Currently airing on PBS is America Revealed, a series that looks at the invisible patterns that lie behind an infrastructure that supports over 300 million people. Helping visualize these hidden dynamics is 422 South, a VFX and animation company based in Bristol, UK. Their technical wizardry and mastery of software such as Maya and Nuke turned the complexities of raw data into dizzying data visualisations. Andy Davies Coward, Creative Director at 422 South, explains how below.
When the producers of America Revealed set out to create a series looking at the hidden networks of communication and transportation which affect contemporary life in the USA, they chose two techniques that together would deliver a view of the nation as never seen before. Stunning aerial photography supported by innovative and revelatory data-based animation.
422 South received millions of lines of raw data from many diverse sources, some specially gathered for the TV series, some already in the public domain. From airports to train stations, fast food outlets and logistics companies, much of the data was generated using GPS technology, which logs the position of a transmitting device at specific time intervals.
The combined trails of buses (blue), ferries (orange dots), and rail (green, purple, and red) on the NYC commute
Only once the data had been sifted and processed by 422 South’s data team, did the ‘story’ that it contains reveal itself. This information was passed to the producers to help inform the editorial direction for each episode.
Then, using specially developed software, the selected data was represented as animated glowing dots, combined with carefully mosaicked satellite images to accurately portray the movement of thousands of individuals, aircraft, buses, trains, ferries, and subway trains across the very landscape where the data was originally generated.
These animations revealed the frenzied scale of the New York City morning commute, adding one form of transport after another to build a complex data-based picture of frenetic activity with a clarity impossible to imagine by anyone in the middle of this apparent chaos at street level.
The combined routes of all the Domino’s pizza delivery riders on one night in Manhattan
At the wider scale of transport across the whole USA, animations show the delicate latticework of air traffic movements—each dot a scheduled aircraft, terrifying in terms of volume, but apparently flowing smoothly in beautiful synchronised patterns.
Lastly, in a contrast of scale, the animation shows the methodical nature of the itinerary of school buses. This demonstrates the quiet efficiency of what, on the surface, is a simple and reliable method of collecting and delivering children to school. It also delivers the true reality of what is an incredibly orchestrated and difficult logistical process which is performed every school day, without fail.