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A Short History of the Highrise: the debut of the immersive, interactive multimedia series

On Monday, September 30, 2013, the world premiere of "A Short History of the Highrise" took place at the Elinor Bunin Film Center in Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival.  Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

On Monday, September 30, 2013, the world premiere of “A Short History of the Highrise” took place at the Elinor Bunin Film Center in Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

The New York Times’s Op-Docs and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) have debuted their immersive, interactive multimedia series, A Short History of the Highrise yesterday.

Optimised for tablet and comprised of videos on urban highrise living, the series had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival and launched yesterday on NYTimes.com.

Incase you weren’t aware already, the series unfolds in four short, interactive films that viewers can navigate using touch commands like swipe, pinch, pull and tap. It includes an incredible array of archive photographs, brought to life with intricate animation, game play and touch-responsive videos that create exploratory experiences.  The films are narrated by the Canadian musicians Feist and Cold Specks, as well as by Katerina Cizek, documentary filmmaker and HIGHRISE director, who wrote and directed the films.

Watching the interactive documentary, it’s clear to see how much time and effort went into its production. In part one alone, “Mud”, the user is transported to Babel, Rome, Arizona, China and Yemen, with the opportunity to “dig deeper” to find out more about each building or culture, an interactive element which is continued throughout the documentary.

Reading through the user comments (a goldmine for those interested in user experience) so far on the NYTimes site, it’s clear to see an imbalance between those who embraced the interactivity and those who didn’t, which is to be expected with any mainstream interactive project. However the biggest talking point so far is the use of rhyme within the piece. Intended to “evoke a storybook” many thought it didn’t fit, or “dumbed down” the over all tone.

Personally, I felt at points it was unnecessary as the rhymes didn’t always come naturally to the topic being discussed. However it gave the piece a rhythm, which, especially when dipping into the interactive elements, helped maintain a flow throughout the documentary.

In addition to the rhythmic structure, when accessing the interactive extra content, the narration fades out and ambient sound  is introduced, as well as maintaing a flow, I found it also kept me submerged in the experience. When returning to the film from the additional content, the timeline steps back a few frames to reintroduce you to the linear sequence. It’s these small touches, that acknowledge the user experience, which I feel really make a difference when producing at interactive documentary and allowed me to “dig deeper” without the worry that I would miss out or forget parts of the over-arching narrative.

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One of the overturned images from part two

Within part two, “the century of the high-rise”, I found Katrina’s images from the Morgue obviously compelling, but the real beauty was the ability to turn over the photograph to read the notes and clippings that provide historical context to the images.

A triumph of archiving, the New York Times “Morgue” contains thousands of photos, up to 98% of which are not yet digitised. These gems of “forgotten history”, which felt raw and unseen, really added to the overall experience.

This short “making of” video accompanies the series and takes viewers inside The Times’s extensive photography archive, known as the “Morgue,” which supplied many of the photos featured in the series:

Within part two, I also got to experience one of the “games” contained within the documentary. I was asked to build Condos in Vancouver, ultimately exploring the transition from social housing to the financial state of market capitalism and high rise living for the wealthy. Deviating from the common practice of extra interactive content in the form of videos and photographs, I felt this game in particular kept me engaged on a different level and, more broadly speaking, can make some of the more complex messages easier to comprehend.

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A screenshot from the micro-unit game

Again within part three, “Glass”, the user can uncover another game in which you’re encouraged to place furniture into a 300m “micro-unit” apartment, based on those in Vancouver, San Francisco and New York. Upon completion (it is just about possible!) you are then transported to the incredibly disturbing photographs of Hong Kongs “cage living”, an eye-opening example of housing inequality.

Blending this game element with photography was a powerful combination. The game was playful and lulled me for a moment, whilst the immediate move to the series of photographs really jolted me back to a harsh reality.

As with many interactive projects these days, a user-submitted portion is integral and following the abundance of information in parts 1-3, I would also say necessary. Part four presents a series of user-submitted photographs, accompanied with a song by Patrick Watson. This gave me the time to reflect upon the experience, a reminder that the history I have just explored has very real legacies today. Again you can explore deeper and it was at this point I felt like this would be an area of the experience I would return too, but for now I just needed to reflect.

Regardless of what you think of the documentary as a whole, I would challenge you not to concede that areas of it are done brilliantly. Combining so many multimedia elements in an accessible and inspiring way is not an easy task and balancing interactivity alongside a linear timeline is an area which is still relatively new and untested, particularly within mainstream environments such as the New York Times.


The series is produced by Op-Docs, the Times editorial department’s forum for short, opinionated documentaries, and the National Film Board of Canada as part of the NFB’s ongoing HIGHRISE project, an Emmy Award-winning multi-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment. “A Short History of the Highrise” will be available at www.nfb.ca in November.

The interactive elements are produced by The Times’s graphics team, under the direction of Ms. Cizek and The Times’s Jacqueline Myint, interactive art director and developer for the series, and by NFB senior producer Gerry Flahive and series executive producer and New York Times commissioning editor for Opinion video Jason Spingarn-Koff.

About the Author

Jess Linington

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Jess manages the i-Docs website as well as contributing articles and interviews. She also runs the associated social media channels, such as the i-Docs Twitter, Facebook page and Scoop.it. If you would like to speak to her about contributing something to i-docs.org or be interviewed about a project, get in touch at idocsinterative[at]gmail.com

Jess LiningtonA Short History of the Highrise: the debut of the immersive, interactive multimedia series