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Mozilla's Hot Hacks Workshop at Hot Docs 2012

An Updated Look at Transmedia for Documentaries


As part of the 2012 Hot Docs Festival (Toronto, April 26 to May 5), the Hot Hacks workshop paired up six documentary filmmakers and their projects-in-progress with cutting edge computer programmers to develop "Web native" content or short interactive episodes that would, basically, transform the filmmakers' visions and stories into genuinely interactive experiences for an online audience.

Living Docs Project, Mozilla and ITVS

The two day workshop, held on April 28 and 29, was conducted by Mozilla's Brett Gaylor and Ben Moskowitz under the banner of the Living Docs Project, a collaboration between Mozilla and ITVS Interactive, with the Bay Area Video Coalition, Center for Social Media and Tribeca Film Institute.

The Living Docs Project can be considered part of the transmedia trend that's sweeping filmmaking in both documentary and fiction genres.

In the Hot Hacks two day intensive workshop, six documentarians with nonfiction works in progress were paired with six Mozilla developers to use Mozilla's Popcorn shared ware program and other burgeoning technologies to quickly create prototypes of interactive 'Web native' content to be viewed with and/or in addition to their films.

Workshop Results

After the two-day workshop, filmmakers showed the results of these filmmaker-programmer collaborations were shown to workshop participants and invited guests and supporters at Mozilla's Toronto offices.

In one of the six Hot Hacks projects, Christopher Allen and a team from New York's Union Docs collective, working with programmer James Burns, developed a way to enable viewers of Looking At Los Sures, their ongoing documentary about a Brooklyn neighborhood, to switch between archival and current footage showing how residents and architecture have changed over the years.

In another project, filmmaker Alison Rose and computer programmer Mike Robbins created a visual and aural representation of sonic emanations from the planet Uranus, as an exploratory first phase in interactive components that will prime viewers for contemplation of the astronomic discoveries made by four astrophysicists whose 50-year careers she chronicles and celebrates in her documentary, Following Wise Men.

Other projects included The Last Hijack, designed to aggregate individually posted videos related to survival in Somalia, thereby enabling the world to witness the rise of piracy and its effects on that troubled nation; Turcot, offering Montrealers an opportunity to express their opinions about the upcoming demolition and rebuilding of their city's largest highway interchange; Immigrant Nation, which uses social media to enable immigrants to tell their stories and discover their place in a time line entitled The Wave; and The Message: the (r)evolutionary power of climate change, which will bring its subject to public awareness via a book, documentary, Website and live events.

Evaluating the Projects

These, and other Hot Hacks projects, are still in their early stages of development. The two day workshop really served as an investigation of potential rather than a realization of it. But, that's just fine. In effect, what the Mozilla team and ITVS Interactive are promoting is a new art form -- call it transmedia or 'Web native' or anything else -- that engages a filmmaker's imagination and creativity beyond the realm of traditional movie making. This is uncharted territory. The ways in which the Internet can be used to contextualize information and/or arguments put forth in documentary films, or spur public debate and activism about an issue raised in nonfiction films, or to invite audiences to contribute to the filmmaker's process of discovery, is virtually limitless -- both creatively and in terms of geographic reach.

Venturing into the realm of new technologies can be intimidating to filmmakers, but even more daunting, perhaps, is the realization that they are in the transmedia arena, ultimately, relinquishing control of their work to audience collaborators whose input may influence form, content and outcome.

The projects selected for Hot Hacks workshoping were not finished films, so interactive elements could be integrated in the filmmakers' process of discovery, as integral facets of the storytelling.

That's decidedly different from the addition of transmedia components to films that have already been completed and released, such as Steve James' The Interrupters, which, under the Living Docs Project banner and in collaboration with Mozilla's creative team, is being expanded with InterruptViolence.com, a Website where the online community from around the world can create personal shrines to commemorate victims of violence. The launch of the project, initially set for April 19, has been postponed until Summer, 2012.

Looking for Definition

While transmedia has been in vogue for several years, those who are in the thick of it still seem reluctant -- or unable -- to define it. Clearly, they're still puzzling over its dimensions and applications. And, for some, there seems to be a bit of a tug of conscience as to whether the primary transmedia thrust should be the creation of a new and unique art form, or the utilization of the Web connection and interactivity as a convenient addition to the marketing strategy for a movie. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but transmedia's creative potential is so rich, it would be a shame to see multiplatform presence used merely as a marketing ploy.

At present, ITVS Interactive and Mozilla seem to be on the creative cutting edge of nonfiction interactivity, which makes the Hot Hacks workshops particularly appealing.

Approaching the challenge of creating meaningful interactivity from a slightly different angle, Games For Change, supports transmedia projects in which game designers are matched with nonfiction storytellers to develop digital and video games designed to foster social consciousness, activism and change.

Follow The Money

Transmedia research and project development is also, at this time, particularly attractive to documentary filmmakers because high stakes funding is available for multi-platform projects.

For example, Tribeca Film Institute, which recently signed on as a partner in the Living Docs Project, is funded by the Ford Foundation's JustFilms initiative with $1-million per year for the next five years to develop transmedia projects. The Ford Foundation funds are distributed by Tribeca Film Institute's New Media Fund, which annually grants each of four to eight non-fiction projects between 50,000 to $100,000 -- which adds up to a minimum of $250,000 to a maximum of $800,000 of the annual $1-million that's given to filmmakers' nonfiction projects.

Development Status

Everything Internet- and technology-related seems to progress apace, but the development of this new interactive art form -- now called transmedia or Web 'native' storytelling -- will take time. It is, in effect, a journey into uncharted territory. Discoveries are made whenever documentary filmmakers collaborate with like-minded computer programmers, under the Living Docs Project banner or via Games for Change workshops, or other matchmakers.

Whether the immediate results were perfect or not, the Hot Hacks workshop at Hot Docs represents a leap in the right direction within that expansive uncharted territory that is 'transmedia.'

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