The Future of Documentary is happening in Bristol

REACT Future of Documentary

The first group meeting of REACT’s Future of Documentary Sandbox happened today in Bristol. This is exciting stuff: 6 innovative projects were selected  to explore new models of authorship and ownership within the i-docs sphere, 6 projects to push ahead the questions that we can see emerging and to which we have no answer yet, 6 projects where academics and industry have to work together to find ideas and solutions. Have a look to the Future Doc Sandbox microsite for details on each project and team.

What is REACT and why in Bristol? REACT (Research and Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technology) is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It is one of four UK Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy and is a collaboration between UWE Bristol (the University of the West of England)Watershed and the Universities of BathBristolCardiff and Exeter. The way it works is that it runs two Sandbox schemes a year with six to eight collaborations in each. Each REACT Sandbox is themed around emerging issues of interest to the creative economy, and where research in the arts and humanities can drive innovation. If you want to check the result of the previous two Sandboxes check the Heritage Sandbox microsite and the Books&Print Sandbox microsite – you will find there very innovative ideas.

The whole of the i-Docs team was present today and will help in one way or another in the sandbox. For us, i-docs aficionados, the Future of Documentary sandbox has the power of an adrenaline kick: 3 months to play and give shape to ideas that have been in the back of our mind for years! Jonathan Dovey (the person that gave the green-line to the i-Docs conference 3 years ago) is actually REACT’s director (and the one we have to thank for such a brilliant vision), Mandy Rose (DCRC Director) will act as an advisor (and so will I), Judith Aston (i-Docs co-creative director) will be the academic partner in “Orion: behind de mask”, one of the projects, and our beloved site manager, Jess Linington, will be reporting from the front (so watch this space, as I know she is going to write something very soon!).

Today was the first encounter between the project teams, the advisers and the REACT staff . It has been a way for us all to learn to know about each-other and to start the sharing process that is so central to the sandbox methodology of work. By the end of the day the aims of most projects were clearly expressed and, more importantly, the questions that they are trying to explore got fleshed out.

Some general questions (how to engage the audience, how much will our audience want to interact, what do we need to know about our audience) seemed to be shared by most projects. If a project is web-native (no television film/documentary on the side of the interactive proposition) then there is a real challenge because one needs to “create” or “build” an audience from scratch. As someone ironically said today: “how will the audience know what they want to know about something they do not know about yet!”… fair point!

This led to a whole lot of other questions about how to best crowd-fund and crowd-source content and use a niche audience to generate a larger public.  Effectively: how to involve audiences at all stages of production (pre-production, production and post-production)?

The interface question was obviously not left behind: what is the right interface for the right audience? can games interfaces serve for documentary narratives? But also, how much interactivity is suitable: does interactivity interrupt the flow of the story or is the pleasure of agency enough to justify interruptions?

For me none of those questions can ever have a unique answer, and it is only on a case per case basis that we can start approaching solutions…  and this is why this sandbox is so exciting! Nevertheless I had the feeling today that  some common problems should be addressed, and one of these is what is meant by “knowing your audience”. I found interesting to see how these  three words have different meanings for people coming from the documentary world and from the digital world. It is not the same to pitch a project to a commissioning editor indicating a target audience (advertising language) and testing an audience in order to understand their needs, their aspirations and behaviours when confronted to a digital product (UI and UX language). Both linear and interactive documentaries have audiences, but they are not necessarily the same  – so “knowing” them implies knowing different things about them. Being interested in a topic is not enough in the digital world. What do you want to know, to which level of detail, in which context, with what platform, with which level of engagement, are the extra layers of what we need to grasp… and this is where our game and web designer friends have a lot to add to our documentary “savoir faire”…

So here is a nice challenge for this Future of Documentary Sandbox: to blend languages and know-hows between industries in order to create new talents and new ways of learning by doing…

Stay tuned on the i-Docs an REACT websites to know how our i-doc soap-opera is developing! But also: feel free to suggest ideas and new leads! You can subscribe to REACT’s mailing list and you can also help with some of the projects (for example we will soon need people to test the ideas and we would love to have volunteers!!!). We will also share our learnings (and the projects!) at our i-Docs 2014 symposium so… watch this space!

Sandra Gaudenzi