2021 Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Large Newsroom finalist

A Cicada’s Life

About the Project

Every 17 years in many parts of the eastern United States, hundreds of billions of Brood X cicada nymphs crawl out of the ground and spend the last sliver of their lives in an awkward frenzy of flying, singing and mating. If you see and hear it, you will not forget it.

Washington Post journalists imagined an immersive experience that takes readers close to this event, whether or not they lived in Brood X territory. This is a visual and mobile-first experience that feels like watching — and hearing — a storybook come to life.

Post graphics reporters created a three-dimensional scene, centered around a tree. They used 3-D software and a display tablet to first sculpt the tree and cicadas as if they were made of clay. Then they chose a variety of digital brushes to paint two-dimensional textures onto the three-dimensional objects, placed them in the scene and animated a virtual camera to bring everything to life.

The journey begins underground, where cicada nymphs are waiting to emerge. Then they start bravely crawling out to face the new world and wriggle out of their brown shell to experience adulthood, a new body and the search for a mate. The painted bluish-black and orange textures are exquisite, the body is soft and vulnerable, the wings thin and intricate. The flight becomes increasingly dramatic as readers pass by cicadas stopped in mid-air, then see them drop to the ground. The audio captures some of the most otherworldly sounds, and it is delivered in an intentional crescendo, as more cicadas join in the chorus.

The result is an immersive tale of one cicada’s life from the day it emerged to its death and the hatching of its offspring, which will tunnel underground and not appear again until 2038.

Team: Aaron Steckelberg, Naema Ahmed, Bonnie Berkowitz, Frank Hulley-Jones, Bishop Sand, Monica Ulmanu, Ann Gerhart