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MIT Forum: Documentary Film and New Technologies

The MIT Communications Forum (MITCF) holds a series of talks every spring and fall on cutting-edge topics involving the cultural, political, economic, and technological impact of communications, with a special emphasis on emerging technologies. They’re organized by MITCF director, David Thorburn, moderated by a guest from the field, and includes a panel of leading scholars, journalists, media producers, and corporate executives.

Last week, the MITCF held a discussion on how digital technologies are uncovering new ways for creating and conceptualizing documentary films. The discussion lasted about 2 hours, with a panel of 4 participants ranging from academic, funder, festival organizer, and producer. You can listen to the talk here, or download an audio podcast from the MIT Comparative Media Studies site, or video from the MIT Tech TV site.


Below are the highlights I took away from the discussion…

Technology Drivers

The moderater for the event was William Uricchio, professor and director of MIT Comparative Media Studies. While often having been considered “the lame cousin of the feature film”, William pointed out how documentaries have historically been a driver of technology. In fact, 80% of the films made between 1895 (the start of film) and 1905 were documentary. And while “The Jazz Singer” is recognized by the U.S. as the first sound film, William pointed out Germany’s Walter Ruttmann’s “Melodie der Welt”, and Russia’s Dziga Vertov’s “Enthusiasm”, both documentaries, were the first sound films of those countries.

In fact, new color technology, advances in 16mm film, portable sound, cinema verite – they were all deployed by documentaries. Along the way, each of these technological advances have reimagined the medium, and the relationship between the filmmaker and subject. So with today’s new media and social technologies, William is seeing documentaries once again being the first to adopt and run with these new forms of media. The questions this is raising are many…

  • What do we call these documentaries? Do we call them interactive online documentaries, location-based documentaries, transmedia documentaries?
  • What is the critical framework for understanding these films and determining what makes one good vs. bad?
  • How do we experience them at festivals when they may be better experienced on a laptop?
  • What are the ethics involved in techniques such as crowd-sourcing, when media is being created on the backs of others?
In the absence of rules governing these new documentary forms, there are creative possibilities, and opportunities for filmmakers, funders, festival programmers, and the viewing “participants” known as the audience.
 

Is a Documentary App a Documentary?

Gerry Flahive, producer for the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada, talked about his experience producing two media based documentaries: Waterlife and Highrise, a 4 year media project on how we live around the world. He noted that while the NFB is dedicated to the film director, there is an element of concern in having to take control away from the documentarian in order to give viewers a choice on what path they wish to take their viewing experience down. However, even within those choices, the experience still needs to be creatively defined, so there is still a creative role to fill there. Perhaps it’s not by one person anymore, but it still needs to be created.

Historically, with long form documentaries, you don’t really know who is watching them, but with interactive documentaries, there is a constant stream of information for you to tap into. You see when people stay, when they leave, where they’re from – all without it requiring massive marketing campaigns to gather those insights about your viewers. Although the challenge of viewers not staying very long is still an issue (7 minutes is as long as people will stay), there is evidence viewers will come back seeking to watch more. Nevertheless, exploring ways to make media more modular is a worthy investment Gerry encourages.
 

Smushing

Ingrid Kopp is the new media consultant at the Tribeca Film Institute where she runs the TFI New Media Fund (NMF). Compared to the NFB, it’s a different model that involves a straight fund without doing any of the production work themselves. That said, the NMF group is starting to build in additional production support.
 
While being in a position of curating new transmedia projects, Ingrid expressed concerns of becoming a “gatekeeper” of sorts that can end up limiting the exploration of this new space. As a result, she has found herself being very protective of the projects in this field. Since many of these projects may not have all the elements that a traditional long form documentary has where you can gauge its potential for festival success and awards, she is careful not to prematurely knock a project down before it has truly had the chance to explore all of its opportunities.
 
One of the challenges in identifying new projects to fund is defining guidelines for something that isn’t defined, especially when many projects can appear to be too gimmicky. The approach to date has been to keep the application process open and generic, with the opinion of “we’ll know it when we see it”.
 
Ingrid voiced skepticism in seeing new innovation coming from the documentary field. Where the real innovation has been happening is in the brand space, where brands will sell by any means necessary as they are fleeing from the 30 second TV ads.
 
Looking forward to where the field may go, Ingrid wants to develop labs around every step in the funding process. Providing easy access to the coders, designers, and engineers necessary to enable rapid prototyping of new ideas, learning quickly from them, and recovering from failures rapidly. It’s a time where various media forms need to be “smushed” together to see what comes out of it. Where can we innovate in that smush is the question.

A New Frontier

Shari Frilot is the senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, and as curator of the New Frontier section, she sees a new frontier to be at play. Facing new frontiers is very much aligned with Sundance’s traditional mission of media discovery. To date, artists have been ahead of the audience for some time, but they’re catching up.
The area that requires exploration right now is how to allow the audience to experience these new medias. The exhibition space has to resonate with the festival as well as the media. The approach at Sundance has been to provide exhibition areas that can accomodate new media, while aiming to create a festival within a festival, or a community within a community.
 
Posed with the question of whether there are really any distributors out there for this new media, Shari concedes most of the projects are  bound for the art world or for museums. It’s unclear if the marketplace is truly heading towards traditional distribution for this new media, but she says that with some joy. Shari would like to see a new model develop out of all this. Sundance has a history of creating an industry where there is none, and that history may offer lessons in determining what role exhibition is to play in helping to create an audience for a new form of media that may otherwise be overlooked or remain unknown.

Push vs. Pull

Patricia Zimmermann is a professor in the Department of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts at Ithaca College, and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. She sees the current period of media transformation is one that is moving from one to many. From the 1 big feature length film, “the big white whale films” as she calls them, to an ecosystem involving a multiplication of forms and iterations. We’re undergoing a transition from “fixed” to “fluidity” she indicated.
 
We have search engine docs, web archive docs (i.e. think of the Hurricane Katrina archive), user generated stories, live streaming, gamification, performance with analog and digital, live music projects, music with media behind it, cell phone symphony, technology triggered music, projections on all kinds of spaces, sensor projects, alternate reality gaming, robotics, etc. What do all these media forms have in common? It’s taking us from a state of having a fixed set of images, to an endlessly permeating fluidity of images.
 
Everyone assumes the millennial techies live in technology and know more than we do. The technology they live in though is consumerist and corporatized. Most students don’t have a language to approach this work, and as scholars, we don’t have either. As academics, we’ve been taught to look at a set of moving images as fixed. We teach courses in fixed history and digital theory, but what do we do when the media is fluid. All of our models for understanding and discussion have assumed fixed.
 
Patricia sees two different media strategies at people’s disposal. There’s the traditional “push strategy” where you take a viewer, fill their minds with information, and have them walk out as “informed members of society”. An alternative strategy all of these media iterations are leveraging now is a “pull strategy”, where projects are not confrontational. They invite people into a conversation, into a community. It’s a much gentler, perhaps insidious, form of engagement. It’s a form of inbound marketing as opposed to outbound marketing. The people who are skilled at this though are often the brand makers. We’ve yet to develop our expertise with this new strategy.

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