Interactive documentary for the iPad: Ramona Pringle on Avatar Secrets

Ramona Pringle: Writer/Director/Producer of Avatar Secrets

Avatar Secrets – an interactive documentary for the iPad – explores the complexities of human connection in the wired world, examining the evolving nature of community, relationships, empathy and interdependence in the real world, and in the digital frontier.

I caught up with Ramona ahead of her talk at i-Docs 2014 to find out more about Avatar Secrets and her step into the world of interactive documentary.

What inspired you to produce this interactive documentary in the first place?

This has been a story that I’ve been thinking about and working on for a long time… The evolution of this project has been, in and of itself, an epic journey! Earlier in my career, while I was working as the interactive producer on Frontline’s Digital Nation with Rachel Dretzin and Doug Rushkoff, I covered Blizzcon, which is a massive gaming convention where players meet up in person with the people they spend the rest of the year questing with online, and the experience had a profound impact on me.

I’d been thinking a lot about community in the digital age, framed by books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” which talks about the decline in face to face connection since the 1950’s, and I was really moved by the people I met and the community I encountered – people would tell me stories of mourning when there was a death in their guild, celebrating births, helping each other write their kid’s college admission papers – and of course, falling in love – all online. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it, that this community was onto something that the rest of us should know, and that this particular experience was just a microcosm of all of our hyper connected lives… So I started to play, just to see for myself, and right at that time all of these big life changing events happened: there was an illness in my family, I moved back to Toronto from New York where I’d been working at PBS and teaching at NYU, and I went through a big break up – I found myself having these “aha” moments in the game, moments where I’d think, “wow, that’s incredibly profound and relevant to my real life” – and that’s how the Avatar Secrets came about.

Ramona meets Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google

In parallel to the amazing journey I found myself on, I was meeting all of these incredible people and hearing their stories, and talking to experts, researchers, artists and technologists, and the project just came together. This is an examination of all of our lives, now, of the status quo of connection and disconnection… we are living in the science fiction future, and yet we are empathic creatures that long for community and love. Avatar Secrets examines the idea that we’re all “players” in this complex game, and explores how we find balance, happiness, and sustainable collaborative success in the new hybrid reality.

Why interactive? Were there any points in the production process where you wish you’d opted for a linear documentary? 

I spend a lot of time thinking about the potential of interactivity in storytelling (which is why I am so excited for i-docs!) from branching paths to formats for co-creation. I also spend a lot of time thinking about our relationship to technology – our gadgets, especially our mobile devices, have become ubiquitous – I mean, am basically a cyborg, the only way I could be more attached to my iPhone would be if it were embedded under my skin… What that ubiquity means is that there is an existing language for how we interact with these touch screen devices, and that was what I wanted to tap – I thought, let’s use the language that’s been developed and widely adopted to make a really intuitive user experience. I wanted it to be easy for our audience.

I think in an era with so much technology and so much possibility, it is a mistake to distinguish between interactivity and linearity. There are so many ways to interact and engage with a story, beyond branching paths, and I wanted to play with adding interactivity to a linear storyline, adding layers and depth that can be explored. I love film. I love stories. I love characters. I started my career as an actress and before going to grad school, got a BFA in film – there is something to be said for a story arc, for getting to know a character, and experiencing highs and lows as they do – the nature of the content in this project allowed us to create an experience that is linear but layered, where viewers can customize their experience and engage in layers of interactive content, digging deeper and navigating their own way, or else enjoy a “lean back” experience… or go back and forth between the two.

 How did you approach the structure? This project has a lot of content!

We thought a lot about structure and format. A key part of our interactive strategy was to make sense of a lot of content through layers and curation; there is a memoir story line, there are these beautiful “case studies” with touching stories, and then a collection of expert interviews, and it all reinforces the other. As you progress through the narrative, there are animated hot spots, that are like rich media footnotes or annotations, so really at any point in the story there is an opportunity to dive in and get more information, more perspectives, or cultural context.

The storyline is broken into ten chapters, and each one has an Avatar Secret and a theme. Within that chapter there is a journey, and there are interviews, documentary clips, and vignettes that appear as you make your way through the piece. All of those additional Ch9_Sc3_2layers of content can also be accessed through the user interface with a navigation that can be searched by chapter and scene, video clip, or expert and clip, so that there are different entry points for different kinds of viewers.

How did you put together  the team behind Avatar Secrets? Any tips on this collaboration process?

We have a small but mighty team! This really is an amazing group of people, and I consider them my best friends. Our core team is small, and we talk daily, and I mean 7 days a week. I have written and directed Avatar Secrets, and I do most of the editing. Michaele Jordana is our creative director, and brings experience in fine art, and that classical aesthetic and perfectionist’s touch. Olney Atwell is the lead animator, Mike Derrah is the illustrator, Lisa Lightbourn Lay is the cinematographer, Mark Pavlidis is doing the iOS programming… There are more people involved, but that’s the group that’s in constant contact.That’s probably my big tip: contact and communication.

For the project to move along smoothly, everyone really needs to know what is expected of them and what the rest of the team needs from them – we are all responsible to each other, and reliant on each other – each person on the team has really focused talents – but they also need to be able to do more than their specific task and do what needs to get done and in that way we’re a Renaissance studio; Michaele is really hands on, providing creative vision but also creating all of the photo realistic assets and hybrid composited scenes; Olney and I will work late into the night figuring out an edit together or trying to find the right wording for part of the voice over.

I guess that’s the second tip; making sure there is expertise on the team, but having team members who are not confined to their own role and will do what needs to get done to tackle a creative challenge. There’s definitely a master vision, but we’re also picking thing up as we go. There’s a lot of trust. We work about 50% remotely – The core team is in Toronto, except for Olney who is in LA, and so our production literally lives in the cloud. We will go 8 hour stretches with Skype open, which sort of extends one office into the other, across coasts.

The design of the interactive documentary is incredible – do you feel it was almost as important as the story?

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 9.18.26 PMAbsolutely! We’re a team of artists, we’re all very visual communicators, and all very much believe in the show don’t tell philosophy. The design is very much the story. We spent a lot of time during development trying to figure out our aesthetic – how organic it should feel, versus how digital, and also, how we would visualize the “hybrid reality” we’re exploring. We decided to create our own world, to capture the awe and wonder of this experience for an audience that is just encountering it for the first time, the magic, the lure, and the allure.

When it comes to aesthetics, there are four major design choices that we made early on, that set the tone of the project: One, the decision to have a hand drawn feel for the illustrations and animations, as opposed to CG. When I first saw the storyboards I fell in love with them, because they are so human, as opposed to feeling computer generated, and what I always say is that Avatar Secrets is a story about humans and relationships, not about games and technology. The seamless integration of photorealistic elements pushes the visuals into the realm of fine art, so that each frame is an exploration of the human experience in the hybrid reality, and each frame prompts examination of the component parts.

The second motif we developed was the fragmenting effect, which flickers between footage and drawings, and between real and virtual. We spent a lot of time developing an effect that was contemporary and digital, as if there were bits of the real world that were artifacting in the transition to digital, and vice versa. We no longer live in the era of the Martix where real and virtual are separated by tubes and tunnels, we are constantly connected and our real and digital experiences are layered on top of each other at all times; the fragmenting reveals that there’s always that other layer present. The third big design choice was the use of the “Z axis”, and moving “deep” into the screen as a way of transitioning between worlds. Because the iPad app is full screen, you get this incredibly beautiful experience when you push through 3D space, and it really pulls you into the story, it almost feeling like you’re getting pulled into the screen, which definitely mirrors the narrative.

What is it about the technical development that sets this documentary apart?

 Our interactive approach has been to go for simplicity, with a “less is more” philosophy for the user interface to make the experience as intuitive as possible. We know how to watch movies, we know how to read books, we know how to use our mobile phones. It sounds simple, but it’s so easy to overlook just how much potential there is using the language that’s already widely adopted.

We developed the first version of Avatar Secrets for the iPad, with plans to version it for other platforms; With second screens quickly becoming our primary experience platform, and tablet sales set to outpace PC sales within the next year, it is time that we adapt the cinematic and television experience for our changing relationship to screens. The technical challenge was how to make it easy and intuitive, so that a user wouldn’t need a tutorial, and so that it would just be a natural extension of our existing behaviours. The iPad is a really interesting platform to develop a narrative project for, because it integrates features of cinema and television with features of a book; The interactivity we’ve developed allows for an incredibly customizable experience, that ranges from lean back linear narrative – a cinematic experience with music and narration, to a rich e-book experience that you can flip through scene by scene, and read without any audio… or any range of options between those two.

How are tablets & touch screens changing documentary viewing? Are you worried about confining the experience to an iPad?

Choose your avatar: a screen from the documentary

The iPad is really unique in that it has many of the features of film or television in that it is screen based with all of the media capabilities, but it also has a lot of the features of a book; It is portable, one on one, and it is a very intimate experience that pulls you in, your gaze is close and you interact through touch instead of buttons or remotes. A lot of our structure and user experience is influenced by books, with chapters, and a scene progression that mimics flipping pages, to allow viewers to set their own pace as they explore the story and the layers of content. The project is full of motion, the motion within the screen and the user’s motion as they engage through touch. Film and books are both incredible storytelling platforms and to be able to integrate those two is very exciting, and I think this is just the beginning.

The iPad allows us to create a narrative project that is at once layered, with different storylines, textures and media, all the while being self-contained. We wanted to focus on one platform so that we could make the best possible product and tell the best possible story, but we’ve built the project in a way that can be versioned to other platforms, and that’s definitely a future goal… to “set it free” and see it live in different media. We’re currently in the process of building a large-scale version of the project on 52” touch screens for Hot Docs, so that a live audience can engage with the narrative experience in public settings, which is really exciting!


Exclusive content is available online for subscribers

You’ve allowed for the public to subscribe to exclusive content before the release, what do you think the impact of this has been? What sort of content do you offer?

Leading up to our launch, we’re releasing early subscriber content and sharing behind the scenes exclusive material with our community.

The response has been great – what we’re seeing from the open rate of the newsletters and the behind the scenes content is that there is a lot of interest in the process of these projects — which is why an event like i-docs is so fantastic, too. It’s an opportunity for us to document and reflect on our process, and share the lessons we’ve learned with our community. Our blog and exclusive subscriber content give us a chance to talk about format and the creative decisions we’ve made as part of an evolving craft and art form. I love to read about how things are made, and why creators make the artistic decisions they do, and this is our chance to contribute to that knowledge pool.

Our behind the scenes content looks at everything from strategy to creative process, going in depth to explore design and format choices, as well as touch on actual execution. We started with an in depth look at our “fountain sequence” which was from our original prototype, where we first executed the integration of illustrations and photorealistic assets, and the use of 2.5D to travel through three dimensional space, between live action and our fabricated virtual world (as I talked about above!). We share assets and process work – everything from storyboards to animates and component parts, to break apart the creative process. In upcoming previews, we’ll be exploring the evolution from storyboards to final product, the interactive format, the aesthetics and art, and some more in depth previews of expert interviews.

You can sign up for the Avatar Secrets newsletter for access to exclusive behind-the-scenes content documenting the technical and artistic challenges involved with bringing a project of this scope to life. To subscribe, visit:
Don’t miss Ramona speaking at i-Docs 2014 – check out our full programme and register here!