How can 3D worlds be used in documentaries? A review of One Millionth Tower

Kat Cizek, and her NFB team, have just launched Highrise’s latest baby: One Millionth Tower.

This is the fifth experiment in four years of what is now becoming a networked documentary, rather than a simple idoc. When Highrise started at the NFB in 2008 it was described as a “multi-year, multi-media documentary” but I have to admit that the whole concept was not very clear to me. By the time Highrise launched Out My Window, in 2010, the idea that digital media was not just used to document vertical living, but rather to explore it, started to make more sense to me. But I had to write an article to understand how each of Highrise’s offsprings was not a separate project, but  a new bridge that continued an exploration started before.  I then called Highrise a “relational object”, because it became clear to me that while each project had its own goals, its characters and its interactive logic, as a whole, if you zoom out of it, Highrise looks like a series of pathways that slowly link territories that were not connected before. I suppose it took me time to see this because each project being so totally different (the Thousandth Tower invites residents to document their vertical living, Participate asks people around the world to upload photos on Flickr, Out My Window uses 360 degrees video and allows you to understand people’s lives through the exploration of their flats…) they feel as separate units. In a way they are: they use different technologies, they involve different people and they are made for different purposes. But then, in another way, they also have things in common: they all speak of vertical living and, more importantly, they treat digital media not as a way to document the world but as a way to change it. While Highrise opens up the discussion about our vertical cities at a global level, it also stays focused on its goal: empowering local people to change their environment, if they wish to. Global in scope and yet local in action. Empowering the subjects and informing the world. Macro and micro linked by a narrative thread. Technology used to push the limits, and create the new…

Now… if you see it like this, this relational objects starts to have a life: it creates a dynamic of change and then it moves to its next challenge. Like the rippling effect of a stone launched in water, each wave leads to another one. And yet: it would not have been possible to predict the next wave, as neither Kat, nor her team, are trying to control this living network, the just make sure it can evolve. Seen like that Highrise looks as a fascinating living network to me…

It is with all this in mind that I arrived to London’s Frontline club, on Monday 7th of November, to see Kat’s presentation of their newly launched One Millionth Tower.

This time Highrise experimented with 3D spaces, Popcorn technology and webGL. Why going in such controversial gaming aesthetic when you come from video and documentary? Well… to start with Kat is a documentary maker, but she has a background in graphics and photography – which explains a lot about the aesthetics of Highrise mixing stills and playing with 2D and 3D representation of space. But more importantly One Millionth Tower has a story: the residents of a tower block have been involved into the redesign of their communal external space, they have worked with architects to imagine the possible and then with animators to visualize the possible… this is what is being documented thought the project… and since it is about redesigning space, then they have decided to visualise it “in” space, hence the 3D navigation.

Now… what is it that is visualized in One Millionth Tower? The 3D world that they have created is NOT just the final result of such common production. The animated view of what the space could look like, if there were fundings to build it, is just ONE of the SIX stories that are being told in One Millionth Tower. This means that the 3D world that has been created is more than a standard architectural 3D animation: it is a storyworld. And what does it contain?

This is where it gets tricky, as my computer graphic card is not good enough to support webGL… so I have not managed to experience the space by myself. But here is what I understood during Kat’s demo – and I include a short extract of her presentation for the 58% of people that, like me, rely on already-old-media to study new media!

Extract of Kat Cizek’s presentation of 1MT, London 7.11.11 – shot by Sandra Gaudenzi

So… while you are moving with your arrow keys into the 3D space, two technologies are working together:  webGL allows the 3D experience to happen in the browser while Popcorn.jr links the place you are in to the next action script, and to real time data – so that if you are exploring the space at night, Popcorn will link to the real time and weather conditions at the tower block. Popcorn acts as a conductor of your experience – making sure that things do happen to you, as in any good game environment – but it also links you back to reality (real time and weather in Toronto), because this is not a game, it is a 3D documentary experience.

And what is a 3D documentary experience?

Nonny de la Pena has already plaid with this concept in 2007 when she re-built Guantanamo Bay in Second Life. InGone Gitmo 3D space was used to simulate a reality to which neither the media nor the public had access to. The 3D space was built by using rigorously documented material and the user would experiment what it is like to be locked in Guantanamo Bay. The interest of the project was that Second Life was used to simulate things that exist in reality, and to reflect on them.

But in One millionth Tower, the reality is still to be re-built. The 3D space contains a mixture of videos and graphics that sometimes speak about the resident’s dreams, sometimes show what their gardens could look like and sometimes leaves you wondering in the in-betweens of stories… wondering what sort of space you are in… trying to make sense of how you navigate and listening to the sounds that subtly guide you toward the next story. I cannot comment at the “user experience” of it, as it does not run on my computer, but by watching it being demonstrated by Kat I had the feeling that, as a space, One Millionth Tower feels a little too artificial. Although a lot of maestry has been used in mixing graphics, animations and videos – which is a challenge in itself! – it looked to me too much as a “container space” rather than an “explorable space”. Somehow I had the feeling that it was there to give me access to the six stories, but that the space itself had no independent life to be explored, I did not feel the urge, or pleasure, to get lost into it. I know this sounds weird, but anyone that likes walking into an unknown city would know about the flaneur’s pleasure found into thinking that a space is rich, rather than directive.

This being said, while Kat was navigating through One Millionth Tower it also occurred to me that although  space is used to navigate through stories (much as in Out My Window, but just here it is a 3D space, and it appears larger than a single virtual tower) in reality the added value of it is in representing a dense and layered space. Let me explain what I mean by it: effectively the stories that are made accessible by such space represent different stages, and times, of reality. While you access time as “present time”, through a video of residents telling you about the absence of communal areas and paths between one tower block and the next, you move to “dream time”, listening and watching animations of what could be built, and therefore you land in “future time” as you visualize a possible space that Highrise is helping in becoming.

Also, different media are been used for different purposes: video documents residents’ ideas, graphic animations visualize a dream, or a potential, and sound creates the fluidity that links the two. All of One Millionth Tower seems to be a metaphor of Highrise as a whole: a space for linking present, dream, and future – a space for action. It is not by chance then that this time it is you, the “external user”, that have to navigate the space. Highrise takes care of making change possible by putting its subject in contact to the relevant authorities, and to the world, through the web, and through you. Now that you are watching you have been “linked”, “networked” to this web of change… what will you do? Browse? Make sense? Escape? This is now down to you…

Kat Cizek started her talk by reminding us Grierson’s definition of documentary as “creative treatment of actuality”. As I sit here thinking of One Millionth Tower I wonder… if the “actuality” is the need to feel entitled to participate in the construction of our own cities… what is the “creative treatment” here?

For me the “creative treatment” in One Millionth Tower consists in creating a space that can visualize our right to action. It is a space that tells the stories of others, but that reminds us that we are in that same space while we navigate it, we are not external to such reality,  this is our world too. As a user experience it might be that this space does not quite work yet, or maybe it works for some and not for others, but what is important here is the message it sends out: we are all connected in creating a space where reality unfolds. Reality is layered, connected and in constant movement: where are you right now in this?

Plof, the wave has started rippling. I do not know where this will lead us to, but one thing is sure: the process has started and we are part of it.