Differences between linear and interactive documentaries. Featuring the interactive documentary (I)


To establish a correct characterization proposal, it is necessary to analyze the factors that make the interactive documentary to be  a new “species” – obviously related to the traditional documentary form and interactive media  -, but with its own identity and autonomy to establish itself as an independent genre.

Most of the proposals in this field do not usually attempt to differentiate between the traditional audiovisual documentary and the interactive documentary, as they consider the latter to be a natural evolution of the former, just as the Web 1.0 naturally became the Web 2.0. This evolutionary approach seems insufficient to frame and define such a complex and varied genre.

The first characteristic defining the two areas is obvious: In the former, the traditional documentary presents a criterion of linearity, i.e. we go from a starting point to an end point (from A to B) and follow a path predetermined by the author of the work. The boundaries of authorship and control over the discourse are clearly defined. In the latter case, we start at a starting point proposed by the author (or we can choose), and we find forks and alternative paths along the path we follow. The last word lies with the interactor, rather than the director of the work, as in the first case. It is therefore impossible to talk in terms of a single discourse, but instead about different deployments and by extension, different possible stories. As can be seen in the latter case, the boundaries of authorship and control over the discourse become less important, which is a major issue that we address in more depth below.

Using the opportunities offered by the modern collaborative Internet, we intend to undertake a theoretical approach to various models that aim to tell stories that are characterized by a new and growing interaction with the user: the new modern approach involves the gradual abandonment of linear stories (which start at a given point and end at an end point previously decided upon by their creator) and moves towards a more nodal and branched scheme, in which each user-interactor can choose their itinerary and reach a different end point.


In short, the key factor differentiating the audiovisual and the interactive spheres is clear: traditional narrative includes linearity and the order of its discourse cannot be altered, while in the interactive sphere this order can be affected and changed. As Berenguer (2004) says, there is “there is reactive behavior in automatisms, and participative behavior in certain works of communication and expression, but according to this definition, neither one nor the other may be considered interactive.”

As a result, when defining this initial idea, linear documentaries contain reactive components (activated using the DVD remote control, such as watching scenes, subtitles, extras, etc..), while non-linear interactive documentaries contain interactive components, i.e. it is necessary to understand the system and make decisions to move forward. In the former, the level of interaction is weak, while in the latter it is medium or strong (in linear documentaries, we watch the film by merely pressing the play button on the DVD or by using the mouse, while in interactive documentaries it is necessary to perform several actions to different ends: linking to the application, choosing the language and mode of navigation and interaction, finding out how the system works, moving forward at each branch that is presented, actions related to interaction and the interface, and above all leaving an imprint of progress through the application, are actions related to interaction with the content or other interactors).

Relating the point above with Gaudenzi’s idea of physical participation in the interactive documentary, and as a second major distinguishing idea from a mental and physical point of view, it is possible to state that both the linear and the interactive documentary aim to document reality, but the type of reference material in the media and their authors’ and participants’ preferences end up creating a very different end product. The linear documentary only requires a type of cognitive (mental) participation from its audience, which results in a mental interpretation and reflection on what is seen, while in the latter case, the interactive documentary, in addition to cognitive interpretation, requires a type of physical participation related to decision-making that involves using the mouse, movement around the virtual scenario, using the keyboard and writing, speech, etc.. Gaudenzi argues (2009:97):

“[…] a certain level of interaction has been experimented in linear documentary films. This interaction was only possible by acknowledging that the observer, the filmmaker, is in active relation with her shooting environment. For a long time the passage from observation to enaction only took place between the filmmaker and the participants during the filming. From the moment the film started being edited it acquired a close form. The novelty of social and participative media is to include the viewer, the third level observer, and to give her agency in the feedback loops between media, content and environment. As a result the viewer participant engages differently in an interactive documentary than in a linear one. Her agency goes far beyond the act of interpretation or empathy, typical in linear films, and stretches as far as new modes of interaction can go. What is relevant in digital interactive forms is the degree of agency that the multiple participants have on the final product and how those actions will position them. The degree of agency depends on the different modes of interaction that are possible in digital media.” (Gaudenzi, 2009:97).

Finally, linked to the concepts set out above, this physical response that is required of the interactor is carried out using elements that the interactive documentary itself presents: modes of navigation and interaction. Bill Nichols (1991, 1994 and 2001)  modes of representation were relevant in linear documentaries, but in this case, when analyzing interactive documentaries, it is modes of navigation and interaction which are the key elements. This perspective redirects the focus of the study of the documentary as a finished product that can be analyzed in terms of styles and conventions toward a study of the documentary as a dynamic form, as a system comprising its relationships with different realities.

Finally, the fact that the analysis of the interactive documentary is carried out based on its modes of navigation and interaction is the fourth major difference between the two types of documentaries. During the production process, a linear documentary can change constantly, but once it has been edited, this process of change stops. The production process and the viewing process remain separate in analogue media. This is not the case with interactive digital media. In interactive documentaries, the process does not stop, and by extension, they can be considered “living systems” that continue to change until while collaboration and participation is sustainable, or desired by the users or systems within it.

In advance to the next post which will end this series (until new revisions of the proposal) and where will be described and justified in detail all the characteristics, the following table summarizes the main characteristics of the interactive documentary.

 Table 1. Basic characteristics of the interactive documentary

It should be noted that this proposal is being reviewed in order to be presented as part of the theoretical framework on interactive documentary study, which may be subject to changes in the future (PhD defense:“The interactive documentary as a new audiovisual genre. Approach to proposed definition, taxonomy and analysis model for the evaluation, design and production”, UPF 2007-2012)..


Arnau Gifreu Castells

Researcher, Professor and Producer

Universitat Ramón Llull / Universitat de Vic



Berenguer,  X.  (2004), “Una dècada d’interactius”. Temes de Disseny, 21, pp 30-35.

Gaudenzi , S. (2009), Digital interactive documentary: from representing reality to co-creating
[draft PhD research]. Londres: University of London. Centre
for Cultural Studies (CCS) of Goldsmiths.

Nichols, Bill (1991), La representación de la realidad: Cuestiones y Conceptos sobre el Documental.  Barcelona: Paidós.

— (1994), Blurred Boundaries. Question of meaning in contemporary culture.  Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

— (2001), Introduction to documentary.  Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University


Recommended citation:

Gifreu, Arnau (2010), El documental multimèdia interactiu. Per un proposta de model
d’anàlisi. [Treball de recerca]. Departament de Comunicació. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, pp 100-103.

Gifreu, Arnau (2010). The interactive multimedia documentary. A proposed model of analysis. [Research Pre PhD]. Department of Communication. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, pp 100-103.


Other interesting posts

For more information on the conceptual and methodological framework in relation to
the interactive documentary, you can read my previous posts published on I-Docs.org:


–   Where we come from. Introduction and initial ingredients to build a correct taxonomic proposal

–    Research questions and compared methodology to establish a taxonomic study of the interactive documentary

–   Compared methodology to establish a taxonomic study of the interactive documentary (II)

–   Taxonomic discussions in the educational context: key issues in relation to interactive documentary (I)

–   Taxonomic discussions in the educational context: key issues in relation to interactive documentary (II)