The Mediasmith Project

Transmedia documentary as research: telling new stories in new ways

Live Blog: Digital Storytelling

4 years ago, Written by , Posted in Mediasmith Blogs

Thanks to Athina Balopoulu, one of the Mediasmith Project researchers for live blogging during the second Mediasmith Project workshop.

Wednesday 5th March 2014.

Today we’re hosting the second Mediasmith Project workshop. About a month ago we brought together a small multidisciplinary group of academic researchers to explore ‘transmedia’ documentary as a method of research and get some hands on experience with documentary filmmaking. This time we invite the project participants to explore digital storytelling, its relationship to audiences, filmmaking and data gathering techniques. We are joined by Mags Gavan, Emmy and Bafta winning documentary maker from and Chris Atkins, director of Starsuckers and investigative filmmaker/journalist more recently known for Fake Fans for Channel 4’s Dispatches and the recent BBC Panorama programme on Comic Relief funds. Speaking of their projects from conception to post-production, Mags and Chris will familiarise us with the process of documentary filmmaking from a researcher’s but also producer’s point of view and will describe the challenges involved and how to deal with them.

In the afternoon session Tim Wright of XPT, cross-platform writer/producer, will be introducing us to new ways of crowdsourcing data and reaching out new/ wider audiences through digital media in an interactive and practical workshop.

Terezie, a student on the MA in Creative and Media Enterprises, will be filming the day’s activities to create a documentary, capturing our own journey as the project’s participants and filmmakers-to-be. Follow the #mediasmith hashtag for ongoing updates about the project.

10.00: We kick-off the second Mediasmith Project workshop by asking participants – old and new – to introduce themselves and give us a brief update on their project. We are lucky to work with a diverse selection of participants, in terms of discipline and geography, ranging from politics and sociology to supply chain management, from Brazil and Colombia to the UK. Building on the lessons from the first workshop, in other words an introduction to the basics of transmedia storytelling, participants seem to have made significant progress in framing their research questions and getting a robust understanding of how filmmaking will help them investigate or/and capture their research.

10.20: Ruth starts by inviting participants to reflect and discuss on the importance of storytelling. We briefly exchange ideas on its role in people’s lives as a tool for connecting, sharing, remembering, learning and more.

10.50: The discussion moves towards digital storytelling, its main characteristics and its potential. To start with, we need to think of this approach as a two way street. We may end up either creating a digital story or invite others to tell a story. However, how safe is it for certain disciplines to detatch from the impersonal and make use of subjective perspectives in their research? Early in our discussion we come to realize that there are indeed limitations for this method but also several ways to deal with them. After all, one of the purposes of this digital piece of content is likely to be to “spark a conversation among a community”.

11.15: Ruth invites us to dig deeper into the art of storytelling and introduces us to some new concepts. Let’s have a look at some of them:

Seven basic plots: In his homonymous book Christopher Booker summarizes the seven archetypal plot types which recur throughout every kind of storytelling from ancient myths and tales to modern literature and TV series. Looking at the patterns of how we’ve learnt to ‘read stories’ and relate to them we look back to our own experiences, we refer to the Lion King as another Hamlet and come to understand the journey that the story takes the audience on.

Transmedia, linearity and sequence: What happens when we want to tell multiple stories or the same one from multiple views and through different media forms? Chris jumps in and underlines that we need to make sure that every single link between the different strands works. Fortunately, technology can make our lives easier with tools like Conductr, software for transmedia publishing.

The law of entropy: In other words “how to kill a story to make a better one live”. Finding the right story is important and time consuming. But it is equally important and hard to edit the story and craft the final result. The closer we stick to the plan the greater the danger of the audience becoming disengaged or bored. The story needs to keep us engaged all the way through.

At this point an interesting question comes up: Do we extract from the story’s subject what they or the story wants them to tell? It seems that we might need to allow for a bit of both but Mags suggests another way. She says, “Find a way to make them (your story’s subject) comfortable enough to get personal. Manipulate them to get their best selves, whatever that means.”

12.00: Mags is here to give us a behind the camera idea of what it means to be a documentary filmmaker. We get to hear about her award-winning documentary Saving Africa’s Witch Children, telling the story of thousands of children in the Niger Delta who are stigmatised as witches and are abandoned, tortured or killed as such.

As frequently happens in guerilla filmmaking, a film starts from a conversation with a friend or even a complete stranger. There seems to be something worth telling and this is a good enough reason to start. However, getting a commission often proves to be more complicated.

Mags walks us through the questions we need to ask ourselves when crafting the film narrative:

Why is there a problem?
Who was affected?
Who are the bad guys?
What is the bigger context?
Who is the hero?
What is the jeopardy?
How do we convey the layers of tension?
What is the legal side of the issue?

Saving Africa’s Witch Children was a risk, in both financial and safety terms, worth taking. It started as a small conversation and ended up having a real impact by getting the government, the UN and Amnesty International aware and involved.

Details that made a difference: (a) An extra pair of fresh eyes to reshuffle things a little in post-production and (b) investing time and resources on good music.

Other thoughts and discussion: Funding for documentary in the academic context is relatively virgin territory. Is it worth thinking of alternative ways of for funding and distribution? What is the potential of crowd funding? Now that the AHRC has contributed to the making of The Act of Killing will digital media/film research projects be eligible for more of this kind of funding in the future?

12.30: Chris is sharing his experiences on investigative journalism through his new project on personal data, a pressing and topical issue. In his recent Channel 4 Dispatches project, Chris had to go undercover for a year to uncover the well hidden black market of data in Britain. In this case the film started from a basic question about data: We are a nation of databases and towers of information, what happens to them? Who has access and how? From that point the journey of investigation that lent the film a narrative little by little began, explains Chris. Similar to academic research it is the data that will determine the next steps.

Chris illustrates his idea of investigative journalism as follows: “You go to a house. You have no idea of the structure or layout so you have to go in each room and switch on the lights. The film is when you finally get to see the whole house.”

What about risk? “Risk is a part of it; financial, legal, safety – otherwise everyone would do it.”

The discussion here takes an interesting turn here: The idea of spycraft seems to have become more widely understood. Does this have any implications? Chris introduces us to the concept of entrapment and explains that you have to let the ‘bad guys’ reveal and confirm facts and avoid asking specific questions to confirm your suspicions. In the second case the content will probably be unbroadcastable.

14.00: We’re back from lunch and ready for the practical part of the workshop to begin. Tim starts with a short introduction to the world of digital media with a metaphor: the digital media landscape is like a moving target, it changes every 2-3 years.

Tim’s survival tips:

1. Move really fast
2. Make sure you’ll land something within 2-3 years
3. Be prepared to smash everything up and start again

14.30: We are ready to dive in the digital media waters. Tim gets things rolling with emerging concepts and ideas:

Remix culture
Branded content
Embedded content
Online personas
Casual games
Social media
Offline activity
Citizen journalism/ protest media
Playfulness (What mood is you audience in? Fooling around!)
User generated content
Crafts and DIY
The quantified self
The intelligent home

And of course there’s a handful of examples for us to look at – products and technologies we did not know or could not even imagine existed! What would the world look like with?

The biometric onesie: a wearable baby “onesie” with built-in sensors that transmit the baby’s vital signs over Wi-Fi to parents’ smartphones, tablets, or other connected devices.

The Wi-Fi plant sensor, which accurately determines the vitality of your plant and sends you a notification with precise care advice at the right time.

i-stone, the intelligent fridge: which helps you with grocery shopping and dinner ideas, keeps track of what you have in your fridge, and functions as a message centre for the whole family.

In short: everything is going to be on the web. But this is no about mediating reality anymore. If technology is responsive to its environment and it often is, then it’s real. And after all what recent years have taught us is that ‘layering a real world view with a fake world doesn’t mean people will engage with the real one!’

15.30: Now things get real. Tim familiarises us with his #golfonthemoon project. We immerse ourselves in the moongolfer’s world through Lego, photographing Minor Tim and a spacesuit. The purpose of the project is to create a golf map on earth that we can then take to the moon…

16.00: Ready to go out and about on campus. We tee off and attempt to conquer the top of Warwick Arts Centre’s Koan.

16.20: Mission accomplished!

16.30: Back in the room with some tea and time for reflection. ‘Was there any purpose to it or were we just ‘goofing about’? Tim wonders and sparks the discussion. We soon realise that this was a live playful illustration of a DIY performance that gives people a ‘playmaking kit’ and invites them to contribute and create content.

We discuss communities of sharing in Tim’s In search of Oldton project and the potential for scaling as seen in The Telectroscope. “The Internet allows the idea that different people can connect their content contribution,” and there are plenty of people who want to share or express things.

17.00: A big thank you to our facilitators Mags Gavan, Chris Atkins and Tim Wright for their inspiring stories, practical insights and advice. It’s been a day full of ideas with numerous take-aways to reflect on until our next workshop in May. Not only does this feel like an experimental and pioneering conversation but it’s also the first time Warwick has witnessed professors scaling sculptures and hosted a game of #golfonthemoon!

Ruth Leary

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