This interview by Hal Siegel originally appeared in the newsletter of StoryCode, an open-source, global community for emerging and established cross-platform and immersive storytellers. The StoryCode Ten is a regular interview series that examines how leading interactive storytellers are defining the medium. Subscribe to the StoryCode newsletter here.
A hidden synagogue in the mountains of Indonesia. A Dutch-style village in the Sri Lankan rainforest. A white separatist enclave in the South African desert. These are just a few of the communities brought to light in Empire, an immersive documentary project that examines the still-unfolding legacy of Dutch colonialism.
Shot in ten countries over four years by the Dutch-American filmmaking team Eline Jongsma & Kel O’Neill (aka Jongsma + O’Neill), Empire employs a broad range of storytelling techniques—including nonfiction filmmaking, multi-channel video projection, and experience design—to unearth the contemporary aftershocks of the world’s first brush with global capitalism. By turns epic and intimate in its approach, Empire explores the ways in which the conditions of past continue to define our lives in the present.
Empire‘s installations and interactive videos will be a highlight of the New York Film Festival’s Convergence program and will be on display at several venues on the Lincoln Center campus. Viewers are invited to chart their own course through the work, and to draw their own thematic connections as they go.
The Empire project spans ten countries over six continents. Principal photography took four years. Was it always intended to be so ambitious?
Kel O’Neill: When we started Empire, I don’t think we had any grand ambition, or at least I didn’t. We were just seriously burnt out at our jobs and being in the US, itching to try a different approach to filmmaking. We’d been working as a two-person documentary crew for a Dutch television/internet program for a couple of years. We got the job right as the financial crisis was hitting. We ended up spending the better part of 2008 and 2009 traveling around the US filming shorts that all seemed to be, in one way or another, about the decay of the American system.
One of the last straws was this film we made about a hospital in Baltimore where they do pre-deployment training for Air Force surgeons—the logic being that the wounds you run into in Baltimore are really similar to what you see in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was just such an intense concept: the empire using its internal decay as a kind training course for its “overseas adventures.”
The footage we got was amazing, but the show’s producers weren’t into our (admittedly expressionistic) approach to the material. They asked us to re-cut, and, after a long back and forth, everybody ended up with a product that they didn’t fully stand behind. We were slowly drifting toward a more experimental approach to narrative, and needed to strike out on our own. To test our voice, I guess.
Eline Jongsma: I would actually describe the project as ambitious from the start. Early on in the project’s development during our residency in Sri Lanka we realized that the world’s population is connected across continents, in this case through history’s arbitrary events. We really were excited about trying to find that colonialism “vein,” you can compare it to examining one slice of a brain scan I guess. We just didn’t know it would take 4 years of our lives.
How did the project begin?
Kel: Right around that time, we were invited to participate in an artist’s residency in Sri Lanka. We spent the month working on what would become the first Empire piece. At the time, we didn’t know if we were filming a short film or a video installation, or something in between. We just knew it felt good to be autonomous, to look at the environments we found and the people we encountered through our own perspective, and to shape the material instinctually—to figure out what we were making by making it.
Since then, the approach has been very day-by-day. We work on what’s in front of us, and over time our output has grown. We made a lot of space for Empire in our lives. We gave away most of our possessions or put them into storage, we gave up our apartment in Brooklyn, and kept our costs low by keeping our crew limited to pretty much us.
The great thing about being so stripped down is that the creative process can be truly improvisational. You have to put a lot of effort into organizing and conceptualizing, but once you’re working you’re able to make split-second decisions, and work straight off the subconscious. Evidently, our shared subconscious is obsessed with societal decay, because it seems to have remained one of our primary obsessions, even after we left the US.
The stories that you have uncovered seem to shift back and forth from otherworldliness to banality. What was your process like for finding these strange people and places?
Eline: We start with some historical research relating to (Dutch) colonization, and try to find the humanity in that. After that we see if the historical relates at all to contemporary culture, and in what ways.
Kel: The process of finding individuals is mysterious. Many times we start our research by saying “wouldn’t it be interesting if this thing existed?” and then we go out into the world and find that thing. The Nazi re-enactors in Indonesia, for instance. We just kind of knew that they were out there before we had any proof.
Eline: We have to pitch to each other first, which tends to mean that only the most obscure and weird stories make the cut.
Empire started as a transmedia project that incorporates filmmaking, journalism and video art. Now you have begun to add interactivity. Why?
Kel: We view the interactive version of Empire as a necessary extension the project. It’s all about accessibility: if we want these stories out there, we have to liberate them from the festival and exhibition space, and put them on a platform that is accessible to a diverse, global audience. At the same time, linear formats like DVD and traditional online video can’t really reflect the Empire experience as it was originally conceived.
Part of the experience of watching Empire is wandering from screen to screen, from story to story, taking in all of these different perspectives and drawing your own connections as you go. Empire‘s viewers are allowed a degree of autonomy, so interactive online media seemed like the right fit.
The work now is about transposing a 3D physical experience to the 2D world of the web. Most of the time this is an incredibly rewarding way to spend our time and creative energies. It’s also scary because we’re used to being DIY about things, but that’s not an option anymore. Luckily we’re working with two people, developer Sam Bailey and designer Clint Beharry, who are genuinely excited to do some conceptual skydiving and create work that’s experimental and new.
Let’s talk more about working with a designer and a developer. In what ways has that changed your process?
Kel: We have to accept a whole new set of limitations. As filmmakers, we know that you don’t film at certain times of day, or that certain shots don’t edit together well. It can be hard to understand and accept similar limitations in the tech realm—like the fact that you can’t play two videos simultaneously on an iPad, for instance.
Eline: Giving up total control sucks. But Clint and Sam are awesome, and very patient with us.
For the installation at NYFF, has it been challenging to integrate the more traditional video with the interactive parts?
Kel: The IDFA premiere was about a big presentation: big screens, big sound system, all of the work in one place. With NYFF, we’re spreading Empire all over Lincoln Center, like an infection. There’s a larger assortment of smaller screens scattered over a larger area. The fact that some of these screens are interactive (and others are straight forward video) is mostly a result of where we are in the development process. We’re in the chrysalis stage between installation and interactive, and the presentation reflects that.
Eline: At the same time I hope this setup sends the message that there shouldn’t be such a divide between interactive media and other media, in this case video installation. The word interactive in the context of online media shouldn’t just mean that you can press a button on a screen. That’s an empty gesture on its own.
Interactive media to me is really about the way in which people relate to the screen in front of them. Where long-form narrative uses plot to pull people in, interactive media (and video installations) use story and form to get a message across. In that sense interactive media and video installations go well together.
You prototyped one of the interactive pieces at the POV Hackathon. Now that some time has passed, what lessons did you take from that experience?
Kel: When it comes to UX, simplicity wins. The best interfaces can be explained in a single sentence.
Eline: POV’s catering is excellent, they even brought in beer late at night, so I definitely recommend to filmmakers that they try to participate in one of their hackathon events. Also: feeling like you are part of a community for a couple of days is great. It can get lonely as two filmmakers on the road.
Any advice for filmmakers who are looking to create interactive or immersive works?
Eline: Don’t look, listen too much to what other people are doing and saying, just be bold and develop your own ideas.
Do you have a favorite story from Empire? Personally, I can’t get the Indonesian Nazi-re-enactors out of my head.
Kel: I’m most happy with the thematic connections between the stories: the way that the quarry in India connects to the gold mines in Suriname, or the juxtaposition of the funeral in Sri Lanka with the morgue in The Netherlands. So it’s less about the individual pieces to me, and more about what they form when they get together. It’s the Voltron of transmedia projects.
Eline: I can’t decouple the “making of” from the end results in terms of quality of experience, so this is a very hard question to answer. But one shoot where these two sides come together nicely is in the story from Brazil, in which we went to a remote mountain village where a group of Dutch-descended people have been living in relative isolation for the last 150 years. Naturally everyone is related, as they have not really mixed with the villages around them (long story—racism, religious divide, unpaved roads, etc). Our experience filming there is that we had a hard time differentiating people from each other for the first couple of days. We made fools out of ourselves by going “Hey, great to see you again!” to people we had never met before. We were the weird, foreign city folks in more ways than one. Later during editing the similarities between the town’s people actually worked really well with the shape of the piece.
What’s next for Jongsma + O’Neill?
Eline: We’re starting a new job making videos for De Correspondent so that will be exciting. We’re also hoping to continue developing the final two online Empire adaptations with Clint and Sam. We should be finishing with that in early 2014.
Kel: I’m looking forward to working on some of the ideas we’ve had on the back burner for the past four years. Bring on the new opportunities, the new collaborators. Let’s make something that people have never seen before. Long live the new flesh!
Hal Siegel is a partner at Murmur, a hybrid studio/technology company that pioneers new forms of immersive, cinematic experiences.