Digital storytelling with Apollo 50

Last month Owain and I visited the Washington Monument to watch an extraordinary work of digital storytelling.  It was called Apollo 50.

Here I’d like to explain how it worked, why I was so impressed, and some practical lessons all digital storytellers can draw from it.

Apollo 50 took place on the east side of the Washington obelisk.  When Owain and I arrived we saw thousands of people milling or seated on the grass, staring up as the monument, upon which was projected a video clip of the Saturn V on its launch pad (see above).  Two large projection screens spread out on either side.  Near them were massive stands of speakers.

We arrived 45 minutes before the show was to start.  While the crowd grew and the Saturn V projection loomed, the two screens lit up and displayed a countdown in T-minus fashion.  Space music played, setting the mood, and an announcer stated the time at several points.

The show itself began without other preamble or introduction.  The Monument went blank and the PA started playing a 1962 John F. Kennedy speech I’d never heard before.  In it Kennedy describes the history of human invention, starting with animal skins print and racing ahead to print, steam power, and spaceflight.

It’s quite a speech.  The archival recording sounded across the Mall:

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man1s recorded history in a time span of but a half a century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Visuals complemented the audio.  The two big display screens showed JFK.  The obelisk showed historical images: an electric light flickering, a steam-powered piston working. As the speech progressed the displays turned to other historical images.

Key point: every word was echoed in text scrolling clearly across the top of both projections.  I was able to read along very easily.

Then the audio shifted to another Kennedy speech, that most famous call for a lunar mission.* . Now the screens alternated between the president and the construction of Apollo, while the gigantic Saturn V loomed into view again upon the monument.

What followed was a quick summary of Apollo 11 from launch through the moon landing and back.  Videos flashed against the monument, emphasizing vertical scenes (the Command Module docked with the LEM) or giving us thin slices of other images.  The two big screens often echoed or mirrored each other.  At one point the big screens each showed a curve of Earth, as the Apollo arrowed between them.

Then the show continued.  We saw (and heard) a rapid sketch of spaceflight since 1969, right up to the space shuttle and ISS.  The conclusion pointed to the future.  A new narration (female voice) pointed out upcoming possibilities, like a lunar settlement and a Mars landing.  Visuals followed suit.

Here’s a video shot from the mall:

And another one, with different angles:


An awesome and inspiring evening.

“This is all very nice.  But what,” asks the digital storytelling practitioner, “does this have to do with me?  You’ve described a great event, but one at a vastly huger scale than the kind of personal projects we do.”

Good point.  But I think we can identify some useful practices:

  • Use archival materials.  There was a lot of magic in seeing 1969’s images and hearing JFK’s words.
  • Be accessible.  Those text scrolls were really useful.
  • Work with constraints.  Think about what a terrible visual space the Washington Monument is: ludicrously narrow and tall.  So the team focused visuals that fit those restrictions: pistons, rockets.  Then they contrasted those with the big screens.
  • Remember the power of the human voice.  Hearing a woman’s voice at the end was a wonderful reminder of cultural changes, after the presence of so many men on screen and on voiceover.
  • Prepare your audience beforehand.

None of these are shockingly new ideas, but Apollo 50 really drove them home.

*I think Kennedy repeated the historical text in the Rice speech as well.

(thanks to Owain and Elena)

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4 Responses to Digital storytelling with Apollo 50

  1. Kate Borowske says:

    Goosebumps. That’s what a well-told story can do. That experience in DC must have been amazing.

  2. Matthew P Henry says:

    Bryan and I were at the same event. It was life-changing, seriously. You can’t imagine 108 degree heat index, what the Smithsonian thought would be 150,000 turned out to be 500,000 (that’s 1/2 a million) is incredible. Bryan’s so right, we watched the showing (it was 17 minutes long) twice. I’m old enough I remember the original Apollo 11 launch, I wasn’t there in person but I was there on our black and white TV. Being on the national mall for this event felt like you were really there. In fact, my wife was so impacted physically she said her entire body hurt from the vibrations. And, they had lighting at the base of the Washington Monument that glowed red that turned on right as the Saturn V was taking off. I love how Bryan has built this in the context of digital storytelling, it sure was digital storytelling at it’s best. In fact, since we live in the DC area we take walks at night and got to see and talk with some of the folks that set this up. Just for the Washington monument projection, we counted 21 laser projectors. The two projection “screens” were made up of 12 semi-sized shipping containers stacked on top of each other. They were four three tall with three in a configuration to make sure the front three wouldn’t fall over times two and then times four. It was unreal. I thought to myself, this is setting a precedence for all digital experiences to do it well. In fact, one of the engineers we talked with earlier in the week was asked, how much did this all cost? All he could say was A LOT of MONEY!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Beautifully said, Matt.
      I’m sorry the sound bothered your wife!
      Agreed about the heinous heat index. But folks bore up because Apollo.

  3. Shana Blankenship says:

    Excellent analysis. I want to up my teaching game in the classroom. I believe this is an excellent start. Communication, and the art and craft therein…I have always been fascinated by Digital Storytelling.
    Much appreciated, I have learned a lot!

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