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Six pros and cons of interactive documentaries

Six pros and cons of interactive documentaries

Margaret Looney | March 29, 2012

Traditional documentaries are morphing into interactive experiences with the help of new technology and support from big names in the film industry.

The National Film Board of Canada is earmarking about 25 percent of its production funds for these interactive documentaries, producer Gerry Flahive said during a panel titled “Documentary Film and New Technologies” held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

IJNet viewed the webcast for these takeaways.

Advantages:

  1. Interactive documentaries engage audiences without losing a filmmakers' creative vision. Flahive said the move toward interactivity comes from a creative place, not from an imperative to cut costs. Produced by NFB, interactive doc Highrise tells stories from highrise apartments worldwide, maintaining the filmmakers’ voice while giving viewers/users control of their experience.

  2. These typically online films leave behind a digital footprint, enabling data streams to be collected for evaluation. Filmmakers can track how long people view certain segments as well as where they’re coming from... Flahive said people don’t stay for very long, usually just about seven minutes, but they frequently come back for more.

  3. Being less labor-intensive, they are much cheaper to make and have tremendous reach. Also produced by NFB, Waterlife is a collection of online stories about the dwindling water supply in the Great Lakes. The film reached more than 1.5 million visitors worldwide but cost just US$55,000 to make.

Challenges:

  1. Produced on a vastly smaller scale, the quality of these interfaces could be undersold. Ingrid Kopp, new media consultant at the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI), worries that interactive documentaries may come off as gimmicky. “Maybe they don’t have the sort of ‘slamdunk’ effect of a great linear documentary that goes to all the big festivals and wins awards,” she said. “I feel a bit protective of these little experiments growing up and we don’t want to slam them down before they’ve really had a chance to find their space.” Kopp runs the TFI New Media Fund which provides monetary support for documentaries embracing these new technologies.

  2. Interactive documentaries have to collaborate with other disciplines, making most projects more dynamic but also more intricate. Flahive said promising film proposals have been turned down because there wasn’t a body of academic work already existing to support the documentary’s thesis. To weave cooperation between disciplines, Kopp mentioned the Living Docs project, a new collaboration between Mozilla, TFI and others to share information, code and resources about open-source documentary practices on the web.

  3. They need buzz to survive. “It’s not so much in what building or corner we’re going to show this work, but how do we nurture a culture for this work,” said Shari Frilot, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival. Supporting the need for this new culture, she sites the platform New Frontier, a feature of Sundance that creates a space for these new forms of storytelling.

The image shows how users can click on each rectangle for a different story in Director Kevin McMahon's documentary Waterlife.

@margylooney