3D Printing/Printed Explainer at the WSJ
A Q&A with Jon Keegan
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal’s review of the MakerBot Mini hit the web, and it reached newsstands today. It was accompanied by an explainer video that demystifies 3D printing tech, and a downloadable, printable 3D model of a sales growth chart from the review itself. The combination of hardware and data was irresistable, so we chatted with Jon Keegan about the project’s origins and their physical-digital plans for future features.
Q. How did the interactive/multimedia part of this feature come about, and how did you land on the combination of an explainer video plus downloadable model?
Product reviews aren’t usually the main vehicle for our interactives, but the recently re-launched WSJD tech section landed this Makerbot Mini review as an exclusive a while back, and they reached out to us early. We had recently collaborated on another fun project with editor Wilson Rothman and reporter Geoffrey Fowler and and we couldn’t resist working on this story, as we on the team are all very excited about 3D printing.
We had the idea for the downloadable model right away, and we definitely knew that for all the hype, few people outside of MakerFaire attendees had seen one work, and many people just didn’t know what they could be used for practically. So that led us to doing the animated explainer video. The model that was being reviewed was squarely targeted at regular consumers for the first time, so we thought this would help people understand how the machines work.
Q. The chart model is awesome. Who made it and how did you decide to go that route? (And did you run into anything weird/interesting along the way?)
Roger Kenny is a news app developer on our team with some serious 3D and WebGL chops. Roger modeled the chart in Blender, and we worked through several iterations. We knew we wanted to use a volumetric visualization. Our first attempts worked great looking top down, but weren’t great when sitting on a table in front of you. We spent a lot of time testing type size, placement of the key and label placement. The same rules for our 2D charts applied, but we had to adapt them to this object sitting in front of us.
We had a loaner 3D printer in the office for about three weeks so were able to test out lots of variations. Roger spent a ton of time optimizing and improving the model in Blender to arrive at the final version. Roger was also tasked with the difficult job of sharing this data visualization with readers in an easy way, as obviously few have 3D printers. So we decided to build a WebGL viewer, with a frame by frame 360 viewer as a fallback for mobile and Browsers that don’t support WebGL like Safari. The mobile-friendly landing page holding all of this was put together by Lakshmi Ketineni. As if all that wasn’t enough, we decided we couldn’t pass up the chance to share the model from the print edition using augmented reality. So we looked around, found the Augment app, which was really nice and easy to use, and planned for a promo in print that will let readers of the paper see the model magically appear on their newspaper when they are reading the review.
I’d also add that this whole project—with so many moving parts and contributors—could not have been executed without Megan Douglass in the role of Project Manager. Strong project management is a big part of our recently revamped process for building news apps, and Megan really illustrated how vital that role is. Coordinating between print, online, video, mobile, social media, the reporter and editors in the San Francisco bureau generated an amazing amount of email and meetings. She also helps us craft the editorial focus of the piece, stitching all of these various ingredients into a cohesive project.
Q. Have you considered printable 3D models for anything else at the WSJ, or is this a fun one-off?
We really think this would be a fun monthly blog post to do. Pick a dataset that lends itself to a presentation in 3D, then build a quick model. We did a few experiments with topography and some other types of data, so we’ll be thinking about good candidates going forward. There’s so many new ways we could be looking at datasets that we use all the time. After talking about it for so long, we truly feel this is going to be something that other news organizations will be thinking about. A great example of this recently was WNYC’s RadioLab who just used this to great effect for its “Head in your Hands” episode.
Q. The 3D print is attention-grabbing, but you also have a great video anchoring the piece. Could you talk us through your video production workflow a bit?
So for the explainer video, we followed an established pattern for our recent motion graphics work: we figure out the story we want to tell in our kickoff meeting, then Paul Antonson—our talented illustrator, designer, and animator—sketched out some storyboards, while a script was started by the reporter and editors. We then produced a rough animatic with the script read as a voice over along with the storyboard frames simply animated (zooms, pans, etc) to figure out a good flow to the story. Paul worked on half of the video’s elements and animations and set the style for the art, while Mike Sudal—another super-talented staff illustrator, animator, and graphics editor—handled the part of the video with the more technical illustration and animation of how the printer works, which also were to be used for the print graphic. Then Drew Evans, an editor from the WSJ Video team recorded WSJD’s Joanna Stern for the voiceover and edited the whole thing together. We had so many people collaborating on this, adding cool things to the mix, like an awesome time-lapse video (shot by Jarrard Cole) of our model being printed looking out from our newsroom overlooking Radio City Music Hall. We also really sweated the “promo” graphics for this piece, as we had tons of things to share, and we really wanted them to be bold and intriguing. Lots of animated GIFs, as well.
Q. Any chance you can give us a sneak peek (or hint) about any upcoming projects from the team?
Well, the Journal’s 125th anniversary is coming up in a few weeks. We’ll be contributing some cool projects to the whole paper’s efforts that week, which should be really special.
Make sure to check out the team’s sped-up video of the print process itself. Mesmerizing and wonderful. —ed
Full disclosure: Kio Stark, whose partner is CEO of MakerBot, edits Learning content for Source. She did not contribute to this article.
Jon Keegan (@jonkeegan) is a Visual Correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. His work is focused on the visual exploration of the patterns around us in technology, nature and culture. Previously, he was Director of Interactive Graphics for the Journal, and a news app developer before that. See more of his work here.