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September 23rd, 2016

Mill+ collaborated with Academy Award-winning writer and director Oliver Stone to create the animation sequence for a pivotal scene in Snowden, Stone’s latest feature film revealing the incredible story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, the real-life cyber thriller recounts the untold personal story of Edward Snowden, the polarizing figure who exposed shocking illegal surveillance activities by the NSA and became one of the most wanted men in the world.

The sequence, directed by Mill NY ECD Ben Smith, is a visualization of the decisive turning point in Snowden’s story, the moment when the penny drops and he comes to term with both the enormous scope of the government’s data collection and his decision to oppose it.

Ben realized that, like the film, the sequence needed to be about Snowden's story while also communicating the dynamics of the program to a wide audience. To visualize how one NSA target multiplies to absorb the private and public lives of millions of people around the world, Ben looked to the complex networks found within the human body.

Ben comments, “It comes back to him and his realization that what he’s seeing is wrong and he needs to do something about. So in my mind, it had to come back to him. I started thinking about how that could be analogous to a person. I was thinking of all the different veins in your body or brain cells, all the different parts that grow and multiply and become this enormous complex network because that's essentially what we're saying. It's this incredibly complex network that grows from one cell, one little piece of matter, into this enormous elaborate network, which is obviously parallel with human development.”

Style Frames

Snowden Pitchstyleframes

From that concept, the team explored various biological systems to guide the style and look of the multiplication story. Pierce Gibson, Lead Designer on the project, explains, “We did a lot of research regarding human biology on a macro level; nervous systems, neural pathways in the brain, and seeing just how information was transmitted from one area to another and what that looked like. 

"This became our entry point in creating a visual link between not only seeing data being transferred, as Snowden describes, but also on a cinematic level, giving the audience a visceral sense that we are watching the birth of this kind of sinister, monstrous entity that's thinking and growing, learning with every minute, with the vulnerable information being its prey.”

Line Test Animation

To test the camera movements, the team created primitive animations that demonstrate the mechanics of the multiplication and built the landscape of millions of streams of data. Anthony Dodero, Art Director at The Mill NY, shares, "There was quite a bit of R&D invested before the final concept adding up to over 70 versions during the previz stage alone. Because of the somewhat quick turn-around, we knew we needed to establish a malleable yet efficient workflow that allowed for quick changes. Ultimately, Softimage & After Effects became our main tools of choice with Softimage and ICE being used for strand growth and lighting effects for the wide shots, while After Effects and Pixel-Sorter were used for the more intimate human moments."

Line Test Animations

Build Dave Network V003 Lsysfront Source 700Build Dave Network V005 Network Source 700

The resulting animation visualizes how one target’s digital data stream multiplies to incorporate the target’s contacts and their data streams, swelling and growing with more connections as it continues to build a massive network filled with the digital artifacts, both public and private, of our everyday lives.

Data Highway Test Animation

Flashes of photos and videos can be seen throughout the sequence, illustrating the types of data that make up our unique digital fingerprints represented within these streams, from Facebook profiles to a Skype conversation between a mother and daughter to live cellphone streams of unaware citizens. Ben and his children also make a special appearance in a webcam video along with photos, profiles and videos of Mill artists and friends who volunteered to help with the project.

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As the camera pulls out, we begin to see a wider perspective of the immense network of streams feeding into the black hole of the NSA, reminiscent of the organization’s headquarters, a large modern structure covered with one-way dark glass. Anthony comments, “It was important that we showed the sheer scale of the NSA’s surveillance program. It doesn’t have weight, unless you feel its enormity, that it isn’t just a couple of occasions, it’s happening at bulk. Most of us didn’t have an understanding of where our data was going and who was using it, that by interacting with technology, it’s almost like we were feeding a living, breathing thing, and giving power to something, that in essence, had have more power over us.”


From a wider perspective of the sequence, the NSA network transforms into our most complex organ and the ubiquitous Orwellian visual for surveillance, the human eye, specifically Snowden’s (Gordon-Levitt’s) eye, bringing the story back to him and his evolution in the film. Ben adds, “It's almost like the new wrongs in his mind are parallel with the interconnected nature of the NSA network. As they form and become more numerous, it represents both the complexity of the network but also the weight of the information and it makes his mind up.”

Snowden is now out in theaters, and like the man himself, it has sparked both support and condemnation. While several of the world’s leading human rights groups launched a campaign to Pardon Snowden, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee also released an investigative report and a letter to President Obama urging him not to pardon Edward Snowden.

Ben comments, “Whichever side you take on this polarizing issue, we were inspired to take on this sequence because it's a very important story. We had the opportunity to visualize the change in Snowden's mind when he went from being someone who was essentially a tool in the arsenal of the government to somebody who was against the idea and sacrificed his life to expose it. It was a very appealing project, and it was a great experience working with Oliver, and being privy to his process and the way he works.”

'Snowden' Animation Sequence