Last December NPR’s Planet Money published the interactive documentary, ‘Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt.’ It tells the story of a simple t-shirt in five chapters, following the complex process of production from the cotton fields in Mississippi, to garment factories in Bangladesh, to the customer that buys it, and all of the stops along the way. (You can watch it here.)
The idea for this project was three years in the making, and after an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign (where NPR asked for $50,000 and ended up collecting an astonishing $590,807 ) the story came to life.
The project was led by Executive Producer Alex Blumberg, and it took a team of kickass reporters, writers, coders, photographers and videographers to make it happen. We spoke to two members of the team, Josh Davis and Kainaz Amaria, who told us about the conceptualization and production of this beautifully executed piece. Josh Davis was hired for six months, solely to work on this project at Planet Money in New York. Kainaz Amaria is part of the multimedia team at NPR’s headquarters in Washington DC.
CV: WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE?
Kainaz Amaria: Obviously Alex was the lead, but part of what I did was help get the right people in the same room in order to make it happen. And through production I kind of did a little bit of everything. I was a managing producer, I was a reporter, an editor, I shot video, and I was a multimedia producer, which really meant putting together the videos as far as scripting, editing, color correcting, etc.
Josh Davis: It was a really big team. In terms of managing editor I oversaw the project from beginning to end. During production I did a fair amount of the shooting. I shot in Bangladesh, I shot in Colombia and I shot in Mississippi. I directed the video production for the site. And when I wasn’t shooting I was hiring freelancers. As we moved into post-production I started concentrating efforts toward making sure we had a workflow that would facilitate collaboration.
CV: WAS IT HARD TO PRODUCE A VISUAL INTERACTIVE AT NPR WHERE THE CULTURE IS IN RADIO?
JD: I hadn’t worked with anyone at NPR before, but we sort of spoke the same language. Alex had worked in video before with This American Life TV show and he learned a lot when he did that. Oftentimes radio reporters don’t have a lot of opportunities to work with video producers but Alex did and it helped a lot because he understood what our needs were, in terms of ‘how do we do our video interviews?’ Versus, ‘how do the radio interviews get done? How can we work together with the radio reporters to get everything that we need and to help each other out?’ He was really good at facilitating those things.
My next point of contact was Kainaz Amaria, who as it turned out had gone to Ohio University with one of my advisers in grad school, and we quickly learned that we spoke the same language when it came to visual journalism.
CV: HOW WAS THIS PIECE CONCEPTUALIZED?
JD: When I came on board it was more than an idea. They had already been thinking about this for about three years and they finally figured out how they were going to do it. Originally they were going to grow the cotton themselves, but they had found Jockey as a partner and they had gone through all the pre-production including the Kickstarter. Then the Kickstarter raised ten times more than they asked for.
The short answer is that at the very beginning, you never quite know what you’re going to make. You have so many conceptual conversations at the beginning, and it’s so hard to know if the idea that you’re talking about is the same idea that someone else is envisioning in there head, it’s like describing a color. You never know exactly what it is. So as we had more tangible things to look at, that’s when the project started taking shape.
It takes a village to make an interactive documentary, as more people got involved we asked, ‘What do we want to make? How can we focus it down?’ and then, ‘What are our strengths? How do we want to drive this? Will it be audio driven? Photo driven? Video? Text?’ It takes a lot of time, and a back and forth exchange of ideas between all the people involved to get to the point where you’re on the same page so that you’re working towards the same goal.
CV: THE STORY WAS FUNDED BY YOUR AUDIENCE, HOW DID YOU INVOLVE THEM DURING PRODUCTION?
KA: Getting $600,000 was a game changer. They realized that our audience wanted to help us and that they were paying for this reporting, so we wanted to make sure that we’d do justice to the audience that bought the t-shirts.
One thing we did was put together a Tumblr that chronicled our reporting which was really fun and interesting. That way the people who bought the t-shirt could follow along and see what we were doing. We were very transparent in the entire process.
CV: HOW DID YOU APPROACH STRUCTURE?
KA: In post, we looked at our assets and decide what would work well. We sat down with Alex and asked, what is the story you want to tell? And he said, ‘There’s an amazing world behind this simple t-shirt, there’s a complex global economy and it connects a lot of people.’ So that was our mission statement.
What naturally evolved as we were talking was the idea of the different chapters and the fact that we had a built in narrative, we had a beginning, middle and end with the process of the t-shirt. So we focuses on the process with the videos, and then in the drop downs we got into the complex questions or concepts that the videos bring up.
CV: HOW DID YOU PLAN FOR THE VISUALS FROM THE BEGINNING?
KA: There was no way to really envision what this was going to be on the front end, but there were a few things we did to ensure that there was cohesiveness. We knew for a fact that no one photographer could be everywhere following the this t-shirt, so we made a visual style guide on what we were looking for. We had nine visual journalists and we all had a guide of the different shots and different things that let us have a certain look and a continuity.
JD: We knew we wanted something consistent. Most shooters had Canon 5-D Mark IIs and Mark IIIs. One person had a Nikon. One person shot on a Canon C100. But we used the same lenses.
CV: WHAT WAS ON YOUR SHOT LIST?
KA: Every step of the way we got video portraits, time lapses, and a sense of place. We also got interviews of people and we documented their lives. So we had a variety of footage that in post we could reach for and put together.
CV: HOW IMPORTANT IS COLLABORATION IN A PIECE LIKE THIS?
JD: Collaboration is key to interactive documentaries. You’re not just collaborating with video producers, but you’re working with writers, graphic designers, programmers, people fixated on user experience and promotion. I wanted to be sure that the multimedia team in DC had a voice in the project early. So we brought them up to New York, and we had two days worth of brainstorming what the project would look like.
KA: We tried not to work in a vacuum. As we were putting this together we would share it. I would say that the communication that we had to have in order to pull this off was really important. Everyone had to check their ego at the door and think about what was serving our audience and the story. I’m very honored to have been a part of it, because there were so many great, talented people that came together to do it.
CV: HOW DID YOU KNOW THE PROJECT WAS FINISHED?
KA: Toward the end we did a round of user testing where we literally opened up the project in front of people at their computers, and we just watched them interact with it. By doing that we learned so much about the usability of the website as well as the editorial content. What was working and what wasn’t? And we were able to make really important editorial decisions based on that testing. For instance the diptych in the people section was a result of the testing. What was really important was that our team was not only willing to listen to the criticism, but was willing to make really tough decisions on the the things that we learned.