Behind the Scenes with the Makers of the Interactive Documentary After the Storm

Posted on May 6, 2015

AFTERTHESTORM_2After the Storm, co-created by Andrew Beck Grace and Helios Design Studios, is an immersive personal essay created for online, tablet, and mobile viewing. Recently launched through a partnership with Independent Lens and The Washington Post, it tells the story of what happens after the storm passes, the media leaves town, and the adrenaline subsides. ITVS Senior Content Producer Cathy Fischer asked filmmaker Andrew Grace and Creative Technologist Mike Robbins about the process and for some tips for filmmakers working in the emerging area of interactive documentary. 

While you’ve made many feature-length docs, this was your first foray into interactive or web documentary. What was different about your approach and the process itself?

ANDY:  I really approached this piece more like a piece of writing that was going to be illustrated by imagery and sound. When making a film I usually think through the visual approach first and come to some conclusions about a story’s potential based first on how it will play visually and what the film will look like. With this piece I was thinking more about the emotional experience, and we built it in such a way that the visuals and sound design would complement that experience. 

More and more developers and designers are working in interactive documentary these days. What was it about Helios Design Labs that made you want to collaborate with them?

ANDY: Their work is by far the most interesting to me, I think they’re at the top of their game. Further, when I first reached out to them to talk about the project I realized that we shared common aims and a common motivation for doing this kind of work. And I trust them greatly and look forward to working with them on into the future. 

You began your collaboration early in the storytelling process. Would you recommend that?

ANDY: I think that was an enormous benefit for us. When I came to Helios I had an idea and some writing, and knew I wanted to work through this experience in a personal way but also engage other collaborators to help flesh out the experience itself. That’s why it’s important to understand this piece as a co-production. Even though it’s a very personal piece, it was really co-developed by all of us. 

MIKE: When asked about the pros and cons of starting a collaborative work process as early as possible in a project like this, I can only see the upside. Coding and design and storytelling are all equal partners. The less formed each part is before introduced to the other, the more symbiotic the relationship. I wouldn’t recommend a collaborative work model like this to control freaks. AFTERTHESTORM_1What makes a good interactive doc?

ANDY: I think the challenge is to design a piece that pushes against the viewer’s expectations and that incorporates new ways of experiencing a story without pulling people out of the story itself. There are a lot of really beautiful and well-crafted interactive docs out there, but my inclination with most of them is just to click around and see all the bells and whistles. The best interactive docs, in my mind, are the ones where I come away having felt I really experienced the story and not just a fancy website. 

MIKE: That’s the beauty (and the danger) of the medium, is that there are no established signposts to success, placed by others, followed by others. You get to chart your own path. 

So what are some of the challenges of working in this new area of storytelling? What are the freedoms and/or the constraints for creators?

MIKE: Creators in this medium face hand-gnawing problems like evil web browsers, slow Internet speeds, puzzled audiences, tiny budgets. It can be such a struggle to say anything apart from “I made it.” Perhaps we forget that it takes time to develop fluency in a given form of expression. It took us centuries to make the novel what it is today and decades, before we took the film camera off its tripod. Sometimes the medium of interactive storytelling can seem like those early flying machines that so often collapse like a pack of cards, but once in a while amaze everyone by taking off and circling the airfield. 

What words of advice would you give filmmakers who are thinking about creating their first interactive documentary? 

ANDY: Find creative technologists you trust and respect, and work with them in true collaboration. It’s like hiring a DP or an editor; you’re really hiring a creator who will accompany you on the journey to tell your story. 

MIKE: Do go on the Internet to see as much as possible of the story form. Visit MIT’s Docubase, or the Tribeca Film Institute’s (TFI) Sandbox. Do go to “hackathons” staged around the country (and around the world) by organizations like POV, TFI, Mozilla, MIT, Popathon, quite often as part of a film festival. Hackathons are events that can group filmmakers, coders, and designers in small teams, over short intense periods of time, to hack away at interactive storytelling ideas. Do go to whatever interactive part of whatever film festival you might be attending. Many film festivals have interactive components that grow in importance each year, like IDFA, Sheffield, Tribeca, Sundance, HotDocs. It’s one thing to look at something on the Internet, quite another to meet, listen, and talk to creators, curators, funders, and, most important, other people just like you Don’t be afraid of not knowing things, as not knowing is the first step in learning things. 

Where do you think interactive documentary is going? Is it here to stay?

ANDY: It seems clear that the migration to Internet-based storytelling is inevitable. I hope we can continue pushing the boundaries and experimenting with new ways of telling stories before there comes some locked notion in the audience’s mind about what an “interactive doc” looks like. Right now it’s the Wild West, and I think we all feel really excited and liberated by the possibilities. We have no canon, no record of how these things are supposed to work. That makes it an incredibly freeing medium to be working in. 

MIKE: Mankind's earlier predictions about interstellar space travel are way off, so we hesitate to make any solid pronouncements about the future of digital storytelling. But as long as there is the Internet and a pulse of social consciousness, fingers to poke screens, and heads to jam into VR goggles, there will be interactive documentaries. AFTERTHESTORM_Shareable_FB_02C

After the Storm, a letter to future disaster survivors, can be viewed at: http://wapo.st/afterthestorm Learn more about After the Storm on the Independent Lens companion site.

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