Story

Visualizing Luxembourg: Not Your Typical Tax Haven

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Bob, our everyman, in front of the Luxembourg subsidiary of a large corporation.

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Meet Bob, standing in the rain in Luxembourg.

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Everyday brand names.

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Corporate structures, tax strategies, Luxembourg subsidiaries—they're not concepts that lend themselves to easy visualization or even simple explanations for readers unfamiliar with the topic.

More than 80 reporters from 26 countries sifted through up to 1,000 leaked documents and collaborated across borders to tell the Luxembourg Leaks story on multiple platforms. But one of the main difficulties reporters faced was translating the complexity of the financial arrangements laid out in the leaked documents to language and examples that a broad audience could understand. The animation, Luxembourg Leaks: Tricks of the Trade, produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, played an important role in making the arcane accessible.

This video, which was made available to media partners for publication in different languages, uses animation to help audiences understand how well-known corporations (including brand-name goods and services many of us use everyday) use tax loopholes with Luxembourg's explicit consent, all within the legal and political boundaries of the EU, rather than through a far-flung rogue island operator.

Within such a large, international project, the vision was to produce an animation that gave audiences an illustrated taste of the complex strategies companies used to exploit Luxembourg’s tax loopholes. The aim was to have a finished product that would be shareable and broadly educational, but still entertaining.

As producer, I worked alongside Hamish Boland-Rudder and Marina Walker Guevara of ICIJ to make the animation script as clear as possible. A major challenge was illustrating these complex financial concepts that don’t really lend themselves to narrative or engaging visuals. Rather than relying on infographics (a common visual feature for videos on this topic), we decided to introduce a central fictional character, Bob, to serve as our everyman and allow viewers to relate to the topic from a human perspective, rather than relying on complex graphics or wordy explanations. Bob has two purposes in the animation: to act as a foil for the audience, exhibiting surprise and incredulity, and—more importantly—to answer the question, "why does this matter?"

Humor is always a great tool in engaging and retaining viewers. We know that most people envision tropical islands in the Caribbean when they hear the words 'tax haven.' We decided to visually contrast this image with the depiction of small, rainy Luxembourg at the beginning of the video.

Marcelo Anez, four time Grammy award-winning sound engineer, added humor to the sound design by mixing in comedic cues. Instead of a musical score—often overused in animation videos—he created an audio world for Bob to live in. It's a world in which "For Sale" signs are plucked out of the ground with a "ploing" and accountants swarm corporate offices to the "ca-ching" sound of cash registers.

To better serve ICIJ’s global media partners, we created two versions of the video—one with dialogue, and one without, to allow partners to run the animation with their own audio track, in another language. English dialogue was created with an international outlook: the characters in the animation use American accents, but the narrator is Australian. Even animated language was carefully considered—written words are used sparingly and are simple, and even the name of the company, ‘Colossal’, was checked to ensure it was easily understandable by a European audience as much as an English-speaking audience.

The animation style is purposely unfinished, and color is only used for important elements, so as to avoid being too culturally-specific.

Our intention is to reach as wide an audience as possible; showing the world how Luxembourg's 29% corporate tax rate can be cut to almost zero, and drawing attention to the European Commission's investigation of these tax rulings as the former prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker takes over the presidency of the European Commission.

The end result is a video that has been translated into at least six languages by ICIJ's partners, and is helping people around the world access a deeply complex story. Thanks Bob!