Filmmakers like Luisa Dantas are paving the way for more people to understand and experiment with web-native documentary production. What does this really mean, and what can we learn from them so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel?

What makes a doc “living”?

As a partner in the Living Docs collaboration, I get a lot of questions about what this really means. As you navigate the documentary community these days, you hear “transmedia” and “web-native” and “interactive” tossed around with little context. I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics, every maker gets to decide how his or her project gets categorized. Instead I want to explain by talking about what makes up the newest generation of documentary and what it has to do with the Web.

I recently sat down over Skype with Luisa Dantas, director extraordinaire of Land of Opportunity (2011). She and team are deep in the trenches of the Land of Opportunity interactive web experience (LoP) – the latest incarnation of what has been “a multi-faceted documentary project.” Here’s what makes LoP a Living Doc…

What is the Land of Opportunity interactive web experience?

Luisa tells me that she always knew she wanted to go deeper into the LoP archive of footage—SIX YEARS of filming covering a wide range of inequality issues from the perspective of New Orleans and beyond.

Enter Mozilla.

At a Public Day presentation for one of BAVC’s exciting Producers Institute residencies, Luisa heard from Ben Moskowitz about how Mozilla was developing software that integrates layers of video and multimedia content that can lead to greater engagement and awareness for users. In other words: new ways to use video, images and other media on websites that can benefit content in a wide range of categories.  Thus formed the idea that LoP could merge new technology with existing content and new content from partners to create a story space with targeted users. Luisa wanted to use New Orleans “as a prism through which we’re looking at issues of urban equity around development [also] redefining what post-crisis means, the legacy of urban renewal can be understood as post-crisis in many places.”

What is the “story space”?

The story space for LoP starts with a piece of video and triggers (or buttons) to access multimedia content—an article, additional video, a campaign, or a new story from a stakeholder—all in one place.

Now we know what we want to do, where do we start?

The first step for Luisa and team was clear—attract resources. This will come as no surprise to the independent filmmaker.  An opportunity hit LoP that opened the doors to a conversation on resources. The film was funded in part by the Ford Foundation and Ford took a trip to New Orleans with the mayor of Detroit for a symposium on lessons learned. Luisa cut a piece for presentation, made up entirely of content not used in the film. This drove home for Ford, through it’s Metropolitan Opportunity initiative, that having an integrative experience would be valuable—the ability to connect the dots between cities and processes.

And next?

Luisa connected back to Mozilla and determined that the first step needed is a prototype. Why? Think of it as the equivalent of a fundraising trailer: it gives a preview of the story to come, it samples the work already in progress, it showcases your talent, and most importantly, IT’S NOT THE FINAL PRODUCT.

I’m not used to thinking this way, I’m a filmmaker…

Bingo. Luisa didn’t used to think this way either. “We’re used to sitting on material and making it as perfect as possible.” What webmakers are here to teach us about the latest evolution of documentary on the Web, is that you’re putting something out into the world, knowing it has problems, and the users are going to help you figure it out and make it better.  It’s not a traditional finished product documentary.

As a filmmaker you may not even realize that this actually is part of the process. The feedback you get from funders, the editing process, the test screenings… you’re already iterating, you just didn’t know it! For more on this iterative strategy, see the Center’s report: Designing for Impact.

I get it, iterate, but I don’t speak the language of the Web.

Luisa had to tackle this head on, and Mozilla has been playing a key role in bridging the gap. They’re moving beyond the choir, providing tools like Popcorn, and inviting filmmakers to hackathons to experiment. But Luisa will attest—it still took a while to become conversant with developers, this is new. Some of the things you may need to master: front end vs back end, workflow, developer vs. coder vs. designer, functionality-first approach, content management systems. Said Luisa, “the way we approach the web is the way that audiences approach our movies, we don’t know what it took to put it together.”

Software developers aren’t exempt as they, too, can benefit from the filmmaker’s perspective of the long term—how much it takes to get where you want to go. “I see the landscaped littered with hacked and prototyped things.” We need a balance to build a foundation for these projects moving forward.

Case studies like this one are also hoping to bridge the gap and collect information for filmmakers learning this new language. Keep an eye on LivingDocs.org and the Center for Social Media blog for more posts.

Where is LoP now?

Luisa just wrapped up a week at the 2012 BAVC Producer’s Institute! But I’ll come back to that.

So the first stage was developing that “fundraising trailer” prototype, which was presented at an NTEN conference in 2011. Luisa then started to map out a more comprehensive plan to scope out the work. Her advice having gone through this process: “Pick a piece of the work that you want to do, do that part really well, and then go on to the next phase.”

Two things became clear:

  1. LoP needed a strong foundation for content, which meant a more robust prototype.
  2. The goal for the end experience is curating content with partners.

The reality of limited resources means evaluating priority. And for LoP this meant the priority became making something that would be useful even if LoP left the equation. Luisa felt strongly that she didn’t want to leave something behind that had limited interaction. And this is the question she’s been assessing at BAVC over the last week.

Luisa Dantas, Assistant Producer Laine Kaplan-Levinson, and a partner from the National Housing Institute have been assessing how to bring in community-generated content, and will hopefully be coming out with next steps in the development and implementation process—to be in a position to hire a designer for a friendly user interface. We’ll be hearing the result very soon!

Still More Takeaways

What you’ve read so far is just a snippet of the experience of Land of Opportunity in the Living Docs world.  We’re working on a more detailed case study of Luisa’s work on LoP and lessons learned so that you, the filmmaker, don’t have to start from scratch or in isolation. Don’t hesitate to pose questions to us that need answering.

In the meantime, here are just a few more words of wisdom from a filmmaker who is making her documentary “living.”

  • When you talk to funders, have a conversation not just about the vision of your project, but the sustainability.
  • Be sure you understand the difference between development and design.
  • Break off the work into manageable pieces and try to do those things well.
  • The question “who is your audience” is more important than ever.