America strikes oil

Our March issue has just hit the newsstands and our subscribers in all platforms. The cover story this month is an important one: The U.S. is experiencing a big boom in oil and natural gas due to new technologies to extract hard-to-reach oil. The new “gold rush” is affecting with special intensity northwest North Dakota, bringing new fortunes, transforming the prairie landscape and also causing environmental concerns while boosting the U.S. fuel supply.

Senior Graphics Editor and cartographer Virginia Mason produced a spectacular tour de force in researching, conceptualizing and designing the map, graphic and video in the story, shown here (click on the graphics for the hi-res version). In a few weeks I’ll make a longer post about the step by step process of this project, which involved research on the field, advanced GIS and 3D work and acquiring new animation skills.

The map shows wells in the heart of the new oil boom region of North Dakota. Over 3,000 wells (all existing wells, including inactive ones are plotted) dot the map, each of them extending underground in gigantic 1 or 2-mile long pipes (the gray lines) along an oil-rich layer of oil called the Bakken formation. The pipes are used for the highly specialized process or hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, perhaps one the most essential new words you are starting to hear about in the news.

The stark, simple presentation of the map with the rural landscape along the Missouri River overwhelmed by the massive pattern of black dots amplifies the shocking nature of this transformation. Overall, there are about 8,000 wells in North Dakota, a number that is projected to grow to about 50,000.

High Plains map

The graphic (below) shows how fracking works. It was produced by Virginia along with Joe Lertola from Bryan Christie Design studio. Fracking is a process by which previously inaccessible oil embedded in rock can be extracted by injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into a layer of shale. The fluid fractures the rock, releasing the oil, which flows back up the well to the surface along with it. The waste fluid from the process is then pumped back into the ground in disposal wells that are kept far from the groundwater layer, in theory preventing the contamination that has happened in other parts of the country.

The graphic shows a real well (Iverson 21-14 H) in the field, and every fracture (shown by the blue lines) along the 2-mile horizontal pipe was accurately plotted in three-dimensional space using seismic data.

High Plains graphic1

Finally, here is the video we produced for the iPad and iPhone edition, possibly the most ambitious undertaking in animation so far by our art department. We’ll do much more of it as we continue expanding our graphics and maps offering for the web and mobile platforms. I hope you think it was worth it after you watch and I’d be interesting in hearing your opinion. I’ll show you the step by step soon.

The quest to find all Birds of Paradise

TheOur December 2012 issue features the story of the truly amazing quest of Cornell ornithologist Edwing Scholes and biologist/photographer Tim Laman to find and photograph all 39 species of birds of paradise, perhaps the most spectacularly adorned family of birds in the world. Birds of paradise inhabit Papua New Guinea and parts of Australia. They are known for the flamboyant, sometimes bizarre and colorful plumage and other ornaments males use, along with some nice dance moves, to woo, entice and impress females in elaborate mating rituals. Many of the birds had never been photographed in the wild before.

Laman and Scholes made 18 expeditions over 8 years, visiting over 50 different sites to document the birds. And they succeeded.
It was clear we would need a graphic to explain how these creatures, which show wildly diverse morphological traits, were related to each other (often a bird is more closely related to one that looks entirely different from a similar-looking one). It was also important to document the range of each of the species, as they occupy very well defined niches at different elevation levels.
Senior Graphics Editor Fernando Baptista, Graphics Specialist Maggie Smith and freelance researcher Fanna Gebreyesus teamed up on this one to create this beautiful 3-page gatefold (click on any image in this post for a larger version):

Birds of Paradise_Final

The graphic show 15 birds illustrated by Fernando in the best tradition of natural history illustration. Each of them represents one of the 15 genera that groups birds of paradise. We show the family relationships, relative scale and a little chart gives additional information about the altitude range of each species in any given genus.


At the bottom, we mapped the elevation range of the different species  as well as all the expedition sites since the research started in 2004.


Here is the opener spread for the story, nicely designed by our Design Director David Whitmore. With abundant food and no predators, birds of paradise’s male appearance has evolved to really fantastic levels.


And here are all 39 species in the wild:


Fernando’s initial sketches were created for a book that the Nat Geo Society was preparing, but we knew we would eventually produce a graphic with a similar format in the magazine too. Here we see a first attempt at organizing the birds in a rather random but aesthetically pleasing design.


Fernando’s next sketch tries to bring more order by organizing the birds by size in a curved shape.


But conversations with the scientists made clear it was important to document how the different species related to each other at the taxonomy level, as much of it it was new science. That information shouldn’t be limited to the tiny inset chart. In this version the connecting branches of the family tree are not real…


Here they are real. Grouping the birds by size defeated the purpose of showing taxonomic relationships. The lines in this failed sketch show how the merely aesthetic decision would trump clear understanding.

4 sketch

Here we finally see a rough that approximates the final approach, including the map. Birds are grouped with their most closely related species. See the amazing size differences.

_RH Gate Template

Later on, we tried to use a chart to connect the map and the family tree by plotting the altitude range of each species. But it felt disconnected from both the map and the main graphic, creating a third layer of complexity rather than connecting the two existing components of the page.

In this version you can also see how Fernando played with the poses of the birds to avoid the stiff, field-guide feel of the previous sketch, where all of them were looking to the left in the same pose. This version is more fluid and natural. Fernando tweaked many of the poses, rotated heads and kept making changes through the entire process.

6 sketch

So Fernando decided to include the elevation chart below each one of the bird illustrations, indicating the elevation range of each of the birds. The mountain pictogram containing each chart added a bit of immediacy to the concept of elevation.

7 sketch

Here is some of the reference collected by Fernando to draw one of the birds. In most cases he had numerous photos by Tim Laman and additional reference. For those never photographed before, Tim’s photos were all the existing reference. We worked closely with Tim and Edwin, a reputed ornithologist, sending sketches back and forth.

reference art

Fernando’s process involves a relatively tight but light line pencil drawing (top left), a layer of watercolor with the main tones (top right), and finally a considerable amount of enhancements and shading done in Photoshop (bottom left). In this particular bird, Fernando changed the orientation of the head at the last-minute to create more dynamism.

process art2

Maggie started the map with a base map developed by the Maps Division of the Society (a group separate from the magazine’s cartographers) for the book. In most cases and since we need to deal with custom thematic layers of content directly from the sources, we develop our own custom maps in the magazine using software like ArcGIS, Natural Scene Designer and others. The Maps Division will generally use the cartographic database of the Society to develop products like the National Geographic Atlas.


Below are several iterations of the main map. The initial version was rotated in the page for a more horizontal shape, larger size and a better fit, but we would ultimately prefer to keep the true north orientation and we thought the more diagonal shape made it more active. We tried multiple ways of linking the altitude range levels in the map to the species illustrated on top, but attempts like the chart shown here with the blue bars was ultimately considered too complex. It would slow down the comprehension of the graphic rather than helping it.
The second version shows a combination of shaded relief and contour lines, but the different values of each color from the highlights/shadows in the shaded relief made it hard to relate colors in the key to colors on the map. The detail was also a bit noisy.
The final version had simplified relief included nice and gentle pencil-made touches by Fernando to give islands texture around the edges.


The locator map went through several rounds of improvements as well.


iPAD The graphic was completely rethought for the iPad version of the magazine. Since we wanted the art and maps to shine at a good size in the screen, we would break the content of the graphics into different pieces. Graphics Specialist Daniela Santamariña did most of the hard production work on the project.

Once scaled for optimum legibility, text takes a  very large amount of real estate on the iPad. One of the things we tend to do with the larger text paragraph that serves as introduction for most maps and graphics is to use it on a cover page for the interactive, along with an illustration.


We broke down the birds by taxonomic relationships as we did in print, but in smaller groups to enjoy the nice art. A miniature version of the entire tree serves as a key. As we did in the print version, the birds are always compared to the ghosted image of an American crow, a bird of well-known size that shares relatively recent common ancestors with birds of paradise.



The maps were rethought to add significant value by showing the extent and elevation range of each of the 39 species. The user can choose any of the birds in the photo grid below to enter a page with information about it.


Each page also included a reference to the conservation status of each bird, and in most cases audio with its call.


The photos in the story are really stunning. The iPad edition featured a video showing Tim’s preparation for the photo shoot.


Watch it here:

On the IPhone edition, we decided only a simplified range map would have enough legibility on the tiny screen. We often create interactive versions of graphics for the iPhone with the Adobe Publishing Suite or After Effects but, as I explained in my previous post about our iPhone maps and graphics, sometimes we need to make hard editing choices for maximum simplicity.


Scholes and Laman spent over 2,000 hours sitting in blinds, waiting and watching, to produce over 39,000 pictures and video. It was a pleasure for us to document their work. They hope their work will encourage conservation in New Guinea, where birds of paradise have been so far protected by the remoteness of the place.

They have also been working with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (one of the major supporters of the Project) on a educational website about the Birds-of-Paradise Project.  The website is also incorporated into the National Geographic Education portal.  You can see both here:

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.

Death of Ötzi the Iceman: A graphic novel in National Geographic

One of the biggest pleasures (and challenges) of working at National Geographic’s graphics department is to be able to art direct amazing artists from all over the world. Data-driven graphics, cartography and diagrams share the space of the magazine with paintings of historical events and depictions of the natural world. A long tradition carried over for 124 years that has showcased masters like N. C. Wyeth, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Charles Knight, Ned Seidler, James Gurney, Bruce Morser, Jon Foster and so many others.

Most of our contributors specialize in scientifically accurate and detailed illustrations of paleontology, archeology, geology, technology, natural science and so on. Each of these fields has its own specialists.

But sometimes we need a special edge to keep us fresh and even surprising, taking a leap of faith to try out artists that haven’t done scientific illustration but whose skills are unique. One such case is Alex Maleev, a Bulgarian comic book artist well known for Marvel series such as Daredevil and Spider-Woman. For our November 2011 issue we decided to make a new story on Ötzi the Iceman and the new hypothesis about his death based on a recent thawing and autopsy. We knew we could approach the art as a true “noir” graphic novel: What happened during the last few minutes of Ötzi’s life 5,300 years ago, 10,500 feet high in the remote Italian Alps? Who murdered him, and how?

Here is the finished piece (click a couple of times for a hi-res version). The version with text is at the end of the post. Unusual for National Geographic to say the least! But still informed by the advice of multiple experts regarding the clothes, weaponry and landscape:

My brother Martín, an avid comic book collector in Spain, had alerted me about Alex Maleev’s cinematic and realistic compositions, his mastery of human figure, and the edgy, dark, textured scenes. His paneled scenes and rhythmic composition create the motion and drama we were looking for. See some of his Marvel work (copyright by Marvel):

Like everyone else, we had covered the Iceman before, most recently about 6 years ago when it was discovered that Ötzi was killed by an arrow to the back. In that occasion, we used the more traditional illustration style of Kazuhiko Sano, the Japanese master that created so many iconic illustrations for National Geographic in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

But this time we were looking for a true paneled graphic novel approach. The following images show a bit of the process of working with an artist in the magazine.

The fist rough sketch (below) had 4 panels with a nice variation of camera angles showing the basic premise: At some point during his climb, Ötzi had probably stopped for a quick meal (we know he was killed very shortly after eating based on the undigested food found in his stomach). There, the new theory goes, he was ambushed by an individual or a group that not only shoot the most famous arrow in history at him, but also hit him in the head with a blunt object. The perpetrator/s fled the scene without taking any of Otzi’s possessions, and after retrieving the shaft of the arrow (locals would have known other people’s highly prized and personalized items, revealing the murderer).

The panels are nice, but the identically sized boxes seem static and don’t work together. We needed more rhythm and variety of sizes, and maybe having something go across the gutter to integrate both pages more fluidly.

A second sketch moved nicely in that direction, but still a bit timidly. You can see more energy and motion:

The next iteration, however, started to look confusing, with all images blending into each other. At this exploratory phase, we are happy to see really quick roughs to set the composition.

Forthe next version, I asked Alex for a more organized layout that would place the second step of the sequence (Ötzi being hit by the arrow) in the second page for a more integrated spread. A closeup of the arrow would add drama and pace:

But I still knew something was missing. Our A-HA moment came when Design Director David Whitmore and I went through the layout David was creating. The well-defined blue and gray color palette of the photos took us back to some of the samples we had seen of Alex work. The image below was not only an example of a color scheme that would be ideal for the story. It also made us realize the entire layout was in itself very cinematic.

The bold photographs (some examples below) follow each other with dramatic zooming-in and out, black panels and short text call-outs that follow each other throughout the pages, sequencing the images like a comic book.

So we suggested Alex to go for well structured rectangular panels on a black background and a blue-gray color palette. When we saw the next sketch, we knew it was the way to go:

Alex developed the panels further but I thought the panels sizes, relatively similar to each other, made it still a bit static. In a quick Photoshop rough, I played with the panels and indicated Alex areas where each panel could expand to have a variety of more vertical, more horizontal and larger/smaller images.

Here is the finished page (see the nice hi-res, color corrected at the beginning of the post):

Alex is a fantastic artist and easy to work with. Below is another illustration he recently finished for us: this time a full spread opener scene for a story on the rising sea levels of Northern Europe thousands of years ago, for our December 2012 issue.

Artist profile: The incredible Kennis brothers

Few people, if any, have impressed me more during my career than the Dutch twin brothers Alfons and Adrie Kennis, also known as Kennis & Kennis. Specialized in meticulous, extremely accurate and awe-inspiring beautiful paleontological reconstructions and paintings, the talent of the Kennis brothers is as amazing as their personalities.

Adrie Kennis, Wilma, and Alfons Kennis

Alfons and Adrie started publishing in the magazine in the early 2000’s, brought in by former Art Director Chris Sloan (see Chris’ new company here). I remember vividly the lasting impression their series of paintings of extinct mammals of the Jurassic left in me, a couple of years before I started working for National Geographic. I wanted to meet them right away!

Adrie and Alfons work simultaneously in all their paintings in an organic process where it’s impossible to know which one of them worked in the different phases or areas of a canvas. Their feature textured white backgrounds are beautiful and the exquisitely lightning and sculptural feel of their figures reveals their technique: they first build every animal they paint as a three dimensional, small-size, clay model for reference of volume and lightning.

As it turns out the Kennis brothers are terrific sculptors and their anatomical knowledge is sought by natural history museums all over the world.

Most paleo-reconstructions of extinct hominids feel stiff and lifeless to me, but not theirs. The emotion and expression of their figures is unique. As examples, see their “Lucy’s baby” below. The playful 3 year old Australopithecus afarensis was our cover in November, 2006. Below it, the weathered face of a Neanderthal male:

I was fortunate to work directly with the Kennis brothers in the reconstruction of a female Neanderthal we created for our October 2008 cover. The story had it all. Terrific science (the neanderthal genome was being decoded, offering new clues), picturesque fossils sites in Siberia and Spain and the unfolding drama of a species being cornered into extinction in Europe as homo sapiens quickly occupied their former range in Europe.

Alfons and Adrie worked for 6 month on our female Neaderthal, in a meticulous process that started with the reconstruction of an entire skeleton based on the existing fossils of different specimens scattered around the world. I art directed from Washington, and visited in their amazing studio-warehouse near Amsterdam during the process.

Since the best existing reference for the thorax was a male specimen, Adrie and Alfons painstakingly disassembled a model of the thorax, shaved off a few millimeters off each rib and each vertebra and put it back together to obtain an appropriately sized smaller female thorax.

We worked closely with scientists at Duke University, the University of Washington in St. Louis and the Natural History Museum of London for accuracy. Despite the enormous amount of work involved in creating a life-size, articulated and scientifically accurate skeleton, at the end it would not be visible. The purpose was to serve as a base for the external layers of the body, knowing that the proportions given by the bones were right. The next step was to add all the muscles and skin, in layers of plasticine clay:

And this is the external appearance of the clay model before casting it into the final silicone figure:

The finished model incorporated real red hair of Scottish Highland cattle (DNA evidence pointed to many neanderthals being red-haired) and a carefully crafted outer layer of skin that included wrinkles and pores the Kennis brothers obtained by transferring skin impressions of their own faces into the model. Alfons and Adrie finally added black pock marks, a tan face tonality and reddened cheeks after studying the faces of Mongolian nomads and other populations that spend a lot of time outdoors in climates as cold as Europe was when it was inhabited by Neanderthals.

Being National Geographic, we couldn’t just photograph Wilma (our reconstruction’s nickname) in a studio. The Kennis brothers took her all the way to Spain in the back of their truck, and I joined them there along with photographer Joe McNally and our Creative Director to do a photo shoot next to the cave where some of the evidence was found.

The adventures of the photo shoot were best narrated by then Design Editor Oliver Uberti in his former blog. Among other things, we were evicted from a National Park by guards for conspicuously carrying a large naked female figure without permission to do so, and chased by a wild bull on the way to the cave!

And all of that just to show a cover and two other pictures in the magazine, plus the accompanying graphic I did with artist Bruce Morser. You must think we are crazy, and we do feel that way sometimes!

In case you are curious, here are three of the many sketches the Kennis brothers did at the beginning of the process. The first takes were too feminized and idyllic to my taste. We wanted a neanderthal female that was defiant and strong, as some of the new scientific evidence pointed to the fact neanderthal may have participated in hunting along with males, unlike homo sapiens.

I’ll finish with another painting by Alfons and Adrie for a more recent stories on extinct Australian megafauna. As in any art direction project involving this odd pair of geniuses, there were some heated arguments about the direction of the project, with me and former Graphics Editor Hiram Henriquez working on it from Nat Geo’s side. It’s not unusual for them to refuse ANY changes to their artwork but I see that as an expression of how deeply they care about the integrity of their artwork and the scientific accuracy behind, and we always ended up agreeing. Can’t wait to do it again!

Check the Kennis brothers’ website here, I hope you’ll love their work. Also, here is a video where they narrate their process for a reconstruction of Otzi the Iceman. This one was not commissioned by National Geographic, be we used a picture of the model in our November 2011 issue.

The Mustang caves of Nepal

Watching Fernando Baptista, one of our Senior Graphics Editors, at work is a fascinating experience. The October issue of National Geographic features just another impressive reconstruction graphic born out of his endessly creative and perfectionist mind. The story is about a series of caves in the Nepalese district and former kingdom of Mustang. Although spectacular complexes of cliffside caves were already known in the area, a new key find was the so-called Tomb 5 in Samdzong. A powerful leader was buried there 1,300 to 1,800 years ago in a wooden coffin, surrounded by sacrificed animals, ceremonial objects and, mysteriously, a child.

Here is Fernando’s finished graphic, a photographed model painstakingly built with papier maché, clay, plasticine, wood, and many weeks of research. The map at the bottom is by Senior Graphic Editor Martin Gamache.

And this is the video Fernando and Video Director editor Hans Weise created for our iPad edition (for subscribers only):

THE FIRST IDEA The original idea was to focus on the cave city complex of Tsarang. Fernando created several pencil and watercolor sketches, but it turned out information on the interior of the caves was insufficient to attempt a detailed reconstruction. I love the look of unfinished and rough sketches. Today these are all drawn in paper or on the computer, but we have quite a few old sketches in the office painted with oil over canvas! and mailed by artists. I’ll photograph a few one of these days to show you.

FOCUSING ON TOMB 5 Our main consultant, Dr. Mark Aldenferder, was part of the team of archeologists and mountaineers working in the area. He pointed Fernando to the sensational find of the funerary cave complex of Samdzong. The first pencil sketches were made (above).

Fernando has a Fine Arts background and worked for Spanish daily newspaper El Correo for 14 years before coming over to Nat Geo. He is an exceptional illustrator. Fernando often creates small clay models just as reference for his illustrations. This allows him to investigate the volume and lightning and to find the best point of view possible. What others may do with 3D software, Fernando does with plasticine, clay and carving tools from the art store or from his kitchen. The model above was created for this purpose but when our Creative Director Bill Marr saw it, the concept was born. Why not create a larger, very accurate model of the cave and photograph it?. We thought this would not only have a striking presence in the printed page, but it would allow us to play with a moving camera and create a video for our iPad edition that would immerse the readers into the tight, claustrophobic cave space as they looked at the different offerings and remains.

Fernando and Senior Design Editor John Baxter worked on several layout possibilities. Two early examples are shown below. We thought we would have bigger impact on a vertical spread (the reader must turn the magazine to read it). At this point we are mostly dealing with hierarchy, flow of information and determining which elements will be essential in the storytelling and which can be eliminated or more effectively shown elsewhere in the layout. Usually we start with quick pencil sketches.

We were still planning to show the city cave complex in Tsarang (the larger block), but we realized this could confuse readers because the tomb shown in the main art is actually not part of that complex.

Fernando enlisted our talented art research intern, Fanna Gebreyesus, to dive into the details of the cave, and ultimately also to help build it. The large model wall structure was created in papier maché, using glue to hold dozens of layers of newspapers together. Here you can see it at an early stage.

To create the rock and earth texture, Fernando and Fanna gathered six different types of sand and earth of different colors and grain texture (from the park, from the street, from a weekend visit to Alexandria, VA…). Fernando’s wife Begoña helped eliminate the biggest particles with a cheesecloth and then they were sprinkled them around the cave on top a layer of adhesive spray.

To create the different mummified animal skulls found in the cave (probably ritual offerings) Fernando calculated the exact size needed, printed out photographs of the same species in three views (front, side and top) at the same size and carefully sculpted them in clay. To complicate things, we had to calculate how much the skulls would shrink after baking them (in Fernando’s oven at home!), which turned out to be about 20 percent.

The idea was to represent the cave as it would look around 20 years after the burial, with mummified skin still attached to the skulls. To create that effect, Fernando applied a thin layer of paper, glue and leather from an old jacket, and then he painted them. The metallic objects were made in clay, painted with metallic shine paint and then “aged” with acrylic colors. Fernando molded iron wire to create the low tripod that sustained one of the vessels.

A stunning gold mask covered the face of the man’s remains. After careful observation, it was apparent that there were traces of paint in the nose but also a series of thin lines around the face. Fernando pointed this out to Dr. Aldenderfer, suggesting a way of reconstructing the original design of those lines. After several rounds, the expert archeologist was really excited. It’s not unusual for us to collaborate with an expert as they investigate, helping visualize and solidify their theories.

Fernando used copper to sculpt the mask. To create the hood covering the mummy head (see the first picture in the post) Fanna brought a piece of ethiopian cloth, which Fernando aged with watercolors and coffee. Then Fanna sewed the mask to the cloth using metallic thread through extremely thin holes following Dr. Aldenderfer’s instructions.

The skeleton of the adult male was a plastic toy that had just the right size. Fernando applied the same aging technique he used with the skulls. However, we had to add the smaller skeleton of a child, also present in the cave. It was found laying close to the wooden coffin, on the floor. Fernando and Fanna looked for the right size plastic skeleton all over the Internet and in city stores for over a week, with no result. Utimately, Fernando decided to buy another plastic skeleton like the one he used for the adult, and then proceeded to cut almost every bone of the body,  (that’s right, manually and one by one!!!) shorten it, reshape it and reattach it. Insanity! That is how far Fernando will go to achieve accuracy in his reconstructions.

The row of beads that once adorned the mask of the chief turned Fernando’s office into a workshop for tiny jewelry work (below). I think he missed his work with large canvasses more than ever…

We kept looking at different layout options, but none of them was really convincig us. The one shown above had a somewhat clunky stacking of two horizontal layers of context information. It was too much work before the reader could reach the main image, and the lack of hierarchy given by so elements of similar size was apparent. On top of that, the very realisitc model could have been read as an actual photograph of the cave. At the end, we decided that it was important to show the edges of the model itself to present it as a hand-made recreation. The structure of the graphic (below) was now much simpler.

The wooden box that served a coffin (the original is shown below) was recreated by Fernando in wood working closely with the expert, as Fernando wanted to use the same assemblage technique to hold the four walls together with wooden rivets. We also recreated the decoration.

Our work with consultants continues to the very end of a project, and they are continuously sent new versions for revision. . Below is one of many files sent by Fanna and Fernando to Dr. Aldenferder to get his approval on the different details of the cave.

Staff photographer Mark Thiessen (below) made final photographs of our model with multiple angles and light settings in our photo studio. Here you can see the actual size of the model. The small plates contain the different types of sand and earth Fernando used to texturize the cave walls.

Most people are surprised to learn National Geographic magazine only has two photographers in staff, to do studio photography. Nearly all stories are shot by freelancers. But Mark is an award winning photographer that has done several feature stories for the magazine.

With a finished model, it was time to work on the video the video. Fernando had the idea of having the flickering light of a candle illuminating the scene to get a mysterious ambience and some motion in the light and shadows to bring the inanimate object to life. Here you can see him making a test, filming a short scene with his iPhone and a candle light. Ultimately, we decided that a hand holding a candle would be visible in the video. Without its presence, the scene would have looked all too real and perhaps confuse readers.