Outside the Frame: Multimedia Documentaries: A Call to Arms

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame.

“Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.”
          — Bertolt Brecht
I’m on a mission, and I need your help.
I want to bridge the gap between documentary filmmakers and those skilled at crafting compelling visual stories online. Our culture needs the stories that the best documentary filmmakers tell, and these stories will reach more people if they’re told online. I’m not talking about distribution — plopping video on a Web page and calling it a day. I’m talking about really embracing the power of the Web — its interactivity, its non-linear nature — and creating a compelling, multimedia storytelling experience online.
A screenshot of the Soul of Athens website

The Soul of Athens website uses images, sound and more to tell the stories of a community.

I’m not alone in this call to arms. If you dig, you’ll find a community of folks who are just as passionate about creating new kinds of visual, interactive narratives online, for the purpose of social good. Tom Kennedy, who built the award-winning multimedia unit at Washingtonpost.com (and before that, was National Geographic‘s director of photography), is a pioneer in this area; back in 2002, he wrote,

“… the Internet permits us to blend still photographs with audio, text, video, and databases to make compelling content that is far richer than print or broadcasting typically deliver. This new world of visual story telling gives us a chance to reinvent the form and to adapt integration of various media types to tell the most compelling possible story.

Visual journalism on the Web offers the chance to tell narrative stories that speak powerfully to underlying truths of the human condition.”

To which I say, “Amen.”
Kennedy went on to say,

“I believe we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the Web ‘s potential as a story-telling device. We’re in our infancy, not unlike Hollywood in the 1920s, radio in the 1930s, or television in the 1950s. It is a time for experimentation and creative ferment as we seek new ways to provide information and stories that enrich the lives of our audience.”

Seven years later, I believe we’re still just scratching the surface. Part of the problem is that the Web has still not sparked the imagination of the documentary filmmaking community in any significant way. Publications and festivals still focus much more on digital distribution than they do on digital storytelling. That’s not to say great multimedia storytelling can’t happen online without the participation of documentary filmmakers — but it thrills me to think about the potential for this new storytelling mode were doc makers to get involved.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be reaching out to filmmakers, digital artists, producers, bloggers, designers, professors and others to generate a dialogue around these issues. If you know someone whose perspective would strengthen this discussion, please let me know. And please help spread the word — I’d love to hear from anyone who feels passionately about any of the issues I’ve raised.
For now, here are some examples of sites that embody the kind of storytelling I’m espousing:

On Being – washingtonpost.com

Soul of AthensZach Wise, executive producer (Zach’s website)

Sicily: A Bridge Too Far? – Mary Spicuza for FRONTLINE/World

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.
  • http://wiredformusic.blogspot.com/ Jordan

    FOREIGNID: 18222
    I think MSNBC’s coverage of Obama’s latest press conference did a great job really using the web as a rich medium to tell the story of the event, as opposed to just “plopping video on a Web page and calling it a day.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29422034#29866115
    The ability to select keywords and see them highlighted in the transcript, select a portion of the transcript to create my own embeddable video clip, search the clip, and even something as simple as enabling closed captions all made this a much more enriching and engaging experience than what I usually get from watching a video online. I think this is a great example of taking existing source material from another medium and really turning it into engaging visual storytelling.

  • Documentary Student

    FOREIGNID: 18223
    I agree!!

  • http://www.amandahirsch.com Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 18224
    Wow – this MSNBC example provides lots of food for thought. My gut reaction is that it’s more about info-parsing than storytelling… but I’m having trouble backing up that argument.
    I’m certainly not the arbiter of what is or is not a story. But to me, it’s more a cool example of interactivity/ video functionality, than a multimedia STORY. Maybe b/c to me, there doesn’t seem to be a narrative intention? In other words: I’m not pulled in, immersed, engaged….instead, I’m focused on options, functionality, choices. If they are attempting storytelling, I guess I’m saying that in my mind, they miss the mark.
    Wow. It’s going to be hard to talk about this without sounding wonky…
    What do others think?

  • http://www.pov.org Andrew

    FOREIGNID: 18225
    I agree. Providing multimedia coverage of an event and aggregating content will always have a different role than storytelling–while MSNBC is able to get even more information into our hands, I still feel like the experience is precisely that of watching a press conference.
    On the other hand, even if you’re talking about multimedia storytelling in its purest form, I think info-parsing is a part of the experience. I started reading “Sicily: a Bridge too Far?”, and found it really engaging. But before we even got on the Messina ferry, I was off on my own, trying to verify that the project got cancelled a couple of years ago and that Berlusconi was now hoping to start it up again.
    As long as the theatre is a web browser, it’s pretty hard to bring people safely through your narrative from beginning to end–no matter how loosely defined that end is. We’re always one mouse move away from “clicking off,” which no longer even means you’re changing the channel. You might be SO interested in something new that you’re just going deeper–leaving the poor storyteller behind.
    Does this serve the story, which is what any good documentary filmmaker would hope for? Do I just have a short attention span?

  • http://www.amandahirsch.com Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 18226
    Andrew, great points. What does it mean for the storyteller that you could be viewing their work in one tab and toggling back and forth between that, Twitter, email, and an online newspaper? I think this is a very important question as increasingly, that’s the information/media environment we live in. Maybe you aren’t “losing” people if they click off, as long as they come back at some point? Or does strong storytelling mean keeping people focused on your content and your content alone until it’s been fully consumed, however you might define “fully consumed”? I have more questions than answers, obviously – very curious to hear others’ thoughts.

  • http://journey.honkytonk.fr Arnaud

    FOREIGNID: 18227
    Thanks for these great citation of Tom Kennedy which deeply resonates with our efforts at Honkytonk Films, the production company I run in Paris and which latest interactive narrative project, Journey to the End of Coal, was premiered at SXSW09.
    Looking forward for more discussion on this here and there.