When you think about it, the fusion of film and new media seems like a no-brainer.
Use modern media to share meaningful and emotional stories, mobilize subjects and viewers and support an evolving story that promotes positive change?
Mmm… that sounds good, I’ll have that. There are a lot of terms and phrases being thrown around these days relative to digital storytelling and even more has been thrown around in regards to establishing conventions and standards for the medium. It’s an exciting time for experimentation and the possibilities are limitless.
Though as daunting as that may sound, it’s clear that the core aspects of quality storytelling still stand true and can not be ignored when exploring the up-and-coming genre of interactive documentary.
The story of Hollow started as an idea developed by my colleague Elaine McMillion. An idea that recognized the challenges of youth exodus and rural brain drain in McDowell County, W.VA. and the resilient residents determined to re-claim their image and preserve their home.
It was an opportunity for an underrepresented community to take ownership in the presentation of their stories while working towards positive change in their community. Many paths could have been taken in our production and delivery methods, but it was clear that this story needed to be told through interactive means.
Using on-the-ground efforts, video production, training/workshops (where we put cameras in the hands of residents) and digital media, we worked to define Hollow.
Over time a diverse team was formed—mostly freelancers with no experience working together, yet with a joint passion and willingness to take a pay cut (as well as diet on peanuts and cheese at times). We were technically understaffed (if looking at this from an agency perspective), but we knew we wanted to push ourselves and the boundaries of the medium.
Moving forward, the overarching story approach was clear as well as the advantages of using digital media, but before we could visualize the content delivery we had lots of homework to do.
After a great deal of market research (and feeding way too many pellets to NFB’s Bla Bla character), we moved forward confidently with a solid concept and plan of execution… or so we thought at the time.
As simple and intuitive as the user-experience for Hollow may seem, it went through many iterations before taking its final form. And we still analyze the project and consider ways in which it can be improved. I mean, with so much experimentation occurring within the genre and no set industry standard in place, the possibilities were almost endless.
And the two mediums we were dealing with (film and web) are inherently contradictory—film being more (relatively) passive in experience, heavily controlled and with an expected time commitment while the information-driven web requires constant interaction, forfeits a great deal of creator control and may lose the interest of a viewer in a matter of seconds.
It was realizations like these that would both excite and frighten beyond belief—awesome.
Ultimately, we developed a set of rules from the start. These were integral to the brainstorming process and key in delivering a successful end product.
1. Story is king
2. Form follows function
3. Beware of seductive technology - if used it must serve the story
4. Define "what’s at stake?" from the start
5. Demonstrate growth/momentum/change and avoid roadblocks
6. Create a sense of mood, place and atmosphere
7. Exploration should feel open and flexible, yet justified
8. Allow for updates and ongoing content contribution
9. Make a user aware of their presence and relationship to the content
10. Make it meaningful, yet also entertaining and fun
After establishing these rules we played with several different concept directions, creating charts and maps that attempted to harness the complexity of the content and the individual community members featured in the project. We played with ideas related to “a day in the life,” bookmarking/collecting and even open world gaming.
We were well aware of parallax scrolling, and to be honest I wasn’t sold on using it at first since it felt like we’d just be riding the trend. But when it came down to it, we realized we could use it to our advantage in providing story context up front, a sense of place, flexible usability and an incentive to dig deeper and achieve an emotional takeaway.
Too often, interactive documentaries force a user to make a choice before they’ve formed a legitimate reason for making that choice. This was an opportunity to allow for casual exploration and user-driven decisions.
Beyond the mass amount of video post work to develop the individual video portraits, it became a matter of evaluating all content and assets, creating sitemaps, wireframes and flowcharts, designing the UI, storyboarding the parallax scrolls, developing complex soundscapes (sound brings it home, high-five Billy) and of course constructing the whole dang thing with HTML5, CSS, Node.js, MongoDB and various other technologies (the fine work of Robert and Russell)… all things that I should not get away with summing up in a single paragraph.
Beyond the obvious user-experience elements we incorporated, we even dabbled in adding game-like elements such as unlocked items—something we didn’t want to hinge on too much given the risk of turning very real and meaningful content into a form of entertainment.
Not that we didn’t see value in the incorporation of fun and entertaining elements of course. Though some of us have expressed some regret in the lost opportunity of including hidden Easter eggs… next time for sure.
Of course we can’t forget about one of the key powers of the web. It affords us the opportunity to access and record information in real-time as well as offer a venue to subjects and viewers for interaction and communication.
As strong as the story content and its themes may be, it was very important to bring in the user/viewer at times. It can be easy for a passive viewer to separate themselves from the people that sit on the other side without relating themselves to the issues at hand.
Through the use of data visualizations and various APIs, we made a point of asking the user questions that would encourage them to reflect on their personal stance and relationship to the themes addressed, while having the ability to contribute their own content.
Additionally, we knew we needed a place for story updates. You know what one of the first audience questions always tends to be after the screening of a documentary film? “Where are they now?”
We created a Wordpress site called Holler Home, not only to provide real-time updates to the audience, but also to provide an online tool and resource for those in the community to share and track the progress of local goings-on while potentially teaming up to take on future initiatives.
Although such a tool creates new challenges and questions about usage and ongoing maintenance, the goal to empower the community and provide useful tools for planning the future has always been a priority. We did not want the project to be a one-off. It’s something that should grow and change over time and ideally create a lasting impact.
In truth, the impact of this project is hard to gauge. Although we had to overcome some technical hurdles and resource limitations (though we are continuing to fund raise to expand the project onto other browsers and platforms!), we have no doubt in our mind that it has been a success.
But to what extent?
And what does this mean for the future?
Residents in McDowell County are incredibly proud of the project and it has certainly generated a great deal of awareness. The bigger question is, what is the future of small-town America? The challenges facing McDowell County aren’t limited to that region. This occurs all across the nation. Can we continue to use digital media to not only bring attention to these stories, but incite action?
We seem to have the tools. It’s just a matter of how we apply them. Exciting stuff.
If you’d like to offer any feedback, support or just have plain interest in the project, don’t hesitate to contact me. We’d love to hear your response to the project and are always looking for interested parties who want to get involved.
I'd also like to thank the following organizations for their support, which made this project possible: Documentary Educational Resources, Tribeca Film Institute, West Virginia Humanities Council and West Virginia Filmmakers Guild.
Thanks for checking out Hollow!
All the best,
Jeff Soyk, Interactive Art Director/Designer/Info-Architect
About the Author
Jeff Soyk is a Boston-based designer and media artist originally from Westchester County, New York. His passion for storytelling lead him to expand beyond the web into film/video, as he recognizes the potential for engaging transmedia experiences that create a positive and lasting impact. He currently strives to work on projects that explore the possibilities of modern media and address important social issues.