Hollow is a web-based documentary and participatory project that examines the future of rural America through the residents of West Virginia’s McDowell County. After the project launched in June 2013, along with a showcase as a New York Times Op-Doc, it was lauded by the Huffington Post’s Jason Linkins as “the most magnificently presented, web-aware journalism I’ve ever seen.”
But for students, the project is also primer for how to make the most of the college experience — Director Elaine McMillion leveraged resources at Emerson College, where she was earning an MFA, to produce Hollow. In this conversation, McMillion offers a number of lessons she learned along the way.
Tell us about the development process for Hollow.
Elaine McMillion: I started my MFA at Emerson College in 2010. I came up with doing something about rural brain drain and youth exodus in 2009, after I had left West Virginia. When I graduated from my undergraduate degree from West Virginia University in 2009 and moved to DC, I saw most of my friends leave the state, and it was something that I had always planned on doing because there’s not a huge amount of opportunity as a filmmaker. This is a story that needs to be told, it is ongoing, and young people continue to leave small towns across the country every day.
It’s been a tough story to tell, because I’m still in Boston and not returning to West Virginia right now. I’m the face of this youth exodus that we are talking about in this project, so it’s a difficult story to come to terms with for myself.
How did you balance the production of Hollow with attending grad school?
Elaine McMillion: I went to Emerson because I felt like I was on a very straight path of documentary film and journalism, which was great and something I really, really enjoy, but I wanted to challenge myself and push the limits. All the additional research and reading I did outside of classes supplemented the few sparks from classes I had to help push me in this direction more.
The biggest benefit from grad school was the people and meeting the amazing team I worked with. I know many filmmakers out there who want to work on projects like this, and it’s really hard to put a team together. I think it was a really nice collaboration that we had of a bunch of post-graduates and current students from Emerson working together. It took a lot of people with skills that they had gained at Emerson to really do this. With Emerson’s location in Boston — a fun place to be for small projects like this — the environment opens itself to us working collaboratively.
Grad school is a big decision to make. It’s three years, very intense, and in the case of Emerson you have to be full time. So potentially, we could have rolled out Hollow on a different timeline if weren’t all on a class schedule. But, we have never have referred to this as a student work and I don’t think anyone at Emerson would either, we really treated it as a small agency work in a lot of ways.
The team came together organically as I was finding there were many skills I needed to bring onto the team to fully make this what I wanted this to be, and it needed to be skills outside of filmmaking.
I don’t necessarily think that grad school or a formal education is needed in the form. I think what’s needed is a talented team, and the sooner that you can find the individuals that have the skills that you don’t have and get in a room and start brainstorming, the better. I think that as a filmmaker or journalist it’s very different for us to approach creating these works because we have to think about what we never really had to, which is different “user experiences” and pathways. When we edit a linear film, there’s essentially one experience. People may have different emotions about it, or feel differently about it, but we edit for those points where people react a certain way. Whereas for an interactive project, you have to work with someone who is very knowledgeable about designing the pathways of a user, and making sure all those pathways are meaningful interactions throughout.
Was your vision always for it to be an interactive documentary?
Elaine McMillion: This was a story that I’ve wanted to tell for quite a long time. Since I come from a linear film and journalism background, I always thought it’d just be a linear film. After going to McDowell in 2011 during my first bit of research shooting and meeting people, I realized that it was a story that was really complex and deserved the attention of something that combined not only videos, but photos, data visualization with archival information and photographs. It was a little unsettling for me to think of this as a film that had just an end, whereas with Hollow being interactive and a new media project, it’s able to grow and change and develop in new ways. It also allowed us to bring many more voices to the table and cover a lot of issues that now the user can explore at their own interest.
What other advice do you have for new interactive producers?
Elaine McMillion: My biggest advice is to respect the talents of others. Don’t just see the developer and the architect as someone you just hand off your media to, but actually be open to collaborating. A lot of the time, a filmmaker wants to be in control of everything. In these situations, you have to be open to new ideas and willing to collaborate. It was a big lesson for me, because I directed, edited and produced every film I’ve worked on in the past. Collaboration was really between me and the people I was filming. So, find the people who respect the story, but also have the skills that you don’t have. And that’s difficult, but you can go to hackathons, meetups and festivals to tell people about your project and try to get them hooked for the story. I always hate to see projects that put technology before the story because it’s just a fad. If you want your story to last, you have to know your story, if that’s what is important to you. Really get out there, start talking to people about what you’re trying to achieve, and why you believe it should be this new form.
For Hollow, the site is very video heavy, we have over three hours of video content on the web. That’s very expensive, our server costs are really high to keep it up and running every month. What advice I didn’t get, which I wish I would have gotten in the beginning, was to think more about the strength of photography in certain situations and audio in others. I really went down to McDowell last summer filming everything I saw. I was training kids how to film and it was so video heavy. I didn’t understand as a filmmaker the costs involved with that going into it. It’s important to think about stories in more than one way.
What’s the long-term vision for Hollow?
Elaine McMillion: Right now we’re looking for “sister” towns and filmmakers who have connections to these places, are interested in documenting them and collaborating with local communities. [Connect with the Hollow team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.] In many ways it’s a continuation of Hollow, but in others it’s a new thing.
We’re considering different ways to distribute the content, like through audio books in local libraries and developing exhibitions. We want to tap into the larger story of the nationwide issue by creating a platform for young people who have left to submit their story, no matter where they have gone.
I have had a lot of people contact me saying that Hollow is exactly what they want to do with their project. We’re trying to do some consultations with people and let them know that their project should be unique. What works for Hollow took many months to develop, and we went through many ideas before we landed on the one that we did, so we’re trying to get people to slow down a little bit. A lot of people just want to plug their stuff right into our site. There’s a lot of things down the road for us, I’m looking forward to keeping up the steam and keeping the conversation up on what’s happening across the country in small towns.
McMillion notes that the project was very collaborative, and wants to acknowledge the other team members: Jeff Soyk (Art Director/Designer and Architect), Tricia Fulks (Associate Producer and Researcher), Nathaniel Hansen (Project Manager and Producer), Robert Hall (Technical Director and Senior Developer), Russell Goldenberg (Interactive Developer), Sarah Ginsburg (Editor), Kerrin Sheldon (Editor), and Billy Wirasnik (Sound Designer).
If you’re in New York in September 2013, you’ll have three opportunities to find out more about the making of Hollow — at StoryCode (Sept. 17), IFP Filmmaker Conference (Sept. 19) and the New York Film Festival (Sept. 29). For a full list of upcoming events, visit hollowdocumentary.com.