Every year IFP (Independent Filmmaker Project) holds a week-long conference with filmmakers around the world flocking to New York City to attend panels, network and pitch.
This year, Independent Film Week took a turn into the future of filmmaking and presented a case study of a web native interactive project for the first time.
The interactive documentary “Hollow” created by Elaine McMillion is a perfect case to look at the current pros and cons of online storytelling. Unlike a traditional documentary where viewers turn the lights down, sit back and have a story unfold in front of their eyes, participants “watching” “Hollow” must scroll and click through a detailed multi-storyline experience that revolves around McDowell County, West Virginia, a poster child region of all that is wrong in America — economic stagnation, dwindling population, high teenage pregnancy rate, staggering statistics on obesity and drug addiction. Despite the apparent hardships, there is a strong sense of community in the residents of McDowell County.
This dichotomy is what drew McMillion to explore this community, not only the causes behind these issues but also the solutions. Born in West Virginia herself, she knew she wanted to change people’s perception of the region.
“I was so determined to tell this story, I would have made this project without any funding, though it might have just ended up being on Tumblr. These are not just Appalachia and West Virginia problems. These are small town problems,” McMillion said.
A Turn Toward Transmedia
Rose Vincelli Gustine, producer of Independent Film Week and a program manager at IFP, sits on the documentary selection committee for Film Week. Inspired by attending last year’s IDFA’s (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) new media program, DocLab, she decided to include an interactive documentary in Film Week this year.
“Documentary seems to be doing transmedia on the independent level much better and more frequently than transmedia narrative. Web native projects have really been in the Zeitgeist, but I’ve really only come to the genre in the last year, year and a half. I’m still deciding what is it to be a film online or a transmedia project,” Gustine said. “For me, instead of experts saying what transmedia is, it is a lot more interesting to say, ‘Look at this.'”
She chose to present “Hollow” because she found the project so engaging.
“It wasn’t what I expected, and I feel like Elaine McMillion and her team really found a way to tell a great documentary using the interactive medium really strongly,” Gustine said.
Finding new ways to bring online film alive
How to present “Hollow” at Film Week was the question.
“Part of discussing transmedia is whether it is a solo viewing experience or not,” Gustine said. “Part of the beauty of watching a film is that it is a group experience. It remains to be seen what transmedia will be.”
IFP chose not to present “Hollow” on a kiosk or other physical viewing station, and McMillion shared that the last thing she wants to see at a venue is a room full of laptops. McMillion feels any presentation should add something to the online experience, not just recreate what visitors can get at home. That said, if attendees missed the Thursday morning “Hollow” Case Study presentation, they would be hard pressed to figure out what “Hollow” is exactly.
McMillion is not immune to this dilemma but also realizes that immersive presentations increase costs for the presenters, and while those are preferred, that doesn’t always work out. When possible, McMillion likes to Skype in McDowell County residents or even tour with them as participants. It is important to McMillion to create new ways to discuss “Hollow.” She presented earlier in the week at a transmedia event, Storycode, in NYC, and there the discussion was very technical and focused on the backend of creating the project. But at the upcoming Camden International Film Festival, she’ll sit with “Harlan County, USA” Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple and focus on the “coal country” aspect of “Hollow.”
“I think some people come to the project interested in the tech and some for the topics, but everyone leaves with a better understanding of the issues.” McMillion said.
‘I didn’t see this ending with a neat little bow tied on it’
McMillion didn’t set out to create an interactive project. She grew up in the county next to McDowell and came to linear filmmaking from journalism. In 2009, she became interested in “youth exodus and rural brain-drain” as she herself realized she couldn’t return to her hometown and make a living in her chosen field. She also knew that there was more to the people and problems of Appalachia then the nightly news and harsh statistics represented. When she began filming, she quickly realized there was more information she wanted to present than could be conveyed in a traditional documentary, and more importantly for her, she didn’t see any of the issues she was presenting being resolved in the near future.
As McMillion put it, “I didn’t see this ending with a neat little bow tied on it.”
By completing a traditional documentary, filmmakers are freed up to move onto the next project, recoup production costs through distribution, and find time to tour and promote the film. McMillian created “Hollow” to continue indefinitely, but what did that mean realistically? First off, she can’t continue to record the citizens and events of McDowell indefinitely, so she had to train the community to film their own lives, report their progress, and post to a blog on the “Hollow” website.
Also, there are the unexpected and continued costs of “upkeeping” the “Hollow” website. With over four hours of video footage and extensive assets, server costs alone for “Hollow” run $700 a month. Currently, McMillion is asking universities and other venues where she speaks and presents to pay a screening fee that covers one month’s server costs but she realizes that won’t go on forever. Even now, some places balk at paying the screening fee, asking why they should pay for a project available online for free.
“Hollow” as it is currently presented is not the initial or even second version of the project. “Hollow” went through six design iterations before the team decided on the Parallax Scrolling, an option McMillion saw as fluid and cinematic. As a documentary filmmaker she was influenced by the intimacy “Bombay Beach” created by the camera’s proximity to its subjects. Shooting “Hollow” primarily handheld, McMillion knew she wanted the audience to feel like they were on a journey while interacting with the project, but having never done an interactive project, McMillion had to explore other interactive/transmedia projects like “Prison Valley” and “HIGHRISE,” and even brand projects like Victoria Beckham’s Evoque Range Rover and at Nike, to discover what could or couldn’t work for her project.
“Working on ‘Hollow’ was like throwing all the pieces up in the air and seeing where they landed, and how the puzzle fit together,” McMillion said.
McMillion created “character sketches” of each individual resident’s world with Jeff Soyk, “Hollow’s” art director.
Piecing it together
“We didn’t come up with this design until really late, so I hadn’t shot a lot of photographs. The project ended up being very photo heavy, so many of them ended up being screenshots, which wasn’t ideal. I gave all the content to Jeff, and he is the collage master. I couldn’t even see all those ideas fitting together,” McMillion said. “One of the advantage of creating a project like this versus a traditional documentary is it isn’t a time capsule. Things can change. Building an HTML5 experience and a tool for the community at the same time is difficult, and something is going to suffer unless you have a team built around both those things. The tool came in a little too late in development, so now we are able to backtrack on that and get the residents even more involved.”
It isn’t just IFP’s attention that “Hollow” has attracted. Elements of the project have already been reworked to become a New York Times Op-Doc, “West Virginia, Still Home,” and McMillion and “Hollow” are scheduled to appear in 14 different events over the course of the next couple months.
“Hollow” was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $29,000, but McMillion said the project wouldn’t have been possible to complete in its current state without a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund and funding from the West Virginia Humanities Council. In total, $113,000 was spent on “Hollow,” but McMillion feels $150,000 would have been a better amount to complete all the development requirements. Currently the website isn’t compatibility with Firefox and Internet Explorer, nor is it a responsive design or mobile friendly.
Working beyond the typical online attention span
Unlike a traditional documentary that can be viewed through a variety of distribution models, “Hollow” is in its current state, very much a “desktop experience,” but it was important to McMillion that Hollow’s audience not only stay engaged in the project for more than the “five-minute attention span” of online explorers, but also that site visitors relate to the “characters” and engage in the sociological and anthropological aspects of the project. When entering the website, visitors are asked to listen with headphones and, while there are many aspects to be explored, the Hollow team made strategic choices as to how the project could be interacted with and when. McMillion felt getting to know a resident by watching the video footage was necessary before delving deeper into other elements such as a resident’s photo album, so many extras are locked and only made accessible after video elements are watched.
At the IFP presentation, the “Hollow” team was asked to discuss their favorite aspects of the project, and McMillion pointed out an interactive map that allows the visitor to participate in a data study of small-town exodus as one of her favorite elements. A participant from the audience called out her hometown, and McMillion entered the information, including what town she left and what city she moved to and at what age. A graphic appeared informing the audience that no one else from this town had yet participated, but that like the audience member, the majority of the participants had left their home around the age of 18 and relocated, clustering in cities like New York and Los Angeles.
It was these interactive, analytical and quantitative elements in “Hollow” that most appealed to McMillion. She wanted to create something that would engage the McDowell County community and aid them in changing their future. It seemed a natural step to her, one that takes the idea of a social documentary and instead of reflecting a community, asks the community to participate.
“I was interested in the whole reflex nature that participatory media has on communities. Give someone a camera and allow them to reflect on their life, and you get this footage that is so much more raw and beautiful than if a filmmaker shot it who is worried about cinematography.”
By providing the community with this platform, McMillion hopes to actually encourage change and growth, and inspire them to work together. “Hollow” contains a self-sustaining WordPress tool that McDowell County residents can update themselves. McMillion encourages this, but stays hands off. The workshops she ran in McDowell County to assist residents to learn to film and edit themselves also had them participate in the creation of “Hollow.” Chapters in “Hollow” such as, “When Coal Was King,” were created by the community in these workshop. “They don’t even understand how much they contributed. The project would not be the same if we didn’t have the community input,” McMillion said.
McMillion says people always ask her for a DVD version of the project, and she has to tell them that really isn’t possible and if it was, it would be the least ideal viewing experience. Her advice for anyone considering an interactive online project is to think of the story, but also consider how you’re going to maintain the project over time. “There’s nothing worst than going to a project’s site and being like, ‘Well that went down. That didn’t last long,'” McMillion said. The archiving of projects of this nature is still unknown. Unlike the archiving of a traditional documentary, McMillion fears she’ll have to pull out her laptop in the future to show the project. Archiving code does nothing to assist anyone to understanding the actual experience of “Hollow.” This seems indicative of this still new area of storytelling.
“Something I don’t like about transmedia, especially in the fiction narrative world, is it’s not treated as an experience. Until it is treated as its own experience, as cinema online, people are still going to ask us to come and talk for free,” McMillion said. Financial recoupment is still new territory for online projects such as “Hollow,” as well as issues of archiving and presentation.
When asked if she liked the word “transmedia,” McMillion said no. She went on to explain it isn’t that she has anything against it. She just doesn’t define Hollow as transmedia because of its browser and technical limitations. “Some people define transmedia as having video, pictures and sound, but I don’t. I don’t like that word because I don’t know how to define it,” she said.
A living, breathing documentary
As we were finishing up the interview, McMillion proudly showed me an image of a group of McDowell County residents.
“That’s the Community Garden group. Linda, its founder, participated in “Hollow” and the project has helped her find many more volunteers.”
This for McMillion was proof positive that “Hollow” was the “living breathing project” she set out to create. That small step forward for McDowell County is for her more rewarding than applause from an audience when the lights come up.
McMillion closed her laptop, saying, “This project has ruined me as a filmmaker. After this, I can’t just make a short film. I’m constantly thinking about the better way the story could be told.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of McDowell County.
Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She currently producing the documentary, “The Art of Memories” and a feature film on Annie Londonderry, the first woman to travel around world on a bicycle. You can follow her on Twitter at @TheLoneOlive or visit her at theloneolive.com.