Ingrid Kopp: A Field Guide to Interactive Storytelling

During the summer Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute, came to the Watershed, Bristol to give a talk on interactive storytelling. For members of the i-Docs community who weren’t able to attend, we’re pleased to be able to offer the full transcript, full of brilliant examples and analysis of these new forms of storytelling. Enjoy.


Ingrid Kopp and Mandy Rose during the Q&A

Mandy Rose: So just a little bit of background. Ingrid was at college here in the UK. She went to Sussex for the year at the University of California at Berkeley, and then went on to do an MA at Birkbeck, before working at Channel 4 in the documentaries department. One of her loves is documentary and that will be very much a factor in today’s presentation. Ingrid went to the US and worked between 2006 and 2012 for the indie film organisation Shooting People, before joining Tribeca. While Ingrid is a commissioner, I don’t think anyone should read that in any kind of passive way.

Since I came across Ingrid a few years ago, I have just become increasingly aware of her role in terms of pushing forward the dialogue in this area of emerging storytelling. So she has among other things set up Tribeca Hacks, which are events where storytellers, designers, creative technologists come together to develop new projects. She has been running for the last couple of years TFI Interactive, a conference around interactive storytelling. Beyond that, Ingrid is at the heart of thinking about what is possible with emerging creative technology. She mentors, she is involved in awards celebrating people’s achievements, she is involved in helping people form new collaborations that lead to projects.

And in all the thinking and talking and work that she does in this area, I am very aware of how she puts the social value of storytelling right at the heart of what she does, and thinks and pushes on aspects of access and inclusion, both in the creative teams who are making this work but also in thinking about audiences and storytelling. So I was at an interactive conference just the other day and somebody was there, Mike Robbins from a really distinguished design studio in Canada, Helios Design Lab.

In Mike’s presentation he said that there were no experts in this field of emerging storytelling. I think he is right in the sense that it is a very fast moving field, and so you are a fool to think you’ve got it; you need to keep your eyes open and be aware of what is changing and what is becoming possible all the time. But it seems to me there are some people who understand what the landscape looks like and what we should be looking out for, and understand what questions we should be asking. I feel that is very much what Ingrid is doing in her work. So I would just like you to join me in welcoming Ingrid to the stage. Thank you.

Ingrid Kopp: Thanks Mandy. Thanks for such a nice introduction, and thank you to the Watershed for having me, and for i-Docs for inviting me. That was actually going to be the first thing I was going to say, I am by no means an expert in this. I have only been doing this for going on three and a half years now. I feel like a total newbie and this is really just talking to you about the things that I have discovered along the way, mostly in the last three and a half years, although some of this will go back a little bit further to my work at Channel 4 and to Shooting People, and some of the workshops I was leading when I was at Shooting People around how film makers can use the web and use new technologies to promote their films and to build their careers.

So I have been thinking for a really long time about technology and storytelling, and just going back to Channel 4, one of my first jobs there was really to fight with the engineers to allow PD150s, which were the cameras that a lot of the documentary filmmakers were using then, to be allowed to be broadcast on the network. They said that it was a prosumer camera, it wasn’t professional enough, but we were seeing these incredible documentaries being made.

One of the things I have always been really interested in is how technology has always changed storytelling, going way back to the invention of the pen, the printing press, and on and on and on. So for me a lot of this is also not that new. There are things that are new; the internet has changed everything, but I think a lot about how technology has always changed storytelling and has always changed how we interact with each other.

There are things that are new; the internet has changed everything, but I think a lot about how technology has always changed storytelling and has always changed how we interact with each other

A lot of the projects that I am going to be talking about today are on this page, if it stays up. I’m sure there is a better way of doing this, but anyway. So you can go home – and the great thing about a lot of the interactive projects that I am going to talk about is that they are online, they are freely available, you can go home tonight and you can experience and experiment with all of them.

I have been working at the Tribeca Film Institute for the last three and a half years like I said, running a fund, the TFI New Media Fund. Initially it really started with a goal to both help creators, help filmmakers, help artists think about how they can bring storytelling, technology and design together in their work.

But a lot of it was also about audiences, and it was about thinking about what audiences are doing now and how we can meet audiences where they are, and really thinking about, like Mandy said, about global audiences and about diversity, and really who gets to tell stories but also who gets to listen to those stories. That was the challenge from the Ford Foundation who gave us the money to start then fund.

We were really thinking about this idea that technology has always changed how we make films. If you think about the invention of the camera, the invention of the movie camera, and then lightweight cameras and sync sound in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and how really a new documentary genre, Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité came out of that. You were able to make films in a very different way when you could put the camera on your shoulder and you could report sound at the same time.

So what we were thinking about was, “What happens now with the web? What happens now with new technologies, in terms of how documentaries…?” Most of my focus is on documentaries. How documentaries get made. One of the very first things that I realised is that it is not just film and documentaries that are affected by these huge sea changes on the web.

And one of the first lessons I learned is really to look beyond the film industry and to look beyond film for inspiration, and to really look at how other industries are dealing with this huge shift.

So I have been spending a lot of time doing things like reading the New York Times Innovation Report that was just leaked last week, looking at what advertisers are doing to try and get those eyeballs that are no longer watching 30 second spots on television. What cinema is doing, what television is doing.

Not necessarily to copy them and not necessarily because we want to be in that space. I think sometimes we actually actively resist that. But I think what you will notice, and it’s not just these industries, I just put these as examples. Everyone is really dealing with this huge issue of, “What are audiences doing now with the web and with all these different platforms? How can we reach them and how can we tell stories in new ways?”

I think the Hackathon series that was mentioned and the conference that I ran, all of that is really just to bring these communities together, because I realised we could not solve that just in film and in documentary. We just didn’t have the toolsets to do that, we needed people from other industries and other disciplines to come to the table.

Also, and this is not something I really planned on, but right from the beginning I realised there was a huge problem in technology in that it was mostly white and male. Especially in the US where I am based, in xNew York City, there is a huge issue around diversity and technology. I feel like in filmmaking and especially in documentary filmmaking we have actually been pretty good at that. Maybe not in Hollywood, but in documentary I think that there has always been a lot of attention to diversity and a lot of women making films.

It was really important to me that if we are inventing this, if we are building this new storytelling whatever it is from the ground up, that we make sure that we build diversity in right from the beginning, because it is much harder to do it once you have legacy. So that was really, really key.

TCFThe other thing that we realised pretty quickly is how new this is. I always show this in the US and no one knows what it is, but I am sure a lot of you know the crazy clown and the girl playing noughts and crosses; Test card F.

In my lifetime and I am sure in a lot of your lifetimes, we used to watch TV and it would go off, and we would have to wait for it to come back on again. I always remember that, when I am thinking about the work that we are doing now and I am thinking about this 24/7 ‘always on’ culture.

The fact that not that long ago, the television went off, and I think that that is very important to remember because I think sometimes we get caught up into this idea of the perpetual now. Everything is now and there is no history, and the future is like, now, now, now, now, now, and it is really easy to lose a sense of perspective and to lose a sense of where we have come from very, very quickly.

I think the internet does that to us, it gives us immediate amnesia in many ways, and not all of that good. I think it is very easy to get caught up in the hype of these new tools and new technologies, many of which I will be showing you and I am very excited about them.

But I think just a little bit of historical analysis and a sense of where we have come from and where we are going, and slowing it down a little bit is important.

But I do want to show you ‘Hyperland’, I don’t know if any of you have seen this? It is unbelievable. Douglas Adams made this documentary in 1990 before the first web page was invented:

So Timothy Berners-Lee had written his document in 1989 but he hadn’t actually uploaded the first web page yet, that happened at the end of 1990. But Douglas Adams created this bizarre documentary about Hypertext where he basically, well, you’ll see. Tom Baker makes an appearance and basically talks about something that sounds a little bit like Google.

There is a precursor to almost everything that we are dealing with now and almost everything that I am going to be talking about in this talk.

There is even an early version of gifs. What was really interesting was when I was listening – I actually discovered this through a podcast, and there was a guy on the podcast who talked about in the early days of the World Wide Web, I guess it was maybe around 1991, he read every single web page that existed, in a week. He read the web in a week.

This historical digging is something that, the more I have become involved in this space, the more interested I have become in it. I think that we can see a lot of clues to what we are doing now.

If you look at Hyperland for example, you realise a lot of the ideas we have now are not that new, it is just the way that we are able to realise them because we have the tools now. Back here you just had Tom Baker as an agent.

But it is really important always to not think about technology in black and white terms. Technology cannot fix everything. Obviously, x-ray machines are fantastic; they show us broken ribs. But we still need to fix them somewhat manually.

But it is really important always to not think about technology in black and white terms. Technology cannot fix everything. Obviously, x-ray machines are fantastic; they show us broken ribs. But we still need to fix them somewhat manually.
I think one of the things that I am going to try and avoid in this talk is this idea of technology as the saviour, but also that technology is the source of everything evil. I think technology can do lots of wonderful things; it can also get in the way. It is really, really important when we are thinking about how technology can interact with storytelling and with audiences, to always be thinking about technology as a tool.

The other thing, and this is just going back to this idea of no one being an expert and everyone being new, is this idea of the intersection of lure and blur. I think that you will see that in a lot of these projects and a lot of these ideas, that it is a new art form. There are lots of really interesting antecedents; if you look at gaming, gaming is not that new. Game designers have been dealing with interactivity for much, much longer than we have. There have been really long, very interesting experiments in the art world and interactive art.

So you know, there are all these people who have been thinking about hits. But I feel like in cinema it is very, very new and we are constantly dealing with this idea of lure and blur.

I am going to show you a quick clip from TFI Interactive, which just gives you a little bit of a sense of the kinds of topics that we are now experimenting with when we think about interactive storytelling. It covers everything from objects to audiences, the gamut, you’ll see:

Check out the TFI Interactive Youtube playlist for some great videos of talks from 2014.

So one of the interesting things that we realised very early with TFI Interactive was that the audience were as important as the speakers. The conversations that were happening in the audience, the things that the audience were doing with what they were learning at TFI Interactive became very key.

So we started doing this last year but then this year we really built it up; this idea of the interactive playground. You saw bits of it there, with the piano and the Oculus Rift and the emotional arcade. The one where they have the sensor on their forehead and the balloons, they are actually competing to have emotions. So you have to compete with love, with rage, with lust and I cannot remember the other one, fear.

Obviously you may be thinking, “What has this got to do with storytelling? What has this got to do with documentary?” For us really it is just to get people thinking about this whole range of tools and technologies that they can use to engage with people.

Obviously you may be thinking, “What has this got to do with storytelling? What has this got to do with documentary?” For us really it is just to get people thinking about this whole range of tools and technologies that they can use to engage with people.
So it is not a sense of, “You must do all of these things, you must make your film in the Oculus Rift.” It is really just giving people a sense of what is out there and what people are thinking about now in terms of how they use technology.

What would it be like if you were making a horror film and you did have a sensor, and you could detect when your audience were getting more scared, then either amp up the music or take it down, or whatever? People are doing that, I’ve seen experiments with that.

Some of it is a little bit creepy, and one of the things I just wanted to mention was Ben Moskowitz; you heard him talking about how the browser knows who you are. He freaked all the filmmakers out and I could hear people sucking in their breath.

He was basically saying that filmmakers should be more like advertisers; if you know how the web pays for itself, if you understand how Facebook works, if you understand that you are the product, if you understand how advertising is used online, then as a filmmaker if you are putting work online you should be thinking like an advertiser. You should be using the tricks that they are using. They are already being used against you, so why not use them for your cause?

He was talking about the fact that Nike, if they are selling a shoe to you, they may give you a red shoe. If they are selling a shoe to you online they’ll give you a purple shoe, because based on your internet searches they think you are going to like red more than purple.

This is happening already. So he said, “What about if you are making a documentary and I know that you are not going to like that character? So I don’t give you that character, you get that character, you get someone else.”

Of course, for filmmakers ethically this sounds a little bit dubious. But I think it is really important that we grapple with these issues because a lot of what I am thinking about all the time is, you know a lot of bad stuff happens online. You know a lot of these technologies are not necessarily going to create the kind of world that we want to live in, but we need to be in that space. Because if we are not in that space, we are going to be ignored and we are going to be left out of the equation.

If you look at who is watching documentaries on television, the audiences are getting older and older and older. It is not that people aren’t watching documentaries on TV, they are, but it is just the demographics are really changing. We really need to pay attention to that so that we don’t lose our audience.

The other interesting thing about audiences is that they are changing. Audience behaviours are changing, we know that. We know how we watch TV, not necessarily when it is broadcast but we can save it on our DVR, we can watch it on our iPad, we can watch it later online, we can share clips that we like. We are changing the way that we interact.

We have second screen interactions; there are a lot of second screen apps now. ‘The Walking Dead’ has a game that accompanies it. There is a whole Twitter department now that is dedicated to supplying information for television, so that when something like the Super Bowl happens, Twitter is basically working with the TV networks to make sure that whatever happens on Twitter is amped up.

So we know about this idea of the people formerly known as the audience. We know that audiences are in some ways more active but in many ways still very, very passive. But one of the things that I really responded to last year was this idea of the audience having an audience. This is something that Kenyatta Cheese who you saw at the beginning of that video from TFI Interactive talks about; this idea that audiences create their own audiences around them:

So you will have someone post a meme from ‘Game of Thrones’ and then someone else will share that and change it. So it is not just, when you are making a documentary it is not just that you are thinking about one audience, you are thinking about that person’s audience as well.

That is something that has really changed with social media, because it is global, it is ubiquitous and it is cheap, so these conversations are really expanding.

In many ways the last 120, 140 years have been a little bit of a blip in that sense, because if you go back to the Greek theatre, the audience were facing each other. If you think about everything basically until the invention of cinema and radio and television, the conversations did flow in many, many directions. That one to many flow was a bit of a weird anomaly in a way and it is almost like now we are going back to this idea of the audience talking to the audience.

Of course, what has changed now is we have the internet and that allows these conversations to be very global.


‘Miss Officer and Mr Truffles’: from conception to reality.

I am going to show you perhaps a little bit of a silly example, but I think it does show what can happen online. So this, I don’t know if any of you saw this, this was from Terra Nova National Park in Canada. It was a bear cub that appeared before this police officer called Constable Suzanne Bourque of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2011. Someone said, “This would be a great cartoon.” The next thing you know, there is ‘Miss Officer and Mr Truffles’.

This does not actually exist as a cartoon, but a lot of people who saw a lot of this work didn’t realise that, so someone actually created a theme song for a cartoon that doesn’t exist. If you want to know any more about this you can go to ‘Know Your Meme’, a very good reference for all of these things, and find out what happened.

This is something I often say to filmmakers is, “Be the audience. Don’t always think about the audience as being separate from you.”
Obviously, in the documentary world we may not care about ‘Miss Officer and Mr Truffles’, but what we should care about is what happened with ‘Miss Officer and Mr Truffles’ because that is how ideas spread; that is how ideas are getting passed around now. Understanding that gives us a clue to how we can build audiences and how we can think about audiences, and how we can be audiences.

This is something I often say to filmmakers is, “Be the audience. Don’t always think about the audience as being separate from you.”

The other thing to think about the audience is, and I know that this is maybe stating the obvious, is that audiences have changed. With convergence culture, audiences have changed because when a new consumer joins the media landscape now a new producer joins as well.

When you buy a mobile phone, when you buy an iPhone, you are buying both a camera and a playback mechanism. You are buying something that does everything and that is huge. Like Clay Shirky says, “It’s like when you bought a book they threw in the printing press for free.”

I think all the time about what this means in terms of our practice, in terms of how we reach people, and in terms of what we can do. Now I will show you some examples of what we can do.

One of the first things that got me very, very excited about the space before I started working in it was this idea of interaction as the story. One of the first projects I saw that really summed this up for me was ‘Gaza-Sderot’, which was an Arte project from 2008, in the old, old days of interactive documentary.

What I thought was incredible about this was this idea of a documentary that wouldn’t work the same way if you downloaded it off the web. It only works because of the way that the web works, it is of the web.

This is this idea that you are either in Gaza or you are in Israel; these are two places right opposite each other on the border. You always see the border down the middle and you can travel through 30 days following the lives of people on both sides of the border.

If you just choose to watch one side, if you choose to watch this guy in Gaza, you will always see the woman in Israel but she will just be faded out. So it is this idea of the other always being present, and the interaction becomes the story; it is part of the story and if you downloaded this it wouldn’t work.

I started to think a lot about, you know, “What does a documentary on the web that is of the web?” – this idea of using the web as a medium, as a creative medium and not just a pipe.

I am not just talking about putting videos on YouTube or Vimeo; it is actually like, “What does a video look like that uses the web as a medium?”

So we did this experiment, we created a storytelling innovation lab with Mozilla, Mozilla are the guys who do FireFox, and the Ford Foundation last year, and it was kind of like a Hackathon; we got people together to work on their projects.

One of the projects that came out is this project ‘Do Not Track’ which is in production at the moment. The idea, I am afraid I didn’t have time to get the demo -for this, but the idea is that it is about how you are tracked when you are online. So when you go to The Guardian and you look at an article, and then you go and buy a pair of shoes and you go back to The Guardian and you suddenly notice there are all those ads for those shoe brands on the side, which I’ve never really understood; why would you buy those shoes if you have already bought them?

You are being tracked. The Guardian is talking to the site where you bought your shoes from, and then if you go to another site all those sites are talking to each other. What FireFox have done, which I think is actually really cool, is they have built this plug-in, it was called ‘Collusion’ it is now called ‘Lightbeam’, which allows you to see how you are being tracked. You are still being tracked, you can’t stop that, but you can at least see how you are being tracked and who is tracking you.

The idea with this is that you go through your day, it is a film that takes you through your day, and as you are watching the film about being tracked, you are putting in websites that are visiting and you are being tracked. Then you see data visualisations of how you have been tracked.

So it is teaching you about tracking by tracking you. The interaction is the story.

Another really interesting thing that I have noticed online a lot, and it is actually weird to me that this hasn’t been pulled into documentary practice more, are all the experiments with data visualisation and data in general.

If you look at The Guardian, they have set up a whole side of The Guardian now that is just about data journalism and how you show stories with data. The New York Times is very interested in this, in fact everyone is, because they know that a) there is an incredible wealth of big data now that we can use to tell stories differently, but also that with data visualisation you can actually pull the story out of something that could be very boring as a spreadsheet.


Out of Sight, Out of Mind: one of the Guardian interactive big data projects

This is one that some of you may have seen, it’s called ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’. I am just going to let it play and I’ll talk over it.

This was a story that I kind of knew about, it was only really when I saw it portrayed as a data visualisation that I really understood the magnanimity of what had happened.

So, this is ‘Drone Strikes in Pakistan’, really drawing attention to the fact that a lot of the people killed are civilians, not combatants. It starts with the first one and then follows all of them through the years.

Just notice what happens when you get to 2008; you are getting the story of these drone strikes, you are seeing how they are slowly increasing, how many children are killed through these drone strikes.

Understanding a story that you may read in the newspaper every day but it is not really making much of an impression, and then suddenly you see what happens after 2008 and it just starts, well you’ll see, it kind of starts raining down.

For me, this told the story in a very, very different way and I have actually been talking to some filmmakers who are thinking about pulling this into documentaries in real time.

If you were making a film about drone strikes in Pakistan and you had your film on the web, every time a drone strike happens and you are tracking that, your film would update. So if I watched the film today it would be different from the film that I watch tomorrow.

There are a few people who are experimenting with this idea of data docs, so another one example would be a film about the housing crisis or the homeless; every time you are watching it, it is updating in real time.

Another think that I think this has really made me realise that it changes, it is not just the interaction as a story, it is this idea of how, with television and with linear documentaries you kind of knew what your audience were doing; they were sitting, hopefully quietly, hopefully not texting people, they were sitting still for the length of your film. So if your film was 70 minutes they would sit there for 70 minutes and they would watch the television, maybe make a cup of tea, but that was pretty much the extent of it.

You weren’t really asking what the people would be doing. It was very much about, “What is the film?” not, “What are the people doing with it?”

The relationship between a director and an editor is very, very intense but now you are having to throw in a developer, a coder, a designer, a user experience person; all these different people are now part of your team in order to make this kind of work happen.Mr. WordPress
Now with a lot of these interactive projects you really have to think about that. You are having to think about things like user experience design. A really interesting designer called Jason Brush, who is also a filmmaker, said, which really stopped me in my tracks, “If you think about editing as sculpting with time, you are sculpting with time. Your film is always that shape, it is 16:9 maybe 4:3, it is an aspect ratio. Within that, you are sculpting with the time to create your film. Now what you are doing with interactive projects is you are sculpting with both time and space, and you are shaping for use.”

So it is a very, very different dynamic in terms of you as a creator, in terms of what you do, in terms of who you work with. If you think about it in the old days, you would work with a producer, you would work with a camera person, you would work with an editor. Those are all incredibly, anyone who has made a film knows this, incredibly difficult creative processes.

The relationship between a director and an editor is very, very intense but now you are having to throw in a developer, a coder, a designer, a user experience person; all these different people are now part of your team in order to make this kind of work happen.

Those all have to be creative exercises as well, and it is one of the reasons – I’ll talk a little bit about our Hackathons later – it is one of the reasons we started doing Hackathons. We realised we had to learn a whole new language.

Filmmakers don’t know how to talk to developers; we don’t know the language of code, we don’t know what code can do. We don’t understand experience design, we never thought about experience design; no one brought that up in filmmaking 20 years ago. So it is a completely different dynamic and you need completely different teams, completely different budgets, all of that.

A lot of that is about collaboration, it is really about bringing totally different people together. We go to film festivals, we go to film conferences, we don’t go to tech conferences. So suddenly you are having to bring all these industries together and there is a lot of slippage between industries. A lot of that is because all of the stuff happens on the web.

Just a couple of other examples of films where I think this idea of user experience design and what the audience does is really interesting. ‘Alma’ is a project that we put some money into a couple of years ago. This is a two screen experience; you can watch it on the web, you can also download it as a free iPad app. It is still available.

Alma, A Tale of Violence from dav on Vimeo.

It is the confession of an ex-Guatemalan gang member. You can basically pull up and see another screen, so it is either her in close up or you pull down the screen on your iPad and you see images from Guatemala, you get a different soundtrack, it is a different experience. Every time you watch it, you could have a different experience as you pull down between the two different screens.

Another one that we just recently funded, ‘Hollow’, which just won a Peabody award, was a really beautiful example of long scroll – they call it [‘scroll’ in Italian 0:32:00], I can barely say it – scrolling down, long scroll websites.

The New York Times became very famous for a project called ‘Snowfall’ and this is one; I’m just going to let the beginning of it play. It is about a small town in West Virginia, so you may think, “Very local problem, very small story.” What she did is, she created this incredible interactive website that enables you to understand what happened to this one small town, but also what is happening to almost every small town in the US at the moment.

Then she actually connected it to this idea of home for everyone, so that wherever you are you can really respond to this idea of what does home mean for you, even if you have never heard of this small town in West Virginia.

She started pulling you into the story by showing you what happened to the town over the last 100 years in terms of the population and the industry.

Obviously if you are scrolling at your own pace you get to see what is happening to this town as the coal plants close, as the town gets poorer and poorer and poorer. Then you get pulled into the present, and that is when she pulls you into the story proper and you get to watch videos. You get to meet people from the town and it is this very, very kind of intense experience.

But by the time you have gone in there, you have seen this amazing kind of, it’s almost like a data visualisation combined with the web combined with film. You get a real sense of what happened to that town to get you to 2013.

I think we got so excited about these projects, I think ‘Hollow’ is absolutely beautiful, ‘Alma’ is absolutely beautiful. But one of the things we realised very, very quickly is that for example, ‘Hollow’ right now only works on certain browsers; this is another issue that you now have to work with, with interactive projects. It only works on Chrome and I think Safari, it doesn’t work on FireFox.

We really started to think about this idea of access, digital access, because we got so excited about interactive storytelling and allowing people to tell stories in different ways and to reach different kinds of people. But we realised that actually you are making a lot of assumptions about who would hear about these projects and who has access to Chrome for example.

So one of the things I started to think about is this idea of what it really means when we talk about global filmmaking and what we really mean when we talk about global stories. Thomas Freidman wrote this book about the world is flat, talking about how we can get Fiji water and we can get apples from wherever. Basically, this idea that you can get stuff from anywhere, wherever you are in the world.


Composite photograph of the world at night

But actually if you look at a composite picture of the world at night, you start to realise that the world is actually a little bit lumpier than that. So this is showing you which countries are lit up, and you can see that there are countries that are just not lit up at night. If you look at maps of where Facebook reaches or Twitter reaches, you will get other really interesting pictures. China will disappear, Russia will disappear, Turkey will disappear depending on what is happening in any one of those countries at the time.

So you start to realise that the world is actually much lumpier than it is flat, and so when we are thinking about global access and when we are thinking about what these technologies can do for storytelling, I think we have to think about this. There is no excuse not to now, because we talk about everything being global, ubiquitous and cheap, but what do we really mean by that?

The thing that got me very, very excited is mobile. You look at that map of Africa and you may think that there is not a lot going on there in terms of electricity, in terms of the grid. But there is a huge amount going on in terms of mobile. Mobile data traffic is accelerating; it is up 81% year over year. 81%. Video is now 22% of consumption. So there is a massive thing happening in video.

pingdom-mobile-web-share-worldwideIf you look here, this is mobile usage as a percentage of web usage. If you look at Asia and Africa you can see that there is enormous growth happening in terms of mobile usage in those countries. 5.2 billion people have a mobile phone. There are still less people with mobile phones than televisions interestingly, but that is going to change.

Of those 5.2 billion, I cannot see my notes right now, I think 30-something % have smart phones. That is also going to change, because androids are getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. There is going to be android smart phone proliferation in Africa. There are already these semi-smart feature phones that can do incredible things; you can use Facebook from a feature phone in Africa.

So what does that mean in terms of the stories that you are telling and in terms of how you are reaching people with those stories? How is mobile going to change storytelling?

We did a few experiments early on with these ideas of local stories told in local ways, and also this idea of amplifying local voices. One of the things that has always driven me crazy is this idea of talking about the voices or people without a voice, because I just think it is so patronising. Everyone has a voice, it’s just that no one is listening sometimes.

So it is this idea of how do you amplify local voices rather than talking for other people? One of the early projects we supported was ‘18 Days in Egypt’ which is still online. This was capturing social media from the Egyptian revolution, from people on the ground, and curating it in one space.

We also did a really interesting project called ‘Dadaab Stories’ in the Dadaab refugee camp. These were refugees many of whom were born into the camp and have never left the camp, telling their own stories and uploading their own stories. The way it is built is actually on Tumblr. It is built in such a way that refugees can actually upload it from the camp on cell phone networks because they don’t – there is one media centre I think in the camp that has broadband but everywhere else is cell phone. So this project was built for that.

Another thing that this quickly led us to is this idea of analogue. These stories don’t all have to be digital; when you start to think about stories jumping out of the frame you can also go analogue. Jonathan Harris who is an amazing internet artist who I highly recommend you check out has done beautiful work online. He is an incredible coder, an incredible artist, but when he came to speak at TFI Interactive he pulled out this bird and said that what he loved about this bird was that it could have been made 2,000 years ago and it could be made 2,000 years in the future.

TFI Interactive Day 2014 // Jonathan Harris // Digital Dissatisfaction: The Limits of Technology from Tribeca Film Institute on Vimeo.

He challenged us all to think about this idea of timelessness versus timeliness, because with the web we are always thinking about timeliness; what’s hot now, what is the latest technology, what are we getting all excited about? We don’t think about timelessness.

One of the other issues which I won’t go into now because it is massive and complicated is, what happens to all of these stories when the hardware and the software become obsolete? When that hardware no longer exists and that code no longer works, what happens to these stories that we are collecting?

In some ways, I don’t think this is just true of interactive stories, I think this is true of a lot of stories that are digital because in many ways, you know, celluloid lasts much longer than zeros and ones.

So how are we preserving this culture and how are we preserving these experiments right now when we are in the middle of them? When we know that a lot of this hardware and software is going to be obsolete? And not in five years’ time, it is going to be obsolete next year.

So we have done a few really interesting analogue projects; one was ‘The Nanny Van’ where a nanny van would drive around America giving information about domestic workers’ rights, because there has recently been a bunch of bills passed which basically protects workers who work in that grey area where they are nannies, they are care givers, they often work in people’s home and they are often not protected by labour laws.


The ‘Nanny Van’ drives around America

It is very, very difficult to reach them online, so they created a nanny van that drives around, goes to playgrounds where the nannies are with their charges, gives them these analogue cards; there is a phone line, there is a radio show, because they realised that radio was one way to reach them.

So you know, I think the appropriate technology is something else to think about. It doesn’t all have to be online, it doesn’t all have to be on the web, it doesn’t all have to be on Oculus Rift.

We also did our first kid’s project. This is ‘Laika’s Adventure’. This is a little plush toy, some parents might freak out a little bit about this but it is basically a toy and you put your mobile phone in the toy’s heart and then your kid can play educational games on the mobile phone that is in the heart of the toy.

There is also a series of books and this is a robot that has had to leave her planet because the planet has been destroyed by climate change. She has had to seek refuge on Earth, and kids, while they follow this journey, they learn about climate change here on Earth and steps that they can take.

We also did a project called ‘Immigrant Nation’ which is online, but because we realised that a lot of recent immigrant communities don’t necessarily speak English and would not necessarily find out about a project, and this is a whole other thing; how do you find out about these projects when you don’t have a big mainstream TV broadcaster and they are not out in the cinemas?

So they did a series of analogue shows, this was one in Ellis Island, where they would bring communities in. They would go out to schools and a lot of it was very much about sharing your story on a poster board with a pen. So it is bringing online and offline together.

I mentioned very quickly about this idea of obsolete software and hardware, but we are also increasingly thinking about stories beyond the web. It is not just making documentaries for the web or for mobile, it is actually making documentaries for any platform that you can think of; any platform that has been invented but also for platforms that haven’t been invented yet.

We have done a bunch of Hackathons to experiment with this idea of objects, the internet of things, object narratives. What kinds of stories can objects talk? What does a documentary look like when objects in your house talk to your computer? What is that documentary?

This is a Hackathon we did with Arduinos where this woman built a – I don’t know if any of you have played ‘Flappy Bird’? It was a very big game, he caused a storm by taking it off the Apple store for a while, so when he took it off the Apple store she decided to created a real live version of it. So this is a real live version of ‘Flappy Bird’.

I will just play a very quick video, just to give you a sense of why we do Hackathons. You will hear a lot of people have never done them before, which is kind of why we do them.

So the Hackathons for us have become really, really important. They started as a big experiment; we were just like, “What could filmmakers make if they had two days or five days to work with technologists, and we gave them a safe space to play?”

People were so freaked out about all the things they didn’t know that they didn’t want to try anything. So it was really just creating a sandbox where people could experiment and do stuff, and it didn’t matter.

One of the things I’ve always said, although I keep getting into trouble for this is, “It’s process, not product.” I don’t care what they make. For me, the most important thing is the experience of being in that room and making something new. Learning to play with an Arduino; making a robot; creating a web experience if you have never played with code before; and learning how to talk to the developers and the designers.

Really, a lot of it is about translation and about learning new ways of doing project management.

But cool things have come out of it, and a lot of the projects that have come out of our Hackathons have gone on to apply for funding; a lot of them are being developed.

We just did one in March in Cern, with scientists at Cern, around science stories. A lot of those projects are extraordinary. That was a five day Hackathon.

We very, very seldom do them as competitions. In the tech world they are offering competitions but we really want people to collaborate so we try not to make them too competitive. But we do always have the presentation at the end because you need that; you need a little bit of competition, you need a little bit of terror to actually make a project, because you only have two days normally.

The results have been incredible, and we have really started to see a community start to evolve around this work. A lot of it is through the Hackathons.

We have done the Hackathons POV and in the States we are doing the Hackathons. There are a bunch of them being run here now, and it is really exciting to see the workshop Hackathon space develop. We want to do more of that.

We are also really excited about all of these labs that are being developed. Sundance has a New Frontier lab, we have started doing a lab with filmmakers that we support, because you need that. To build a new community around a new kind of work, you need to build the infrastructure around it, because there are all these problems we haven’t solved.

“How do you find out about these projects?” A lot of this is very neat, it’s us; it’s the community of us talking to the rest of the community of us. And we don’t want it to be that way. We want these stories to reach way beyond the choir.Mr. WordPress
We haven’t solved the problems of marketing; I kept referring to, “How do you find out about these projects?” A lot of this is very neat, it’s us; it’s the community of us talking to the rest of the community of us. And we don’t want it to be that way. We want these stories to reach way beyond the choir.

It is really, really important to us and so I think building the community around this work and then expanding that community beyond just the practitioners is really key.

So another really nice thing about the Hackathons is that we don’t always aim them solely at filmmakers. We try and make them much more general. We have done a bunch with kids for example. So we are always thinking about, you know.

The Hackathon is such a malleable form that you can kind of do anything with it. So what could we do next? It is also about solving problems. What can we do with data? What can we do with archives? If a new archive is released we will often do a Hackathon around that archive; what can we create with that work?

What can we do with Open Source? What can we do with objects?

And new storytelling platforms as well; when people develop storytelling platforms we will often create a Hackathon just around that. So it is also R&D for us; we get to kind of experiment with things through the Hackathons.

Finally, just before I end I just wanted to talk a little bit very quickly about showing this work, because it is really important I think to bring audiences like you, sitting here in a room together communicating, communing. It is a very different relationship to sitting in front of your laptop at home watching one of these projects.

So we have started showing these projects at the Tribeca Film Festival in a section called ‘Story Scapes’. Sheffield Doc/Fest have really expanded what they are doing. I am going there later this week and they are showing a lot of interactive projects and immersive projects.

DocLab in Amsterdam, it’s part of IDFA, have done some really, really amazing work. There are more and more traditional film festivals that are showing interactive work but there are also festivals that are just around interactive work now. A lot of them are not focused on cinema and film, but they include that because they are looking at cool, interactive storytelling projects.


Blabdroid robots: designed to be cute

This is one project we did last year called ‘BlabDroid’. It is a robot that makes a documentary. I think they have shown it here a little bit, but you should know that it is extremely manipulative this project, because that robot is designed to look like a baby seal so that you will trust it and tell it all your deepest, darkest secrets. Then they have the rights to your footage.

It has got the voice of a kid; it tweets a little bit, so it is as cute as it can be. People do tell it some extraordinary things. So this is this idea of, “What would you tell a robot that you wouldn’t tell another human being?” And they were really inspired by – I don’t know if any of you ever played the ‘Eliza’ programme back in the early, early days? It still exists, it would pretend to be your therapist and it would answer back to you. It’s kind of based on that idea; really thinking about what would you tell this cute robot that you wouldn’t tell Brent Hoff on the left there?

I couldn’t stop this talk without talking about Oculus Rift. We have been looking a lot at virtual reality and what virtual reality is going to mean for documentary filmmaking, for filmmaking in general, for entertainment in general. I could do a whole talk about this. I am equally totally excited by this and totally terrified because – I don’t know how many of you have tried Oculus Rift but it is kind of amazing.

The possibilities for doing really horrible stuff with it are amazing. I always remind myself, people freaked out when the first novel was published. They were terrified; they thought it was going to ruin people’s lives. We always are terrified by new technologies, but there is something about the Oculus that does slightly scare me.

425438-robert-de-niroThis is Robert De Niro by the way, just in case you didn’t notice him, not being very impressed on the Oculus Rift. But you know, again, obviously most of the stuff on the Oculus is going to be games and porn, obviously. That is how most people are going to make their money on the Oculus.

But what does a documentary look like in virtual reality? And what does it mean, when you think about the camera as an empathy machine, what does it mean when you then take that into a virtual reality world where you literally feel like you are walking in someone else’s shoes? So if you are telling a real story and you are trying to make someone think about the world in a slightly different way and you are in a virtual reality world, what does that mean?

I just think the possibilities are kind of incredible. One woman who has been really experimenting with this is – this is not a very good quality photograph, I’m sorry – Nonny de la Peña has been doing this incredible – she calls it ‘Immersive Journalism’, where she actually tries to take you into a story and put you in someone else’s shoes.

This was a project about a Mexican migrant who was killed on the border by US Border Patrol in front of witnesses, filmed on their iPhones. So there were Mexican and US witnesses walking across the border and they couldn’t get to him but they saw the whole thing happen.

He was tasered and beaten, he died in hospital, and what happens is, you stand with the witnesses. You can only go as far as the witnesses could go, so you cannot walk beyond where they could walk to. So it is this idea of being on the scene but being powerless, but also understanding what happened.

It is a really, really powerful experience and very upsetting, but it really made me think differently about what you can do with this work. Obviously ethical challenges, how you deal with that. When things are realer than real, how you deal with the ethical challenges around documentary subject matter is an issue, but once again we kind of need to be in that space and we need to grapple with those issues because otherwise someone else will and perhaps not in the way that we like.

I just had to do, after that, some fun projects. This is one called ‘On a Human Scale’ where you play New York. So every note on the piano is a New Yorker singing that note, and so every time you play the piano, you can play ‘Moon River’ and New York will sing it with you.

On a Human Scale: installation at Tribeca Film Festival

On a Human Scale: installation at Tribeca Film Festival

‘Choose Your Own Documentary’, I wanted to have more immersive theatre, I am really interested in why ‘Punch Drunk’, ‘Sleep No More’, ‘The Drowned Man’, why is it that we are so obsessed with immersive theatre right now?

Secret Cinema is huge; I just saw that they are going to build the set of ‘Back to the Future’, which is going to be amazing. It’s going to be amazing. What is it? Why is this kind of immersive theatre so exciting to us now?

So this is ‘Choose Your Own Documentary’ which was a theatre piece and a documentary, and the audience could vote.

I think it had been playing in London, and he was very worried that it wasn’t going to play well in New York because it is quite British in lots of ways. But people loved it.

So this idea of immersive theatre – there is a really interesting group in New York called ‘Wanderlust’ and they describe themselves less as theatre and more as games. They will take you to abandoned buildings and create experiences for you in those buildings.

One example was they created a Speakeasy in a water tower in New York City. You would have to climb through a building – it is all highly illegal – and then you would go into the water tower and there would be this incredible Speakeasy experience. They describe this as a game, and they do a lot of research on the spaces that they create.

They also did one called ‘The Illicit Couples’ Retreat’ where they took you to an abandoned camp in the Poconos, in the Catskills…

Okay. So I think that is enough examples. We can talk a little bit further, but I just wanted to end with this because people often ask me why I do this when there is so much unknown; when; we are in the space of lure and blur; when we don’t often know what we are doing; when we don’t know what’s coming down the pipeline; when we are worried about things becoming obsolete; when we haven’t got the language to talk to developers and designers and we are trying to figure this all out.

I think about this conversation: When the first manned balloon flight took place it was 1783 and someone was standing next to Benjamin Franklin in the square and said, “What good is it?” Benjamin Franklin replied, “What good is a baby?”

I think that is a very good answer, and that is the answer to why I do this. I think it is new, we don’t know what it is going to be yet, but we think it is going to be pretty cool and we have to nurture it and see where it goes.

I know from the projects that I have worked on that these stories do reach different people; they do reach different people from linear documentaries. 
But more than that, it is also because I know from the projects that I have worked on that these stories do reach different people; they do reach different people from linear documentaries. They do just because of their form and also different kinds of people are making these films now because of the way that they get made, films, the language keeps changing.

Different creators are making these creative projects now because of the way they get made, and that is really, really exciting and it is only going to get more exciting.

Also, Henry Ford. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘Faster horses’.” So you know, in some ways you just have to kind of keep going and remember that innovation is never easy, and just look at all the cool ideas that are coming up.

And that’s me.


MR: Thanks so much Ingrid. Tons of really interesting ideas and a sense of the kind of landscape there. I guess I am wondering, what is your feel about where we are in this evolving landscape?

There have been so many possibilities people have been trying out, particularly in the last five or ten years. Online games, now Oculus Rift, and I’m just wondering where you think we are in that trajectory?

IK:   Well, we are definitely not at the beginning. I think as much as I said, “This is new,” I think it is important to remember that it is not new new. There are bodies of work available now to look at. If you look at work that’s shown at IDFA DocLab for example going back I think seven or eight years now, if you look at the work that the NFB – I meant to mention that in my talk. NFB, the National Film Board of Canada, have done some extraordinary work; ‘Bear 71’, ‘The High Rise Project’, ‘Journal of Insomnia’ which we showed at Tribeca last year.

I think we are more in the middle than we think we are. I think the problem is, “Who is ‘we’?” If you include games, and we are going back – not board games, if you think about digital games, then we are going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s and a lot of the issues that we are dealing with now were solved decades ago, around interactivity, around how to create interactive universes.

So it is also like, “Who is ‘we’?” When I say, “We,” do I mean ‘we’ as in independent documentary filmmakers now? Or do I mean a different ‘we’? I think that is probably a lot of the complexity of this, is that industries are blurring and practices are blurring and professions are blurring, and so where we are in it I think depends on how you define yourself and your profession, I guess.

MR:   Thinking as a commissioner of some of these projects, I was thinking about Jason Brush’s great but also kind of awesome list of this things people have to think about; the idea that as creator you are sculpting the time and space and thinking about creating for the user. So just thinking about, you know, from a commissioner’s perspective what is it – when you see a project that starts to kind of come together, what’s going on there? What are people bringing?

IK:   I think it’s two things, for me. I think sometimes I just love projects because I think they are really cool and I am totally – it’s the bright, shiny thing. I have never seen a project on Oculus, it’s on Oculus, I’m like, “Woo.” So I think bright shiny object syndrome is definitely part of it.

But that’s not just, you know, I don’t think that is just fickle. I think that is also, “What is this new technology? What is it going to do?”

Often actually the projects I like the best are really simple. If you think about ‘Gaza-Sderot’, the project I showed earlier on, 2008 is a lifetime ago in terms of technology. It still works, it doesn’t feel dated, and I think a lot of the other work feels dated very, very quickly.

I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that the storytelling is maybe not as strong as it should be. The characters aren’t great, there is no sense of a narrative arc, or if the narrative is not intended, the interaction is not well designed.

So I think actually for me, and this is something I think about more and more, is it is just production values, actually. Production values however you define them. That could be user experience design, and actually just really making sure that the projects meet the goals that they have for themselves. Those goals can be completely different.

But increasingly I keep thinking about this idea; I’ll give you an example. For Tribeca, when I wanted to have Nonny de la Peña’s project, there was real pushback about having a really serious project about an immigrant who was killed by US Border Patrol.

I suddenly realised that these folks had the sense that interactive was fun, it has to be fun and cannot be serious, and that if something is interactive or something is in virtual reality, you cannot deal with serious subjects.

I think what is really interesting, and I didn’t talk very much about games because we haven’t funded one yet and I really want to, but if you look at independent games, if you look at the whole indie game scene that is developing, if you look at projects that are showing at IndieCade – sorry, these are all US references because I am based there – and Babycastles, there is a really cool conference called ‘Different Games’.

There is really awesome stuff around gender identity, around ‘Gone Home’, I don’t know if any of you have played that? Totally unexpected ending.

MR:   So it’s games.

IK:   Games are getting, yes. They are serious, but they are fun to play and that is the really tricky thing. How do you deal with something serious but still make it if not fun then engaging? Because if you think about really great documentaries, they can be about very, very tricky, difficult subject matter but they are still incredible as cinema.

I think that is the thing that we are missing; what is incredible as cinema in this space? Often they are just not that well done yet, you know? The audio is not that good, they haven’t thought about things like the soundtrack, you know? It’s sloppy.

So that is what I look for. But then I still let some sloppy things through because I think that there is a kernel of something cool. So I’m just contradicting myself all the time, I guess.