Frank Matt on Visualizing the Scale of the World’s Water Crisis

Frank Matt
Frank Matt Courtesy of Frank Matt

In the grainy cellphone footage, Laura Mena García is hitting a squad of armored policemen with a pipe. She is fighting over water. Mena García and her husband, Salvador, are both farmers in Mexicali, Mexico, where the last drippings of the once-mighty Colorado River run into the sea. Fresh water is scarce here. In 2018, Mena García joined protests, which turned violent, over an aqueduct that would divert water away from their land to a new brewery. Her pipe fight was the culmination of a long struggle for access to water in Mexicali.

The protest footage is featured in the 2020 video documentary “World’s Water Crisis,” an episode of the Vox and Netflix series Explained that centers on local and global issues of access to water. Explained typically covers very specific and entertaining topics, like extraterrestrial life, gambling, student loans, or the voting system. When producer Frank Matt embarked on “World’s Water Crisis,” he knew this topic was wide-ranging and urgent, and the challenge would be to convey the scale and scope of the water crisis without drowning his viewers in a sea of information. Covering local conflicts such as Mena García’s, he realized, is one way to get at the problem effectively.

Over 18 minutes, Matt takes viewers through a journey of carefully chosen archival footage, intuitive data visualization, quirky animations, interviews with experts, and conversations with locals like Mena García. He also talks with Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, and rows the canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City, the last remnants of a once-mighty lake that covered the area. Matt made this global issue personal. And making the video changed how he thinks about the issue. He told me, “I thought [the video] would be more about individual habits and conservation. But the more I delved into it, the more I realized how little that matters compared to policy solutions.”

To start tackling the topic, Matt gathered as much information as he could from books and by talking with different experts. For him, it was important to enhance his own understanding by getting the perspectives of people who have dealt with this issue for a long time. But he also wasn’t working alone. As the producer, Matt worked with a team of fixers, animators, editors, archivists, and others. “People can do really amazing things, be it in cinematography or editing or animation,” Matt says, “and your task is to marshal all these creative people and their talents towards a cohesive whole.” The animations, the footage, and the music all come together to create a distinctive documentary. Here, Matt talks with Pedro Márquez-Zacarías about how all of these talents, and his own skills, come into play to tell a story of an “urgent, grim, and important topic” in a visually appealing film. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How did you become interested in this subject?

The broad topic was given to me, but I had some freedom to shape it. We were within the first season of Explained, and there was a lot of back-and-forth between Vox and Netflix. From my end, as a producer, this topic was kind of intimidatingly broad. Because you have roughly 20 minutes, probably less, to explore a topic that affects the entire world and has many nuances. So, I think that the challenge as a producer is really in how to narrow it down from the big main idea and to the places we could focus on.

Early on, I centered on Mexico City as an interesting place to go talk to people, because something I really wanted to convey in this was that a lot of water problems are problems of management, not necessarily availability of water. Mexico City was a place with all sorts of water problems, but they get more rain than London. Historically, there was a lake there, so it is not that it’s a desert. I didn’t want to center in dry Cape Town but in Mexico City, which conveys this idea of bad management. The other thing I wanted to convey in northern Mexico was the kind of stakes and what’s in store there, should we not fix this issue. In Mexicali there was a kind of discrete story of conflict: There’s a sense that there is not enough water there, so people are in conflict over this.

Once you have the main idea for a documentary like this, what are the practical things that you do first?

I like to cast a wide net in terms of reading and speaking to people, especially if it’s a topic that I’m newer to. I like to give myself as much time as I can to have background conversations, to hear from people who know about this, to hear what they think is important, to make sure that I don’t have misconceptions. A nice little perk of our show, during pre-production, [was] that they allowed us to order books on the topic, so we would send Amazon links to our production manager, and they would get us a couple books in the mail.

Something we had to think about from the beginning was the tone: How would it feel to watch this? This episode was a difficult one to fit into the normal show, because it is a meaty and urgent topic. My other episode, about extraterrestrial life, is more like a curiosity, something that is fun to know more about. For this episode, we wanted it to feel like an episode of the show, not like its own distinct environmental documentary. That was a difficult challenge that we had to tackle from the beginning—how to make this urgent, grim, and important topic fit with the look and feel of Explained.

Did you travel only to Mexico, and why?

Mexico was our only trip. Of course, I would have wanted to have traveled more, but as a real practical matter of the job, Mexico made sense, for the budget. We could spend several days there, there are two locations that are very different, and [this allowed us] to cover a lot of water issues. I think we would have gotten less out of these shoots had we been shooting all over the world. I wanted to be able to spend time where we went and meet people and explore in more depth. It was a matter of using the resources we had to get the most out of the story.

In Mexicali, how did you find and talk with Salvador and Laura Mena García, the locals who were fighting with the police in the footage you show?

Via Facebook. They took some convincing, but one thing that was helpful was that some of our episodes of Explained were out already, so I think they watched some of them. And they decided that they would bring me into their world a little bit, which was great. So, we spent some time with them in Mexicali. They introduced me to a local water expert, who was a really fascinating guy, but we had to cut it, because it was very specific to the area. It made sense as a cut to make, but he was really fascinating and had a lot of interesting things to say about water usage in the area and the roots of the conflict.

Who made up the team with you in Mexico? And did you work with a translator?

We had a fixer, Daniel Carranza, who was a very talented guy who actually made a documentary of his own about a similar story. He guided us, but it was a unique situation where he had done a lot of his own reporting on the subject. Different flavors of focus—I think his documentary focused a lot on Mexico City’s water infrastructure. So, we were very lucky to have his help, not just as an interpreter who spoke the language but also as a collaborator who had experience on this issue. As for the team from Vox, it was me, line producer Marina Stadler, and cinematographer Cory Popp. So, as a team of three, we spent a few days in Mexicali and a few days in Mexico City.

Matt in a "trajinera" in the Xochimilco canals of Mexico City.
Matt in a “trajinera” in the Xochimilco canals of Mexico City. Courtesy of Frank Matt

What was it like to interview Amina Mohammed, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations? Did interviewing a prominent official present challenges?

From a production standpoint, it was difficult. We had only 30 minutes to interview her. And they crammed us in this little conference room, so we had to get creative, with the camera off the tripod, on top of the table pointed to her. There was no space around the table, and it was immovable. But the shot ends up looking pretty good, with the United Nations logo behind her. And Amina is really fascinating. What made me want to interview her specifically was not only her position at the UN, but also her personal connection to the issue. She is from a region of Nigeria where a lot of conflict and strife is driven by the disappearance of Lake Chad [which was once one of the largest bodies of freshwater in Africa].

For conducting the interview, a lot has to do with what issues you have time for. An issue that I would have liked to get more into was that she cares deeply about water as an issue of women’s advancement. In places without water infrastructure and access to clean water, an extraordinary amount of your day is spent just securing that water. And most often that’s a responsibility that falls on women and girls in the household. That was a big lesson that we talked about but didn’t end up in the final cut because of time constraints. When you have little time with someone, it’s important to have an idea of how they fit into the piece, so that you can target your questions. Amina was also a very good interview subject, giving quick, efficient answers that were on point.

Are there other aspects of the world’s water crisis that you wished you’d been able to cover but didn’t?

You try as hard as you can to plan and have a track on what the piece is going to be from the start because it will make it stronger. If you are shooting with purpose, you can envision how it is going to come together. That being said, there are always things that don’t work quite the way you want. In general, you always film and gather more material than you could possibly include, and have to decide what makes it into the piece.

I’m proud of how this piece covers a lot of ground in a pretty short amount of time and covers a lot of the ins and outs of water issues. There are certainly things I would have liked to explore in more depth— for instance, how different countries have tackled the issue of water pricing. There are some countries in South America that have experimented with something like a universal-basic-income system, but for water. And there are different pricing models and value models.

How do you decide how and where to include data visualizations in the video?

I think that is something the show [Explained] does very well. One thing that I wanted to convey is that there are a lot of big numbers in the story—like the number of gallons of water used per year—that are hard to conceptualize. One big goal in this data visualization is helping people get a sense of scale. Visually, that information is easier to consume than just saying, “.”

The visualization I love in this piece is the [one showing] water from the globe becoming smaller spheres. The actual size of the globe is a starting point, then all the water in it is that much, and then we can use this much, down to the tiny 1 percent. But, even a number such as 1 percent, very small, does not have the same impact [when you’re] hearing it as it does [when you] see it next to the successively smaller spheres.


A series of progressively smaller spheres running from left to right, showing first the whole Earth; then the percentage of water on Earth that is salt water (97%); then the percentage that is frozen freshwater (2%); and then finally the percentage that is liquid freshwater (1%).
A screenshot from “World’s Water Crisis.”


A lot of people asked me “How much are you going to talk about desalination?” And one thing I wanted to convey with the scale was that, in terms of a solution right now, desalination is a very tiny sliver of the solution. Desalination is currently producing 1 percent, if not less, of global water usage. I wanted people to understand just how little of the overall world’s supply of water is available to humans and then, which solutions matter more than others.

How did you make this video feel unique but at the same time fit in as part of the Explained series?

There are a lot of people that deserve credit for that specifically. For one, Rubab Shakir, a very talented art director, deserves a lot of credit for the visual consistency across the show. There are always elements that remind you that you are watching an episode of Explained. Some little things, like yellow highlights, are very distinctive of the show. I love the credit sequence—it’s very archival-focused and has a great theme song.

Tell me about the other people on your production team and their contributions.

This is something I have enjoyed about this role as a producer. You work with a lot of very talented people, with specialized talents. People that can do really amazing things, be it in cinematography or editing or animation, and your task is to marshal all these creative people and their talents towards a cohesive whole. Everyone who worked on this episode was incredibly talented. Cory Popp, the cinematographer who came with me to Mexico. Jan Kobal and Darnell Stalworth, the two editors who worked on this piece, taking this mountain of footage that we ended up crafting. The extraordinary animators. And then we have Kate Ferraguto, an incredibly talented archival producer. She has deep knowledge of sources of video and how to secure the rights to it, what’s easier to use, what’s available, archival production that should get more attention. So much of documentaries depends on archival work. Kate made a huge impact.

This piece was just a joy to make. Everyone that was interviewed was fascinating, and had so much to contribute, and then the team that worked on it brought their extraordinary talents to the table to bring the piece together. And also, the leadership of the show was phenomenal. I got great feedback. When we were a couple of cuts in, we got together with different producers in a feedback session and Netflix gave notes. It was a very collaborative process. As a producer you definitely need that feedback along the way. Often, you can get very close to the material or attached to a piece of footage or [an] idea. Sometimes you need someone else to tell you, “Look, it is not working,” right? “The idea you are trying to convey is not quite coming across.” So, it was nice to work on such a collaborative show where there was that feedback process.


Pedro Márquez-Zacharías
Pedro Márquez-Zacharías Jennifer Rattray

Pedro Márquez-Zacarías is a Purépecha evolutionary biologist and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He is also a science communicator, currently coordinating a biology-inspired bilingual science blog Biomusings, and one of the science-communication fellows for Science ATL. Pedro graduated from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México with a degree in biomedical sciences and is currently a PhD candidate in quantitative biosciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. You can find him on Twitter @PedroM_Z.





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