I Finally Read Snowfall. Here’s What I Thought.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I only recently read “Snow Fall.” It came out almost a year ago. Like everyone else, I was impressed with its stunning visualizations; I heard people start using “snowfall” as a verb. But I never gave it a full read. It’s not a crime, I know, but it feels a little shameful because I produce multimedia stories for The Atavist,where my job is predicated on the assumptions that 1. People want to consume (actually, pay for) longer form stories and 2. Multimedia enhances the reader experience.
I’m a multimedia storytelling enthusiast, but I often wonder if my job is necessary. I sometimes think, maybe we should leave those words alone. Sometimes we should, and sometimes we do. But then I think back to the first time I downloaded The Atavist app, and opened up Brendan Koerner’s “Piano Demon,” and heard those sweet, sweet sounds of Teddy Weatherford’s music pouring from my iPhone. I thought, This is magic.
I strive to create those moments in my work, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always successful. And in some sense, it’s hard to tell what works universally: One reader’s magic can always be another reader’s annoyance. Which is why it was so intriguing to see the reaction to “Snow Fall.” As much as has been written about the story, there hasn’t been much deep critique of the interaction of its form and content. What surprised me most about “Snow Fall” was how sad it was. The human tragedy of the event seems to have been trumped by the technology used to tell it.
So here it is, a review of “Snow Fall” from someone who bothered to read it, and who cares about the craft of multimedia narrative.
I curled up on my couch with my laptop (a bit awkwardly — something I’ll write more about at a later time) and settled in. “Snow Fall” begins with a breath-taking description of the avalanche, focusing on skier Elyse Saugstad, who is caught in the worst of it:
“She caromed off things she never saw, tumbling through a cluttered canyon like a steel marble falling through pins in a pachinko machine.”
Then we meet Saugstad in a video. She describes the same scene: “It was like being in a washing machine.” Suddenly she’s in front of you! The video doesn’t add new factual information, but it’s a visceral reminder that this is a real person, and this is what she looks like and sounds like. The video is 45 seconds, which is a good length. It serves a purpose similar to that of a quote, but it’s better because the words are straight from the character’s mouth. If the author had included a written quote from her, it would only have disrupted the narrative style of the opening.
In the next section Tunnel Creek is shown through a stunning aerial 3D visualization pinpointing its place in the Cascades mountain range. You feel like you are flying right to the top of the mountain. There is some history of the area and a short video that is standard backcountry ski documentary fare.
Then we meet the other skiers who are about to get caught in the avalanche. Note: If you haven’t read “Snow Fall” and plan to, stop reading here and go read the story already! What are you waiting for?
I love the way writer John Branch builds tension to the event by taking us through each person’s experience of that day. He says something personal about all 16 people who there, so by the time you get to a photo grid of them, gathered and ready to head down the mountain, you feel some connection to each one. However, from the moment I met Chris Rudolph, director of marketing at Stevens Pass, I started calculating. I immediately wondered why there was no Times-credited photograph of him. There were also photos of him as a child. I thought: he must be dead. As I sifted through other photo galleries for other people, I catalogued each one as living or dead by the presence or absence of a Times-shot photograph. It pulled me out of the story slightly. I further wondered about the inclusion of childhood photos of people who had obviously survived. Was it so as not to spoil the outcome? But hadn’t it already been spoiled by the lack of recent photos for those who perished?
Another minor thing I noticed, mostly because I encounter it in my own work and don’t always see a good way out of it, was the repetition of information. When Keith Carlsen is introduced we have what amounts to three mentions of the exact same information: that he’s “a photographer and former editor of Powder.” First, in the main text, second, in the sidebar preview of his slideshow, and third, in the first image of him in the slideshow.
Other than those small points, the piece is pretty flawless. I liked how each person’s path before, during and after the avalanche is visualized with a responsive animation. I cried when I learned of the deaths, even as I mentally calculated beforehand who had survived based on which pictures were included. All of the visualizations create a sense of place that draw you deeper into the story. The helmet cam footage adds an unexpected dimension—rendering drama, though not as much as I might have guessed. Which makes it even more gut-wrenching, because of how coldly the camera documents how muddled those moments between “everything’s fine” and utter panic really are. The 9-1-1 calls bring home the moments of panic.
The avalanche infographic provides a really clear picture of the physics of what happened on that horrible day. The airbag animation made me appreciate how important that technology was for Elyse Saugstad’s survival. There are small things that I liked, like the picture of the Ski Area Boundary sign, which is also described in detail in the main text.
I could almost hear the beeps of the Avalanche Transceiver Check Station as each skier passes by it on the way to Tunnel Creek. Would it enhance the experience to actually hear them? I’ve experimented with those types of sound effects in stories for The Atavist. Audio effects are tricky because timing is important, and they aren’t as forgiving as visual effects when a reader backs up or jumps around in a story.
At the end of “Snow Fall,” there is a ten-minute documentary, which surprised me. I knew it would probably include a lot of footage I had just seen, but I felt like watching it anyway. Now that I had finally taken the time to really experience “Snow Fall,” I couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted to know more about the survivors, I wanted to know what happened to them after the avalanche, what they were up to now. I watched the video to extend the experience as long as possible.
If you have scrolled through but haven’t actually yet read “Snow Fall” in its entirety, I highly recommend that you do.