Procedures for Making an Interactive Documentary

My colleague Amy Lauters recently gave me a box she received during her research on farmers’ wives. A family had sent it to her with the hopes she might find it helpful or interesting as part of her work.

I took a quick peek at the box’s contents. It contained pictures, a geneaology, newspaper clippings, and a journal — the raw materials of a larger history, a larger narrative.

But the box also contains something less tangible: The depths of familial memory. Someone decided to keep the materials, and that someone or someone else decided to send those materials to my colleague. Their decisions and their actions only start to chart that memory’s path.

This box and its contents are serving as inspiration for an interactive documentary prototype. What follows is the basic plan for the prototype’s development.

1. Discovery

The first step will be to go through the box’s contents just to see what is inside. Both of us will engage this step, though we each probably will do it differently.

My plan is to look at the items in order and take some basic notes on what I find. Are there any emerging patterns to the materials? Who are the key people? Are there any documents that appear more important than others, at least at first glance?

The point here is just to look, something that is easy to forget when examining archival materials. It is too easy to impose big ideas about history and memory on these documents. This discovery process in part allows the materials to speak for themselves first.

2. Cataloging

After discovery comes the process of cataloging.

The first step involves creating archival-quality images of the contents, such as in images or PDFs. At first photographing them seemed a good idea, but another colleague suggested scanning with a flatbed scanner. That way, no extra light attaches to the image, and there is less chance of dirt or dust affecting the digital version.

The next step will be tougher: Categorizing everything onto a spreadsheet and along the way deciding the level of detail to include with each item. Some items, like photographs of people, will require less detail. But one item is a full journal: The writer put down a couple sentences each day. Should all of the entries be cataloged? Only key ones? Or just note the journal itself? Those kinds of items will be more challenging to document, if you will.

I suspect this stage will become the foundation for the next steps, not the raw materials themselves.

3. Story Structure

Story structure in an interactive documentary requires answering two questions:

  1. What is the story?
  2. How might the user interact with that story?

Always, the story comes first. In this case the story will depend on the box’s contents.

How users will interact with the story also will depend on the box’s content and the story structure. Many story structures are possible, such as linear, branching narrative, and others.

Within those structures and that interaction lurks a question of balance. How much control over the narrative exploration will users have, and how much control over that exploration will the interface have? Or, will there be some shifts between the two?

4. Programming

Programming comes after answering the story questions.

Programming, in this case, involves one of two options:

  • Using a program to create the interactive documentary
  • Coding the interactive documentary ourselves

Two programs to consider for creating a richer interactive documentary are Korsakow and Klynt. A less-robust option might be Twine.

Another option is coding the interactive documentary through HTML 5, CSS, and Java.

Either way, both require a clear conception of story and interaction in order to go smoothly.

5. Release

Following programming (and probably testing via friends and colleagues!), the final step is release.

Distribution options for interactive documentaries include web site, basic app, augmented reality app, and virtual reality.

For our purposes, the distribution most likely will be a website.

Are you working on an interactive documentary? Feel free to share your project, process, and favorite tools in the comments below.

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