A Well of Untapped Creative Possibility

This semester, I have the privilege of teaching “The Connected Documentary,” a graduate course at the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program. Everyone in the course will help conceive, shoot, and code a short form web-based documentary.

This course is a laboratory. It starts with the observation that though web video has been ubiquitous since at least 2005, it’s still essentially “TV in a web page.”

The video content on most pages lives in a sort of black box. It’s a piece of linear, unchanging media with a play button. It’s not connected in any way to the rest of the elements on the page, or to the wider web. In that way, it’s hardly different from how moving images were created and consumed before the web.

At the same time, the web—with a range of new technologies and affordances—offers a very deep well of untapped creative possibility.

We sometimes get a glimpse of possible creative futures, as with the oft-cited “Wilderness Downtown” video by Chris Milk and the Google Creative Lab. In Milk’s piece—a music video for the indie group The Arcade Fire—the elements of the video are brought together procedurally to give each viewer a unique experience. Each viewer must share the address of their childhood home before viewing. Using the address provided by the viewer, the video fetches maps and streetview images from Google and layers them into the experience, amplifying the sense of nostalgia that’s created by the song.

Bear 71

Or, to take a more recent (and documentary!) example—Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison’s “Bear 71,” a web-based documentary about a radio-collared bear being tracked in the Canadian Rockies. Bear 71 explores how way humans engage with wildlife in the age of networks, satellites, and digital surveillance. The project uses smartphones, camera access, locational data and other technologies to so viewers can viscerally experience “how the wired world and the wild world interact.”

What makes these projects extraordinary is not just the technical wizardry, but the way in which the technique is used to elicit an emotional response.

This phenomenon suggests that web technologies—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, open data APIs—can become go-to drivers of story, along with other technologies like cameras, lighting, makeup, sound mixing, non-linear editing, and computer graphics.

And in the same way that these technologies evolved the craft of storytelling, and gave storytellers new tropes (like, say , “montage”), the web will change the way that stories are conceived and executed.

But one thing will not change: that everything a storyteller does with technology must reinforce the story. All the widgets in the world are useless without an engaging story.

The emerging field of web-native documentary—which includes the work of Kat Cizek and colleagues at the NFB, UnionDocs, and French broadcaster Arte—is experimenting with how to use technology to better tell stories. In the process, a range of creative technologists are helping to drive innovation in the form.

Kat Cizek's "1 Millionth Tower" for NFB

Why documentary?

If you consider the nature of documentary, “web-native” stories seem like a natural fit. Jon Grierson, father of documentary, described documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality.” And there is plenty of “actuality” out there that filmmakers can draw into a web experience.

In documentary and journalism, you must do research. This research can find its way into connected storytelling in interesting ways.

In documentary and journalism, you are portraying the motivations and concerns of real people—and you can connect them through the social web in interesting ways.

The stories in documentary and journalism are often backed up by data. You might want to use that data to give viewers interesting ways to explore your story.

Unlike fiction, connected non-fiction need not be contrived. There’s no suspension of disbelief necessary to make the story work. There’s no danger of the fourth wall being broken.

Of course, there are many different modes of non-fiction. Scholar Bill Nichols distinguishes between the aesthetically driven “Poetic” mode of early Soviet documentarians; the constructed narratives of the “Expository” mode; the journalistic style of the “Observational” mode; and the subjective, personality-driven “Participatory” mode employed by people like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore.

Do these modes still accurately describe the field, when the field includes personalization through the Facebook graph, live data, interactivity, branching narratives, and user voices?

Or do we need to rethink the craft (and perhaps, the very meaning) of documentary?

In 14 weeks, the participants of the Connected Documentary will make some interesting experiments. But equally important—they will develop a style and language to describe this emerging form of storytelling.

I am really looking forward to the semester! Follow the blog to see what the participants will be working on.

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