From iPad to installation: interactive documentary on multiple platforms

Avatar Secrets, the interactive documentary for the iPad has scaled up its ambitions, installing a large scale interactive installation at Hot Docs for the duration of the festival.

This is the first time that an interactive documentary has been included in the programme of North America’s largest documentary festival and it’s great to see Ramona Pringle’s work has been picked up.

Audiences are invited to visit, stay, and interact with the dynamic screens, which are running a special 20 minute preview version of Avatar Secrets, complete with layers of additional content that can be accessed through “hot spots” on screen.

I caught up with Ramona to find out how Avatar Secrets has moved across iPad to installation:

What were the challenges of reproducing your work for an installation? 

One of the biggest challenges was right at the beginning, figuring out what our approach to versioning it would be – whether we wanted to use projections and Kinect type technology, or have an iPad plugged into a large display so that people could interact on the tablet with a large screen showing their interactions, but neither of those felt like the most faithful translation of the experience. It was really important to us to retain that crystal clarity of the imagery and to use touch screens to translate the experience we’re developing for the iPad to a live festival audience, and so we decided on large scale touch screen displays.

Creative director Michaele Jordana with the installation at Hot Docs

Creative director Michaele Jordana with the installation at Hot Docs

While the documentary is being built for iOS, the installation is built in HTML and runs in Chrome. In terms of user experience, it’s not a direct translation of the app-doc experience, because in a live festival setting, the context of how the project is experienced and interacted with is different, and so we needed to make adjustments to make the experience the best it could be for the live audience.

For instance, in the app, in interactive mode, you can progress from scene to scene by swiping the screen, which gives viewers the time and ease to explore interactive content before proceeding in the story; with an installation, you can’t depend on having an audience member always around to “swipe” the story forward, and you want the content to be dynamic and equally engaging for someone passing by as it is for someone who is directly engaging, so we decided that for this setting, the content needs to progress on its own. Since the story moves forward on its own, the interactive “hot spots” in the installation version are timed in thematically, but also rhythmically, so that they seamlessly “expand” the narrative and the experience when they are triggered.

Because there is no “start” time, the installation is continually looping, we decided to compress the narrative, and also realized it needed to have visual and text based cues to help pull in viewers who come to it part way through the narrative. The installation is a 20 minute experience, with another 20-30 minutes of additional content embedded through the interactive hot spots, so, content that is only available when you interact and engage – these are expert interviews and additional scenes.

“We’re trained to not touch things”

Also, since you ask about challenges… as a culture, we’re trained to not touch things, especially big shiny screens – it’s from growing up going to galleries and museums where displays were cordoned off with velvet ropes – so there’s also the need to give audiences permission to engage, touch the screen, and play! We’ve built in tutorials about how to interact, and have signage, but what we’ve noticed is that engaging with a touch screen like this is a learned, or modelled, experience – so what we’ve seen is that as soon as people start engaging, and brake past the “invisible velvet rope,” others follow suit… and really want to touch and interact, because it is a new experience, especially in the documentary film festival setting!

It’s up now, and the early response has been so positive – I think people are really hungry for, and excited about, new ways of engaging with documentary. It’s delighting to make discoveries on your own, as you watch and guide your own experience with an interactive piece, and watching others engage with the installation has been great!

Want to know more? Check out this recent interview with Ramona about the project

For the more technically minded – how did you go about the process of scaling the work up?

Our primary platform is the iPad, which has a screen size of 1024×768. All of our video content is shot HD, and luckily, early in the process, we decided that we would produce all of the art work at a higher resolution than the tablet output. This was partly to account for retina displays and getting the absolute most exquisite image on every device, but also to give us the freedom to version the project and repurpose content for different screens, setting and audiences… and this was months before we even knew we’d be creating an installation for Hot Docs!

The concept for the Hot Docs installation was to produce a large scale touch screen version of the tablet experience, for a large audience in a public space. We wanted to version the tablet experience into a more cinematic experience, for festival attendees, while keeping the magic of the interactivity and touch interface. We settled on 55 inch HD screens because they are the perfect balance of large enough to be eye catching as an installation, but not too large for people to engage with and interact with. 55 inches is big, especially on an HD screen that people are standing arms length from, so the images need to be crisp! There was a lot of fine tuning, finding the right balance between resolution and file size, to achieve crisp, clean imagery on these large screens without bogging down the playback with heavy file sizes. There was some creative re-framing, too, as the aspect ratio switched up from 3:4 to 16:9.

If you’re at Hot Docs and have some how missed the installation, it’s in the main lobby of the TIFF Bell Lightbox until the 4 May.

Tomorrow Ramona will also be part of the Hot Docs Industry panel: Tablet Strategies: New Directions of Interactive Documentary, speaking on the incredible creative storytelling potential of new platforms, including the tablet.