At the Crossroads of Documentary Storytelling and Emerging Digital Tools

Last Saturday it was standing room only at the Bay Area Video Coalition’s (BAVC) public conference day at Tribeca Cinemas in New York City. The day kicked off BAVC’s popular Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, and a jam-packed line-up of speakers and presentations explored how makers can use emerging tools and platforms to deepen the documentary storytelling experience and empower social change.

The BAVC Producers Institute has been instrumental in pushing the boundaries of public media by helping producers (mostly filmmakers) use emerging technologies to engage their audiences. Selected producers and their teams spend 10 days developing a prototype of a multi-platform project that’s either inspired by or based on their documentary project. At the end of the 10 days, producers get to present their prototypes to a roomful of funders. It’s a model that is innovative and proven. For more info, visit the BAVC site.

Here are some key takeaways gleaned from the day-long intensive for producers looking to venture into the transmedia realm:

MORE THAN THE WEB:  A common mistake is thinking that the web is there only to supplement one’s production. New media has the power to engage audiences in a way that traditional outlets can’t, said BAVC presenter and mentor Kat Cizek, the National Film Board of Canada’s Filmmaker in Residence. She shows how to create that deep experience in her web only immersive documentary Out My Window. Prepare to have your mind blown as you click through her 360° documentary that explores the urban high-rise.

DIGITAL-MINDED: Think through how you want to use digital media at the same time that you’re developing your story idea. It should not be an afterthought, but instead be part of your plan from day one. And if you can develop your web presence early enough, it could be a valuable tool in attracting funding if you can prove that you already have an audience who is invested in your project.

PRODUCTION WITH A PURPOSE: Avoid using technology simply for the sake of technology. Just because you can build it, it doesn’t mean that you should. Think through which platforms make the most sense for your audience and go from there rather than trying to use all of them, explained the Project Factory’s Jennifer Wilson. She is one of the developers behind Making Australia Happy, a website that launched in conjunction with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary series of the same name. They found that the site had more visitors than the film had viewers, which demonstrated that users could connect and interact with the content without ever seeing the film series, which means that the life of the project extends well beyond its broadcast.

USER EXPERIENCE: And before you start building…Jennifer Wilson, Kat Cizek, Mark Belinsky, and Patricia Finneran conduct some user tests to see whether your audience would actually use the tools you’re developing. Jennifer and her team developed mock-ups of the Making Australia Happy website and asked their potential audience whether they would use it. Kat and her team did the same thing with Out My Window. Digital Democracy’s Mark Belinsky underscored the importance of understanding how your audience accesses narratives and making it as easy as possible for them to do so.

VISUALIZE DATA: “Data can be a creative tool for telling very human stories,” said Google Data Visualization Specialist Eric Doversberger. Yes, the word “data” conjures up images of scary spreadsheets filled with numbers and graphs, but it can also mean a surprisingly engaging way to communicate and simplify your story. Eric shared some of the more interesting examples of this, including a look at twistori (a site that shows all tweets containing a particular phrase – in real time all across the web) and a graph charting peak break up times according to Facebook status updates, created by Information is Beautiful author David McCandless.

TAP INTO COMMUNITY: “You can’t create a community. You can only empower an existing community,” declared Jennifer Wilson. More likely than not, your work is not going to build a brand new community of interest, but instead allow an existing community to find deeper connections through what you produce. Jennifer discussed the power of creating a niche digital service like China Heart, which uses a GPS location-based approach to storytelling via mobile phone (coming soon).

 It’s important to let people know what’s being asked and expected of them if they’re going to participate. If you’re asking them to text to get engaged, tell them what that means exactly (are they giving a donation? being added to an email list? etc.). Used appropriately, mobile technologies can be a powerful means for participation, especially in reaching communities who may not have computer access, said Mark Belinsky.

COLLABORATION: You can’t do everything by yourself. Multidisciplinary teams are important. So is collaboration. When Kat Cizek was developing Out My Window, there was no way she could be in all 13 cities around the world, capturing audio, video, and photos. She developed a creative brief for her documentary teams to use when in the field and understood the importance of having a team made up of researchers, documentarians, tech gurus, and social media strategists.

Other cool projects presented at the conference include:
* “Scenes from a Ruined Boulevard” –  a photo collage from the New York Times on the earthquake in Haiti.
*In Bb 2.0 – a collaborative music and spoken word project conceived by Darren Solomon from Science for Girls, and developed with contributions from users.
Young Me /Now Me – a photo contest featuring photographs of people re-creating snapshots from their childhood.
IJ Central by Skylight Pictures builds public awareness of the International Criminal Court through such tools as the IJMap, which collects and maps tweets tagged with IJCentral.
Wilderness Downtown takes your address and uses Google Streetview technology to create your very own customized Arcade Fire music video.

If you want to be one of the chosen few to participate in BAVC’s 2011 Producers Intensive, get your application in by January 17 at 5PM PST. This year’s intensive revolves around the theme, Indigenous Science, “integrating digital media, science and emerging technologies in a distinctly cultural framework.”

Photo credits: Taken by BAVC. View full set here.