Idea or technique? Interesting topics and technological simplicity: Honkytonk projects as case studies (I)


What comes first, the word “interactive” or the word “documentary“?

Or, in other words, what is more important, the “technique” or the “subject matter”?

Image 1. Cinematographe by Lumière brothers

As suggested Alvelos and Almeida (2011):

“As a rule, all film literature starts with a reference to the Lumière brothers and their 1895 cinématographe, but when it comes to interactive documentary, should it begin with Lumière’s invention or Babbage’s Analytical Engine in 1830, the starting point of the modern computer? Probably both, and we might use this question as a pretext for a discussion on the current state of the art of a new “type” of documentary that lays between film and interaction: the interactive documentary.” (Alvelos and Almeida, 2011:123)

Image 2. Analytical engine by Charles Babbage


Image 3. Diferential engine by Charles Babbage

The interactive documentary is made up from two basic ingredients and is the result of conception between two genres:  the “interactivity”, which began in the early nineteenth century with the Babbage’s invention and digital media, and the “documentary genre”, which began in the late nineteenth century with the Lumière’s invention and others. This leads us to believe that, although what many theorists call that the basis of the interactive documentary are moving images and film documentary, this is debatable because without interactivity, the genre would not exist as such.

Image 4. Lumière brothers

It is clear that without documentary film it wouldn’t exist either, but interactivity is the key factor that difference, gives autonomy and characterizes this genre. It is for these reasons that we believe that the terms “documentary” and “interactivity” are on the same level on a scale that starts to decant into “interactivity” by its own weight nowadays. However, it is also clear that, in the scenario that “documentary” equals to the “subject” and “interactivity” to the “technology”, the subject should always prevail, and that is precisely what levels this balance and make us conclude that these two aspects deserve the same consideration and are inseparable from each other.

Image 5. Charles Babbage

Within the universe of the interactive documentary there is room for all types of discourses and narrative, and the power offered by interactive technologies and web 2.0 has to be seized to provide new forms of communication and interactivity, but in any case, the technology (technique, the “how”) cannot replace an approach, progress and outcome of a good script, a good story and a good speech (“what”is said, not “as it is said.”). In short, what prevails is the story, but let’s not forget the approach, which would be halfway “how to” tell it.  In Uvic (Universitat de Vic), when students develop a creative multimedia project as a Final Degree Project (that it sould be an I-doc or a short interactive film), we always start and end advising them with the same sentence: first think about a good “what” and then the rest will come (“how”). Think of a good idea and then how to develop it (there is an eastern proverb that says “it is not the same to point to the moon than the moon itself”).

We believe this is one of the current problems that some theorists of this genre describe accurately: we are paying less attention to the documentary issues trying to implement interaction everywhere, because that is a new and exciting way, so we bring cognitve saturation to interactors, one of the major hipertext problems, and ultimately, we lose them (their interest in the work). That’s why, in this article, we decided to show the simplicity of the “Honkytonk formula”, with interesting issues without too much depth and complexity in the interaction, intuitive and easy, as it should be.

Image 7. Honkytonk Films logo

In this regard, Almeida and Alvelos (2011) continue pointing:

“Formal arrangements shouldn’t compel interactive documentary into structural rigidity, it’s important to find a solid but flexible structure that allows some degree of freedom. There’s also no need to make it too clickable, too interactive: if linear documentary has zero interaction points and is a successful model, why would we make an interactive one a “clickable extravaganza”? Seek for continuity first, interaction last. And, of course, its always better a good idea made simple.” (Almeida and Alvelos, 2011:125)

Perspective and user’s participation, key issues

Following this line of argument, we should ask ourselves why we are so concerned about the integration of the documentary film with the interactive media. If they really are so contradictory, why not let them lead their separate lives in their own media? Personally we think this is because they need each other. And if they need each other, it is then a question of resolving how to reconcile the differences between the two media. As it is well known, many films find opportunities to extend their life by making use of interactive media, based on the creation of websites, which do not only act as information centers for the film, but also as a resource for additional content and surplus material that was not used in the final montage of the film (as in the case of “The challenge”, a case study that we will analyze in the second post of this series). This method retains a high degree of authorship, while maintaining the introduction of interactive elements more suitable for the Internet. According to Britain (2009:9), although this may be considered by some to be a very limited definition of the interactive documentary, it at least shows that there is no risk of overlapping between the interactive medium and the documentary itself, and that this convergence may provide grounds for optimism for a promising future for the interactive documentary film. The two media can coexist without the emergence of one leading to the marginalization or elimination of the other.

Image 7. Perspective


Image 8. User participation (digital natives)

By combining the power of the film medium to provide perspective and the ability of interactivity to improve the user’s participation with the material, the interactive documentary film may be able to offer more significant documentaries. The idea that interactive media can reduce the distance between the producer and the user is promising for any documentary filmmaker seeking to increase participation in their stories. However, at the other end of the scale, if this difference is diminished by too great an extent, the documentary may lose value and interest, particularly because of the lack of a strong narrative voice and a specific narrative program (this is precisely the fear of most traditional authors).


Arnau Gifreu Castells

Researcher, Professor and Producer

Universitat Ramón Llull / Universitat de Vic



Almeida, A.; Alvelos, H. (2010),  “An Interactive Documentary Manifesto“. ICIDS’10Proceedings of the Third joint conference on Interactive digital storytelling. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag Berlin. Conference Proceedings, pp 123-128. ISBN 3-642-16637-7978-3-642-16637-2.

Britain, C. (2009), Raising Reality to the Mythic on the Web: The Future of Interactive Documentary Film. North Carolina: Elon University.

Gifreu, A. (2011), “The Interactive Documentary. Definition Proposal and Characterization of the New Emerging Genre” Hipertext 9, 2011. Digidoc Research Group. Communication Department. Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

— post on Portal: where we come from introduction and initial ingredients to build a correct taxonomic proposal

Honkytonk Films (company) :

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