The world’s first open source 3D documentary and more!

Mozilla’s mission, as Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, explained at the start of proceedings at the Mozilla Festival yesterday, is about building choice, freedoms and technologies into the web to make it a place where we can be makers, not just users. Mozilla are putting their supporters money where their mouth is, building these values in practice through open-source projects which began with the Firefox browser. The ethos of the Mozilla Festival is “less yack, more hack”, and the running order is made up of learning labs and workshops where projects are developed in a sprint. This years theme is “Media, Freedom and the Web”; the question, “what if media can be as open as hypertext has been?” and the open plan spaces of Ravensbourne College‘s RIBA award winning campus in North Greenwich, were abuzz yesterday (and will be today) with people working on ambitious, important projects including The Data Journalism Handbook – which will give aspiring journalists a toolkit for accessing and making sense of data available through the web. See the Festival site for the agenda and some of the coverage.

So there was a lot to be excited about at the Festival. Even so, the release of Mozilla’s Popcorn 1.0 – the HTML5 tool that “makes video work like the web” was the big story yesterday.  If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ll know about Popcorn – a tool for linking video to other web content – which has been in pre-release over the last year. (CollabDocs posts include Open Video Conference 2010). If not you can find out more in this backgrounder on Popcorn from Matt at Mozilla (thanks for the post title.)

Kat Cizek’s One Millionth Tower, a ground-breaking documentary spin-off from the Highrise project, is made with open-source tools – Popcorn and Web GL  (which enables the interactive generation of 3D graphics). It premiered at the Festival last night. (Unfortunately I had to leave early but experienced the hoopla via my Twitter feed on the train home. ) You can see it in linear form, more importantly explore it (you’ll need Chrome or Firefox) now on This is surely the first time the magazine has led on a documentary story, which underlines the significance of this moment for the moving image.

As Wired puts it; One Millionth Tower, “is not just a static story recorded on film and then edited together for audiences. It exists in a 3-D setting made possible by a tool called three.js, which lets viewers walk around the high-rise neighborhood. Moving through allows viewers to see the current state of urban decay, then activate elements to show ways the residents would change their world, like an animation showing where a new playground or garden would go.

The interactive movie is chock-full of photos from Flickr, street-views from Google Maps and changing environments fueled by real-time weather data from Yahoo. Everything is triggered by Popcorn.js, which acts like a conductor signalling which instruments play at what times.”

Brett Gaylor, filmmaker and Mozilla lead on the Popcorn project has said, “This is the moment where web video grows up as an artistic medium. In the same way that earlier film pioneers experimented with new techniques like montage, we’re now seeing ‘web-made movies’ that pull in real time information from the web.”

One Millionth Tower isn’t a totally slick product. It’s not an end in itself, but it involves significant innovation which has come about through a happy confluence of open-source politics, some very talented people, and imaginative investment by Mozilla and the National Film Board of Canada. Cizek explained how the approach emerged in an interview with CollabDocs a few months ago. There’s lots more background on One Millionth Tower on Wired. Check out the Open Technology video for an explanation of the open-source technologies involved in the piece. But let’s not forget the theme of urban life and community which is the subject of One Millionth Tower, and the inspiring collaborative approach to documentary production which the project reflects. This is Cizek and her team reinventing documentary for social change as a 21st century practice. (Read more about how Cizek was hired by the National Film Board of Canada to rework the seminal Challenge for Change project here.)

As Cizek says in the Open Technology video, “The philosophy behind open-source technology is that the technology is all of ours to own. That’s exactly the philosophy behind all the projects of Highrise. One Millionth Tower is about us owning our urban space and having the power and the vision to transform it.”

The Popcorn 1.0 release includes the Popcorn Maker, an easy to use authoring tool. Try it, you’ll be linking your video to other web content in moments. We have been used to video sitting on the web within a player, aloof from the linked and networked character of its environment. Popcorn changes that. Seeing it in action on your own video content is the best way of getting a feel for why this matters for documentary.