The Slow Evolution of Animated News Graphics

By: Steve Outing

Animations are everywhere on the World Wide Web. Just about every news Web site you visit these days is likely to contain moving graphics and logos. But most of this movement is taking place on the advertising side of Web sites; editorial or news content is still most likely to be static in presentation.

"Advertisers all want their banner ads to dance and wiggle," says Jay Small, New Media committee chair for the Society of Newspaper Design and editor of online services for the Indianapolis (Indiana) Star and News. "Some (news Web sites) are using small animations to promote features. But top-notch editorial animated graphics: I'm not seeing much."

Animated editorial graphics are not widespread yet for good reason. Bandwidth considerations are the biggest impediment; large animation files can take many minutes to download for a consumer on a 28.8 modem connection to the Internet, and many people will give up before a graphic has time to download. As consumers get faster computers and faster connection speeds are made available, we'll see more adventurous animated graphics on news Web sites.

A cautious start

At Associated Press Multimedia Services in New York, design manager Karl Tate has his staff experimenting with animated graphics, but executing them on a regular basis has been limited. AP Multimedia is responsible for producing graphics for The Wire, AP's online service that is syndicated for news Web sites.

Tate says AP has tried some QuickTime and ShockWave animations, such as an interactive chart of stock prices. For the flooding in the Upper Midwest of the U.S., the AP staff used QuickTime VR to show a 360-degree view of the damage to create an interactive graphic. The viewer was able to pan around the photo at will. The same technique was tried at the U.S. presidential inauguration, when a camera with a spherical lens was put down in the street to give a sense of the environment that day.

Tate says he expected to have his staff bang out animated graphics -- or turn print graphics produced by AP's graphics department into animations -- but found that they were too difficult and time-consuming to do as often as he would have liked. The multimedia art department has a staff of 4.

He's optimistic about a new animation development tool from MacroMedia called Shockwave Flash, which provides tools to create vector-based animations. Most animated graphics you now see on the Web are bit-map based -- typically Photoshop files that have been converted into QuickTime movies or animated GIF files. Bit-maps are much larger than vector graphics, such as those produced by software programs like Adobe Illustrator or Freehand -- which have long been staples of news art departments. Tate is optimistic that software like Flash will allow his artists to create animated vector-based graphics small enough (in file size) to be downloaded quickly by Web readers.

KRT blazes the trail

The leader in animated news graphics for Web sites today is probably KRT Interactive, the multimedia division of KRT Information Services. (KRT stands for Knight-Ridder/Tribune.) Another KRT division, News In Motion, produces 10- to 30-second news animations covering technical processes and news events for television stations, and KRT Interactive converts those into QuickTime and GIF formats for use by Web sites. KRT Interactive also produces some original news animations for the Web.

KRT Interactive art director Ron Coddington, who previously was art director for KRT's graphics operation, says his role is primarily to adapt graphics produced for TV (by News In Motion) and print (by KRT Graphics) to the Web medium, adding animation and interactive elements as appropriate.

Coddington's staff takes elements from the various divisions of KRT (TV animations, print graphics, photos) in assembling animated Web graphics. For the story about the lost military jet in Colorado, the KRT Interactive staff took a News In Motion TV animation showing how the pilot may have ejected from the A-10 plane and extracted a couple frames to use in the "front page" of a daily top story graphics presentation. The animation of the pilot ejecting was included in the graphics package offered to KRT Web animation subscribers.

Coddington says that the biggest challenge is in making news animation tight enough that they load quickly for users. He prefers to keep graphics limited to the dimensions of a single screen, so the user doesn't have to scroll to see the full work. Animated GIFs are the preferred format because of their modest size requirements, but the KRT staff also produces QuickTime movie clips (which must be downloaded). For a map of the missing military jet's flight path, KRT used a GIF animation showing a moving arrow to depict the flight. For a recent graphic about the onset of dandelion season, an animated GIF showed how the weed grows; each frame of the animation represented a layer of illustration, showing the roots sprouting, leaves growing, etc.

Animations should be used for conveying information and for showing technical processes, says Coddington, and not used just for decoration. "At the end of the day, I sit down and look at the package as if I'm a viewer," he says. "And I ask myself, would I really spend the time to download this (graphic)? Sometimes the answer is yes, and occasionally it's not."

Coddington says that in the Web graphics world, he's not doing as much original artwork as in his print graphics days. Rather, KRT Interactive graphics frequently involve taking visual elements from archives and other divisions (such as graphics and photo) and assembling them into coherent animated or interactive graphics. Most of KRT Interactive's work is done using Photoshop, with the Photoshop files arranged for presentation in a program called GIF Builder.

KRT's animated Web graphics recently became available via PressLink Online. News sites can take out a monthly subscription for $120 to $240, depending on print subscription size of the parent publication. (Those are introductory rates, which will rise to $160 to $325 per month as of June.) Daily graphics also can be purchased a la carte for $15 to $30 (rising to $20 to $40), and archive animated graphics cost $15 each (rising to $20). (Samples of KRT Interactive graphics can be viewed at KRT Information Services editor Jane Scholz says that her company will sell the animation packages to most Web sites or online services, except those it deems competitive to its parent companies.

Forging ahead

Despite today's bandwidth limitations, some individual news sites are forging ahead with animated graphics -- even if only a small percentage of the audience will have the patience to wait for them to download. Sites to watch for use of animated editorial graphics include the Chicago Tribune Internet Edition and the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Both have done some cutting-edge work with animated graphics.

More news sites are getting the animated graphics bug, too. USA Today Online is gearing up to take its graphics -- which generally are original and not simply repurposed from the newspaper -- to a new level, according to online design chief Jeff Dionise, who heads up a team of five online artists. He says his group will soon be implementing a redesign which will include greater use of animated graphics. The first place to look for changes will be in weather graphics, which because they are explanatory in nature lend themselves to animation.

Dionise says USA Today Online staff will use a variety of tools for creating more sophisticated graphics, including 3-D modeling and animation software that they already are using. His artists use some of the advanced software applications for existing work and have built up a large archive of images. Deciding to do animation rather than render just one frame for a static graphic is just one additional step to take, he says. Dionise and crew have been experimenting with animation for some time, and now look forward to implementing it on the site in the coming weeks.

Dionise emphasizes that Web site graphic artists must use animation sparingly, and use it to impart information -- not just to decorate or add "flash." The overall concept for USA Today graphics -- whether in print or online -- is to pack them with information, he says. Well done animations are just another tool for adding information in a tightly executed graphic.

And don't expect to see USA Today Online go too far out on a limb. A guiding principle is that animated graphics should be viewable without the need for the user to download a special plug-in or application, Dionise says. The animated GIF format still has some life left in it.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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