Emperor penguins hit the gas

Awkward on land, Antarctica’s emperor penguins reach high speeds as they soar through the sea. To clear several feet of ice and to avoid the threat of leopard seals lurking at the ice edge, these amazing creatures rocket through the water leaving a trail of bubbles in their wakes and perform their famous jumps out of the water onto the safe surface. Now, scientists have discovered the secret to the penguins’ speed: they use air stored under their feathers as a lubricant to cut drag and increase speed.

As soon as Senior Graphics Editor Fernando Baptista learned about the story, he wanted to create a graphic explaining the science behind the penguins’ fabulous acceleration. Our November issue features the story with wonderful photos and video by Paul Nicklen and Fernando’s graphic, which has a unique look. Take a look (click a couple of times for the higher resolution version):

Fernando hired freelance researcher Tony Schick, who did an amazing job to get information on new science that had never been shown before. The early sketches put most of the emphasis on the animal and its speed, rather than on a detailed explanation of the physics behind it, which would become more interesting as we continued to learn about them. The version below was used to pitch the story and graphic to our Editor in Chief, Chris Johns:

To familiarize himself with emperor penguins and the unique nature of their feathers, Fernando spent a day at the Smithsonian Institution near our headquarters in Washington DC. Christopher Milensky, Fernando’s contact in the Bird Division, opened drawer after drawer of their fabulous collection of birds until they pulled out the stuffed dead penguin in the photo below. This specimen was alive in the 1950’s but it’s beautifully preserved with intact plumage.

Emperor penguins have the extremely dense, insulating feather cover you would expect in very cold climates. The unique adaptation that helps the penguins speed under water is the ability to store a large quantity of air inside their feather cover.

Each feather has a thick, rigid shaft, thin filaments on both sides and an abundance of microscopic downy feathers in between, small enough to trap tiny bubbles of air. After much insistence, Fernando convinced Mr. Milensky to take three feathers with him back to the office.

A new sketch (below) was more focused on the dive of the penguin and the acceleration provided by releasing the tiny bubbles of air. A small chart shows the decreasing thickness of the air layer as the penguins rocket upwards, but the graphic was still not explaining the details of how it all happened.

The next version adds more detailed diagrams of the feather structure. Muscles attached to a flexible membrane allow the penguins to change the position of their feathers to release air.

At this point, Fernando changed his technique approach. Having an actual feather in hand, he thought he should photograph it as an object on top of a textured background, with other elements becoming three-dimensional as well. In this version he was already trying to see what the skin cross-section would look like made of cardboard pieces. The background became a dark blue that was a better match to the blue tones of the underwater photos in the story.

Fernando painted a blue background with acrylics on top of piece of cardboard and distressed it with scratches and sand paper for that textured look he loves. At this point the feathers were plastic filaments that he made more pointy at the endpoint. The thinnest filaments were done with fibers from a nylon piece of rope.

His next version reveals the evolving focus of the graphic as we were digging deeper into the research. The graphic would be centered on how the penguin’s feathers work to trap air and later release it. The trajectory, depth and speed of the dive would be represented in a schematic diagram on top that would not compete with the main diagram.

At the end, we used a block of plasticine to represent the skin layers, with the actual feathers attached to it.

Really late in the process we realized the feathers were oriented in the wrong direction, at least if we were to continue with the logic of the left-to-right movement show in the diagram on top. We flipped them.

iPAD VERSION Fernando wanted to use traditional techniques and Photoshop, rather than After Effects or any other animation software, to create a stop-motion animation of the penguin diving and the feathers at work. First of all, we wanted to keep the beautiful look of the printed piece. In a time where most content is digitally generated, hand-made marks stand out and look so special.

To animate the leopard seal that would be lurking under the ice waiting to capture the penguin, Fernando did a really quick small-size plasticine model that he would photograph in different positions and texture in Photoshop. The model gives him volume and lightning.

And here is our penguin in diving position, ready to enter the digital world.

The textured blues and Fernando’s unique sense of lightning made for a beautiful look. The texture in the ice was extracted from a medical radiography. White pencil lines added interest to the feather.

Our design intern Louisa Cannell patiently created the scene with over 150 frames showing both the penguin and the leopard seal moving, rotating and flapping their fins. Bubbles were added in layers as well.

Below is the final print graphic in the context of the layout spread. In addition to the Smithsonian help, we worked with experts at the University of Alaska and the University College of Cork, in Ireland, to carefully review each phase of the graphic development.

Our Graphics Specialist Maggie Smith created a terrific map showing the size of emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica. The data were extracted by scientists with an original analysis of satellite imagery showing guano (bird excrement) deposits in different locations. We usually use flat vector color for very small maps, but this time we added the same texture used in the graphic for a much better integration.

The iPad feature works almost like a game. Moving the finger across a slider, the reader can control the movement and speed of the penguin as it dives, releases the air to accelerate and narrowly escapes the attack of the leopard seal. See it at work in the video below.

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17 thoughts on “Emperor penguins hit the gas

  1. I really like the way you presented this. There is an amazing amount of work that goes into the illustrations. Penguins are really fast. We watched many of them speed away from our ship while we were cruising through Antarctica. It was also amazing how they would leap out of the water not the ice.

  2. Juan and co.,

    Totally diggin’ the depth of these process posts. I’ve read and shared every one of them. Makes me miss graphics. And your dedication to the iPad is inspiring. Props to Louisa for all the grunt work–the interactive looks awesome.

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