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The Story Behind Our National First-Place Award

Education Writer’s Association

The EWA awarded “Becoming the Conductor” first place in its 2021 nationwide multimedia contest for small newsrooms. This is a video profile I created for EdNC.org, a nonprofit news organization, during my time there as Multimedia Strategist. The video features Dr. Anthony Jackson, North Carolina’s 2020 Superintendent of the Year, talking about his childhood and how it shaped his career and understanding of the world. His story is visualized by hand-drawn animations and artwork that I created to go along with his comments.

Sketchy Challenges

The wobbling, hand-drawn art used in this video was a big departure from my normal video style. It came from a place of necessity. When we had the opportunity to create a profile of Dr. Jackson, pandemic precautions were in full swing, and our usual in-person video setup wasn’t feasible. So we decided to do the interview via zoom. To get a higher video quality, I asked Dr. Jackson to prop up his phone in selfie mode and record a clip of our entire conversation. Later, he sent me the video.

And wow, was I glad he did! Dr. Jackson’s words, and the way he told his story, was incredibly inspiring to me. I wanted to put in the effort to make this video feel extra special. But because of social distancing, we couldn’t shoot b-roll of Dr. Jackson like we usually would. We did get some photos from him, but it wasn’t nearly enough content for a 4-5 minute profile video.

So I decided to fill in the details with something I had very little experience with: hand-drawn, frame-by-frame animation.

There were a few scenes I knew I wanted in the video after Dr. Jackson told me his story. One was him exactly as he described himself — “a little brown boy in Washington, D.C.” — walking through the environment of poverty that was his norm.

“Many people called where I grew up ‘the projects.’ We called it home.”

Dr. Anthony Jackson, 2020 NC Superintendent of the Year

Dr. Jackson had named several mentors who guided him during different periods of his life. I hoped for each of them to be captured in scenes with Dr. Jackson, their likenesses based on real-life photographs. And his viewpoints on equity deserved a visual representation that did them justice.

I started with the basics, watching YouTube videos about the principles of animation and following a tutorial to create my very own bouncing ball. Soon, I decided on a workflow: I would draw and color each scene using an Apple Pencil on my iPad with an app called Procreate. Then, I would export each image to my computer and stitch them together with Adobe After Effects.

Although I knew the project was ambitious, I simply wasn’t prepared for the reality of how painstaking hand-drawn animation can be, especially for someone without much experience. Soon, I scaled down my vision so that only a few key moments would be animated, like a walk cycle of Dr. Jackson as he advanced through his career. The majority of art would be static scenes related to the story.

But even those proved to be time-consuming. To achieve the wobbly style, every scene had to be drawn multiple times and colored in manually. Forgetting any small detail would lead to glitchy visuals that took extra time to fix. And keeping a consistent style between the dozens of sketches was difficult, as I worked on them over a period of months and my understanding of the software changed throughout that time.

This project left me with a newfound level of respect for professional illustrators, especially those who create the animations we take for granted in popular media. I wouldn’t have finished the video without the input and support of my colleagues at EdNC, and I’m grateful they gave me the opportunity to slow down and try something different in a fast-moving industry.

Watch It Now

Watch “Becoming the Conductor” here, on EdNC’s YouTube channel.

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