When artist Carl Burton and I started working on the art for this season, we came up with one overall rule: no people. “I personally like that,” Carl said, “because then it’s about creating a space where you’re not stepping on the imagination of the listener.” But a lack of people doesn’t mean a lack of details. Over the last few months, we’ve put a lot of thought into some very specific things: how light might reflect off the inner back wheel of a Honda motorcycle, for example, or how a shrub might sway in the wind in western Pakistan.
We decided early on that we wanted illustrations, instead of photos, on the website for this season. We were tackling a national news story and images of Bowe Bergdahl were all over the place, while photographs of the story's specific time period and locations were limited. Carl and I had worked together on a previous project, so I was familiar with his work, and I thought his illustrations evoked mystery and ambiguity in a way that would reflect our approach to the story. Plus, Carl’s art is animated! That gives a real-time sense to his work, making you feel like you’re inside the story. That’s also the feeling we’re going for on the podcast.
The above illustration is the first piece of art that Carl did for us. It’s for Episode 04, but it’s also what we called the “album art,” the face of Season Two on iTunes and elsewhere. We knew we wanted this to feel cinematic and big, like the first sweeping shot in a movie. But we also wanted something that conveyed isolation. To get Carl familiar with the season, I sent him some interview tape and a few photos of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We then brainstormed as a group with Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvis. He took these reference points and our vague (and sometimes, contradictory) notions of what we wanted, and came up with the idea of an isolated compound in the foothills of a mountain range.
This was our process for the whole season. Each episode, when we talked about the storylines, Carl was listening for scenes that would both work well with his style and that could also deliver motion on a seamless loop. Some of the ideas we came up with were quite literal—C-17s on a tarmac. Others were much less so—just look at Episode 08, "Hindsight, Part 2." In this episode, Sarah explained Bowe Bergdahl’s rationale for walking away from his outpost, which kind of makes sense if you think like Bowe Bergdahl. So we decided to return to the Episode 01 art, except this time, Carl changed the angle, color, and motion to warp the sense of reality. It was a departure, conceptually, from some of the other animations. In the office, we called it the “Breaking Bad” art.
Carl composed the art in Cinema 4D, which allowed him to move around in the drawing to see it from many different perspectives. Like in filmmaking, the camera angle can convey a different emotion, and the art’s composition followed similar rules. For “5 O’Clock Shadow,” for example, we first considered this angle:
But in the episode, Sarah focused on the soldiers’ experiences, so this viewpoint felt a little too passive, as if someone were watching the MRAPs go by from the road. Carl then moved to the point-of-view of the gunner, who was in the vehicle. That angle felt more dramatic and true to the story.
For Episode 09, "Trade Secrets," Carl and I were talking on Skype. He had created a 3D airfield, and he was moving the “camera” all around and was sending me screenshots. Here’s one angle:
He ultimately moved the “camera" down. The final art then felt like someone was on the tarmac, walking toward the plane.
Animating the illustration—making the lights flicker on computer screens, or the wheels of an MRAP bump down an uneven road—added another level of emotion—solitude, menace, anticipation. And sometimes we didn’t know what that motion would convey until we saw it. For “Hindsight, Part 1,” where we explored Bergdahl’s childhood, we focused on his love of sailing. The original animation, below, was impressive and beautiful. But maybe too much. The boat on those waves felt romantic.
In the end, Carl slightly changed the camera angle and the motion of the waves, which took out some of the drama of the water, but also made the scene feel more dream-like.
The last and final decision for every piece of art was the color.
Carl put together a grid of options for each episode. (He borrowed an episode title from Season One as dummy type.) One hint: he always puts his favorite in the top left.
You can see all of Carl’s animations on the art page. Viewed together, they also tell the story of this season.
Some of you have asked us about making Carl’s art downloadable as your computer and mobile wallpaper. We heard you; you can do that now from the art page!