On June 21st, a group of documentary filmmakers, JavaScript hackers and Non-profit organization devoted to government transparency gathered to do something unique: create 3 proof of concept web documentaries in 1.5 days. Local filmmakers Meridian Hill Pictures, Industry veterans Elsewhere Films, Fellows in the Knight/Mozilla program, the lead developer of Zeega, a Localore participant, the Sunlight Foundation, and a veteran of the popcorn community took part in our latest Living Docs hackathon as part of the Silverdocs film festival. They each succeeded in creating a working prototype of a documentary made for the web. Below are a few testimonials, as well as their prototypes. Since these were created in such a short time frame, see the special viewing instructions in order to play them properly.

Green Corps


Lance + Brandon Kramer, Cole Gillespie, Mark Boas
Green Corps (working title) is an intimate examination of the struggle low-income Americans have experienced in their journey to get back to work. Through a focus on people impacted by the DC Green Corps, a green job training program created by President Obama’s American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, created under FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, the film explores whether public stimulus can have a long-term, sustained impact on broken lives and economies. The interwoven portrait of the people, parks, communities and histories is unique, focusing on those whose struggles and hopes are representative and iconic of the American zeitgeist in the age of recession and rebuilding. The Green Corps web-based cinema project is an experiment combining verité and participatory footage with Google maps and Google Street View data to create an interactive, transmedia platform for engaging with the story, characters and green spaces profiled in the film. By situating short video vignettes of intimate reflections from the job corps trainees within an interactive Google Map of Washington DC, the Green Corps web-based cinema project provides viewers with an opportunity to self-navigate the story and better understand the relationship between the people and the land.

What did you enjoy most?
The process of collaborating with creative technologists who approach their work from a totally different perspective than us as filmmakers was a healthy combination of a total challenge and a mind-blowing demonstration of new possibility. We loved reshaping our thinking, pushing ourselves to imagine new ways of telling stories through a technology we’re still trying to understand.

What did you learn?
We gained a dramatically-elevated appreciation for the art of coding. Listening to Cole and Mark, our creative technologist collaborators, speak in another language as they brainstormed, coded and tested, was nothing short of humbling and awesome. We admired the way web development provides an opportunity for immediate feedback (it works or it don’t!) whereas the feedback when making a long-form documentary film can often take months or years to materialize. At the end of the Hackathon, it was a real game-changing experience for us, presenting our prototype to an audience, and observing how audiences were forming an emotional connection with the concept we had roughly sketched out only days before.

What’s next for the project? We are in the final phases of production and are currently fundraising for post-production support so we can move into an edit of the film, so it can be completed and distributed in 2013. With new inspiration from the LivingDocs project, we are also seeking funding sources (like the BAVC Producer’s Institute) to further develop the web-based cinema prototype into a full platform that can complement the film.

View the prototype: (Best viewed on a Mac in Google Chrome)
: http://livingdocs.github.com/greencorps/ 1) Click “GO ON THE TOUR”
2) Watch the introductory video, which will lead you to a short interactive audio tour and Google Map of the DC parks and communities where the Green Corps trainees live and work.”
3) Once the audio narrative completes, you’ll walk with trainee Isaiah on a participatory video segment where he gives a tour of the grocery stores and food available in DC’s Deanwood neighborhood.”
4) At the end of Isaiah’s tour, you’ll enter a Google Streetview of the same space, where you can explore Deanwood on your own terms. “
5) Click “WATCH OTHER TRAINEES” button in the right hand corner of the screen to watch more stories.”
6) On the map of Washington DC, each of the 12 pins represents a different video. The Google Streetview appears after each video completes, allowing you to self-navigate each neighborhood and green space. Click “WATCH OTHER TRAINEES” at any time to return to the map and select another video. ”

Black Gold Boom


Todd Melby, James Burns
Black Gold Boom is a public media project documenting North Dakota’s oil boom. The project includes audio and video stories, photography, public art and public engagement strategies. The project’s website will include an interactive “director’s cut” incorporating some of the best content and data associated with the oil boom, such as crime statistics, oil production, oversize truck permits, etc.

What did you enjoy most?
I enjoyed working one-on-one with a smart hacker, who also happens to be an economist, to experiment with new ways to combine storytelling with data visualization. As a journalist, I tend to use data as way to underline a point someone in a story is making. The hackathon experience had me thinking about ways users might experience data in new, revealing ways while still experiencing a narrative. It’s a big, big challenge. How does one do both in ways that doesn’t sacrifice the other?

What did you learn?
We began our rough draft of the “director’s cut” by asking users to type in their zip code. This information would grab data from their home city or state and compare it to North Dakota. The geo-specific data we experimented with included unemployment rates, conservative/liberal voting records of Congressional members, average January temperature, population density and percentage of gun ownership. The idea was to give the user an idea of the environmental and cultural differences between her hometown and what she might experience if she sought a job in oil country.

We expressed these differences as a sort of Harper’s Index. Here’s how the data read on population density:

Number of people per square mile in Maryland

Number of people per square mile in North Dakota

In our experiment, the user accessed this data while listening to an audio story. This turned out to be difficult. People can read data while listening to a narrative or viewing a narrative, but something will be lost in the process, likely the emotional strength of the narrative.

What’s next for the project?
The project is continuing to tell oil boom stories, both in audio and video. Zeega and I will continue to experiment with the best way to merge data with storytelling without sacrificing the emotional or intellectual strength of either.

view the prototype (requires google chrome)

Citizen Corp


The Hackathon pulled us out of the comfort of our edit room and into a marathon 36-hour collaboration with a team of talented creative hackers. Our challenge was to invent something brand new and broadly accessible that served our work-in-progress film, its subject matter (the influence of money in politics), while drawing on and highlighting the amazing work of the Sunlight Foundation. We wanted to demonstrate the impact of political spending in elections, and highlight the fact that most of the money is spent in secret, is not disclosed, and is virtually impossible to track. While we didn’t exactly succeed at pulling it off, we certainly emerged with a much deeper understanding of what is possible in internet storytelling, thanks to the innovations of Popcorn and our amazing team.

What did you enjoy most?
It is always exhilarating to take a risk in unknown terrain, and to find new collaborators. The hackathon provided that experience, and on a wicked deadline! We also enjoyed meeting the larger group of talented filmmakers and storytellers and seeing their impressive projects come to life.

What did you learn?
As in making a film, sometimes you have to go down the wrong road in order to find the right one. We arrived at the Hackathon with a clip we felt would help show how little is known about amount and origin of the money spent on elections. We felt that we were just beginning to figure out how to use popcorn to do that, when our time ran out. The visuals are as important online as they are onscreen, and had we to do it over again, we’d rely less on text and numbers in the pop-outs to say what we want to say. We think we’ve identified the right direction now, even though it isn’t reflected exactly in the work due to the time constraints.

What’s next for the project? As we continue to work on the film, we also will continue to build on the Hackathon experience and find ways to deploy this technology most effectively given our goals and subject matter.

watch the prototype
http://brianchirls.github.com/citizencorp/ In this clip, we follow a clean government advocate on a research trip to a Madison, Wisconsin tv station to review political ad sales figures. The user can move the mouse to the icons to interrupt the clip and discover new information. Or else just let it play through.