We were given the amazing opportunity to work with The Martin Agency and the JFK Presidential Library to produce an interactive documentary commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and President Kennedy’s handling of the crisis.
We were immediately interested because of the subject matter. We were familiar with the JFK Library’s prior campaign “We Choose the Moon,” the most awarded interactive project of 2009, which the Martin Agency worked on with Ben Tricklebank (now an interactive director at Tool) and Domani Studios. We were excited and daunted to have the opportunity to see where we could take the next JFK project.
To give the project a new spin, the creatives at the Martin Agency (Joe Alexander, Brian Williams and Wade Alger) came up with the notion of incorporating a number of “What If?” scenarios into the documentary that posited alternate – and sometimes apocalyptic – outcomes to key decisions that were made during the course of the crisis.
We liked this core concept and started to collaborate with the agency to take it to the next level. We were immediately faced with numerous challenges. We had to produce a documentary that was thorough and substantive and yet accessible enough to attract the history buff as well as the younger viewer who may not have been aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The documentary had to live on a website that allowed viewers to jump around and explore a plethora of content in non-linear fashion. It had to be an interactive and multi-media experience. It had to be consumable on mobile devices and iPads. And new and elaborate content would have to be produced for the What If scenarios.
Tool directors Ben Tricklebank and Erich Joiner took the creative lead. In June, Ben visited the Martin Agency offices in Richmond, VA, to kick-off the project. Out of these initials creative meetings, we put together a treatment.
One of the key items we assembled for the treatment was a trailer video. Ben wanted the trailer to express the mood and look of the proposed documentary to build excitement about the project. The agency and client embraced the vision, and we were on our way.
Research & Writing the Story
The first order of business was to immerse ourselves in the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the players involved. Our co-director Ben took the lead on the research front and consumed dozens of documentaries and books on the subject.
We hired a research assistant and consulted with three professors who were experts on the crisis to give us added depth and insight. We wanted to know the crisis inside and out so we could present the story in a correct and compelling fashion – but also so we could create What If scenarios that felt grounded in reality. With a solid timeline in hand and tons of research to stand on, our writers started crafting the What If scenarios and the outline and narration for the documentary.
For the What Ifs, we challenged ourselves to find small moments within real events that – had they played out differently – would’ve changed the course of history. In working through the various scenarios, we realized that there was one that rose above all the others in its frightening consequence: What if there were clouds over Cuba, and we didn’t see the missiles until a week later? This small variation in the weather could have easily led to a more desperate and aggressive response from the U.S., which could have sparked the nuclear war that Kennedy and Kruschev were so careful to avoid.
This massive What If made all the others pale in comparison, and we and the clients decided to discard the other What Ifs and focus on the Big One. Ultimately it gave us the title of our documentary: “Clouds Over Cuba.”
Content Production and the Shoot
There were 2 primary pieces of content we wanted to create:
1) The Documentary telling the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
2) The What If scenario.
To craft the documentary, we brought on the editorial wizards at Stitch LA. Stitch had a strong background in documentary storytelling, having worked on such films as “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Sicko.” Stitch’s editorial team combed through hundreds of hours of archival footage from the late 50s and early 60s, picking out the clips that would most vividly illustrate the story and bring the narration to life. We were very focused on writing a narration that would keep the story flowing while covering a number of historical events unfolding between 1958-1962.
Once we nailed down the narration, we were lucky to book actor Matthew Modine, an avowed history buff, to read the narration. Matthew had recently done narration for a Kennedy-based PT 109 project. He was intrigued by both the substance and interactive nature of our project and signed on immediately.
The What If:
The What If section of the documentary required an entirely different approach. The idea was to do modern-day interviews with four aging survivors of the nuclear war – sparked by the alternate Cuban Missile Crisis outcome – and have them tell the story of what happened during and after the crisis, and how the world and their lives were irrevocably changed.
We were going to cut back and forth between the four survivors – a US infantryman revisiting a devastated Cuba, a Russian bomber living in a trailer outside a nuked Russian city, a US nuclear scientist now working for the Brazilian space program, and a civilian who was 14 when New Orleans was leveled by a nuclear strike – and weave in archival footage that painted their stories of fear, destruction and a radically altered way of life. With a limited budget, the obvious approach was to do something simple, like shooting talking heads. But we felt this project warranted something bigger. We decided to raise our game and show some of the spectacle of the aftermath while being smart with our budget. We shot around LA…on a shoestring budget, small crew and tight schedule.
We had an amazing crew that helped us pull off the type of production we wanted to accomplish. We couldn’t talk about the production without mentioning our frequent collaborator, Robert Richardson. With Bob’s pedigree as a 3x Academy Award Winning cinematographer, he brought an amazing passion and stylistic eye to the project. Following the shoot, Bob helped us oversee the color session to give each scenario its own distinctive look & feel. To bring another level of power and spectacle, we hired matte designer Dark Hoffman to create elaborate and stunning matte backdrops that captured the devastation of post-nuclear Russia, Cuba and the United States.
The matte paintings, seamlessly laid into the backgrounds in post, included a New Orleans causeway, a sunken battleship off the coast of Cuba, and a destroyed Russian freeway. We also had Hoffman create an image of the US Capitol Building after it was hit by a nuclear strike. This became a defining image of both the What If sequence and the landing page of the website. From a performance standpoint, while we worked off of a general story arc, we allowed our talented actors to get into character and put the stories in their own words, bringing a powerful verisimilitude to the scenes.
We provided the character description to each of the actors and then let each bring a backstory and performance to the scenes. Plan8 out of Sweden composed the beautiful, haunting score you hear throughout the documentary and on the website. Three of Plan8’s in-house composers orchestrated and recorded the score live in various locations in Stockholm.
The goal was to limit the score to a few instruments and avoid a big orchestra sound. After some experimentation, the scoring orchestra consisted of a grand piano, cello, clarinet and soprano saxophone, which gave us the right intimate sound and connected well with the era. In total over 35 minutes of original music, with more than 12 themes, was written and recorded.
We wanted to shoot additional content that could be consumed as an adjunct to the documentary. To this end, working with the Martin Agency, we shot interviews with four experts who brought additional perspective and background to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our experts included Timothy McEwan from the University of North Carolina (and foremost authority on the Cuban Missile Crisis), Sheldon Stern from the JFK Presidential Library and Eric Swedin, author of the alternate-history book “When Angels Wept.” Our fourth expert was none other than Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian Premier who was Kennedy’s opponent during the crisis.
The younger Khrushchev, who was in his 20s during the crisis and now lives in Boston, gave us invaluable insight into what was going on in his father’s mind during the standoff with Kennedy. We were very excited to have one of the actual players of the crisis involved in our project. The interviews are presented as offshoots of the documentary. They come up at key moments along the timeline that runs beneath the documentary on the website, and if clicked, the documentary pauses to allow viewers to take a fascinating side trip down memory lane.
We wanted the CloudsOverCuba.com website to have a simple, subtle, almost symbolic design with a gray color scheme to match the look and feel of the documentary. Our technical team built the wireframes while our design team, led by Matt Gase, started designing the interactive elements, like the Timeline and Dossier. The Timeline was the core interactive element on the site because it managed the documentary. It went through many iterations, from the simple to the complex. Some early concepts had the timeline moving instead of the playhead. Others involved making the timeline non-linear and calling out certain sections.
Eventually we went with the idea of chapters, and a linear visual timeline that was specific to each chapter, with a playhead that moved at different speeds in conjunction with the date of the content that was onscreen at the time. We collected so much interesting and relevant content related to the Cuban Missile Crisis – documents, photographs, essays, video, audio clips – we realized we needed a system by which this content could be discovered, archived and explored without disrupting the experience of viewing the documentary.
The Dossier offered us a great solution. Like the Timeline, the Dossier went through an evolution until we arrived at the functionality you see on the website now. This is how the Dossier works: While watching the documentary the user is unlocking important historical assets such as photos, government documents, letters, videos, etc. They have the choice of exploring those assets right away, or saving them into their personal Dossier file – a manilla folder in the bottom corner of the screen – so they can check them out later. It’s like walking through the JFK Presidential Library and being able to pull out whatever items interest you, then dropping them into your own personal archive so you can explore them later. We ultimately incorporated nearly 200 historical assets to be discovered and explored in the Dossier.
We tapped our composers Plan8 to handle interactive sound design, and they delivered beautifully. They used a custom audio middleware framework that allowed the sound production team to work in parallel with the web development team, linking up to the staging server. Music heard on the site, like when a visitor is consuming content in the Dossier, was composed to change adaptively based on user interaction
The Mobile Approach
The responsive website approach allows the iPad to use the exact same code as the desktop, while employing touch events and gestures such as swiping through the Dossier. To create a dynamic second screen experience, we implemented a sync functionality where the assets in the Dossier could be sent to user’s phone or iPad for consumption at the user’s leisure. We also made it so users could read assets on their mobile device without pausing the documentary on the other screen.
The team here at Tool really enjoyed working on “Clouds Over Cuba.” The interactive nature of the piece and the What If scenario gave us the chance to tell this important story in a way it has never been told before. It was a thrilling and gratifying experience for everyone involved. We hope you enjoy it.