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[Inside Look] Data Visualizing WWII's Devastating Death Toll

Talking to Neil Halloran about his viral data-doc, 'The Fallen of World War II.'
28 June 2015, 1:00pm

The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

It’s been nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, but for the more than four million viewers of creator Neil Halloran’s interactive web-based documentary The Fallen of World War II, the blood-soaked conflict feels devastatingly close. Fueled by illustrated animations of data, and interspersed with historical footage, Halloran’s viral film delivers an interactive visualization of a staggering death toll.

“Before launching the film, I would jokingly tell people I was working on ‘20 minutes of bar charts about death’ (I'm not very good at selling my work),” Halloran admits to The Creators Project. “Bar charts are great for showing relative scale, but they can feel disconnected from what it is they represent. By building the bars out of stacks of figures, each representing 1000 people who died, I tried to make the bars feel bigger and weightier." The bar charts Halloran refers to are exactly how he has described: human data, stacked by country and blended into many columns of colorful death. Up close, the charts reveal male icons, clad in different colors to differentiate nationalities. Each civilian icon stands for 1000 civilian casualties while each soldier icon—a miniature rifle slunk over each miniature shoulder—represents 1000 killed and 1000 injured. Halloran continues, "Plus, I could remind the viewer at certain moments how many people they represented.”

Starting with soldierly casualties, the film launches into an overview of U.S. military involvement and subsequently tolls the deaths in the European theater. After an interlude, during which Halloran encourages viewers to go to the film’s site for an interactive tour of the charts, civilians take center stage. Encapsulating the 22,000,000+ civilian deaths, the creator hones in tightest on the Holocaust, the intentional killing of civilians, and on mass-expulsions. Halloran separates the charts by battle—D-Day, Okinawa, Stalingrad—and cause of death, including nuclear bombings and invasions. The creator's narrated commentary, together with his close collaborator Andy Dollerson's sound and score, spurs the momentum of these visualizations such that the icons remain in a state of flux, flitting between their assorted allocations like a perverse cross between Snake and Connect Four.

All of the effects of the film originate in Halloran’s code, which he modified with a custom software written in JavaScript and WebGL. “Creating a film using code (instead of more traditional video tools) allowed me to closely choreograph the animation based on the underlying data, and obsessively tweak how the animation flowed,” he says. Although Halloran started coding for The Fallen of World War II over two years ago, his brainstorming and research began long before this. With the help of hired researchers, The Uppsala Conflict Data Program, and a bit of sheepish Wikipedia referencing—“Obviously you can't trust Wikipedia content blindly,” he says, “but the World War II Casualties article provided a great roadmap, offering tons of resources and discussion”—sets of convoluted statistics emerged. “The hardest thing was dealing with contradictory information,” he adds. “I was hoping to stay out of the disputes and just use the most 'official' tallies, but it wasn't so simple. One common problem was that sub-counts (by month, battle, concentration camp) came from different studies and wouldn't jive with the larger, more widely used figures. In those cases I often just adjusted the sub-tally to match the more trusted numbers.”

One week after the film's release, the Vimeo video had already aggregated over a million views. A month later, and the _The Fallen'_s multi-million view count has prompted Halloran to translate the documentary into several different languages—the first of which, the Russian edition, is available here. Now, the creator sallies forth, eagerly realizing his plans for an episodic web-based series on war and peace. "That's the greatest thing about the (utterly surprising) viral success of this first episode," he concludes. "It makes the possibility of doing another one more real, and perhaps, I dare to think, something I can work on full-time."

Big data and art converge in the first installment of our Reform video series, Data Becomes Art In Immersive Visualizations:

Click here to see more of Neil Halloran's visualizations and web work.

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