Feed Me A Story
The members of the Feed Me A Story project team have an ambitious ultimate goal in mind — the creation of an iPad app that will draw from the stories, sense memories and recipes they’ve drawn out of interview subjects by asking food related questions — what might become a documentary book.
Soon after starting hacking, the scope of their ambition dawned on filmmaker/artist Theresa Loong. “There’s so much to do and such a short period of time,” she said.
Over the first day, the team hoped to develop an idea of the interactive architecture of the app, how content will be highlighted for the viewer and how relationship the supplementary recipe information will have to their video content.
One of their initial challenges was making sure that everyone’s vision for the app was aligned.
“Wireframes put in a visual way what we’d been thinking about,” filmmaker/artist Laura Nova explains. “Once it’s on paper there’s no risk of miscommunication.”
For iOS developer Lauren Hasson, a main consideration was figuring out the team’s minimum viable product (MVP), and then getting down to the nitty gritty of executing necessary tasks.
“You have to prioritize the objectives,” Hasson said, or else run the risk of getting derailed — a daunting prospect given the hack’s short timeframe.
But Nova admits that expanding beyond the MVP remains a tantalizing prospect. “You’re worried that you might not be able to have the opportunity to work on the project again,” she said.
The team’s ideation phase was a time consuming one, and Hackathon mentor Philippe Pierre lended his experience to help the team isolate and prioritize tasks. In order to make the most of their limited time, the team adopted a parallel-development approach, where the visual design and the coding work are broken into two different tracks, with team members working on both at the same time.
StoryCorps Audio Slideshows
For the StoryCorps team, the main challenge was to provide listeners with a new path to their impressive corpus of work, much of which is hidden away in the show’s website archives.
StoryCorps producers Michael Garofalo and Isaac Kestenbaum realized that to undermine the show’s well-crafted linear narratives would be a mistake. So how then to engage users without detracting from the heart of the show — it’s stories?
Instead of fundamentally reconceptualizing the content, the team was working on ways to create new paths to it. “We don’t have a big incentive to change the stories, we want to make what we do additive,” said developer Antonio Kaplan.
Much of their energy was focused on what Kaplan calls experiential design, figuring out what cues or motivations could be drawn upon to lead an audience to the work.
“We’re trying to figure out how to take a story done in 2006 and make it relevant to somebody today,” said Garofalo.
One idea the team came up with was to imbue the archived work with context and relevance by relating it to topical news stories. In practice, that would mean using interest in the Mars rover landing to draw attention to related StoryCorps pieces, even if in a somewhat abstracted sense, such as an interview with an amateur astronomer who’s built his own observatory.
Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys
Of all the teams at the Hackathon, the members of the Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys project appear to have done the most prep work. In fact, the team held two face-to-face meetings in the days leading up to the hack, with the first focused on the ideation phase of project design that most other teams were occupying themselves with on Saturday morning.
Filmmaker Jessica Oreck said that the flow of ideas at one of these pre-hack huddles led her to reconsider some of the content she had wanted to use.
“I had shown up with a written element, but I left that day and rewrote everything,” she said.
Things were made easier when developers Mike Knowlton and Hal Siegel found the minimalist concept and aesthetic of Oreck’s film, an 83-minute long direct cinema piece about Finnish reindeer herders that has about nine minutes of dialogue in it, reflective of their own creative approach.
“[The Hackathon project] couldn’t be too complicated. I wanted it to be stripped down to match the feeling of the movie,” explains Oreck.
By their second meeting, the team was already putting thought into wireframes, the elements used as the blueprint for the project’s user experience. And Siegel even managed to get an early jump on screen designs.
The Op-Video team has the most journalistic flavor of the bunch, which makes sense given that members Susan McGregor and Lam Thuy Vo were once colleagues at the Wall Street Journal.
Their project attempts to repurpose the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ admittedly dry data on unemployment by adding layers of interactivity, and presenting everything through the captivating aesthetic of Posner’s quirky hand-drawn animations.
All of the team members have enough familiarity with coding concepts to speak to each other in a developer’s shorthand that’s inscrutable to me, given my limited experience with programming concepts. But the benefit for the team is clearly that it allows them to communicate with efficiency, and that all members can collaborate easily on content creation and coding duties.
Their ad-hoc approach has also made the team the loosest-feeling, and is reflected in Posner’s definition of a minimum viable product.
“For me, it’s figuring out what I would want to click on,” he explained simply.
The team’s trial-and-error approach has also resulted in some stumbling blocks, such as when a chunk of code taken from a library was tweaked for use, only to later be discovered to be the source of rendering problems. Despite the fact that the reworking of the code took two hours, the team remained undeterred. McGregor, exhibiting a glass-half-full mentality, sees those sorts of obstacles as learning opportunities.
“When something doesn’t work is when you find out the most about how things actually work,” she said.
Living Los Sures
The Living Los Sures team’s objective stands a bit apart from the others. UnionDocs artistic director Christopher Allen hoped to come out of the Hackathon with a production tool that could be used by artists participating in the organization’s collaborative program who may not have any experience with programming.
The project aims to use the 1984 Diego Echeverria film Los Sures as a launching point for an examination of the history of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, by annotating the movie with additional content.
The morning of their first hack day was spent figuring out the scaffolding for content — video and audio. Communication between the content creation side of the team (Allen and Collaborative Studio Director Andre Almeida) and the coding side (developers Danny Bowman and Kyle Warren) seemed to be humming. That’s likely aided by the fact that Allen and Almeida have been immersed in the ideas surrounding interactive documentary for quite some time.
“For some filmmakers who are not as familiar with this world, it may be difficult,” said Almeida, who is currently working on a doctorate degree on interactive documentary. Allen has the advantage of having worked with coders several times before, most recently at the Hot Hacks event hosted by Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival back in April.
For coder Bowman, the largest hurdle was figuring out the initial plan for the interactive design, and how users might approach it. “It’s not a traditional, linear path. You have to consider what the user’s motivations are,” he said. Bowman, also with experience at a hackathon, warned that projects go wrong when when are too ambitious, a conclusion with which Warren concurred.
“Having a vision is important. Having a vision of something that will take longer than two days to create is a problem,” he said.