Filmmaker Jessica Oreck (Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo) recently teamed up with Mike Knowlton and Hal Seigel of the interactive film studio Murmur (Him, Her and Them) to create The Aatsinki Season, an immersive companion to Oreck’s feature-length documentary Aatsinki: The Story of Artic Cowboys. The project launched last month after being incubated at POV Hackathon.

Visitors to the site are invited to watch short video installments depicting the life of reindeer herders, then they’re challenged to consider their notions about our place in nature. An online debate follows each short, presenting competing sides of the argument, and new episodic short films will be released throughout the year on the site, as the herding season continues, drawing visitors back to learn and consider more.

We asked Oreck, Knowlton and Seigel about how they generated the ideas that became the interactive project and then how they managed their collaboration.

Was there always an interest in creating an interactive companion site to the Aatsinki: The Story of Artic Cowboys documentary?

Jessica Oreck: Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys is a pure, direct-cinema study of the Aatsinkis’ life – their hard work, their leisure time, and their intricate bond with the land. I always wanted the film, in its final form, to be an incredibly immersive, atmospheric experience, but while I was living with the Aatsinkis, my eyes were also opened to the many challenges that their lifestyle presents – challenges that aren’t limited to reindeer herders but that affect modern, independent farmers around the world. Without changing the experience of the film, I wanted to find a way to get viewers talking about these complex issues. So I’ve been thinking about creating an interactive since almost the very beginning of production.

In what way has the scope and vision for The Aatsinki Season changed since its inception?

Jessica Oreck: Originally, I had thought about making the interactive some sort of game, but I realized that sort of experience would not match the mood of the film. So I started by writing a sort of narrative companion to the film. Following the seasonal structure of the film, I wrote out the sorts of activities the herders participate in at that time of year and what their biggest challenges are.

By the time I was accepted into the Hackathon, I had a full year mapped out that way, in second person story form, but I didn’t really know how to present it. Enter Mike and Hal. They were so much fun to brainstorm with. We just tossed ideas back and forth, shared our inspirations, set constraints, set goals. It wasn’t long before we had come up with this idea of having it be part video story, part interactive debate.

From there, I worked closely with my producer Rachael Teel (who has a masters in Environmental Anthropology from Yale), to craft the debate questions and answers. She made sure that everything was up to snuff and that we were representing all sides equally. I tend to be a bit biased in the herders’ favor, so she is always my stabilizing influence. Of course, as we worked through the Hackathon and beyond, the text evolved, the layouts changed and the coding advanced, but our initial idea still rings true. I’m really proud of it.

When you began collaborating, what goals did you set out to accomplish with the site, and what inspired this final product’s design and format?

Mike Knowlton: When we started we had a few key goals: First, for the Hackathon itself we didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. Time is so limited so we needed to be really careful about scope. To this end we held a couple of planning meetings before the Hackathon. During these meetings we focused on clearly defining what exactly we were trying to hack. For our project it was finding the right balance between a lean back (cinematic) and lean forward (interactive) experience. Second, we also wanted to create a true companion to the film, something that was more than just a site marketing the film.

The biggest inspiration for me was the beauty of the film itself. The film is stunning and we wanted to create an online companion that was true to that visual experience. Because it was a different medium, we could also explore telling the story from another angle, one that was more provocative and direct.

Did your backgrounds as developers and filmmaker come together easily, or were there some difficulties in vision in working together across different media?

Mike Knowlton: The actual process of working together went very well. We both have experience and understanding in the other’s area of expertise. Jessica wasn’t afraid to talk “tech” and we weren’t afraid to talk “filmmaking.” This encouraged mutual respect and trust to collaborate and focus on the project itself.

Going forward as new installments are added, will you continue to use the same format for the debate sections of the project?

Hal Siegel: We will continue to use the same format, but our plan is to modulate the graphic element for each season, just a bit. Coming up with this scheme for the interactive debate took many iterations. Originally it was more linear, but it felt unsatisfying and didn’t really express the inherent conflicts. Finally, we hit upon the idea of a kind of palimpsest, where the issues would overlap each other — we thought this was an accurate and unique way of visualizing the issues, one that would not require a huge technological undertaking, and would be very simple for people to use and understand.

Do you think the Aatsinki Season and other interactive mediums encourage the audience to think more about the issues presented in the film?

Jessica Oreck: The last thing I wanted was for the feature to turn into an ‘issue’ film. So the film itself doesn’t address head-on any of the topics that are discussed in the Aatsinki Season. To me, the film was a way to get audiences to fall in love with this way of life, with these people. Viewers of the feature will be able to approach the Aatsinki Season with an open heart, having just spent a compressed year in this lifestyle. But the Season isn’t just for viewers of the film, it exists as a self-contained educational tool that addresses the struggles of all types of modern independent farmers.

What do you hope Aatsinki Season viewers will get out of the site?

Jessica Oreck: It is my hope that it will help to bring some awareness to the extreme battles that farmers face in order to bring us healthy, local food. And with the ‘Take Action” sections, I hope that participants will feel inspired to help their local farmers as well as perhaps helping the herders that I have so come to love and admire.

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Emma Dessau
Emma is the Senior Producer of POV Digital. Since joining POV in 2012, she has produced new media and interactive projects including Whiteness Project and the Emmy-nominated Empire. In addition to helping to launch new storytelling initiatives for the series, Emma leads digital production and online outreach for POV’s documentaries on PBS. She helped grow the POV Digital Lab (formerly POV Hackathon), which is now a signature POV event. Prior to her work at POV, Emma helped develop an interactive city and community planning game platform ‘Community Plan-It’ with Emerson College’s Engagement Game Lab. She has contributed to several alt-weeklies and online publications as a freelance videographer and writer, and co-produced two digital documentary projects, Folk to Folk and The Story Store.