Reflections on Teaching an Interactive Documentary Production Course

This semester I had the privilege of teaching a course titled Interactive Documentary Production. This post reflects on this class and explores revisions for the future.

The course consisted of three parts: traditional video production, serious game design, and interactive video. The course was taught exclusively online, and it encouraged students to use the equipment they already had and use free or otherwise available software.

The original class plans included 12 assignments. The traditional production section addressed the basics of cinematography and editing. Three assignments included interviews — one for developing the content and two for conducting on-camera interviews. These assignments were necessary because the course had no prerequisites, so I needed to assume that students had no experience with this side of documentary production. A prerequisite would be worth adding in the future.

The game section included developing a board game based on a social issue and developing a conversation simulator based on a challenging conversation. The board game required background research, while the conversation simulator required working with another person or people to create the exchanges.

The final section delved further into some popular interactive options, including a video, a timeline, and a map. While I had included an augmented reality assignment, I omitted it due to time constraints.

The projects turned out quite well. I was deeply impressed with the work students put into their assignments and into the class. Students explored myriad topics, including gentrification, child support, stress, racial justice, racial biases, depression, marrying young, immigration, coming out, feminism, the pandemic (of course), and many, many more. I really enjoyed grading their work to see what they came up with for each assignment. It was quite fun, for example, to replay the different conversation simulators to see how the different options turned out.

The largest project for the semester was, in fact, the conversation simulator. It included conducting interviews, ideally with several people, to get ideas on how variations of a difficult conversation might go. The next step involved writing dialogue exchanges for about three variations on the conversation so that users had several options to move through the exchanges. The final step required encoding the conversation into either Twine or Squiffy. For now, that assignment is the course’s signature as it really focuses on the thinking about the users and their experiences with the simulators.

Several changes in the free software happened throughout the course. The biggest one? Using Zoom to record remote interviews. While Zoom accomplished the basic function of recording the interviews, it created challenges in how to make those interviews look visually interesting. Without B roll or different angles, the footage ultimately came out quite dull. Several students expressed frustration with those limitations.

Google offered a couple free tools to create interactive pieces. YouTube, for example, allows the inclusion of up to five cards within a video. The cards require connecting to other YouTube videos (at least there are 3+ billion to choose from), but they also show an easy interactive production tool. Google Maps allows people to create and share their own maps. The process requires a few steps but ultimately is quite easy.

Software for creating timelines is abundant, but software for creating timelines that work is another story. Prezi, the presentation software, works in a pinch, though it disallows users to explore at their own discretions. Timetoast proved an elegant solution among timeline making software options. It allows text and images, and it hosts the timelines on their site, making sharing easy.

I had hoped to include a larger project using archival materials to create an interactive documentary. Part of the trouble here is finding adequate free software. While robust, Klynt is expensive, and Korsakow needs updating since its last release in 2016. Korsakow struggles to work properly on my Mac. Overall, I would like to include more about working with archival materials, delving further into public domain, creative commons, and copyright.

Another aspect I would like to include more of is peer review and playtesting. Because of current circumstances with the pandemic, I structured this course to be as flexible as possible, to allow students to work at their own paces as needed. I found this option worthwhile because students were scattered across multiple states and living situations. But if we return to in-person learning, playtesting for the games and peer review for the other assignments will be a must.

One aspect that I found surprising: Students mixed horizonal and vertical orientations within their videos. Instruction had emphasized holding the camera horizontal when recording, but several turned in video segments and even entire videos in the vertical orientation. I suspect TikTok might have something to do with this.

Still another inclusion for future iterations is more about storytelling in board games. I used the basics of storytelling in games and emphasized the importance of characters, their relationships, and their goals. I omitted the hero’s journey because that seemed too complex for a board game — at least for this assignment, anyway. But perhaps looking through news stories about issues for the key people involved and then developing the characters, including the protagonist and antagonist, might add more depth. The board games either nailed the characterization or they overlooked it altogether.

Further, more instruction on writing dialogue might be needed for the conversation simulators. Writing dialogue is an art form that even the best novel and screenplay writers struggle with. Too often, what sounds great to the ear fails on the page. Every character “sounds” (reads?) the same. With conversation simulators and even interactive novels, writers often fail to compose for the screen, but instead compose for the page. In one interactive novel, I scrolled through four pages to get through the scene, which included one character’s dialogue running two pages. Too long for a scanner to wade through!

The last challenge for revising this course? Devoting enough time to editing basics without letting that segment overtake most of the course. Editing is fussy and detailed, but most people are generally not either of those. How do you pull out just that right quote from the middle of the interview? When do you focus on the interview participant? When do you add B roll? Jump cuts for continuity or no? And so on. Either way, when the editing is done right, even the shortest pieces turn out amazing.

In all, this was a fun course to teach. The students turned in great work despite the challenges of an online-only production course and the difficulties of a pandemic. I look foward to next time we can offer this one.

Leave a Reply