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Screen Edge 2016: Interactive documentary

NZ On Air’s Brenda Leeuwenberg led a panel discussion on the world of interactive documentary at the Screen Edge Forum, with Keiko Bang of LIC Bang, China; Tishna Molla, of Bandit HQ, London; and local Leon Kirkbeck of Augusto.

While the session wasn’t about semantics, speakers acknowledged a lack of consistency in the definitions of certain technologies and platforms, prefacing remarks with their own interpretations of some of those terms.

Molla differentiated interactive from immersive by noting that an essentially passive experience, such as racing a book or watching a film, could be immersive; an interactive experience required an action had an effect on the story – it might be as simple as a mouse click or swipe but effectively made a choice.

There was a little discussion about the tech involved in virtual reality, augmented reality, 360, but the speakers seemed to agree that, regardless of the tech involved, the job was to create a connection between audience and content.

In a separate presentation, Molla expanded on the use of various social media platforms and tools to drive specific aspects of the relationship between creators and audiences, acknowledging some projects the line became very blurred as part of a project’s aim might be to encourage creation as well as engagement.

Bang and Kirkbeck discussed the changes in visual grammar which came with interactive experiences. The traditional language of filmmaking, much of which Bang ascribed to Eisentein’s Battleship Potemkin, didn’t work so well for 360 and interactive storytelling where audiences might have the power to make decisions about how long to engage with any particular aspect of a story. Some aspects of filmmaking from the era of silent film to which Potemkin belongs are coming back, Kirkbeck noted.

With the need on Facebook to opt in to hearing sound on videos, Kirkbeck noted an increasing number of agency and advertiser briefs now required a piece of content to work without sound.

Without all those cues and clues that audiences are used to, older audiences at least, there was confusion. Leeuwenberg noted reluctance on the part of audience members (herself included) to depart from the main thread of a story for fear of not being able to find their way back. She also noted that, in terms of interactive documentary which NZ On Air has been trying to support, there’s still quite a lack of understanding of the possibilities of online-first and non-linear storytelling, of how to create content that encourages people to lean forward rather than sit back.

Bang also referenced the changing make-up of creative teams and the rise of the coder within such teams. While she said that one didn’t need to know how to code, she made a strong case for understanding the work coders did and the ways in which code could deliver outcomes – something Doc Edge’s Story Edge has been working towards.

“Can I think of a new way to tell a story using these new tools?” Bang asked. While she didn’t answer the question, she pointed out that in the very connected markets of Japan and Korea, 40%+ of advertiser spend was now being directed online, so it was well worth the effort of seeking answers to the question.

Molla noted that, while film and television’s ventures into new technologies were largely driven by a desire to mitigate the diminishing returns of a dying business model, book publishers in particular were exploiting the possibilities in much more positive ways.

She cited Penguin, whose Susan Bolsover spoke at last year’s Asian Licensing Conference about the expansion of traditional publishing into the online environment. NZ-UK company Beyond The Story is also active in the space, most recently on its work with ITV and Pukeko on Thunderbirds Are Go.

In practical terms Kirkbeck suggested it was difficult to tack interactivity on to a project without redoing a lot of work already completed – something Molla also noted in her own presentation. Molla also encouraged people not to assume that every project would suit being made for interactive, as some topics simply didn’t suit it.

The participants also discussed the different length of time that 360 or immersive content might work for – from porn through to more serious encounters, such as a project which placed the audience in the role of a nurse in Africa during an Ebola outbreak.

Does the tech help or hinder?

Bang and Molla both noted that there were also potential cons to the level of immersion that some interactive projects offered. While we talk about interactivity as being a positive experience in comparison with passive consumption, it’s also often a very solitary activity that doesn’t meet our needs for social interaction.

There’s still a market for material people want to watch together – live sports are an obvious example. “People want those communal experiences. Remember what the story is and who you want to tell it to,” encouraged Molla.

Top image: Leon Kirkbeck, Tishna Molla, moderator Brenda Leeuwenberg, and Keiko Bang
Photo: Deane Cohen

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