Orion: Behind the Mask

I am currently working as academic expert on a REACT funded Future Documentary project with the film-maker Jeanie Finlay.

ORION the movie tells the story of Jimmy Ellis, an unknown singer thrust into the spotlight with a fictional identity and a mask, as part of a crazy scheme to masquerade him as Elvis back from the grave. ORION: behind the mask, harnesses web technologies to explore mystery, tribute, identity and fandom. Developing new forms of audience and fan engagement, the project will gather memories and elicit participation in the telling and sharing of this rich and fascinating story.


You can follow our progress here, along with the other five projects that have been commissioned on the Future Documentary website.

We hope to tell you more about this project at i-Docs 2014 but here’s my initial blog entry to give a flavour of what we are doing:

Just under two weeks into the Future Docs Sandbox, finally I get a chance to reflect on where we’ve got to with our project. It’s been a whirl of a fortnight – Jeanie touring the country with the theatrical release of The Great Hip Hop Hoax and me moving house! Somewhere in amongst all this we’ve found time to cover a lot of ground and our collaboration is feeling good.

JeanieJeanie came to Bristol for the first Sandbox day, I went to Cardiff for her screening/Director’s Q&A at Chapter Arts, we’ve skyped several times, and we’ve had meetings with Tom Martin, our technology partner at 383 Project and Lucy Bennett, our fan psychology advisor. Jeanie’s also been skyping with Ingrid Kopp and I’ve been drinking wine with Clare Reddington. Time to take stock, filter the discussions and lay down a few markers.


As academic partner, we’ve been working out my role on the project and figuring out how we can best collaborate. It’s become clear that Jeanie’s research process as a film-maker is not dissimilar to my own research process as a visual anthropologist working in the field of interactive documentary. We are both drawn to people and their stories and have a penchant for digging deep to find out what makes people tick. My research as an academic has always been grounded in the ‘real world’ and in this sense I am creative producer on this project, adding my knowledge of anthropology and interaction design into the mix.

We’re both very excited by the idea of having ‘permission to play’ and have every intention of doing something innovative and memorable. The word ‘surprise’ has come up a lot – how can we use sandbox to find out more about audience for Orion:the Movie and use technology to enhance their engagement within a performative context? Sandbox is all about trying out new concepts, daring to dream, thinking big, and seeing where technology can help. We love this!


So, where have we got to? The first thing we’ve needed to define is the scope of our ambitions, what we hope to achieve and how we intend to achieve it. Our shared sensibility around bringing cinema into live performative contexts and involving audiences in that process is all well and good but how is that going to play out over the next three months? In particular how do we map the iterative processes of interaction design onto a film-making project that is already in process?

These first couple of weeks, I’ve been asking Jeanie lots of question about her research for the film and have enjoyed listening to the stories that she’s had to tell about the people she has met along the way. These people are serious fans of Orion who have high expectations of Jeanie and her ability to give Jimmy Ellis, the man behind the mask who died young, the wider status that he deserves.

orionGiven Jeanie’s reputation as a film-maker who treats her audience and subjects with respect and sensitivity, it is crucial that our sandbox project also proceeds in this vein. No irony and no kitsch! The tributes that we elicit through our web portal must come from the heart and show respect for ‘our man’. At the heart of all this is the mask – how can we encourage our audience to be playful, to don a mask and perform a tribute to a tribute? What research do we need to do to find out how, when and why they will participate? What other examples can we draw on for inspiration?

Jeanie has started to collate visual material relating to Orion to out onto Dropbox and I am starting a Pinterest mood board to collate wider examples. We will share these with Tom who will then respond by mocking up some examples for us. Thus the process of rapid prototyping will commence.

Orion Pinterest board

Meantime, our research associate, Sally Hodgson, will get on the phone and start talking to our key Orion ambassadors in the States and beyond. Plus Elvis tribute weekend is coming up in Porthcawl – a perfect chance, if we can swing it, to meet hard core Elvis fans in the flesh, see what they think of Orion and gauge their interest in performing for this project.

Watch this space!

About the Author

Judith Aston