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March 22, 2012, 1:37 p.m.
Screen shot of "Welcome to Pine Point," interactive documentary

MIT’s Open Documentary Lab: part think tank, part incubator for filmmakers and hackers

“There’s a sense in which storytelling is really a deep part of our behavior — the way we relate to objects and experiences in the world.”

Screen shot of 'Welcome to Pine Point' interactive documentary

Documentary filmmaking — the medium of Dziga Vertov! Richard Leacock! Werner Herzog! Errol Morris! — has struggled as much as any medium to find its place in the Internet age. Does the linear narrative have staying power in this crazy, mixed up, disaggregated world?

“There’s this perception that documentary is this staid medium,” said Sarah Wolozin, a longtime filmmaker and director of the new Open Documentary Lab at MIT. “It’s not. It is this place of innovation. And I think a lot of documentary filmmakers have lost their connection to that history.”

The Open Doc Lab brings storytellers, technologists, and academics together in a place that has been home to pioneers of direct cinema, interactive cinema, and French realism. For all the worrying we do about technology and platforms, the story — that atomic unit of human communication — does not seem to be going anywhere.

William Uricchio, director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and a documentary scholar, is the Open Doc Lab’s principal investigator.

“MIT can be a very technocentric place — technodeterminist place, even. And we’re not that. I mean, we understand technology, we’re surrounded by colleagues who work with it, but we do bring a kind of humanistic entry,” Uricchio told me. “As much as it’s about pushing the envelope of the new…it’s also about finding ways to put the traditional documentary filmmaker into conversation to let them understand what the implications are.”

The Lab formally got underway this week with a day-long summit called “The New Arts of Documentary.” Afterward, I sat down with Uricchio and Wolozin for a brief but fascinating conversation about their work. An edited transcript is below.

Wolozin: I’ve been out at conferences, a year ago or two years ago, and you have this documentary filmmaker and then you have this technology world, with maybe people working in games, or on the web or data visualizations, and the documentary filmmakers don’t really know how to cross over. And I think that’s where we can step in [at MIT]…We often broker between the engineers and the humanists. That’s what we do. And so I think we can do that with narrative.
Uricchio: …As much as it’s about pushing the envelope of the new…it’s also about finding ways to put the traditional documentary filmmaker into conversation to let them understand what the implications are, to help them broker that space…

We have the legacy of direct cinema here with Leacock, Pincus, et al. We have the folks who are doing all the work in interactive cinema. Glorianna Davenport’s work has been superb there. And then MIT’s commitment to openness, open courseware, open software, open source code. We sit at the kind of intersection of those three elements.

Wolozin: Where we sit at CMS, we have the Center for Civic Media, so they’re right there, and we’re actually part of them. And we have the Media Lab…and then we have the Community Innovators Lab, which is — they have a long history of working in communities.
Uricchio: And Mobile Experience Lab, which is location-based storytelling.
Wolozin: And excellent data visualization.
Uricchio: Education Arcade, which is game-based…They did a project with the Smithsonian called “Vanished.” I don’t know, tens of thousands of kids working together basically trying to understand the environment and science within a fictional conceit that they’re in contact with the future somehow with this web portal. This web link that got out of control. That ran for eight weeks. I mean, it’s a remarkable achievement.

You were just at South by Southwest, and you said that “transmedia” was a buzzword there, where for us, I wouldn’t quite say it’s history, but it’s been around.

Phelps: And for someone reading a transcript of our conversation, what is transmedia?
Uricchio: Many things to many people!…The term actually has a lot of origins here…back from 2003 or 2004, with Henry Jenkins. And Henry’s understanding of it was having different elements of a narrative put in different media forms. So “The Matrix” would be a great example, where the films had material not contained in the graphic novels, which had material that was not contained on the website. And to really understand the universe, you’d have to kind of sniff it all out and move around those forms.
Wolozin: And then the other key part of transmedia is audience engagement and very much creating that interactive and that conversation with your audience that’s key to it.
Uricchio: And that’s one of the take-home lessons for documentary makers, that in the old days you’d have your thing on TV, and it would air once or maybe twice, and you got whatever audience you got. Or you might’ve tried to show it non-theatrically — good luck. Now you can put stuff on the web that leads people. It might even be outtakes or the peripheral stories to your main linear documentary…

All these become conduits that drive audiences to the main event. Or you can understand all of them as equivalent events. It’s actually a really old concept…Just look at a thing like institutionalized religions, and most of them have songs that are not prescribed in their bible, or whatever their main text is, and they might even have iconography, artifacts, behaviors that are all different and yet conduits to the main message of your system. So it’s a really ancient practice that we found a new language for.

Phelps: There’s a lot of discussion in journalism, obviously, about platforms. New platforms being created every day. And journalism organizations rightly being fearful of what these new platforms may bring. “Oh, well do I jump on this bandwagon now, or will it not matter in a year and I’ve wasted a lot of resources?” A year ago you might have looked at something like Pinterest and said, “This is just another startup.” And now, suddenly, it’s this massive website and it’s like, “Why weren’t you a part of it a year ago when it was starting up?”

I think that discussion came up tonight a little bit…[Sundance Film Festival senior programmer] Shari Frilot said it’s about the story. Conceptualize the story and then figure out the platform. But it’s easier said than done, when you’re talking about a business and a business plan.

Uricchio: [holding up a phone and a cup] One of our colleagues, Scot Osterweil, from the Education Arcade, said something today that I thought was great. It was an observation that if you watch little kids, they’ll take a cup and a phone, and they will begin to tell a story about what the cup said to the phone.

There’s a sense in which storytelling is really a deep part of our behavior — the way we relate to objects and experiences in the world. And it’s not that we have to wait for someone to tell them to us — it could be that we have to give people the building blocks and the tools to assemble and make sense of their own thinking.

Now, I think a lot of us probably unlearn. It could be it’s a developmental phase and we grow out of it; that would be tragic. Or it could be that we abandon ourselves to better storytellers. Or we’re just lazy. But it’s interesting, I think, what some of these documentaries are doing — some amount of interactive cinema, certainly games, some of them are very much about giving users the tools to tell their own stories.

We just had a game that’s done quite well called Snow Field. You wander around, it’s World War I, desolate, after the battle, burned-out landscape with a few things that you find, and your job is to basically entertain yourself and tell a story. … And it’s been getting terrific reviews.

Wolozin: I would say that storytelling is fundamental to human nature, your whole life. I think people are always telling the stories, I just think now we can create the campfire again because we have the Internet, because we can actually have a way to listen to other people’s stories that we didn’t have before. Before it would happen in a living room. Now it can happen in a virtual living room.
Phelps: So what do you tell the budding documentarian who says, “I want an audience for my story. What do I do? I don’t know where to begin. I know about the linear form. I can create a seven-minute piece of film. But how do I get it in front of people?”
Uricchio: Look at “Kony 2012.” And for all the problems and serious problems with that, they got 100 million-plus viewers in two weeks. And 20 million bucks or whatever. Now they were using social media tools…
Wolozin:…And they were very well funded.
Uricchio: …They’re well-funded, they’re well-rehearsed…
Phelps: But they’ve also been doing this for 10, 12 years and haven’t ever gotten any traction until now.
Uricchio: Well, they’ve been building, they’ve been learning. But that’s a hell of a learning curve.
Wolozin: They never got this kind of traction, but they’ve been working grassroots with Christian communities for, yeah, 10 years, and building that community, so that when they actually went viral, they already had this huge community…

Just as you’re building your story and building your idea, you’re building your audience at the same time. So that’s the difference between linear documentary, where you used to make your story and then put it out there. It’s not like that anymore. You start from the beginning, building your audience — it’s iterative from the beginning — having them work with you, impact you, help you build it, help you spread it.

Phelps: Storytelling as a process.
Uricchio: One of the great affordances of this interactive online stuff is that you can sort of see how people are using it, see where the stumbling blocks are, see where the barriers are, and rebuild. And it’s not a problem. Whereas with the linear, once that’s out in the world, it’s sink or swim.
Wolozin: When I worked in documentary, you didn’t show it to anyone till you were ready. I mean, no one. And here it’s a whole completely different world, where people put it up there right at the beginning. And not only do you see it, you influence it.
Urrichio: And I’ve been seeing this with dissertations. Dissertations on this topic — for example, on new directions in documentary — are, every piece of a chapter is popping up as a blog, and they’re getting a lot of responses and smoothing…It’s a really crowdsourced Ph.D. at the end of the day.
POSTED     March 22, 2012, 1:37 p.m.
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