Hot Docs: processing… processing… and action!

10 05 2010

There is a lot of talk about “this year” being “the year of change”. This year, 2010, will be the year after which directors and distributors, editors and producers, new media drivers and old-schoolers will say the industry “was never the same.”

What shift? you ask. Oh just the biggest change in the past century. Just a fundamental shift in the way personal stories and information about society and the way we live are presented, processed, distributed, advertised and consumed.

This sea-change has been here for quite awhile of course, but no other media sector has been as slow to adapt or grasp how fundamentally different they are going to have to think, as directors and producers of documentary film. I mean it makes sense: a project takes on average four year to complete, they’re already the most difficult to finance and sell in the current market, and docs really haven’t changed that much in the past 50 years. It makes sense that this shift in thinking would take awhile to penetrate.

But it’s unarguably here, as those attending the panel discussion “The Poetics of Online Documentary” at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada last week, heard and witnessed. We can no longer ignore it.

Hot Docs panel "The Poetics of Online Documentary": Florian Thalhofer is musing on the right.

During the panel, the interactive music app City Sonic was discussed as an example of how films about personal stories can be presented in different platforms – user’s phones, for example – and tied to a particular location. The company makes a game out of location-based films and having users access bonus content and compete for prizes, coupons, downloads, tickets, etc. The music lover can access rare audio of a favourite band, obscure bootleg archival material, or the history behind a band’s favourite venue – all on the phone while they’re actually in a location linked to the story. Corporate sponsors are obviously very interested because anytime you can track a consumer and get a read on their spending habits or interests, advertising to them gets a lot easier.  David Oppenheim, interactive producer for Kensington Inc., the program’s developper, made a compelling argument for how filmmakers can start thinking outside the traditional box of theatre rooms and festivals as the only places to show their work.

Another interesting presentation was by director-in-residence Kat Cizek of Highrise Canada, (NFB) talking about exploring and creating multimedia web docs.  She showed a part of the soon-to-be released doc called “Out My Window” that uses 360 degree cameras to take the viewer into people’s apartments in different cities around the world. The viewer/consumer sees on the site an apartment building with a bunch of windows, when you click on one you are suddenly in an apartment in Amsterdam, or Paris. The video camera is a spookily vertigo-inducing tool that puts the viewer seemingly inside a sphere. As you roll your mouse up the walls, to the ceiling, it seamlessly brings you up and over again (*feels like falling*) to the floor on the other side. The tool was developed by YellowBird and uses Google cameras shooting at 24 f/p/s,  stiching them together inside a virtual sphere. Anyway. (you can tell I have no idea how this works, but let me tell you, it looks cool.)

You can click on different objects in the room and get a short story about them, a mini film, and so the viewer dictates the order of scenes, the length of time they spend on any single topic or theme. It’s non-linear viewing, perfectly adapted to the digital native who wants control over how they view the story.

Florian Thalhofer talking about non-linear storytelling.

The most compelling arguments for interactive documentaries came from Florian Thalhofer, the Berlin-based inventor of the Korsakow system. He showed what he’s doing with his latest project The Bridge of Istanbul (find his videoblog of it here) and he says traditional storytelling will never come back: it’s officially dead. Long live non-linear.

You could tell it was a struggle for Annette Bradford, the CBC’s interactive producer, to sell the corporation’s latest cutting edge venture, One Ocean. First of all it didn’t load nearly as fast as the other demos did. We were waiting quite some time to find out what it was and when it was shown, it basically seemed to be a kiddie game of underwater exploration. Still, education and fun for those under 12s to learn about the world and what we’re doing to our oceans – is not a bad thing. It just didn’t seem that cutting edge after Highrise, Korsakow and City Sonic. But that’s the CBC. You can count on them to be there, but I doubt they’re developing anything new. They seem to be just cutting their teeth on what’s already happening online.

Will write more, this will have to satisfy for now.

Onwards and outwards, the digital revolution marches on… May the documentary sector swiftly catch up (without too many falling by the wayside.)

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