Filmmakers eye interactive future

Dispatches from Sundance: 5 filmmakers, including Daniel Scheinert and Nonny de la Pena, discuss the use of technology in their work.
January 28, 2015

Five documentary filmmakers gathered at a crowded Sundance Film Festival session this week to discuss the use of new technology in their craft.

And if their current projects are any indication, that future is wholly interactive. The panel was called ‘The Future of Documentaries,’ and a packed house caught a glimpse of some rather extraordinary work – all 5 have spent much of their recent professional life devising stories that are not only personal, but also technologically unique.

Navid Khonsari

As founder of Ink Stories in New York, Khonsari is responsible for the look and feel of many video games, having produced visuals for Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne, among other properties. He also works on non-fiction content, and the fusion of both worlds has driven many of his recent projects.

“What got me excited was to create a new genre,” he said. “The hybrid of a documentary and game can create true empathy and shed light on how we are seeing the news today.”

“All the skills I would normally use in the making of a film are now layered with technology.”

His latest project is 1979 Revolution (pictured), a graphically designed adventure that tells the very real story of the chaotic Ayatollah Khomeini ouster in Iran more than 3 decades ago. Using game elements, Khonsari places the “players” in the middle of the conflict, while sending them on an adventure that tells the tale of a country on the brink.

When asked why he thought of combining reality and gaming, he said: “No media is exclusive of each other. (I wanted to) tell stories that will unite people.”

Nonny de la Pena

delapenaCalled the Godmother of virtual reality – she brought the first such project to Sundance in 2012 – de la Pena (pictured right) is known for having pushed the envelope in her 2013 short project Use of Force.

The film is an immersive virtual reality experience, making the audience feel as if they are on scene at a tragic event: the night migrant Anastacio Hernandez Rojas is killed by California-Mexico border patrol agents in 2012. Through VR glasses, the viewer is placed in the middle of a crime that can then be seen from different angles.

“The documentary is a method of storytelling that many people are using today,” she said. “But this brought things to a new level.” De la Pena also showed a clip from her recent Project Syria, another VR experience produced for the World Economic Forum. Using virtual reality, she places viewers on the ground to experience the country’s civil chaos.

“All the skills I would normally use in the making of a film are now layered with technology,” she said.

Daniel Scheinert

As part of a team named The Daniels – partner Daniel Kwan didn’t attend – Scheinert showed off a beta documentary model in which viewers could change the course of a story through eye movement.

Using computer-enabled eye tracking, the platform would recognize where the viewer was looking and change the direction of the documentary based on the prompt: different backgrounds, skipping ahead, or choosing the next part to watch, for example.

Similarly, a second clip showed a non-fiction short about newspapers. Several panels appeared on the screen at once, and wherever the viewer clicked, another section could be viewed out of order? much like chapters on a DVD or a print publication reader shifting to a different section.

“The goal is to make a simple project that draws inspiration from a very familiar experience – reading the newspaper,” he said. “But interactivity can be stressful and strange.”

Loc Dao

Loc Dao is the executive producer and creative technologist for the National Film Board of Canada’s English-language digital studio, located in Vancouver.

Bear71_still01One of his projects, Bear 71, is an interactive documentary that shows the life of a bear in captivity after being tagged and released back into the wild. Narrated from the animal’s point of view, the award-winning story includes keyboard navigation by the user, video surveillance footage, satellite tracking and radio collars.

“We are all about the creative application of technology and platform, to story and form,” he said.

Sarah Wolozin

Wolozin, the MIT Open Documentary Lab director, showed off a new site – docubase.mit.edu – which tracks non-fiction content. It keeps records of projects large and small, lists filming information and, most importantly, provides tagging availability for users to initiate conversations around particular subjects.

“We wanted to track people, projects and technologies,” she said. “We are not just interested in the information about them, but we also are interested in measuring audiences and getting feedback.”

Additionally, the site contains a lab section that shows behind-the-scenes processes and interviews as well as case studies, making the site a one-stop shop for all documentary filmmakers who want to see and share new ideas.

Image credits: Mr Phoenix/1979; Paisley Smith/Nonny de la Pena; Handout/Bear 71

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