The Virtual Revolution

19 mins read

The Internet has been creeping into every aspect of our lives, and its latest stop was at the National Film Board, which recently launched 10 new documentary films. But there was no cushiony, dark screening room for these viewings; instead, audience members sat in front of laptops and worked a mouse to watch the films—every one of them an interactive, web-based project.

The films are the first selections for the NFB’s ambitious new website for Canadian-made Web documentaries. Log onto interactive.nfb.ca, and you can experience the dawning of a new way of telling stories.

All 10 documentaries leave the traditional film medium behind and use multimedia technology to tell non-linear, user-directed narratives. The approaches include interactive video, photo-based narratives and multimedia Web documentaries.

The most ingenious technology on the site can be experienced on The Test Tube with David Suzuki, which instantly synthesizes live data—a viewer’s answer to a question—and adds it to the story’s visuals and content. While the brief documentary essentially concerns the exponential rate of the planet’s demise, it has a fantastic way of depicting it.

Also here is the Web version of Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary, Pepita Ferrari’s acclaimed 2008 film about the creative process of making documentaries. Its new incarnation offers four hours of interviews in 300 video clips for an edit-it-yourself version of the 97-minute film. Fans can chose to hear only from Werner Herzog or Errol Morris and ignore the 35 other filmmakers. They might also select to hear filmmakers espouse only on “Truth, Perspectives and Ethics” and bypass insights on other topics. Certainly, one could spend five minutes here, or days even, especially if one explored hyperlinks to directors’ films.

Another expanded film here is Waterlife.com, which earlier this year won a Webby Award (the Oscars of the internet) for Best Online Documentary. The transformation of Kevin McMahon’s stunning elegy to the great Lakes into a Web documentary shows both the benefits and, it must be said, the limits of internet-based interactive storytelling. While the site delivers interactive choices and seemingly endless content—including hyperlinks leading to direct-action sites—exploring it is simply not as profound an experience as watching the poetic and moving film. (There is a mighty good reason why dramatic structure is a time-honoured idea.)

Amid Waterlife.com’s relentless user-driven choices, it might have considered one more: the participatory feature found on another film on the site, GDP—Measuring the human side of the Canadian economic crisis. This first-ever pan-Canadian Web documentary illustrates the long-term effects of the economic crisis on the lives of Canadians. It will eventually be composed of 250 four-minute films and photo essays gathered from users over one year.

Flub and Utter, by Scott Nihill and Sabrina Saccoccio, another standout on the site, is a multi-frame performance piece starring the poet Jordon Scott, whose life-long stutter can be examined in remarkably sensitive detail. Viewers feel as though they can control the cinematography and the camera’s focus.

The other Internet pioneers selected for the site offer somewhat less rewarding interactive experiences, perhaps because they’ve yet to come up with a killer application with which to share their story. Still, the site is doubtless the world’s finest model of new journalism on the Web. Where else can one watch 10 original documentaries during which the click of a mouse can change how one comes to understand a story, a point of view or an issue?

As the NFB sees it, the world of documentary production is in the midst of a paradigm shift, and it wants Canada to lead it.

“The NFB has produced a strong legacy of firsts in cinema, animation and documentary,” Rob McLaughlin, NFB’s director of digital content and strategy, said in an e-mail. “Exploring new forms of expression has always been core to our work. Today, the way we create, consume and connect with each other changes by the minute, and the Film Board’s expanding collection of interactive projects will reflect that reality.”

Canadian filmmakers are experiencing the documentary’s radical transition in a major way right now because the NFB isn’t the only government funding agency investing heavily in multimedia productions. Numerous funding bodies across Canada also require it, and since last April, when the Canadian Television Fund was rebranded as the Canadian Media Fund (CMF), it began financing only multi-plat- form documentary projects.

While many filmmakers are eager to explore new formats, there’s no doubt that they are challenged these days. They’re grappling to understand how to tell new kinds of stories, with new tools and new teams of collaborators. They’re also dealing with uncertainty around the distribution channels and financing structure.

“Whenever anything new comes along, people criticize it and have a hard time adapting to it,” says Robert Lang, founder and president of Kensington Communications. “But really, it’s just another tool and another way of putting our stories out there.” Lang’s Toronto-based company has been producing documentaries for 30 years—including, in the past 12 years, five interactive films. Lang attended the 2010 Sunny Side of the Doc festival in France, where the CMF’s decision to focus on multi-platforms was perceived, at least internationally, as groundbreaking, a forward-thinking approach. “It will be emulated by countries around the world,” Lang predicts.

A founding member of DOC (Documentary Organization of Canada), Lang feels that in order for filmmakers to maintain relevance in this digital age—when the latest games come with thought-activated headsets and Hollywood films are released with “movie-enhancing” cell-phone applications—it’s important to inspire documentary filmmakers to develop skills with which to explore other forms and faces of cinematic culture.

This means a substantial change in the way documentary filmmakers work, but at Kensington, it has become “a natural part of what we do,” he says. “With any project we’re thinking of ways it can exist on multi-platforms.”

City Sonic, Kensington’s co-produced digital television series with White Pine Pictures about Toronto’s music scene, lives on in a vastly more popular and enhanced state as citysonic.tv. The comprehensive website features all 20 films, a phone app (to view the films on location) and a well-known blog, where news about Geddy Lee, Barenaked Ladies and dozens of other artists featured in the films is posted. “There’s no question that the number of hits at citysonic.tv far outnumbers the television audience,” says Lang, who adds that this may change with its upcoming airing on showcase, the deal for which was likely secured with help from the site’s buzz. Lang hopes that the site and the showcase broadcasts could lead to future City Sonics in other markets beyond Toronto.

To extend the platform of Kensington’s new documentary Museum Discoveries, Lang is using a new technology he’d heard mentioned for the first time only weeks before he gave it the green light. It’s a museum tour that involves a cutting-edge “augmented reality” component. “Imagine you are in front of a gold-painted Egyptian coffin,” Lang offers. “You know there’s a mummy in there. Using your cell phone, you can scan over the coffin to see an X-ray image of its interior. Then other video clips, stills and text about the mummy can be accessed.

“But again,” says Lang, who is co-developing the app with Ryerson University’s Edge Lab, “It’s really just storytelling. [We’re] using different tools and techniques and different kinds of people to bring that storytelling to a place where people get excited about the topic.”

Multi-platform production opens the door to new ways of reaching an audience, and new ways of telling stories. Says NFB’s McLaughlin: “I don’t see these as replacing the traditional ‘linear’ stories but, rather, complementing them.”

One the most challenging concepts of Web documentaries for traditional filmmakers is the role of the viewer as active rather than passive. In creating an interactive project, documentary filmmakers aren’t just telling a story; they are conceiving a participatory experience. The filmmaker becomes an architect who imagines a space into which the user can come to have an experience.

Some wonder whether a traditional film audience is even interested in cross-platform and user-driven film. They’d like to keep clear the distinction between film watching and playing games. But naysayers may be ignoring the fact that mass audiences are already constantly disrupting the traditional media experience, whether they’re skipping between commentaries on an Oliver Stone DVD set or surfing the Internet for television episodes. Digital media isn’t a fixed entity; it’s stopped, started, saved and shared. The key is to make the bonus for interactive clicking worth it. There must be a strong cause and effect; otherwise, film viewers would rather watch narrative threads that have already been edited.

The integration of information architecture, graphic design, imagery and titles plays a role in providing stimuli to keep viewers interested in poking around the nooks and crannies of a Web film. Do documentary filmmakers need to be Flash masters and adept at Macromedia Director? It helps to know the basics, says Lang, but it’s not necessary. “You just need to know what you’re looking for and if you have the right team, just open that door and bat around the idea.

“It’s taken a while for us to find the people we like to work with. That’s a big challenge for a lot of doc makers. It’s hard to find new-media people who understand what documentary is all about, who can share the enthusiasm for the content. We had a lot of trial and error.

“It’s daunting,” Lang admits. “It makes you wonder, ‘Why am I making so little money as a documentary filmmaker and these people, who do the interactive, are making hourly rates i could only dream of?’ You work it out. There’s a lot of discussion about how to make that work better.”

Fortunately, scores of multimedia programmers are eager to work with documentary filmmakers, and organizations like the Canadian Film Centre, Hot Docs, DOC and others are facilitating networking opportunities for documentary producers of every ilk who are itching to collaborate with others to evolve and expand their storytelling abilities. Filmmakers can also start on the road to multimedia projects simply by exploring sites of Web developers—secret Location, Jam3Media and Turbulent are just a few listed in credits at interactive.nfb.ca—to get a feel for which company might be receptive to a project of a particular scale. (These sites are also a good place to check out the latest “how-the-holy-hell-do-they-do-that” kind of Web tricks.)

But in the midst of this technological whirlwind, at least one thing remains unchanged: the story comes first. And not every story needs an interactive component. The CMF isn’t mandating the demise of the traditional documentary, only that a documentary be distributed across at least two platforms. That could be television and video-on-demand, for the traditional documentary film.

But filmmakers who choose not to take advantage of the Web are, of course, missing the very opportunities that can grant producers autonomy from the rules of funding bodies. In this interconnected world, sometimes all it takes to get a documentary rolling is a good idea and a website.

Coast Modern, a film that explores modern architecture on the West Coast, isn’t finished yet, but already its considerable online audience has purchased film merchandise and attended a promotional event, and its impressive trailer was screened at this year’s Architecture Film Festival in Rotterdam—the word’s premiere festival of its kind.

Coast Modern is an exemplar of a new style of producing documentaries using Web interactivity months, even years, before the camera rolls. As soon as its young Vancouver-based directors, Gavin Froome and Michael Brand, conceived the project, they created a website, started to blog and Twitter about it, and soon interested parties began donating services. A top American branding agency designed the Coast Modern identity; another company offered silk-screened posters. Froome and Brand’s enthusiastic blogs about shoots at architect icons’ houses are now followed by people who at first had googled those architects. The directors’ Twitters are re-tweeted among interested communities. And now, nearly every architecture and design firm plus fans from Long Beach to Whistler are aware of the film, which is aiming for a spring release.

Coast Modern sells film posters on its site to augment funding from Knowledge Network, but it could hit up the crowd-sourced fund-raising service Kickstarter.com to raise an entire budget—as hundreds of other films have done. (In Kickstarter’s words, its service demonstrates that a “good idea, communicated well, can spread fast and wide” and “a large group of people can be a tremendous source of money and encouragement.”) Coast Modern producer Leah Mallen has worked on award-winning film and television projects for 12 years. “I find the process is so different now,” she says. “Prior to this, we’d always make the film and then after completion, we’d build a website to use as a publicity tool. Right now, you want to do that much earlier in the process.”

Coast Modern’s online success, while no Zeitgeist (100 million online-only viewers), is considerable, but it wasn’t “part of a strategic plan,” admits Mallen. For the directors, “it’s simply a natural way to communicate. Everybody’s online. Especially designers; it’s a very active communicating community. They’re all aware of each other. This is the new reality.”

Coast Modern has interacted with its audience on the Web since the film’s inception. At interactive.nfb.ca, the interaction occurs during viewings. For every viewing, internet-based technology has given the audience an experience with multiple options, points of view and participants. Just like real life does. And is that not what documentary filmmakers strive to portray?

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