Ukrainian creative director’s visuals based on Chornobyl archives get 3 million views on YouTube

Ukrainian creative director Andriy Pryymachenko, specializing in motion design, has launched a video project called Chornobyl Files. He finds paper documents in the archives and makes visuals out of them (occasionally doing the voice-over as well). As of today, Pryymachenko has published 6 videos which have jointly received nearly 3 million views.

How did he come up with the idea?

Pryymachenko had been interested in the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster since long ago, and he made his first video back in 2013. The very same one (or its surprisingly accurate copy, even featuring the same error) that would later appear in HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries.

Pryymachenko created that video based on the transcript of audio recordings of historical telephone conversations. He continued his study of the Chornobyl disaster, and when Ukraine was under quarantine, he switched to action.

“I had accumulated a large layer of information, books, and documents. During the quarantine, I happened to have a little bit more free time, so I decided to tell the story of the Chornobyl disaster using the tools of motion design,” Andriy says in his commentary to AIN.UA.

For example, trying to find out when and how the world had known about the disaster (while USSR was making every possible effort to conceal it), Andriy came across an archival report by the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute. It describes in detail that on April 28, elevated levels of radiation were detected outside the USSR for the first time, and everything pointed to the accident at one of the Soviet nuclear power plants.

Based on the report, Andriy created this visualization:

The video was published on June 20 and got 4,000 views in 4 days.

How the work proceeds. Stage 1: archives

First of all, the director studies archival records. Western archives and institutes either make them publicly available or grant access for a fee. For the time being, Andriy utilizes those that he can get free of charge.

“If you want certain information, they will provide a clear answer on whether they have these records, and if yes, how much it will cost to access them,” he says.

“There are records I would very much like to use, but I’m not yet ready to invest money in it. After all, there are still plenty of publicly-accessible files left.”

Prices can vary greatly. The director assumes it depends on how rare, or old, the document is. For instance, a copy of a 1986 archival record at a Swedish radio station costs EUR 300.

It is more complicated with Ukrainian archives. Currently, a tremendous amount of work is underway in Ukraine, in an attempt to digitize and publish documents dating back to Soviet times, with the public getting free access to them, as well as simple search tools.

The KGB (the Committee for State Security) order to classify the information on the Chornobyl accident

Pryymachenko notes that Ukrainian archivists have made some considerable progress. If you are interested, say, in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), you can read the correspondence of Roman Shukhevych (UPA’s military leader) without leaving your home. You can check out documents on the establishment of the Soviet rule in Ukraine. However, as far as non-paper documents are concerned, such as audio recordings, film recordings, there are many problems.

“It is almost impossible to make head or tail of it. For example, there is a paper document saying that certain audio exists. But where it is, who keeps it – nobody can tell for sure,” observes the director.

Stage 2: visualization

Having found an interesting document, the director tries to imagine what visualization technology was available at that period.

“This imposes certain limitations and makes the project very interesting for me as a designer because there were computers back in the ’80s, but their capabilities were quite restricted, as compared to modern ones,” Pryymachenko comments.

“That’s why, on top of searching for archival records, I have to spend time exploring the history of computer and digital technologies of the time.”

For instance, after the Swedes declared it to the world that a nuclear disaster had occurred in the USSR, the US needed to get a confirmation. Right then, the Landsat-5 satellite was flying over the USSR’s territory, and it was first to make a satellite photo of the accident (on April 29).

You can animate a still photo using various modern techniques, but during the ’80s, technologies were very limited. At that time, there existed a technology for the remote picture transmission, SSTV, which converted visual signal into audio, thus transmitting the information, and on the recipient’s side, the audio was converted back to picture.

The video was published on May 5, 2020. It got 53,000 views in six weeks.

Commercial project

Andriy has an individual approach to every video. There is no single template by which he visualizes the unearthed information. Taking into account the archive search and the study of contemporary technologies, each video takes about two weeks of work to be finished.

“The hardest part is to find a balance between artistic and documentary aspects. Each video is based upon some concrete archival file, and I don’t want my artistic visualization to somehow distort it or distract from its crucial points,” says Pryymachenko.

The radiation level in Kyiv after the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident (April 26, 1986)

The project is still below the breakeven point. The video has Google AdSense monetization turned on, but this produces just very modest returns: about $1 per 10,000 views. Pryymachenko perceives it rather as a kind of moral support.

Why he does it

The Chornobyl Files project has two objectives. Firstly, this is the way that Pryymachenko wants to spread truthful information on the Chornobyl disaster among young people.

“A whole generation has already grown up playing games about the exclusion zone, inhabited by mutants, with some portals there, etc. I want us to never forget that the Exclusion zone was once someone’s home, where people were born, made friends, lived, loved, and dreamed. This topic shouldn’t be dehumanized,” he says.

The second objective is to show that, even with closed borders, people do not live in isolation from each other. Everything that happens somewhere resounds on the other side of the planet. Now, against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more visible than ever.

“Hopefully, this project will get people a little bit interested in treating our planet with diligence and prompt them to think globally,” concludes the director.

The video about the last signals from the fourth generation unit of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant was published on May 12, 2020. It received more than 350,000 views in less than 1.5 months.

The Chornobyl Files videos have already got about 3 million views in total. The majority – more than 2 million – is accounted for by that very dreadful call.