Notes toward an Interactive Documentary Production Class

My current position calls for developing more social, visual, and interactive contributions to the department’s curriculum. After creating an introductory social media class and an online marketing campaigns class, this semester I proposed a course titled Interactive Documentary Production, which has been approved for the 2019-2020 school year.

The course requires no previous experience with audio-visual production, so it introduces those basics alongside providing exposure to working in interactive online spaces.

The primary goal of the course is play as it relates to technology and reality representation. (More on the idea of play later.) Beyond that goal, this post offers a thinking through of the course’s possible assignments and a bit about their rationales.

Compilation Video

This 1-2 minute video would feature only archival footage, though voiceover, music, and titles could be added as needed. The goals behind this assignment include thinking critically about editing and about researching non-original materials.

Person-on-the-Street Video

This 1-minute video would feature 5-7 person-on-the-street interviews edited around 2-3 key themes drawn from an original question. The goals behind this assignment include developing interviewing skills, seeking themes among materials, creating an order among those themes, and editing diverse voices into a coherent narrative.

Web Series

The compilation video and the person-on-the-street video could become part of a web series. Or, the web series could be a separate project altogether. One distinction I would need to make here is separating the web series from programming a YouTube channel: How are they similar? How are they different? The goal for this assignment includes thinking about and developing online programming as part of a strand.

Text-Based Docugame

I suspect this assignment will draw the most kick-back, but it really drives home the importance of story, presentation, users, and engagement. Text-based documentaries frequently get overlooked, particularly in our ever-digitizing and visual world, and this assignment would serve as a reminder of the importance of text in the communication of experiences. Text-based games also get overlooked in favor of the more visually rich environments of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. (This clip from The Big Bang Theory shows more how those text-based games work.) But together these options could provide a way to engage audiences in ways that require thinking outside the frame.

Interactive Documentary

While the phrase “interactive documentary” covers a lot of possibilities, students could create one using a platform such as Korsakow. The goals here include working with nonlinear storytelling and user experience.

Animated Documentary

Animated documentary could be a short assigment wherein original materials would be transformed into animated ones. For example, one approach might take audio-only sequences and set them to animation such as in Broken: The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck. The goals here include thinking about what to show when no visual materials exist and about the possibilities and boundaries created by the art of animation.

Augmented Reality Documentary

Augmented reality adds a layer of text and context between the user’s device and the world before them. This assignment would require thinking about what that extra layer would offer the user and how it would offer it. Goals here include developing greater focus on the end-user’s experience and thinking outside beyond the screen frame.

Nonfiction Virtual Reality

Arguably, virtual reality remains the most complex among the options listed here. Some instructions for virtual reality production begin with coding. While learning even the basics of code is important, its incorporation into a class like this is too much. Instead, working with third-party apps could provide one option. Another, lower bar option could be creating a 360-degree video. Now just to find a 360-degree camera…

No one semester will include all of these assignments, particularly since the course assumes no previous moving image production experience and because each project involves multiple programs and some special equipment in order to make it all happen.

Have something you want to ask or add to this post? Leave a comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter @documentarysite.

Revisiting Teaching Op-Docs

Op-Docs refers to the short documentary video series curated by The New York Times. Op-Docs showcase an array of documentary storytelling styles and address a diversity of social issues. I have used Op-Docs as a pedagogical model for short documentary production and am considering them again as I develop an advanced multimedia production class proposal.

In Spring 2015 I first taught Op-Docs as part of an advanced news reporting class at a small women’s college in Baltimore. Two years and a seven-state move later, I incorporated similar lessons into a half semester of a news reporting and editing class. The course description required a public affairs focus, primarily through writing. The incorporation of video diverged from the usual course.

The public affairs focus helped narrow the course to a point, but it raised the question of how to make such a broad subject more accessible? A list of social issues from the Library of Congress helped. Through short brainstorming assignments, class discussions, and individual conversations, students chose one topic to research and report on for the entire semester. Every assignment needed to address the subject in some way.

The thinking was that students needed to develop some expertise on their topic before making the video. That background could help make the video production questions easier. For example, if students interviewed an expert for a written story, that expert could become potential video interview for the short documentary. For another example, if students engaged an interesting angle in a written story, they could develop that angle further in the video.

Students chose diverse topics: mental health stigmas, online privacy, domestic violence, solar energy, indigenous cultures, noise pollution, gangs, paying student athletes, and sex education. After doing some background work on their topic in Lexis-Nexis, they began the written assignments.

The first written assignment was a person-on-the-street story. I have used this assignment extensively in other reporting classes at both rural and urban campuses. It worked best in Boston when my students walked to Cheers (yes, that Cheers) and asked people there about their hoped-for presidential candidates. Repeating that assignment for this class resulted in two challenges: approaching the wary community and phrasing the question. How do you develop a general question about an issue that people on the street might not know about? That challenge helped set up the thinking not only about reporting but also about the documentary hook.

After a series of other written assignments, the class segued to video production during the seventh week. The first video assignment paralleled the first written assignment: a person-on-the-street assignment requiring video recording. The same challenges emerged, but with some additional curveballs: getting signed consent, finding a quiet place, and overcoming even greater reluctance from potential participants. Either way, the videos became useful touchstones for developing the short documentary.

The other video assignments followed a sequence: pitch, script, rough cut, and final cut. The pitch and the rough cut included class discussion and peer review. The script assignment was skipped to allow more time for researching, filming, and editing.

Similar to my previous time using this approach, students struggled most with finding people to interview. It required intensive brainstorming beyond the work they had already completed for writing assignments. This campus just recently started a film and media studies program, but it focuses primarily on fiction storytelling. The mass media program here focuses primarily on writing, so sights of student camera crews working on campus are rare. Perhaps if these crews happened more frequently, the community might be more supportive and engaging.

Interesting to me, students found it easier to maintain a balance among their personal views, their participants’ views, and their films’ stories. In a previous class, some students struggled with what people spoke about in interviews and what they “wanted” from people. They hadn’t developed a trust in their participants and in themselves, and that kind of trust comes with time and practice. Here, while students maintained a stake in their subjects, they also maintained a professional, but empathetic, distance.

Overall, the students’ final shorts were really good. They were required to have three interviews, but otherwise they were free to approach the films however they wanted. Most chose interviews combined with observational footage and on-screen titles.

I recount this experience here toward thinking about what a semester-long course on online documentary production might look like. The short video plays an important role in documentary storytelling, sometimes in theatrical distribution but more so in online enviroments. For example, short documentaries serve as part of web series, advocacy campaigns, interactive experiences. But what about building something more, such as an entire interactive documentary or an augmented reality app? What additional skills might those options involve? What other equipment, platforms, or programs might be needed? Are either of those possible in a stand-alone, semester-length class?

We shall see. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments below.