Katerina Cizek on the Final Chapter of HIGHRISE

Katerina Cizek / Photo by Jaime Hogge, courtesy National Film Board of Canada

UPDATED JUNE 2: Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise is online now!

It’s impossible to talk about the interactive documentary revolution without mentioning Katerina Cizek, the Emmy Award-winning director of the NFB’s ongoing HIGHRISE project. Since its launch in 2009, HIGHRISE has challenged and extended the traditional definitions of both documentary and audience, creating participatory experiences in 360 degrees (Out My Window), experimenting with 3D modelling (One Millionth Tower), and bringing The New York Times’ archives to life (A Short History of the Highrise.)

This year the HIGHRISE project will culminate with its final chapter. POV caught up with Cizek in advance of the latest DOC Institute Masters Series, where she will be sharing advice on how to take digital docs from conceptualization to execution.

POV: Brian St. Denis
KC: Katerina Cizek
Click here for a condensed video version of this interview.

POV: Tell me about the next chapter of HIGHRISE.

KC: The next iteration of HIGHRISE is called “Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise.” It’s a project that we’ve been working on for many years throughout HIGHRISE. The big partnership is with two professors at the University of Toronto, and we’ve been working exploring “digital citizenship”—that’s the name of the grant we got from SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council). We’ve been looking specifically at the digital lives of residents in a highrise here in Toronto that we’ve been working in for a long time, but then we expanded that out to a global perspective, looking at contemporary digital issues and how they map out into geography. (Our partners) Deborah Cowan is a geographer, and Emily Paradis, the other researcher, does a lot of participatory research.

As with everything in HIGHRISE, we don’t think of the final product first. We’re not working towards, “oh, let’s make a digital documentary that’s such-and-such a length in such-and-such parameters.”

We start from the idea. And this idea has been there from very early days in HIGHRISE, and its evolved into something that’s now known as “Universe Within.”

For me as a storyteller, I’m also in this particular project really interested in linear narrative. A lot of the work that I’ve done in the past has been non-linear. We provide a bunch of different stories for users to navigate at their will, and in this project I wanted to examine what it’s like if you curate that a little bit more, create more of a relationship between the makers of the documentary and the user of the documentary, and explore that in new narrative and technical ways.

POV: How will this look online? If it’s a more linear narrative, will there still be interactive components to it?

KC: Definitely interactive, but “Universe Within” is a linear experience—very simple and we’re hoping elegant—even though there’s a lot happening behind the scenes. It’s built in WebGL, which is a bit of online sorcery. We worked with WebGL on One Millionth Tower, too. It’s an open source technology that allows you to create a 3D environment directly within the browser. [“Universe Within”] is a 3D environment but very simple, narratively…I don’t want to give away too much, but you’re led through the experience, and you react and interact with characters.

POV: This has been announced as the final chapter of HIGHRISE. What made you decide to bring this project to a close?

KC: I think this has been the length we’d hoped HIGHRISE would be. It’s been a considerable amount of time, and it’s been incredibly fortunate that the National Film Board of Canada has given so much time and space for our process. We definitely feel this is the culmination of all that great work.

The way we’re going to launch “Universe Within” is still in negotiation, but we’re hoping to launch with a major media partner that would also give a wraparound to HIGHRISE, a look back at it. So that could be really fun, too, to cap it off with a look back and thinking of it as a whole. Throughout the process we’ve been making pieces, and now it’s what happens when you put it all together.

POV: How educated are you in terms of the technology? When you’re conceptualizing these projects, is it based on what you know is available, or do you take your concept and find the right people to say how to achieve it technologically?

KC: My process in general for the last ten years has been to have multiple conversations going on with people that are a lot smarter than me in many different fields. Then what happens is a crystallization where something is starting to develop on the content side with the researchers, or residents of a high-rise, or a political situation, and then that’s when we tap into some of the technological conversations that our team has been having. Then, at a critical moment we say, “yes, this is the vision we see for it editorially and story-wise, this is how we understand it to be interventionist in a political context, and this is the technology that would best suit what we’re trying to do here.”

A Short History of the Highrise (dir. Katerina Cizek, 2013) / courtesy National Film Board of Canada

POV: You’ve talked before about measuring the impact of interactive documentaries – and how quantification can be not only difficult but limiting. What are you hoping the impact will be of this chapter, and how will you measure its success?

KC: Impact is, as you said, a difficult thing to measure. There are so many people in the documentary world internationally that are really examining the issue of how do you measure, or even find meaning in, the impact of the work that we do. There’s lots of really interesting work being done on a research level in the States and in Europe about this issue. I would say that throughout the HIGHRISE process we’ve really focused on [impact] more in terms of the in-situ. How does the work that we do directly affect the people that we’re working with? That’s what I’ve always considered really important in terms of impact.

This project is a little bit different because it probably skews closer to the academic side of things more than any other HIGHRISE project in the past. It’s a bit like some of the Filmmaker-in-Residence stuff that I did before at St. Michael’s Hospital, working with medical researchers and practitioners. This one is a little more “big ideas” and exploring everyday lives of people in the world, so it’s kind of on a headier level. Also, the academics involved in the project, Deborah and Emily, will be publishing an academic book alongside of it, a very innovative and creative book that transcends the boundaries of what an academic publication can be. How do you even talk about the digital in a text, right? So I think the impact of this project will be a little different than any other HIGHRISE project.

POV: One word that I’ve consistently seen used to describe interactive documentaries since the genesis of HIGHRISE is “emerging.” Are they still emerging?

KC: It’s a shifting form, interactive documentary, and there’s constantly new technologies coming out. I think there’s always a question of the latest greatest new technologies that are available, and then also what’s available at the consumer end. It’s always balancing that. In the last year we’ve seen a huge development in virtual reality and the availability, very soon to come, of the devices to experience and immerse yourself in that kind of technological environment. So yeah, absolutely it’s emerging, in the sense that it’s pushing the boundaries of documentary and storytelling, and the conventional ways in which we would think about these projects. Definitely, if you think about the last five or 10 years it has really evolved. I mean, you now have festivals that showcase this stuff, curate it; you’ve got scholars writing about it, PhD theses coming out, departments emerging, centres of excellence. It definitely is coming into being, but as that’s happening, the ground is shifting underneath it in the sense of the technology and the media landscape of journalism and documentary is changing radically as well. It’s a perfect storm, if you will.

POV: Do you contextualize the work you’re doing in the broader scheme of interactive documentary projects? Is part of your ambition with HIGHRISE to be pushing the genre forward?

KC: That’s the public mandate of the NFB: to do things that nobody one else can. That’s been, I think, what’s been so critical about the NFB’s role in exploring the interactive space. In its 76 years, that’s certainly been a huge role of the NFB: to innovate both in terms of experimental forms and content, but also technology. It’s a natural place for the NFB to be trailblazing.

POV: What do you hope that the attendees of the DOC Institute’s Masters Series will take away?

KC: I’m just very curious to learn from them where they are, and how what we’ve done in HIGHRISE might resonate or get people to think in new ways about their own practice. I think there’s just so many different ways of practicing documentary, and I’m just as eager to learn from people where they’re at as I am to share what we’ve done.

Katerina Cizek hosts a DOC Institute Master Class tonight, February 17, 2015 at Camera Bar, 1028 Queen Street West., 6:30pm. Limited amount of tickets still available. Non-DOC member attendees get a special rate on POV subscriptions – email us to find out more.

Brian St. Denis is POV’s Production & Marketing Manager.