The story behind the Hudson River plane crash reconstruction

If you’re one of the 1.8 million people who’ve viewed the youtube 3D reconstruction of the Hudson River plane crash then you probably think it was a straightforward, runaway viral success. But the truth is different: it’s an illustration of how luck, time, hard work and old media are all needed to create an overnight sensation. Here I talk with Dan Nunan, the CEO of Scene Systems, the company that produced the video.

Neil Davidson: Tell me the background of the reconstruction

Dan Nunan: It all started at Legal Tech – a big tradeshow held once a year at the New York Hilton. We were new to the industry, and initially were only going to window-shop. But I got offered a price for a booth that I couldn’t refuse. I felt pretty smug with my bargaining until I remembered that we only had four days to put something together. It wasn’t enough time to get a fancy stand built, and one look at the dust gathering on the office laser printer told me that we would be at the mercy of Kinkos for anything printed. T-Shirts weren’t really the style for lawyers – so what could we do? One of my team – Steve Breeze – was watching the news, and saw an animated reconstruction of the US Airways Hudson river crash – you know, the one where the pilot glides in and lands the plane on the Hudson without any engines. And everyone survives. Now Steve just happened to have a background of producing high-end animations for TV, and thought that he could do a much better job. So we thought we would see if we could hire a big screen, and just show this animation.

There were three hundred and fifty other companies at the show, and we wanted to do something that would stand out. The Hudson plane crash had happened a couple of weeks earlier. It was a great candidate – plenty of drama, and it had a happy ending. Everyone in New York was still talking about it. It took two people two days to put the animation together, working from the information we mostly got from the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. Because we thought it was just for the show Steve decided to use his TV production skills to edit some sections and increase the dramatic effect.

Neil: So everybody came over to your stand to see the crash reconstruction, and it took off from there?

Dan: Yes, but it wasn’t as straightforward as that. The tradeshow started on February 2nd. When we arrived in New York we realised we didn’t know anyone going to the show. February 1st was Superbowl Sunday. So we decided to have a Superbowl party. The only catch would be how we actually got people to turn up, not knowing anyone being something of a stumbling block for throwing good parties. I got the member of the team who was the football fanatic to join Twitter and mention and put the conference tag into the ‘tweet’ There were a lot of people at the conference using Twitter, and searching for traffic about the conference, so a few people picked up on the party.

We were staying in a lousy hotel with a great lobby, so even if no-one turned up it was a short trip back to our rooms. In the end about fifteen people turned up, but these were some high-end influencers. Between them, they had thousands of Twitter followers. We bought them some beer, and then they started buying us beer. In the end, the whole thing only cost us fifty dollars.

Neil: Did you show them the animation at this party?

Dan: No – we just said that we had done one, and that they should come and see us at the tradeshow the next day. We hadn’t even gotten round to putting it on youtube at this point.

So we had lots of people come to see the animation – we probably spoke to 900 people, which was hard work as there were only three of us on the booth at a time. We become very good at running two or three conversations at the same time. They were all twittering about it: stuff like this conference is really boring, but check out the plane crash reconstruction at Scene Systems’ stand. A few people blogged about it too, and then the pro journalists started getting in touch wondering what the fuss was about. After the conference finished, we put it up on youtube and e-mailed some contacts we had about it.

Neil: Then they told all their friends and it snowballed from there?

No, not yet. About fifteen thousand people had viewed it on YouTube at this point. People were starting to pirate our video too – they were downloading it from youtube, editing it, and then putting it back up onto youtube. At the start these pirated videos were getting many more views than our original one.

Neil: How did you react to that?

My first instinct was to send them a legal threat asking them to cease and desist. But Virgil – he’s a recent graduate who’s just started working for us – told us that that isn’t the way it works on youtube. I started to feel really old. He wrote to the pirates and gave them higher quality videos to work with. We copied their idea of overlaying the audio onto the animation – we pirated the pirates – and put them into our video too. They linked back to our original video, so that drove even more traffic.

Neil: Was that the point it took off?

No, not yet. One of the people I’d met at the conference was Jim Haggerty. He’s a lawyer who runs a PR firm that specialises in crisis PR. He called me and said that he knows lots of journalists and could get us some really good press. I was sceptical – every PR guy claims to know journalists – but he was as good as his word – a couple of days later we had consecutive pieces in the Wall Street Journal.

That’s the point it started to take off. It was interesting watching it spread. We were tracking people’s IP addresses so we could see where the internet traffic was coming from. One day we’d notice that someone at Boeing had watched the video, then, within hours, two or three thousand people from Boeing would have watched it. The same thing happened with other big firms and government departments in the US, the Federal Aviation Authority and lots of big law firms too.

Neil: So it spread via e-mail and twitter?

Dan: Yes, but that’s not how it went mainstream. Most people, most normal people, don’t have twitter, or watch youtube. But journalists do. So we started getting calls from journalists asking if they could cover us. That’s where having a PR agency really helps. We tried to cope ourselves, but failed. In the heat of the moment we forgot that we had a PR agency. We had three national TV channels all asking us for information on the same day – they all wanted the video, but in slightly different formats. We screwed up, and lost the story on one of the channels. But it still went onto ABC that night, on the Rachel Maddow show, and was repeated on about a dozen channels after that.

And that’s when it really went mainstream. That caused the second wave. People saw it on television and then went on to the Internet and watched it. Pretty much every online publication had covered it in some way. Two weeks after we put the video online over a million people had watched it.

Neil: But did this actually generate any new business for you?

Dan: It’s too early to tell. We don’t specialise in crash reconstructions – we provide graphics and visuals for the legal system. One problem with the legal system is that it’s based on verbal argument. But this is often a bad way of presenting complex information to both judges and juries. Take a complex car crash – how do you explain what each person saw so as to establish what happened? You can have experts presenting reams of data, or you can show it visually. We use our own animation software to quickly create 3D reconstructions that explain complex evidence to an audience who aren&#
39;t technical experts, such
as juries. For example, we can quickly switch between different points of view, or focus in on a specific detail – such a pot-hole in the road or a part of the car that failed. The link between this and plane crash reconstructions is only tangential.

So, to come back to your question, although about two million people have now viewed the video, we’ve only had a dozen or so serious leads. It’s the difference between publicity and PR. A lot of eyeballs, but you aren’t after 1% of any old audience but 100% of the market that is right for you. But we’re hopeful they’ll be fruitful.

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3 responses to “The story behind the Hudson River plane crash reconstruction”

  1. Rory Cellan-Jones says:

    Hello – I’m the BBC correspondent behind the Hudson landing piece that Scene Systems claim “sucked”. Have a look here to compare:
    I would also make the point that the reconstruction graphics were put together by Just Flight within the space of three hours so that we could get on air that evening. Remind me how long it took to produce this “superior” version?
    Rory Cellan-Jones

  2. Rory,
    Dan’s pointed out that his comment was inaccurate so I’ve edited the original blog post.

  3. Rory,
    I think your point actually illustrates the thrust of the article rather neatly – i.e. it takes a lot of persistence and skill to make viral campaign succeed. The fact that someone else did a more accurate simulation faster but only managed to get a fraction of the level of interest or commercial payback shows how the marketing and PR can add value.