Wednesday 26 March 2014

Offshore drilling, loneliness and connection in the virtual world, and blindfolding the audience

An online game about the risks and costs of offshore drilling, an iPad experience about loneliness and connection in the virtual world, an installation in which blindfolded participants are guided by audio; these were just some of the cutting-edge documentary projects showcased at the i-Docs Symposium in Bristol last week, and their creators were on hand to give insights into creative processes in the fast-developing world of interactive documentary.

While the growth and commercial success of non-fiction cinema this century has been the big story in documentary, something else has been going on, too – a flourishing of creativity and a rich variety of new forms have been emerging as non-fiction storytellers have discovered the potential of new technology to offer novel and fitting ways to tell stories about our shared world.

In Offshore, Canadians Brenda Longfellow & Mike Robbins of Helios Design Labs explained how they employed a game format to explore the environmental and human risks of deep ocean oil extraction, “The storytelling takes place within the virtual world of a 3D, imagined oil rig… a fog-obscured menacing destination.” i-Docs delegates heard from Mike Robbins how the dark design was inspired by the movie, King Kong; the moody, immersive approach giving a visceral sense of the issues.

In an adjacent theatre Ramona Pringle, a former actress and producer for American Public Broadcasting, previewed, Avatar Secrets for iPad, a documentary for tablet, which explores the real-life story of how Pringle came through a time of personal crisis, finding herself through her virtual character in an online game. “We've moved into a hybrid reality”, Pringle suggested, “the digital isn't in one place and the real in another, they are intertwined.” Her creative challenge was to convey this in an interactive experience. She did it using familiar touch screen technology to create a story that is “linear but layered, where viewers can customize their experience…. digging deeper and navigating their own way“.

Showing as a work-in-progress at i-Docs, Door into the Dark, by British documentarists Amy Rose & May Abdalla of Anagram took the story off the screen altogether. The audience arrived one by one at a side door in the Watershed building where i-Docs was taking place upstairs. On entering, they donned a mask and headphones and navigated their way in the pitch black, with the non-fiction story unfolding on audio, triggered by iBeacon technology. It’s an experience that demands your full attention, and rewards with intensity. @veritymcintosh tweeted; “Heart still racing from the incredible Door Into the Dark… visceral, blindfolded odyssey of a documentary about being lost”.

In his keynote lecture Professor William Uricchio from MIT Open Documentary Lab put these developments into historical perspective. This moment of innovation is not unprecedented, he told the audience. Documentary is a genre that has reinvented itself over the years as new technology has come online. Now, the web, mobile technology, social media, gaming and sensors are allowing work that engages the viewer as an active agent in the documentary experience. Uricchio explained that non-humans are becoming creators too – Narrative Science is a technology company that turns data into stories, and is already creating journalism written by machine.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations the misuses of emerging technology were a recurrent theme. Delegates discussed the need to prioritise purpose and ethics, and agreed that there was a need to develop transparent protocols for new documentary forms. Overall, though, the mood at i-Docs was positive. For a genre that is about communicating and questioning our shared world, these are very interesting times. As Pringle expressed it, "Technology isn't isolating us, it's actually providing us with new ways to connect.”


Mandy Rose is Associate Professor, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Digital Cultures Research Centre, University of the West of England. Avatar Secrets for iPad launches later in 2014.

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