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How to make a transmedia documentary: three takeaways

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. In this week’s VSI column, we give you Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series!

Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

By Patricia Aufderheide


What happens to documentary when media goes interactive? It’s not always a welcome question. Documentarians aren’t necessarily thrilled at the idea of someone poking at their precious work on a smartphone, rather than settling into a seat at a theater or on a couch.

But they’re going to have to get used to it. Media users want to do more than just watch these days. Unless it’s in 3-D or otherwise dazzling, we increasingly think we want to play with our media. Go ahead, revisit your childhood haunts at The Wilderness Downtown.

As discussions at the leading industry conference South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, TX showed this March, early documentary adopters are leaping to the challenge. With HTML5 and other tools coming to make video more seamless on the web, interactive documentary is almost here.

Here are some of the lessons those early adopters learned while hanging out on the bleeding edge of change:

1)      Story is key.

Documentary is about its characters undergoing a transformation of some kind. Documentary takes users on an emotional journey. If you lose the story, you lose the user. So don’t let the bells, whistles, coding challenges, and new apps lead you away from the core obligation to tell a story. Here’s Mozilla’s Ben Moskowitz on Tribeca’s blog: “The Pixar artists on Up were inspired by the challenges of rendering thousands of balloons with rainbows and refraction techniques using computer graphics. But the movie succeeded because those technologies helped captivate viewer imaginations and better tell the story. And, frankly, all the beautiful rainbows in the world won’t make up for the lack of a strong story.”

What’s the best storytelling platform of all time? As Lance Weiler, a pioneer in interactive work and creator of Pandemic 1.0 (which debuted at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival), put it in a word, “Christmas.” It’s got a built in narrative, and people endlessly rework that narrative and interact with it to tell their own stories with it.

2)      Don’t think technology, think experience.

James Burns of Zeega doesn’t want the documentarian to get bogged down in coding challenges. There are people for that, and Zeega’s among the tools (Popcorn is another) they can use. Where do you want people to go, and what would you like them to do? That’s the biggest challenge, to him.

It’s not so easy to think of what kind of experience you’d like people to have. Documentarians are used to making longform stories in an inert format; gamers are used to building systems. The overlapping edges of that Venn diagram are still in the first stages of exploration. One cool example: The National Film Board of Canada’s Interactive division nurtured into existence Bear 71, which lets users experience an ever-more-constrained-and-surveilled environment from animals’ perspective.

3)      Expect to pioneer.

The new opportunities to engage viewers and tell stories with new possibilities and resources also mean solving problems people didn’t use to have. Take the challenges facing the makers of 18 Days in Egypt.  Jigar Mehta and Yasmine Elayat are developing a crowd-sourced documentary that retells, using smartphone video and photos, Twitter, and other media taken at the moment by participants, the story of the Egyptian Spring. Mehta faced the problem of combining five minutes of personal testimony about a moment in the Egyptian Spring with 15 seconds of video from that very moment. How to use both in the same scene? They foregrounded the testimony and used a looped version of the video as background. Developer Brian Chirls, who worked with them, said that open video today is in a similar position to film before D.W. Griffith worked out the basics of narrative editing; creators are still working out the basic formal strategies that soon will be completely obvious.

Pioneering can be painful, too, as Luisa Dantas noted. Her film Land of Opportunity, about rebuilding New Orleans post-Katrina, was completed before she began work on an open video platform that allows educators, organizers and urban development experts recombine the narratives for their own purposes. As her demo shows, there’s plenty of promise when you have a rich database and lots of potential users, but she struggles with the problems of working with home-made technology that is still being iterated. “Some of this is still a dark art,” she said.

The hardest part for her, as for many documentarians, is realizing that in the interactive world, iteration is key. You need to learn from feedback what users want, and how they want to get it. The software designers’ cliché, “Always be shippin’” (keep putting product out), violates what every documentarian knows: Keep your work under wraps until you’re ready for release. Of course, both rules are appropriate for their environments.

How to negotiate the new world? One way is to simultaneously develop several platforms. That’s what Six to Start, the makers of the BBC documentary series The Code, about mathematics, did. They developed a series of three traditional documentaries with a classic narrator (Marcus du Sautoy), four Flash games, and a real-life treasure hunt. User engagement generated thousands of photos, videos and even 3-D sculptures made by users, as well as a Wiki page with more than a hundred thousand viewers. The different parts of the project appear to have fed interest in the others.

Interactive documentary is still on the bleeding edge of change, and the longform, passive viewing experience isn’t going away either. But for documentarians who want their work to touch and change the people they reach, interactivity is moving close to being an off-the-shelf option.

Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. and director of the Center for Social Media there. She is the author of, among others, Documentary: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007)She has received numerous journalism and scholarly awards, including the Preservation and Scholarship award in 2006 from the International Documentary Association, a career achievement award in 2008 from the International Digital Media and Arts Association, and the Woman of Vision Award from Women in Film and Video (DC) in 2010. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Minnesota.

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