Here’s a recent talk I gave in a session on Future Documentary at a BBC Academy event. My focus was on crowd-funding, collaboration, and “connected documentary”.
Tags: 18 Days in Egypt, BBC, BBC Academy, crowd-funding, Documentary, Highrise, HTML5, Popcorn Maker; Kickstarter, Sound it Out
Tags: Alexandre Brachet, Bruno Felix, Casper Sonnen, Doclab, Expanding Documentary, Hugues Sweeney, IDFA, Interactive Documentary, Jane Burton, Joel Ronez, Keep on Steppin', Moments of Innovation, Moniker, Robot Documentary, Submarine Channel, Tate Media, William Uricchio
There was an upbeat mood at last Sunday’s Interactive Documentary Conference, organised by Caspar Sonnen for the fifth anniversary of the IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) new media programme, Doclab. The one-day event was one element in the Expanding Documentary programme which also included a number of exhibitions and live cinema events. “How does the documentary genre connect to visual art, music or the digital revolution? To robots, poetry and interactive installations?” What’s “…the link between documentary and innovation, experiment and adventure.” This was the territory of Expanding Documentary.
We’re now into the second wave of interactive storytelling, the European Documentary Network’s Ove Rishoj Jensen suggested in his opening remarks. The conference was about setting the stage for this wave by looking back, hearing from some pioneers, and thinking about the influence of technology. The event was asking; where is this taking us? & how do we build a sector for the industry here?
It was a stellar line-up including people and institutions (Arte, NFB) who have played a key role in the development of the field. The presentations drew on a wealth of experience and expertise. I won’t attempt to summarise the whole day. Here instead are some headlines, some themes, some questions the speakers posed, and some highlights.
Moments of Innovation – 1960 and now
Hugues Sweeney from the NFB explained how he sees the invention of sync sound just over half a century ago as the moment in documentary history that is most relevant for our own transformative era. He showed a historic clip from the 1958 NFB film, Les Ragatteurs, in which Michel Brault the sound recordist put his tape recorder down within the shot, in sight of the camera. This was the breakthrough moment that made the film makers realise that they could sync up film and sound using a visual reference. (This led to the use of the clapperboard.) Sweeney’s contemporary experiments explore how today’s emerging technologies can again expand the terrain of documentary. Sweeney’s guiding question: What does technology teach us about reality when we listen closely? His new project, A Journal of Insomnia, is a participatory piece now being populated by drawing in user contributions via the screen and through twitter, cloaked in a dreamy, late night feel. Looking forward, Sweeney wondered; what would a documentary about migration look like that used GPS, a documentary about friendship that used SMS, about depression that used brain sensors?
Historian of media technology, William Uricchio, also pointed to that moment around 1960 when the mobile sync camera was born as the key reference point for today. The technological afffordance of sync sound redefined documentary, he explained, and opened up a new market – TV. Uricchio is Principal Investigator at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab which launched last year. (I attended their inaugural meeting in Cambridge, Mass back in March.) Uricchio situated the Lab’s interest in emerging forms of non-fiction media in relation to the Institute’s overall remit to bring a critical perspective to how we are inventing the future through technology. Their research interest: how to make good use of emerging, accessible tools and platforms for storytelling?
Written by Uricchio, Moments of Innovation (MoI) charts the evolution of documentary in relation to technology, bringing a welcome historical perspective to contemporary innovation. Uricchio chose one example from MoI to encapsulate the work of the project. Minard’s map – a data visualisation from 1812 – reveals the devastating story of the affect of Napoleon’s march on Russia on his troops. For Uricchio, the archeology provided by Moments of Innovation is about revealing previously unseen patterns, and showing how today’s work relates to long-term desires in storytelling.
Welcome to the Age of the Interface
The Interface was a major theme of the day, with presenters considering the relationship between technology, affordance and story. Daniel Burwen started the discussion with his presentation – “Welcome to the age of the interface”. Burwen suggested that interactive documentary could learn much from game designers who know how to tell a compelling story through a dialogue. Joel Ronez, former Arte commissioner, now at Radio France, amused and provoked by talking about his own cross-platform failures, which had usually involved mistaking technological affordance for content. His injunctions: No to interactive maps, meaningless UGC, purposeless interactivity. Characters belong to the story, they are not the story. All this revolved around his keypoint – “Interface is not the story”.
This theme echoed through the keynote by Upian’s CEO, Alexandre Brachet. When he first came to IDFA Brachet told us, he’d felt out of place. Now, he feels he’s coming home – vindicated in his long-term belief in “the internet and documentary – a great couple”. Walking us through Thanatorama.com, one of his first ventures into the territory – which invites the user to discover what happens to a body after death – he showed how fluent Upian already were in interactive non-fiction back in 2007.
Brachet confesses to being “obsessed with how to tell stories through the interface”. His preoccupations – how to engage using interactive tools, with a cinematographic quality, and a fit between design and content. His company’s success has been guided by one simple principle, “At Upian we always start with the Story.” That approach seems to be paying off in audience reaction and Brachet showed stats that have been rising dramatically over the years. Gaza / Sderot - made in 2007 & accessed every day; best daily traffic – 7K a day. Prison Valley’s strongest traffic – 21K a day. Alma has already had 60K views in a single day. Taking content to a wider audience through partner sites was also key to that success, Brachet explained, in this case syndicating via a newspaper.
Tate Media – Co-creation at the Museum
Though I’d seen particular projects I hadn’t realised what an impressive body of interactive work Tate Modern have been developing. The objective at Tate Modern is simple – encourage engagement with art – and Jane Burton, Creative Director, Tate Media – talked through the work she’s commissioned in the last few years to try and do just that. Standout projects include The Gallery of Lost Art – one of the pieces on display at IDFA – a moody evocation of disappeared art works reminiscent of a crime scene investigation. Take a look soon because this, like the artworks, is going to disappear (in this case, deliberately.) Burton also commissioned Aaron Koblin and Chris Milk to create This Exquisite Forest – a collaborative animation project inspired by the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpses. Burton is interested in the quality as well as the quantity of contributions to that project, and noted how the artists original offer sets the standard for what follows. When Ai Wei Wei asked for video questions from visitors to his Sunflower Seeds exhibit he got 11,000. The video of One to One, based on the virtual exchanges that resulted, was moving, and revealing of the artist. In these Tate projects you can see a very purposeful use of interactivity and participation to explore the “Museum as a place of co-creation”.
- In a great line-up, two presentations stood out – one witty, one cautionary.
More or Less
Jonathan Puckey CEO of Moniker showed examples of his studio’s playful, prolific output. Their work includes More or Less, a participatory music video that updates hourly, and PointerPointer a project which has turned viral by engaging geeky fans with a mystery – how did they write an algorithm that could recognise a finger pointing? Elsewhere, Moniker have been mining participatory photos to create alt. collections eg the failed self-timer moment. They’ve made comic use of the clichés of interactive design eg delaying loading for dramatic effect. Puckey and associates are clearly in their creative element, and having a lot of fun. We can look forward to lots more to enjoy from Moniker.
“How Submarine learned to love and hate the App store”
Bruno Felix from Submarine Channel (creators of immersive web doc ‘Collapsus’ and interactive comic ‘The Art of Pho’) offered the sobering story of the trouble they ran into trying to make an iPad app for the documentary Keep on Steppin‘ with film maker Marjoleine Boonstra. Their aim was to create a documentary native to that platform, but the app was repeatedly rejected by the App Store. Comments like, “We found the features of your app were not entertaining enough” revealed a yawning chasm between the agenda that drives a creative documentary and that of the Store. Felix described how they re-categorised the project. They added functionality. They kept tweaking. They struggled to get a human being on the phone. He talked against a backdrop of the hilarious, scary comments they got back from the store.
Tablets seem to offer great promise for documentary – a mainstream platform, a new audience accessibility. But as Felix said, “There’s a new gatekeeper. It’s the App Store.” The fact that the gatekeeper turns out to be, not a commissioner, but a micro-serf processing applications in India, adds a contemporary twist to the story. Felix will be resubmitting the app…
As I grabbed my things to head for the airport I noticed William Uricchio with Cubie, the robot documentarist who was in residence at the exhibition. When the media historian turned Cubie’s gaze and questions in my direction I was taken aback by my reaction: I wanted to talk to her. (A camera in a cardboard box had been given design attributes – ‘cute’, vulnerable – that were unnervingly effective in drawing you in. In terms of getting the interviewees to open up this one could give Molly Dineen a run for her money.) Technology rolls on, and what comes next will have its own allure and challenges for documentary. Time to start thinking about the ethics of the non-human film maker.
There’s a video about the development of Cubie and her friends here.
A longer version of this post appears on i-Docs.org
Tags: YouTube, Tiffany Shlain, Webby Award, Brian Newman, Filmmaking, Cloud Filmaking, Moxie Institute, Let it Ripple, Brain Power, Connected, Declaration of Independence
In a recent blog post – Stop Making Docs - Brian Newman argued that the era of the short doc has arrived. With the web, shareable media, mobile exhibition, he argues, the longer and feature length documentaires that dominate festivals are no longer where it’s at, if the aim is to reach an audience and make an impact. His alternative, “Make me a really interesting website, that happens to have maybe 20 minutes total of video. In 3 minute segments. Let me trade it, use it, share it, on my phone. Let it actually have an impact instead of just stroking your and your funder’s egos. Let it be interesting and aware of today’s realities. Let it be useful. Let it never play a film festival. Ever.”
The film maker who is really working this territory is Tiffany Shlain. The founder of the Webby Awards, Shlain has been developing a form of web-native filmmaking she has called “Cloud Filmmaking”. Nov 8th saw the release of her latest film, Brain Power. Shareable, on web and mobile. Here it is:
The video asks what we learn when we compare the internet to the human brain. It turns out to be a rich analogy. Compare them – neurons v web pages – the internet is much bigger. Synapses v hyperlinks – the brain of a human baby is vastly bigger. (Don’t ask me how anyone can quantify these things…) Recent discoveries about how the infant brain develops in relation to human interaction now make it clear how the quality and consistency of early interaction is critical for healthy human development. Continuing the analogy – brain, internet – the film asks what the internet, still in its infancy, needs for healthy development. Give the film ten minutes of your time. It’s interesting. It’s also being released in the form of a TED book.
Brain Power is a video that’s truly native to the networked environment. Not in the sense that the viewing experience is interactive, or “connected” (taking advantage of HTML5), but in terms of its production and distribution. It expresses the vision that Shlain and her associates at the Moxie Institute have enshrined in The Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto.
1. To use the cloud to collaboratively create films with people from all over the world.
2. To create films about ideas that speak to the most universal qualities
of human life, focusing on what connects us, rather than what divides us.
3. To give back as much as is received, by offering
free customized films to organizations around the world to further their message.
4. To use the cloud to translate films into as many languages as possible.
5. To push the boundaries of both filmmaking and distribution by combining
the newest collaborative tools available online with the potential of all the people in the world.
So Brain Power has a remix aesthetic, heavy on archive, stills and animation. It includes sequences drawn in through crowd-sourcing; gathered, for example, by asking how people in different places imagine the brain. The background to the approach, Shlain has explained, ”When YouTube first came out, I had a vivid dream that all the videos were in HD quality and had easy pull-down menus that explained how I could license the footage. I was like a kid in a candy store. As a filmmaker who hardly shoots anything and is primarily into remixing and recontextualizing images, this explosion of online video was not only a much bigger candy store than I had ever dreamed of, it also completely changed the way I make films.”
Brain Power is the third film in the Let it Ripple; Mobile Films for Change series. The first was A Declaration of Interdependence, a contemporary reworking of the American Declaration of Independence, with video from participants around the world. (You can watch it on the still below – though the player button seems absent.) It’s been translated by volunteers into 66 languages.
The Let it Ripple series are offered in free customised versions to non-profits (supported by an anonymous donor). According to the Let it Ripple website, 300 customised films have been made to date. Talking to Co-Exist Shlain explained, “We work with organizations to drill down on what their call to action is…The organizations are so grateful. They’re doing such important work, and we’re such an image-based society…Giving them an emotional and inspiring short film for them to further their work has been really wonderful.” You can see some customised endings to Declaration below.
Shlain has made longer documentaries too. I’ve not seen her award winning feature length film, Connected, which led to the Let it Ripple series. The truth is I’m not rushing to. I’m not keen on the humanism of these films – the universalist idea behind point 2 above, which it seems to me sidesteps such deep structural inequalities. Take the second Let it Ripple film – Engage. Some call it moving. I find it very sentimental. What I do find inspiring though is Shlain’s vision and energy in realising this short filmmaking approach. It gives us a glimpse of one emerging future for media as a networked form.
Tags: BBC iPlayer, Bear 71, Director-general, Entwistle, George Entwistle, Television, The Johnny Cash Project
Good news from Broadcasting House. In his first speech in the job, George Entwistle, the BBC’s new Director General, calls for “genuinely new forms of digital content”, born of the participatory environment of the web. And he’s going to restructure the organisation to enable the kinds of conversations and collaborations that are needed to make that happen.
I made a very similar case in my recent Open Letter to the New DG and it’s exciting that this is Entwistle’s vision. It’s going to be challenging, but Entwistle is clear about what’s needed from a production perspective – taking apart the silos that currently separate radio, TV and creative technology to “integrate all three disciplines – definitively.” He sees the new shape of production as genre based, which I’m sure is right. There’ll be some changes to commissioning needed too.
It’s going to take time. Don’t expect to see the likes of Bear 71 or The Johnny Cash Project coming out of the BBC right away. But a corner has been turned. Below is that section of Entwistle’s speech. You can read the whole speech here.
“The BBC is rightly thought to have done well in the early stages of the digital revolution. iPlayer has been feted for its superbly engineered platform, which set new standards in video streaming, and a user interface that made catching up on the TV you’d missed a pleasure. But while celebrating all that, the real key to iPlayer is the unmissability of the content it offers.
Even in our near-miraculous coverage of the Olympics, I would say that we’ve taken – joyously – our capacity to present and distribute existing forms of content to their natural limits rather than innovate to discover genuinely new forms of content.
Yet it’s the quest for this – genuinely new forms of digital content – that represents the next profound moment of change we need to prepare for if we’re to deserve a new charter.
As we increasingly make use of a distribution model – the internet – principally characterised by its return path, its capacity for interaction, its hunger for more and more information about the habits and preferences of individual users, then we need to be ready to create content which exploits this new environment – content which shifts the height of our ambition from live output to living output.
We need to be ready to produce and create genuinely digital content for the first time. And we need to understand better what it will mean to assemble, edit and present such content in a digital setting where social recommendation and other forms of curation will play a much more influential role.
Now I believe an organisation run, for decades now, around the existing platforms and the content they define for themselves – radio and TV – is going to find it hard to get ready for that. A television or radio organisation can always be forgiven for obsessing only about the creation of television or radio.
To be ready for the world into which a new Charter would take us we will need to change the way we’re organised.
So, in around two years time, my aim is to have restructured the BBC – with fundamental implications for A&M, Vision and Future Media. To be ready to create and curate genuinely digital content, we will need to integrate all three disciplines – definitively. We need to ask people from all three to work more closely together in order to imagine ourselves into the space where a new kind of content is possible.”
Tags: Cathy Casserly, Chris Marker, Creative Commons, Creator Space, Global Lives, Internet Archive, one day on earth, Prelinger Collection, Sans Soleil, Sara Mormino, YouTube
There were two noteworthy announcements from You Tube last week. The first was that that they are opening what they are calling a “Creator Space” in London. The idea, according to You Tube’s Sara Mormino quoted in The Telegraph, is to help You Tube stars to “take their channels to the next level”. The offering, run out of You Tube’s Soho offices, will include a TV studio and editing facilities as well as lectures, workshops and face-to-face support for concept and story development. “Our partners from all over Europe, Middle East and Africa will be able to book time in the space to create and collaborate with other creators, learn new techniques, as well as gaining access to state-of-the-art audio visual equipment, to help them generate great new content for their channels.” It’s not clear exactly how this will play out – how access will be managed, what it will cost, and whether this is a one-off or a pilot, but it’s interesting to see You Tube getting involved in the provision of facilities and facilitation.
The same day as this announcement, the You Tube blog provided an update on another initiative. “Do you need a professional opening for your San Francisco vacation video? Perhaps some gorgeous footage of the moon for your science project? How about a squirrel eating a walnut to accompany your hot new dubstep track?” This was Cathy Casserly, CEO of Creative Commons (CC) announcing in a guest post, that, only a year since You Tube introduced the option to licence videos through Creative Commons, people have already made 4 million videos available for remix and reuse on the platform. With advice from Creative Commons, You Tube structured their offering to make it very simple to opt for a CC licence, offering only one option; CC BY - which allows for sharing and reuse (including commercial) with credit. They backed that up with an automated attribution system so that source material would automatically be credited in any video which had been made by remixing CC material.
The approach has paid off, with an estimated forty years worth of footage(!) now available on You Tube under the CC BY license. This amounts to a pretty powerful documentary resource, which will also provide a boost to the culture of commons-based creative practice, by encouraging remixing and reuse, further spreading the practice of content sharing and the adoption of Creative Commons licensing.
You Tube’s isn’t the only open archive around by any means. There is plenty of CC content in Vimeo, who added Creative Commons search to their platform earlier this year. Meanwhile, The Internet Archive is an umbrella for a substantial range of free to use US fiction and non-fiction content including the wonderful Prelinger Collection of “ephemeral” films. And recent collaborative documentary projects are resulting in a burgeoning of new archives. One Day on Earth have made the content that they have gathered through their two collaborative self-portraits of life on earth in 2010 and 2011 available. The Global Lives project plan to do the same with their 24 hour portraits. (Do please let me know of other open archives.)
This wealth of available content could herald a golden age of archive-based work. The question for would-be makers might be where to begin thinking about the possibilities. On this there is nowhere better to look for inspiration than to the work of the great film essayist Chris Marker, whose death at 91 was announced earlier this week. It’s not that he generally used archive footage himself, but his films feel like he could have done. La Jetee is made (almost) entirely from stills. In Sans Soleil we are asked to imagine the film footage as the archive of a (fictional) cameraman, whose reflections are the subject of the soundtrack. From that premise Marker weaves together disparate footage shot across continents into a meditation on time, place, memory and film itself. Consummate filmmaking.
Tags: BBC, Bear71, Doctor Who, Gaza-Sderot, Highrise, Human Planet, i-Docs, iPlayer, Journey to the End of Coal, National Film Board of Canada, Participatory Culture, Prison Valley, Radio Ballads, The Family, Video Diaries
You’re a journalist; investigating the working conditions of the miners who are fuelling China’s industrial growth. You follow leads, conduct interviews in the polluted, devastated landscape of Shanxi, where workers are living in grim conditions, risking their lives for the production of products that we consume. This is the experience of Journey to the End of Coal, a fine example of a new breed of documentary projects – web-based, interactive – emerging in the last few years. It’s a big contemporary issue, approached in an accessible, vivid way – a classic public service offering.
Immersive, participatory; digital platforms offer new opportunities to inform, educate and entertain. This is the BBC’s remit. Yet the BBC is not producing any of the recent documentary projects that take advantage of the interactive and exploratory potential of the web. Why not?
In the mid 2000s the BBC’s critics grew vocal, charging the Corporation with being too big and dominant on too many platforms. There were accusations that it was skewing the commercial market, and criticism of too much unfocussed investment online. The BBC came back with a new strategy. The BBC’s “unique selling point”, it was argued, were great programmes and news. Journalism would thus continue to have a big presence online. A few major TV brands – Human Planet, Doctor Who – would have significant interactive enhancements. BBC Radio too would have substantial web support.
Early BBC experiments in interaction and participation were abandoned. Interactive commissioners were gradually let go, and technology teams were consolidated in the Future Media & Technology Division, separate from editorial staff. On the positive side, that strategic and organisational refocus enabled the development of iPlayer. On the down side it relegated the emerging platforms to supporting roles and the BBC stopped learning about what their creative potential might be.
Since then, the BBC has pursued its focus on linear programmes. Meanwhile, in other major media organisations, production teams have been formed which draw together “old” media skills (video, storytelling) and “new” (experience design, interactivity), and a number of centres of excellence have been developing in the new arts of factual storytelling. Check out the interactive portfolio of the National Film Board of Canada – award winning projects like Highrise; a multi-year, global, participatory investigation into life in the most common form of housing on earth, the tower block, or Bear 71; an irresistible treatment of the deadly clash between humans and animals in the Banff National Park. Browse Arte TV, France’s interactive output. Explore Prison Valley, which uses a game-like approach to interrogate the US prison system, or Gaza/Sderot, a web doc through which the user is confronted with parallel lives in two villages within a few kilometers on either side of the Palestine/Israel border. These projects use compelling interactive formats to engage with pressing themes and questions.
You might say that the BBC already makes terrific documentary content; so why does this matter? There are a number of answers. One of the BBC’s six public purposes requires that it take advantage of emerging technologies. A BBC that doesn’t know how to deploy these new potentials risks becoming redundant to “the people formerly known as the audience” who take interactivity for granted. Looked at from a creative industries perspective, the BBC is the biggest UK commissioner and needs to be producing work in this emerging field – to develop skills and capacity in a sector that could be world-beating, as well as for the value that could offer its audience.
The BBC has been at the forefront of documentary innovation in the era of one-to-many media. With Charles Parker’s Radio Ballads in the 50s, Paul Watson’s The Family in the 70s, Video Diaries in the 90s, innovation delivered new shapes and types of programmes that showed us Britain and the world anew. There’s an opportunity now for a generation of BBC documentary that uses non-linear forms to throw light on the realities and challenges facing us now. Producing this work is part of the crucial project of re-inventing the BBC’s public service role in the participatory culture of the 21st century. I urge the incoming DG to support that development.
Tags: Brooklyn, UnionDocs, UnionDocs Collaborative
Applications are now open for the UnionDocs Collaborative programme – a unique documentary study scheme at the wonderful UnionDocs in Brooklyn, NYC. I’ve curated a couple of events there and held workshops for the CoLAB. If you can apply, or know anyone who might be interested, I so recommend this opportunity.
“The UnionDocs Collaborative Studio (CoLAB) is a one-year program for a select group of 12 emerging media artists from the US and abroad. Based in one of NYC’s most exciting neighborhoods, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, UnionDocs offers a platform for exploring contemporary approaches to the documentary arts and a process for developing a collaborative project. The program consists of weekly production meetings, seminars, screenings and other public programs, along with regular masterclasses and critiques with visiting artists. Key benefits include dynamic interaction among a network of talented peers, direct exchange with visiting artists and industry experts, a structured environment for research and experimentation, mentoring on the production of original work and regular group critique, exhibition opportunities for the year’s collaborative project.
The CoLAB represents a new and alternative fellowship model, offering residency and visa support for six participants coming from abroad and an equal number of spots for local, non-resident participants. It is designed to be affordable and, although participants are asked to make the UDC their primary creative focus, the schedule does accommodate full-time or freelance work. Rather than applying with a project proposal or rough cut, all participants are selected on the basis of previous work and enter the program at square one, open to discovery and fresh connections. The CoLAB has presenting original work at premiere venues such as MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, the Harvard Film Archive, the Visible Evidence Conference, Camden International Film Festival, Hot Docs, and Direktorenhaus, Berlin, among other venues. We expect a very competitive group of applicants, representing some of the most exciting emerging talents in documentary.”
Apply here. Deadline June 30th.