BEHIND THE STORY
I explained a local news story in stop-motion Legos. Here’s how

The first day of my internship on the data team at the Tampa Bay Times, my editor pulled me into an office and gave me an unusual assignment.

Two of our reporters had spent months studying a big road project called Tampa Bay Express that would reshape our region’s interstates for decades to come. He asked, “Can you build a scale model of the project in Legos?”

I had no idea. Growing up in China in the early ’90s, Lego was not part of my childhood. I had never touched a Lego brick.

But it sounded like fun. And as I learned more about the road project, the idea of using Legos began to make more and more sense.

[ SEE THE STORY: How the plan to fix Tampa Bay’s most important bridge fell apart, told in Legos ]


Why Lego

Writing about transportation plans is always hard. Although the plan for TBX has been discussed for years, to most of our readers, it still feels very abstract.

We wanted a way to make it more concrete — to help our readers see what the project would do for themselves.

Lego sounded like a possible answer.

During my graduate study at NYU, I worked a lot with experimental and technology-driven storytelling. This project would make use of that experience.

We hoped the crisp and playful visuals, as well as the established intimacy between our readers and Legos as a medium, would do the magic.

So I went to a toy store, bought a box of Legos and got started.

Questions and choices

First, we assembled our project team: Caitlin Johnson and Anthony Cormier, the two reporters who had been digging into TBX for our paper. We spent a day in a conference room, writing on index cards, working to outline different stories we might want to tell with our Lego model.

Caitlin was the main writer for this piece; she moved into a desk next to mine and started reporting out those storylines. Meanwhile I came up with a list of questions I would have to answer to start on the visual side of the project:

  • Which part of the 90-mile road project did we want to build?
  • How far should the road extend? (The longer our model, the more expensive and time-consuming to build...)
  • How abstract or detailed did we want it to be? Should we try to build it to scale?
  • Even though Lego bricks are colorful, roads are gray — which is pretty DULL. How do we fix that?

I watched dozens of Lego animations and tutorials, then started experimenting with those questions in mind.

We decided to make a scale model of part of the iconic Howard Frankland Bridge.

Being journalists, we wanted to be faithful to the dimensions of the actual road plan as much as we could. That meant we couldn’t use any off-the-shelf Lego road plates and needed to build it from scratch on our own. To be precise enough, I realized we would have to order the right pieces.

I made a quick prototype in 3D modeling software. Then I used the model to calculate how many of each type of Lego brick I would need and figured out an estimated cost based on their individual price on Lego.com.

Calculating how many bricks we needed, old-school.

I told my editors it would cost $117.56. They approved it, and shortly the purchase was made.

After three weeks, our Lego package arrived and I got to work.

To the studio

I decided to shoot the bridge in stop-motion. That meant hours in our photo studio, shooting the project frame by frame.

The most distinctive elements and scenes in the animation — the cars, the green shoulder, the ship, the toll rising above the road — all came from moments of frustration. But by keeping myself immersed in the tiny Lego world I built, I found inspirations began to flow.

It took a lot of trial and error. The first draft looked very short and too industrial.

To fix that, I tried adding dirt underneath and faking water with paper.

It looked too raw.

I also tried scattering spare bricks everywhere to show the messiness of demolition and construction.

That wasn’t very elegant, either.

I went back to the beginning. This time, I tried adding some lights and changing the camera angle. Anthony ordered an extra $14.04 worth of blue Legos, to make the water shine. I built a tiny boat, too — just for fun.

That moment of whimsy led to a shot like this. Closer.

I used Photoshop to strip off the muddy background.

Hooray! I was exhilarated when this frame came into being. This is what we wanted!

One down, 335 to go

That was only one frame, though. To tell our story, I needed many more. I shot them one by one, adjusting the model and moving the camera’s tripod from position to position to get each angle. Then I stitched the frames together into “sprite sheets” — long photos containing every frame stacked on top of each other, like a stretched-out flipbook.

I wrote computer code to tell web browsers how to play those sequences as an animation.


While I was happy with our progress, we worried it was still hard to understand the bridge’s scale. We decided to add cars.

We figured out that Micro Machine cars would fit our bridge’s dimensions. We ordered a few dozen of them on eBay for $54.79, and we suddenly had this…


Except in real life, the free lanes may be way more clogged than that.

I repeated this process this over and over to create each scene in our story. The final presentation had 190 frames like this — and that doesn’t count the many scenes we threw out along the way!

Then I cropped every frame again, one by one in Photoshop, to create sequences that better fit mobile displays.

By the end I had made 336 handcrafted stop-motion frames.

The real world intervenes

The project took a while, in part because it took time for all the parts to come and also because I was working on other stories at the same time.

But as we worked and waited, real-world events changed the story.

In September, my reporting partners, Caitlin and Anthony, got a tip that revealed something we had all missed. The expansion we were modeling would NOT happen on the bridge, at least not anytime soon. Instead the state wanted to build a smaller bridge first.

Caitlin called a number of local officials. Many of them were just like us — confused, and saying that wasn’t how they understood the plan. Caitlin and Anthony quickly broke the story about the confusion over the plan.

The development changed our story, too. Now we needed to do an accountability story that answered a different question: How did things go so wrong?

We decided to add an extra dimension to the project: the politicians who were confused and the state officials who left them that way.

Caitlin listened to and reviewed hours and hours of presentations about the project, taking note of exactly who said what.

I was in charge of adding them to the presentation. Naturally, we decided to represent them with Lego people.

First, we tried buying Lego characters online. Surprisingly, we couldn’t find a set that was suitable to be cast as officials. Time was pressing. We couldn’t wait.

We then sent an email to the entire newsroom asking if anyone could lend some of their Lego people. Subject line: “The data team needs your help / legos”

Our colleagues came through. We ended up with a bounty of Lego characters.

All of this work did a great job of showing readers what the plan wasn’t and why people got it wrong. We could have stopped there.

But at its heart, this story was created by confusion. As reporters, we felt an obligation to make things clear and to show readers how the plan would have unfolded over decades to come.

However, neither time nor budget allowed us to build the whole plan with real bricks.

Then we found a really cool site, buildwithchrome.com, a virtual world where you can build in Lego.

Designer Martin Frobisher, my data team co-worker, jumped in and used the site to build diagrams of the bridges that helped us lay out the project’s timeline — which version of the bridge would be built when. With some Photoshopping and smart labeling, the virtual Lego became an integral part of the story.

He built it in the waters of virtual Tampa Bay, not too far from the real Howard Frankland.

Conclusion

After working on this project for almost five months, I was quite nervous the night before it launched. Luckily, readers liked it.

We got many questions about how we made it, including many asking what software we used. So we decided to write about our process.

Part of what was fun for me was working with a team with so many different skills. Caitlin lives to read dry hundred-page long transportation plans, but she had never written a graphic story before. We were both learning together as we went. Anthony is a crack investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for our paper last year. Martin, an excellent designer, is someone I always turn to when I have doubts about how something should look. Working closely with so many talented people was key to the story’s success.

Though we didn’t craft a regular story, our editors didn’t want our print readers to go without the Legos Bridge project. So on the front page of the newspaper, we did this:

Contact Eli Zhang at ezhang@tampabay.com. Follow @elizhangnyc.