Taking place on Saturday, April 20th in NYC, Tribeca Film Institute’s 2013 Interactive Day was chock-full of insights for filmmakers who are exploring the digital space for storytelling. POV was representing on the ground, in the Twitterverse, and even on stage with Director of POV Digital, Adnaan Wasey, as a member of the panel “Glue it, Code it, Tweak it, Play it” about the relationship between computer programming and storytelling.
Here are five top takeaways from the day:
1. Make meaningful connections
Almost every project featured throughout the day had significant collaborative components, and creating authentic audience connections was a shared primary goal. By letting the internet do what it does best, we can generate and include dialogue within our stories that makes them even more powerful.
Deanna Zandt, co-founder and partner of Lux Digital, focused on the power of social media tools as “relationship management” devices. She provided examples of data points to prove that audience engagement in stories deepens with authentic connections. In her 2012 project Planned Parenthood Saved Me, women’s stories were collected on a very basic Tumblr site. The site features no bells and whistles, but the voices represented are sharing stories that other women can connect to–so much so that it turns out the unique visits on pages two and three were almost as high as those on page one.
These same concepts drove keynote speaker Tiffany Shlain’s Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto, which focuses on using the cloud collaboratively and highlighting humanity’s universal connectedness. Branching out from Shlain’s 2012 feature documentary Connected, the ongoing series of cloud films created by her team have been comprised of internet submissions from all over the world.
2. Don’t throw out what works just because it’s old
New whiz-bang tools are being launched every day to enhance our storytelling and distribution capabilities, but that doesn’t mean that we need to use them all, or that we should never use more traditional or out-of-fashion platforms. Each story delivery method – from oral tradition to TV to Google glasses – does what it does best in a way that can’t be replicated by the others.
If anyone would evangelize digital storytelling movements, it would be Caspar Sonnen, curator of the IDFA DocLab. However, in his TFI Interactive presentation he cautioned, “The paradigm of new replacing old is not always appropriate. The evolution of technology is not always in sync with the language we have to utilize it. It’s messier than that.” Sonnen wistfully expressed that, “I think its easier to define what an interactive documentary is today than what a newspaper is.” He suggests checking out MIT and IDFA’s Moments of Innovation to remind us of how past technological developments have informed the interactive documentary movement of today.
A good example of a contemporary project using slightly older technology is New Day, New Standard, by Marisa Jahn, a 2013 TFI New Media Fund grantee who presented her project. New Day, New Standard is a series of narrative audio plays intended to inform immigrant women of privileges granted to them under 2010’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Because her target audience generally has greater access to land lines than computers, Jahn and her collaborators decided to design the project’s main component as an interactive call-in hotline, rather than, say, an iPad app.
3. Become code literate
The panel discussion “Glue it, Code it, Tweak it, Play it” extolled the virtues of programming languages as storytelling tools, even delving into emerging genres such as “coding-driven film.” Featuring such coding gurus as Reshma Saujani who founded Girls Who Code to encourage high school girls to get techie, the panel urged all the filmmakers in the room to at least begin to understand the coding process. It’s not that we all need to become experts in computer programming, but basic coding literacy is becoming more and more relevant, especially if we are considering working with programmers to create interactive components or extensions for our films. As POV’s Adnaan Wasey pointed out, “Understanding how each other thinks is the basis for collaboration. Coders think in terms of rules; filmmakers think in terms of exceptions. Once you get that, communication becomes easier.”
4. Interface is everything
IDFA’s Caspar Sonnen expressed that interface design in interactive projects is at least as important as camera and editing, and boldly claimed on Saturday that, “The age of the interface has only just begun.”
Filmmaker Jessica Oreck and Murmur’s Mike Knowlton were first paired up at POV’s first Hackathon in August 2012, and their ensuing collaboration took the main stage at TFI Interactive. Oreck’s film Aatsinki: The Story Of Arctic Cowboys premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and she and Knowlton discussed the evolution of its interactive component The Aatsinki Season. For them, interface design was the key to keeping the quiet and contemplative nature of the film in tact, while incorporating participatory elements.
Knowlton shared some words of wisdom that could apply to any interactive project. “Keep it simple. User interface should be transparent. The best UI is one you’re not aware of.” His final piece of advice was also universal to filmmakers: “Now is an amazing time to be a storyteller, so cowboy up, stop talking and start making!”
5. Give back to the cloud
Another principle of Tiffany Shlain’s Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto was that we should be contributing as much to the cloud as we are taking from it, to keep the cycle of giving in motion, and to stay connected to each other in real ways. To achieve this, Shlain and her team have offered to customize their short, inspirational films with the “ask” and logos of non-profit organizations to help further their causes. So far, over 100 groups have taken her up on it.
Several of these themes resonated in filmmaker and futurist Jason Silva’s enthusiastic presentation “Story + Wonder.” In his video on the concept of “radical openness,” he celebrates the best potential of the cloud, which parallels the best potential of storytelling: open exchange of ideas to inspire awe and create meaning in the world.