not that all the old weapons automatically become obsolete, but new weapons and strategies should be seriously considered if one is going to continue to evolve and succeed.

In journalistic storytelling, there is a new and powerful weapon on the scene — motion graphics. These graphics are strategically put together and extend beyond the most commonly used methods of storytelling by utilizing software and contemporary approaches to communicate in new ways. Motion graphics are essentially the utilization of digital storytelling techniques, such as video footage, animation, information graphics, photography, 3D, typography, sound and voice-over narratives in some mix to convey news stories in dynamic multimedia. This approach to communication is highly valuable because it allows journalists to guide and engage the viewer by using a combination of individual methods in a combined way to tell cohesive, powerful narratives.

In newspapers, magazines and in journalism classrooms, motion graphics are quickly becoming a smart weapon of choice.


Three New York Times graphics gurus shared insights with me on the how’s and why’s of creating some of their brilliant motion graphics. In recent articles and competitions, both The New York Times Mariano Rivera motion graphic and World Trade Center motion graphic attracted lots of attention and buzz around the industry, however, for this article Steve Duenes, (graphics director), Xaquin G.V. (graphics editor) and Graham Roberts (graphics editor) took time out to share the reasoning and insights on why they use motion graphics and why others should consider it.

The closer

Insight on into the thought-process behind the creation of the Times Mariano Rivera
motion graphic:

Story overview: New York Yankee’s pitcher, Mariano Rivera is widely regarded as the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball. The closer has confounded hitters with mostly one pitch; his signature cutter.

The challenge: The New York Times graphics team armed with loads of data and a powerful story parsed through loads of complex data to decide what aspects they wanted to present—and just as important — what was best way to present it. Ultimately, the graphics teams’ weapon of choice to present the Rivera piece to readers was a motion graphic. It is important to examine why they chose to create the graphic this way

The result:

How the decision was made to create it as a motion graphic:

Steve: A few members of the department, Joe Ward, Amanda Cox and Shan Carter got ahold of a ton of data —- all of Mariano’s pitches for several seasons — and we were sort of working through how we would display that and what we would do with it. Should we make it interactive in some way so that the users could actually isolate individual games, individual pitches, drill down into the data themselves? The decision to make a motion graphic was connected to our desire to make quite a few fairly complicated points about that data set. The three staffers I mentioned, Shan, Joe and Amanda explored it enough to determine that there were interesting patterns. They also did some additional reporting, not just looking at the data, but talking to experts who could assess his pitching ability. So we were bringing those two things together. It’s very hard to accomplish that with something that is purely interactive — something that you are sort of giving over to the reader to manipulate.

So, the choice to use a motion graphic came out of our interest in taking readers by the hand and leading them through the data.

What was the biggest reader-benefit from the decision to create it as a motion

Xaquin: The fact that we guide them through a sophisticated set of ideas — a unifying thought. The best part of the piece is that sometimes motion graphics don’t add up to anything, but this thing was building up to the next thing, and the next thing, up to a point where you say, “Oh I got it!”

Graham: Some of the visualizations that are embeded in that motion graphic are really memorable — they make an impact on the reader. I had a lot of people after the Mariano graphic say, “You know, I don’t care about baseball at all, but I learned something and I was really drawn into it.” And if we did it in just an interactive way and just let people explore data, I don’t think that that group of people would ever be reached. So it can kind of expand an audience by focusing in.

Steve: Hopefully the result is a clearer explanation … and the impact isn’t just glitz, it’s not just about how slick the animation looks, or what the quality of the rendering is. The impact was about the data and our ability to expose the data in a way that we probably hadn’t seen before.

A few take-ways:

  • • Explanatory motion graphics can be interactive but they tend not to be.
  • • For us, they’ve been effective when there’s a story in the data that we want to tell
  • • What distinguishes a good motion graphic from one that is simply an illustrated “telling” of the story is the effective use of visualizations. “Show Don’t Tell” isn’t a novel idea, but it can be even more important with motion graphics than with ordinary graphics. Like Xaquín said, good motion graphics explain one thing and then another and another, and there should be a cumulative power to all those explanations. They should add up to something. But all those individual points are more clearly established for readers if they are SHOWN to readers with a smart, succinct visualization.

Key scenes in the Mariano Rivera graphic

The breakdown of key sections of the Mariano Rivera motion graphic and insights on how it was done and the rationale behind it:

Scene one: Visual and audio explanations of the dynamics and personal experiences of how the cutter pitches work and are effective.

Insights on thinking: This establishes the story we want to tell and hopefully it engages readers with the “catcher’s-eye view.”

Scene two: Medium and close-up views of hand and ball movements that highlight the pressure that is put on the ball with his fingers.

Insights on thinking: Just basic infographic techniques here, showing how the pitch is thrown.

Scene three: Visual and audio explanations of the pitches lateral movement and how it keeps it off of the batters sweet spot. Further explanations of how it is hard
for the hitter to distinguish pitches during the first fractions of a second.

Insights on thinking: Here we move away from “telling” the reader to “showing” them from the perspective of a hitter.

Scene four: Hitters often rely on reading a pitchers spin to determine what pitch is coming. However, the visual and audio explanations show how Rivera’s fastball and cutter appears to the hitter to have the same spin and how it relates to the typical slider that appears to have a spinning red dot, that the hitter can recognize and adjust to.

Insights on thinking: Same idea, SHOW the reader the actual spin.

Scenes five and six: Visual and audio explanations of the more than 1,300 pitches that Rivera threw in 2009. Each frozen at the point where the batter must make a
decision, but with few clues to determine the pitches ultimate location.

Insights on thinking: This shows the power of a novel visualization. Readers haven’t seen this before, so this gets their attention while also setting up our next point.

Scenes seven and eight: Visual and audio explanations showcasing close-up views from the batters perspective of the actual pitches thrown to both left and right-handers; cleverly using color variations to show visual maps of a years’ worth of pitches and how Rivera is remarkably adept at hitting the corners and keeping the ball away from the middle of the plate.

Insights on thinking: Again, visualizations (heat maps) of where pitches arrive create clarity for readers. Mariano stays away from the center of the plate. Don’t believe us? We’ll SHOW you the data.

Motion graphics techniques used: Voice-over narratives, graphics, photos, and 3D animations. All seamlessly put together using Adobe After Effects.

Another example

• Here’s a look at The WTC motion graphic created by the NYT graphics team:


Summer 2011, I was honored to serve as a producer (graphics/design) for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Powering A Nation project entitled “Coal: A Love Story.” Part of a Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, the project was an experiment in journalistic storytelling and led viewers through an interactive film experience. As part of the experimental aspect of the project, the students created four ambitious motion graphics that challenged the boundaries of journalistic storytelling with motion graphics, video stories and interactive graphics that all flowed together to present a cohesive package. This package also received lots of buzz throughout the industry and with competitions.

Coal A Love Story

Insight on into the thought-process behind the creation of the energy motion graphic:

Story overview: “Coal: A Love Story” explores our modern culture’s complicated relationship with coal. Almost half of the nation’s electricity is generated from the burning of coal. Despite the fact that we rely on electricity for nearly everything we do, few of us are aware of how it is generated. Whether we like it or not, we are in a complicated relationship with coal for the foreseeable future.

The challenge: The purpose of the project was to start a conversation about American’s multi-faceted relationship with coal through personalized video stories, written pieces and graphics. The goal was to create a groundbreaking multimedia report that represents a shift away from traditional journalism utilizing an immersive online experience while challenging the viewer to engage with energy issues in a highly personalized way.

The result:

How the decision was made to create a series of motion graphics:

From the story’s inception, the students envisioned collecting, analyzing and parsing the information and data to determine what aspects would be good as static images, interactive, video stories or motion graphics. However, they were determined to allow the information to guide them as they figured out the best ways to tell various aspects of the story and then integrate each separate component into a comprehensive and complete package. With most of the complex data, the mix of interactive graphics and motion graphics rose up as great options to pursue.

What was the biggest reader-benefit from the decision to create it as a motion graphic?

The readers could interactive with the graphics and control the experience. They could view various video stories and motion graphics that broke down complex data and then seamlessly transition into interactive graphics that allowed them to manipulate the data in a personal way.

Some of the judges of the CPOY competition had some interesting reflections about their experience with the site. “Everything in here works as a part of the whole presentation—as a part of each little video or motion piece is embedded in the site which ties everything together.” The project was ultimately awarded first place in the Large Multimedia Project category.

The complete comments can be heard at:

A few take-ways: Motion graphics allowed students to tell stories with multiple layers to create more understanding, make information more relatable and also personal for the reader. If students are willing to take risks, perhaps they can break new ground and lead the way.


In the fall of 2010, National Geographic magazine explored storytelling with motion graphics for the first time. Everyone has to start somewhere, but NGM chose motion graphics as their weapon of choice for two installments of their “7 Billion” project. Jamie Lee Godfrey offers insights from NGM’s first motion graphic experience.

7 billion

Insight on into the thought-process behind the creation of the world population motion graphics:

Story overview: According to the United Nations, the world’s population was projected to pass seven billion on Oct. 31, 2011. National Geographic magazine presented a collection of storytelling devices to explore what the projection could mean to the reader.

The challenge: To create two 2-3 minute viral videos covering the world population hitting 7 billion in the year 2011. The videos supplemented a year-long series National Geographic magazine did on world population.

The result:
The first video,

And the second video,

How the decision was made to create a series of motion graphics:

The executive producer of the piece, Gil Pimentel, had seen a couple of pieces in the past and saw how well motion graphics worked to engage the viewer and communicate a message. This would have been a difficult topic to try and cover with video and we didn’t have the video to support it either. He proposed a kinetic type piece and I think it was absolutely the right decision.

What was the biggest reader-benefit from the decision to create it as a motion graphic?

I think we were able to reach a much wider audience having used motion graphics. We conveyed a lot of information in a short time and people were able to absorb more and more quickly because they “saw” it.

A few take-ways:

  • • Both videos were very successful for National Geographic. The first one reached 500,000 viewers within the first 5 days and was picked up on several blogs and websites including NPR, Gawker and Devour. With the second video we reached well over 1 million viewers in just a couple of days as well as getting a mention on the Nightly News with Brian Williams.


While utilizing motion graphics in journalism is still relatively new, its usage is beginning to be quickly embraced by newsroom leaders in the field. Moreover, as new technologies infiltrate the news industry, capitalizing on this tremendous opportunity is not only wise but also necessary. The development and evolution of motion graphics enables news organizations to communicate with some of the most cutting-edge and effective methods in digital media today. However, as always, the most important thing to consider about new tools is not the tool itself, but its effectiveness in helping tell stories in the best ways they can be told. So like a super hero, our goals remain the same as we utilize weapons and tactics to help achieve success. Every now and then as times change new weapons must be explored to continue to win the battle, motion graphics is our new weapon.

Terence Oliver teaches design, information graphics and motion graphics at UNC- Chapel Hill. He also taught at Ohio University, worked at The Plain Dealer and was AME for graphics and presentation at the Akron Beacon Journal. He serves and a motion graphic producer and consultant. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @terence_oliver.

Leave a Reply