How The Economist brings its front page to life
Every week the front cover of The Economist takes on a different style, flipping from satire to poignancy and dancing across the colour palette. Until last year, however, our covers all had one thing in common — they didn’t move. Knowing that readers increasingly encounter the latest issue not in print but on a screen, our designers wanted the freedom to bring their covers to life.
Nino Bennett, a motion graphics artist based in The Economist’s London office, was the man to do it. How does he go about adding movement to a still image? Is it difficult to treat sensitive topics sympathetically? And what did the newspaper of James Wilson and Walter Bagehot learn from Monty Python?
How did you start animating The Economist covers?
In March last year, Tom Standage [deputy editor] asked me how well I knew Monty Python. I wasn’t expecting it, but I told him I love their humour. He asked if I could try animating one of the covers in a Terry Gilliam style. That’s one of the best requests I’ve had in my entire career. So I attempted our first ever animated cover, featuring Vladimir Putin. As it was the first it took a little while while I experimented. We didn’t share it, but in the end it looked great. We decided we could go ahead and do it weekly.
How do you put an animated cover together?
At the beginning the animations were seen as a bit of a gimmick, but soon I started to work much more closely with the cover team and their illustrators, resulting in them layering their designs and drawing specific things. The Economist goes to print on a Thursday, and usually by Tuesday a cover idea will have been agreed. So we’ll discuss how to animate it, and I’ll ask the illustrators to work on different parts.
For example, if there is a person on the cover, the artist might draw the hand and the arm separately, so that they can move independently. Not only that, they’ll also layer the images, adding detail to the background.
By Wednesday night the cover is finalised, and on Thursday I send my version to a team that includes senior editors, the cover team and the newspaper’s art director. Everyone is very meticulous. On last week’s Catalonia cover, for example, the protesters’ mouths were taped shut. I added a soundtrack of protesters shouting, which led to a debate over whether the taped mouths meant it should be silent.
Once the animation is signed off it’s ready to be shared on social media and online. But if you go to Victoria station in London you’ll also see it on displays in WHSmith, next to the The Economist on sale — it looks pretty awesome.
The animations are often witty and irreverent. How do you deal with more sensitive topics?
Some covers make great animations, but others are harder. When it’s a sensitive topic we have to be careful, for example with the recent Donald Trump cover that featured Ku Klux Klan imagery. Sometimes just a small element of movement can add a great deal of meaning to an image. When we transformed Xi Jinping into Mao on an animated cover, our website got censored in China for a time. These things really have impact.
Everyone said “No, you can’t animate this one.” But I convinced them to let me do it.
There are a few covers we’ve done that were very beautiful and artistic, which require a much different style. They are a challenge to animate. There was a cover recently on end-of-life care, portrayed by a wilting rose. Everyone said “No, you can’t animate this one.” But I convinced them to let me do it. It’s a very touching image, and I made the particles of the flower disappear in the wind. It has a different feel to previous covers we have animated, but it works.
Do you have a particular favourite?
My favourite is an early cover with Italy pictured as a bus teetering over a cliff. While designing it, I imagined the passengers shouting “No…”. I knew I needed that sound, so I went outside and recorded myself shouting. People must have thought I was mad. But that cover did so well, it really stood out on social media as a unique digital product. Nobody else was doing it at the time.
Another enjoyable cover had three scientists around a huge set of scales, trying to weigh the planet. It was for a story on measuring prosperity. Ten seconds is not a lot of time for an animation, but I managed to fit a lot in. The machine explodes, the planet falls on the scientists, it all goes wrong. That was real Monty Python stuff. I just needed a foot coming down at the end!
Are there any historical covers that you would like to animate?
There was a period in the 1970s when one artist would add abstract shapes and weird colours to the covers, and they were so groovy and of their time. I’d love to do those. Maybe I’ll just grab one and do it one day. There are also covers that mark huge historical events, like the first man on the moon. I’d love to bring “one small step for man” to life.
Nino was talking to Bo Franklin, a social media writer at The Economist.