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Infographic of the Day: Inception Contest Winner!

Rick Slusher, a graphic-designer based in New York, wins with a super elegant summary of the film.

We searched high and low, across millions of miles of virtual space; we worried that we'd never succeed. But we found him: The architect of the best infographic explanation of Inception, the summer's most complicated film.

A refresher, for those who are still new: A scant two weeks ago, we began a contest asking readers to create an infographic explaining Inception. The movie needed it, given how complex it was.

Briefly, Inception is about a group of industrial spies (led by Leonardo DiCaprio's character Cobb), tasked with convincing the scion of a business empire that he should break up his father's company. To do that, they have to drug the son and plant that desire within a dream.

But for the idea to take hold and consume the target—and not to be dismissed as nonsense from a sleeping brain—they have to plant it deep into his mind, via a series of intense, sub-conscious narratives. And that means creating dreams within dreams within dreams, so densely layered in the subject's mind that it feels like a bedrock desire.

We received lots of great entries. But Rick's idea was the clear winner:

[Click for full-size]

Rick's entry shows each character as a colored line; the layers of dreams are depicted as concentric circles. Characters enter each dream level to the left. When they all start inhabiting one of the character's dreams, that character's color-coded line expands accordingly (to show that everyone is running around in his dream). As characters fall out of each dream sequence, they exit on the right of the chart. The concentric rings depict how time slows down in each layer of dream:

Here's Rick explaining his thought process in full:

I started brainstorming my entry in the airport, appropriately enough. The only tools I had available were the proverbial napkin and a pen, and I started sketching while waiting for my flight.

My infographic is fundamentally a timeline of Inception's dream architecture, with each character's trajectory represented. Characters are shown dropping in and out of one another's consciousness as they progress through the dream layers. I wanted to emphasize the movie's timeframe premise — that the perception of the passage of time increases with each deeper dream layer. My initial thought was that concentric circles would be a good diagrammatic approach, as the nested circumferences would be able to expand and converge as necessary to reflect the scaling timeframes.

There are also a couple of subliminal aspects to the design, as a nod to some of the popular alternative plot theories about Inception. Limbo is represented as the black void of the background, and the characters enter and exit the diagram from that same black void, suggesting that "reality" itself may only exist within a dream after all. And the shape of the diagram resembles a kicking foot, alluding to the idea that the movie's events may actually be Mal's efforts to "kick" her sleeping husband back to reality.

Superbly done, from the main premise of the infographic down to all the subtle nods at the film's riddles.

For his troubles, Rick will receive bragging rights, all four of Edward Tufte's books, and both volumes of Dataflow.

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  • Berlim

    Twilight fairy, we´ll never know wich thesis is correct, since when the time showed up on the toten was not enough to make the spinner falls.
    (Sorry for any grammar mistakes)

  • Samuel Campbell II

    (By the way, I just watched that last scene to be sure, along with going back to the instance with his kids earlier in the movie.) To say that he is still dreaming is not necessarily true. What they didn't show was whether the "top" stopped spinning. And it did start to bobble!

    There is another key thing that inserts doubt. His children are playing in what appears to be the same location in the same clothes. But actually, their position is not the same and they have on similar but different clothes and they are indeed a little older. What is apparent is that he doesn't care whether it is real or not so he doesn't wait for confirmation from the "totem", he is just happy that they respond to him, unlike the same fleeting moment that he previously kept repeating over and over.

    But allow me to remind you of a subtle matter that seems confusing when you are seeing it. When he and Saito wake up on the plane, are certain that this is reality. See we are still processing all of the info from all of the various levels and we question whether it's a dream because they have taught us from the first part of the movie to question reality. They did actually show us how people wake up from "limbo", with the flashback to when Cobb and Mol wake up. However, we forget! Hence we see Cobb and Saito wake up along with a couple visual cues that we were trained to notice throughout the movie and the director does to us what they do to Fischer–INCEPTION!

  • Amanda

    Actually, the top was Mal's totem, therefore Cobb could not have used it 100% as his own. If you look closely, when Cobb is in a dream he is wearing a wedding ring, and when he is awake he is not. I watched the last like 5 minutes of the movie in slow motion and it never shows his hand close enough to show whether or not he is wearing the ring. The director did this on purpose. It is open to interpretation and there is no correct answer to whether he is awake or dreaming.

  • Twilight fairy

    Nice infographic!

    Except for one problem. Cobb never made it out of his dreams. The last scene shows he's still dreaming whereas the infographic shows him back in reality along with everyone else. That never happened.