“94 Elements” needs your help! – an interview with Mike Paterson

Mike Paterson, from PFILM, is just back from SXSW, where he presented his later venture: 94 Elements. As far as I know 94 Elements was the only UK i-doc presented within SXSW’s “digital domain” strand, so… hat’s off to Mike and all his team!

Now… 94 Elements is a very interesting project indeed:

1.It uses a scientific metaphor (the table of elements) to explore a serious environmental issue: we live in a finite world and we need to be aware if it.From the website:  “We want to tell the backstories of all the stuff we use in our daily lives – Where does it come from? How is it used? How much is left? Through a playful and creative, multi-faceted project we’ll create a unique and intimate picture of our relationships with our resources in the 21st century”.

2. Each element of the table will eventually be represented by a film (at the moment only 6 are accessible online)  and the diversity of the elements will be illustrated by a diversity of filming styles, as each video will be directed by a different person. From the website: “The project is in part a celebration of the art of documentary film and some of the best filmmakers working today are making new films for the project. There’ll also be opportunities for talented new and emerging filmmakers and animators to pitch their own films, with the winners chosen by you – the project community”

3. It uses crowd-funding  to finance the individual videos, but “crowd-funders” become part of the project because they win the right to vote for films (from their Indiegogo page: ” if you contribute $25 or more to the project you’ll help to decide which films get made in all open pitches over the lifetime of the project!”).

4. Although the videos are accessible through the simple interface of the table of content, 94 Elements is planning to introduce interactive tools and visualisations around our use of our natural resources.

Although 94 Elements is still in production (and it  very much needs your help!) I think this is a project that is extremely interesting: it is ambitious, meaningful, potentially innovative and, very important, one of the few UK i-docs being produced at the moment!

(Indiegogo’s campaign, 2012)

It is therefore with great interest that I asked Mike Paterson, Project Director of 94 Elements, to answer a few questions about his project:

SG: In your website 94 Elements is described as “a global film making project exploring our lives through the lens of the elements”. Could you explain what makes it “global” and how the elements can provide a lens to reflect on our lives?

MP: The 94 naturally occurring elements make up everything in the world. Most of us think of the periodic table when we think of the elements, but they are so much more than just ‘science’. They are everything that we are, make, use and consume, and they are the resources and commodities which drive our economies, influence our politics and fuel our wars. Living in an unprecedented globalised age of cheap and abundant resources, the way that we manage our natural resources has enormous social, environmental and political consequences. The idea behind the 94 Elements project is to draw out the human stories behind our interactions with the elements as a way of exploring our relationships with our natural resources.  These are issues and ideas which affect us on a global scale and the project reflects this through the diversity and scope of the films and other features we’re developing.

SG: At the moment 94 elements looks very much as an database of short movies. What sort of interactive tools are you developing for it and when do you think they will be available for the users?

MP: Yes, it will always be a collaborative filmmaking project at it’s heart (I’m a filmmaker myself) and it took a while for the need for interactive tools to emerge, and to identify their form. Our current digital platform is very basic and we’re working on the first phase of the interactive work right now – it’s going to be based around pulling stories from data.  I said that most people think of the periodic table when they think of the elements, and it’s one of the oldest and most recognisable works of data visualisation. We want to reframe the elements as more than the periodic table – continuing the theme of data visualisation to present them as the resources and commodities which make all of modern life possible. We’ve got a team of developers and UX specialists working with Stefanie Posovec, a great designer specialising in data visualisation technique, to create a set of interactive ‘data stories’ to accompany and provide context for the films.  There’s an almost endless range of datasets explore, from looking at the amount of CO2 or water it takes to produce each element to live commodity prices, all telling stories about our living relationships with the elements.  There’s a lot we want to do and this first phase of the interactive work is focusing on building a flexible and adaptable framework which we can add more and more datasets and stories to as the project grows.  We’ll be launching the first phase later this year.

SG: Tell us more about the challenges of such project. Where are the biggest issues to solve: finding collaborators? financing it? thinking of its future interface?

MP: Financing is the biggest challenge – it’s a very ambitious project in scope and we’re having to be very creative about how we get everything made (we’re currently experimenting with having a filmmaker run her own crowdfunding campaign for a film about silver, for example. It’s a beautiful story about the last roll of Kodachrome ever developed – please support and share! http://kck.st/Zv0kDz ).  One advantage we have with such a large project is that it breaks down quite nicely into different components and themes  which can be useful when approaching different potential funders as you can offer them packages which address their specific priorities.  The trouble is that we only have a limited amount of time you have to go around knocking on doors…

It also took a very long time to put together the right team for the interactive work – I must have had discussions with 20 or more different teams before settling on the current outfit.  I was finding that studios were either not showing evidence of the skills or understanding required for the level of interactivity we are aiming for, or where they were, we were unable to compete with high-end commercial rates for studio time.  The lack of a coherent strategy and a sustained interest in experimentation in the interactive arena by organisations in the UK such as the BBC may be leaving us significantly under-skilled in this area, particularly when you look at the work which Canadian studios, fostered by the vision and willingness to experiment at the NFB, are producing.

SG: you recently presented 94 elements at SXSW. How did it go? Any outcomes from the day that you want to share with us?

MP: It went really well! It was great for the project to be invited and we only decided to go quite late in the day, so the developers were still having to code with jet-lag around the kitchen table when we got there (painful!). It’s such an enormous beast of a conference it can be easy to get swallowed up by it all.  I think it’s important to set up as many meetings in advance as you can, and to make people aware you’ll be there so you’re at least on people’s radar.  It would have been great to have had a full time publicist with us.  It’s also true that some of the most interesting outcomes at these events come from the chance encounters waiting for lifts and so on. SXSW is fairly corporate in its agenda compared to other conferences and a lot of Big Business is represented, but it’s definitely still a great place to meet people working at the intersection of film and interactive.

SG: Could the i-Docs community be of any use to help the project? Let us know what is your next priority and let’s see if someone in our community can help!

MP: Yes!  There are potentially lots of ways – right now our priorities are:

1. Support and share Sarah George’s Kickstarter campaign for silver: http://kck.st/Zv0kDz

2. We’re currently looking for team members with particular skills in fundraising, publicity and community management who might be interested in getting involved.

(interview by Sandra Gaudenzi)

You are still in time! Go for it!

Kickstarter campaign, 2013