China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an infrastructure and development plan that will connect China to the rest of the world — an attempted renaissance of the historic Silk Road that goes beyond just trade and investment.
Sam Ellis is one of the producers at Vox who is driving the new era of online videos that explain some of the world’s most complicated topics. With China building railroads and trade routes linking it to countries from Sri Lanka to Italy, the BRI is a complicated phenomenon which perhaps can only be explained through dynamic visual components and clear language.
In the making of his video “China’s trillion-dollar plan to dominate global trade,” Ellis managed to consolidate the most ambitious plan of the 21st century into just about six minutes.
Storybench caught up with Ellis to understand the thinking behind the project.
What made you want to do a video about the Belt and Road Initiative, and what was the decision-making process behind the video?
Sam Ellis: So this was April or May of last year, and we had just launched in January this series called Atlas, which was kind of building on an idea that we’d been doing for a while, which was to do map-based videos. At Vox Video, our thing is when we explain things we do visual first so we show you instead of just tell you. And so we built this series and said, “Okay, let’s see how far we can push this map-based explainer, I want to be able to tell a viewer who doesn’t know anything, stories completely on a map.” If you were to listen to a podcast you wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about. I want to show you step-by-step what it means.
So we started gathering topics on what we should do, and this was one of the top things, one of the stories that struck us right away. I think it’s really interesting a lot of what China is doing is right now, geopolitically. They are consolidating territory. They are trying to define their own territory, so what they’re doing is very geographical, and it’s very easy to see. So this was a topic that we said, “Wow, this would be great on a map.” If you were to ask me what is China’s Belt and Road, it would be hard for me to tell you without pulling out a napkin and drawing what I mean. And so that’s how we know when it’s a great story, so we immediately jumped right in. I remember this being one of the easiest — our videos usually take from four to six weeks — and this one was pretty simple to do. I’d say about three to four weeks — just because there is great evidence, great data of them building these chains of roads, these routes, into their own country. And it was all right there for us to do, and it kind of told the story itself.
So what is your exact role in the making of these videos?
I am the senior producer at Vox, so for me that means I pretty much get to do the whole video from start to finish. I pitch the ideas, I do a lot of the reporting and research, and there I get help from the associate producer and then I write the script – I have a story editor that edits me there – and then once we lock the scripts I’ll voice it, I’ll animate it and cut it. So it’s really my favorite job in the whole world because I get to do everything front to back.
How many people do you collaborate with in terms of making the visuals and animations?
In terms of making the actual visuals, usually it’s just me. I do have an art director who will give me notes, specifically on the visual, and she will jump in. We do a fair amount of collaboration here, but for most Atlas videos I’m the one building the animation in a software program called Adobe After Effects.
You said you were also in charge of research and reporting. Could you walk me through your process of finding the information – was it mostly through interviews or research?
I would say a little bit of both. When I am reporting I am looking for two things: I want someone to explain the story to me, I need to understand the topic. So that’s I think a little more traditional reporting. I’m not doing anything investigative here, a lot of information is out there. I’m looking for an expert who knows the topic but can explain it to me in a way that I can then explain it to the people. So I’m acting as a translator between a lot of these experts, and the general audience. The other thing I’m looking for is visual evidence of this. So it’s awesome if I can find an individual who can give me both. I worked at a think tank, I was in D.C. at the time, and I knew some people and think tanks have been studying this for a while. So I went to CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) , which is a think tank in D.C. I knew that they had a database of all these ports, all these railways — they had been starting to map this out from raw data. I think they might have had a visual but they hadn’t told the story yet, so I remember grabbing data from them I also talked to their experts, which made the visual aspect for me a lot easier.
So two things: I’m looking for words on the page. What is this thing? How should I tell the story? And the other thing is how can I show it. How do you show it? Do you have data that shows me where these things are?
When you were working with them, was there ever a point where they wanted you to emphasize a certain aspect of the Belt and Road Initiative?
I think the most important thing that comes from experts is the nuance. A lot of them are worried that a video is just going to give you the top-line story, and it’s just going to be an angle and I’m going to run away with it. And so I think, I could be wrong, but I think for this story, the big nuance I learned from talking with people was the debt China’s putting people in. It’d be an easy story to just do: “China is building these roads, they want to move global trade, they’re going to take over and that’s it.” But for them (the experts) it was that these countries do have to pay back China’s infrastructure. This isn’t aid – these are loans, and so I think some of the parts about Sri Lanka, definitely the Gwadar port in Pakistan, those kind of nuances came from talking with people who spend every day learning about this.
So it’s sort of the hidden truth about this?
Exactly. These people are used to talking to reporters and the media, and I like to ask them what are people not covering? What are people not asking? What should I be asking?
I did some research on the Belt and Road Initiative for a story while doing an internship in Armenia, because Armenia is also part of the BRI. I found out that only about eight out of the 130-plus countries involved in the initiative are actually at risk of facing severe debt traps and handing over land to China. In Armenia’s case for example, they are very happy and enthusiastic about their increasing ties with China, and are not facing any debt traps. So I’m wondering if you ever came across points in your research where you felt you also wanted to focus on the positives of the BRI?
I think you’re right. There are so many countries involved in this, this video could go so many different ways. I’m showing this person this huge global plan that they (China) have going on, I couldn’t not mention the debt trap, especially in the Maritime road. So if I am going to explain this whole thing in a five- or six-minute video, I definitely do have to explain some of the issues with it. But you’re right, I hope some understood that there were some benefits.
I’m curious about your background in video production and journalism. What drove you to take on this specific form of visual storytelling?
So actually I’m not a trained journalist. I was an environmental studies and geography major in college and then I was a production assistant on a couple TV shows. Then I got a job at a think tank, which had this kind of creative lab attached to it, and so I learned how to cut video and did some animation there. So these experts would write these long academic papers, and they would then want us to make a little mini website. We had a graphic designer, a coder and a video person. And there would be this long academic paper about China’s new aircraft carrier for example, and I would make a little video to help us promote [the paper], help the general audience explain it. So that’s where I learned to boil down big academic topics into bite-size, understandable general audience-type things. So I learned animation and video editing there and then moved over to Vox in 2016. And 2016 is where I learned the journalistic boundaries of what I would be doing.
So Vox has created, I would say, a new era of storytelling with these Explained videos. They’re very popular and a lot of other publications have started doing them. What do you see for the future of this kind of storytelling?
We are totally pushing it as far as we can. I think one of the most interesting things that we found was that we don’t see a difference between a five-minute video and a 12-minute video. I have about 72-75% retention, which means most people are watching 75% of the video and that matters whether it’s a 12-minute video I make or a six-minute video I make. So we found that if you do a video well and engage the audience the way we engage the audience, then I think you can make a video as long as you want. The Netflix show Explained came right out of the YouTube channel, and those are 20-22 minute episodes. So I think we’re all very interested, we know how to engage the audience and how to make these internet-first videos and we see them work so well on streaming platforms and I think we want to see where that goes.
What do you think about other publications doing similar videos and seeing it become a more common form?
I think it’s awesome. We’re all YouTube fans, and I love watching other people’s videos. I think the reason that is is that our main starting point is there are stories that should totally be told in a text article and would not make a good video. And there are stories that would not make a good text article but would make a great video. So it’s not like we’re re-doing these stories but in a video, more fun way; we’re doing stories that text articles don’t do so well. I think the more people doing that, the better.
Is there anything else you would like to add about your work as a video producer or about the Belt and Road video?
The Belt and Road video is kind of the perfect example when I tell people about Atlas. That video is the bread and butter if I were to pick and boil down how to make a Vox a video. You picked a good one.