This year the i-docs event offered opportunities to explore and discuss a range of innovative and insightful online documentary experiences featuring a number of HTML5 inspired experiences, including Firestorm and Hollow.
The event kicked off with a keynote by Hank Willis Thomas who delivered a revealing insight on his project Question Bridge. The premise is incredibly simple and perfectly underlines the importance of not being led by technology! Here the project seeks to ‘represent and redefine Black male identity in America’ by incorporating a video mediated question and answer exchange. Importantly this works both as a gallery installation and a vibrant online experience with a continued sense of permanency through the harnessing of social media interaction.
A theme throughout the conference was of sustained engagement and empathy. In the second keynote of the day Kate Nash talked about her own studies involving NFBs Bear 71 cantered around engagement and the user experience. Importantly her research also points to the tremendous value to be gained by both producers and researchers in collaborating to better understand what audiences do, what they experience and how they interpret interactive documentary, a theme becoming increasingly significant as new forms of interaction and participation begin to challenge the traditional theories of film and television.
Further breakout sessions explored a variety of threads, which this year focussed on production models, new territories, case studies as well as engagement and evaluation. One particular session looked at a work in progress called Ghost Town by Enrica Colusso.
This research project incorporates familiar 360 panoramic photos and mapping tools to provide an exploration of an estate in the heart of London scheduled for redevelopment. The project provides a community insight from the few remaining residents. Further expansion of the project will include layers of exploration revealing how the space has changed over time.
Several features of the presentation stood out. The structuring and navigation of content was a primary concern and the use of ambient sounds helping to develop atmosphere and awareness has been used to good effect, but it’s the notion of collaboration across disciplines that I found particularly interesting.
This was the focus for the second half of the seminar introducing Philo van Kemenade who believes that we currently lack an interactive storytelling language that fits the nature of the web. Philo has been active in a series of events called Popathons that bring together a growing community of web-native storytellers to encourage multidisciplinary experimentation.
The third keynote introduced William Uricchio who delivered an interesting presentation exploring possible futures of documentary from a historical perspective.
“History can be a great teacher … if only we put the right questions to it. At a moment when the frontiers of the documentary form continue to shift, driven as much by changes in technological possibility, user expectation, and media infrastructure, history might seem to provide a strange ally.
The challenges posed by such developments as live documentary, algorithmic narratives and Oculus Rift, to name but a few, seem to have few precedents. And yet, or so this talk will argue, we might benefit by taking a closer look at the dialogue between past and future, and seeing what lessons can be learned.”
The presentation also introduced Moments of Innovation an engaging web site that helps put the story of documentary innovation into perspective, and helps speculate about its future.
The final two breakout sessions focused on Firestorm and Hollow. Francesca Panetta, Multimedia Projects Editor at The Guardian talked us through the development of the project, initially inspired by an earlier multimedia piece – Snow Fall
by the New York Times. Although Firestorm is essentially a linear account, complete with the addition of chapter headings, it does bring together a range of media artefacts to help reveal the unfolding events.
Francesca also offered a revealing account on the need for clear lines of communication between journalists and content developers and on communicating effectively the editorial decisions which were required to assist the characteristics of the delivery platform.
Finally its creator Elaine McMillion Sheldon presented Hollow, an interactive documentary exploring the future of rural America through the eyes of Appalachians. The piece offered a personal insight on the past, present and future sustainability for a section of rural America that finds itself increasingly marginalised and forgotten.
“Our first goal was to reach our intended audience–the McDowell community and help them make connections. They are mostly on desktops and generally lower tech. We needed community buy-in to share their story. So our goal became launching the site. It’s on the web as an interactive film. The full transmedia part will come later, building out a mobile experience and exhibits to reach additional audiences.”
The community, it seems, was very much at the heart of the story. Elaine was able to illustrate some of the initiatives to encourage participation and develop a sense of purpose. Her passion and empathy of the subject were clearly evident and helped highlight the need for producers to fully understand both the subject and nature of the work.
Significant to the success of Hollow are the initiatives that support legacy and the harnessing of initiatives that embrace social media opportunities.