I have always been very interested in the Cold War era. The idea of two openly hostile super powers constantly one step away all out war for decades, kept in check only by the fact that all out war would mean the end for all life on earth, is as fascinating as it is terrifying. As such, I have been meaning to make some kind of video about this subject for some time now.
One of my all time favorite animations is 1945-1998 by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto (read more about it here). The sheer number of Nuclear tests there have been since 1945 is mind boggling, and the abstraction in Hashimoto's video game themed presentation makes the piece harrowing when you consider that each blip resembles and explosion on a devastating scale.
Indeed, this animation was the primary source of inspiration for the project, I wanted to create a spiritual successor to 1945-1998, using a similar video game aesthetic. Where Hashimoto shows the nuclear tests conducted by each country, I wanted to show the history of the arms race and tally each country's nuclear arsenal.
After a bit of digging I came across the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Nuclear Notebook, which gives a comprehensive overview of the Nuclear power's arsenals. This is the primary source of data that I ended up using. Annoyingly, it does not state weather these numbers describe active warheads or total stockpiles. After seeing numbers from other sources that are significantly larger, I believe that it represents active weapons only. Understandably, governments are reluctant to release exact figures for their nuclear arsenals, so all this data should only be viewed as estimates. The most frustrating part of the research was North Korea. It is known that the country possesses nuclear weapons and has conducted tests, but it is unclear to what extent. In the end, I took a very rough low estimate based on a variety of conflicting sources, and denoted it as such in the video with a +. Below is a full list of the sources used for the video:
Davenport, K. 2019, Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance, Arms Control Association, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat
Kristensen H. M. & Korda M. 2017, Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/nuclear-notebook-multimedia
Macias, A. 2018, America and Russia, the world's two biggest nuclear powers, are threatening to make more weapons. Here's how many nukes each nation has, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/05/here-is-how-many-nuclear-weapons-us-and-russia-have.html
North Korea and weapons of mass destruction, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korea_and_weapons_of_mass_destruction#Stockpile_estimates_and_projections
As stated above, I wanted to maintain the abstract, but modernizing it and using my own visual style. As such the entire video is presented as a 'tactical overview' of the world, witch each nuclear power highlighted in an individual colour based on that nation's flag. I opted to center the timer at the top, and to present the tally as a leader board along the left side. This would allow for the countries to be ranked in order from biggest to smallest arsenal, as well as showing the running total in the bottom left as a sum of the above numbers.
The most important question though was how to present all this information visually? I decided to show each country building little arsenals with various warhead designs denoting multiples of 10, with a legend located along the bottom. Each design is based on real nuclear weapons.
The stage was set to begin animating the information. A ticker at the top would count each year, with an interval long enough to allow animating the changes in stockpiles and to give the eye time to take in the global scene. Countries would be introduced with little animations as they first start developing arsenals.
Several attempts were made at structuring the arsenals themselves in their respective countries, including the laborious process of fluidly animating each year's arsenal so that it would always be centered in the respective country. However, it quickly became apparent due to the sheer number of weapons built at the heights of the Cold War that this approach was not going to be sustainable. Instead, I went for a more structured approach, with each multiple of 10 having a fixed spot. This made animating the arsenals a lot easier, and also makes it easier to get an idea of the size of a country's arsenal at a glance.
Another issue I ran into was that some countries are too small to contain the required missiles. This was easily remedied by having a zoomed in map pop out as the country is introduced.
The last issue was that the political map changed when the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. I toyed with the idea of having Russia simply shrink down into it's current borders, but at that point the project had grown so complex that this was not feasible. Instead I decided to have an 'intermission' of sorts. At first, this was going to be a bit of text explaining what's happening in the world, but the video is aimed at a global audience, without any text in a particular language. Ultimately, I communicated the change by having the Soviet flag transition to the Russian flag, before going back to the map with the new borders.
With the animation done, I went on to adding sound design and a bit of visual post-processing. Along the way, the aesthetic evolved beyond the original arcade game concept. I added an '80's Neon' glow to the map as well as a subtle screen glare, and used militaristic sounding sound effects in the mix, to give the piece more of a Cold War vibe.
While this project was incredibly long, complex and challenging, I am incredibly pleased with the result. I have a fondness for data visualization, and I absolutely intend to create more pieces such as this in the future.
It only occurred to me after the fact that 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the invention of the atom bomb, a fitting time to release the video.