The National Film Board of Canada‘s Hugues Sweeney talks to POV about Interactive Haiku, a new co-production with Arte that will see the creation of 12 new pieces of short — very, very short — interactive art.

POV: How did the NFB and Arte conceive of this project?

Hugues Sweeney, National Film Board of Canada: We’ve been in the field of interactive documentary and narrative for five years now, and it’s been a privilege to partner with Arte. We did Barcode together, which was our first co-production and when we were starting to think the next project we would do together, we thought, let’s take it from the angle of one problem that is relevant to us.

There’s a lot we do in innovation in terms of storytelling and documentary, but one thing that is kind of odd is that it’s really not at “Internet-time.” [On the Internet], people spend just a few seconds on one place or another. So why do we create these projects that ask the user to spend half an hour, one hour, or come back every week for so many weeks? How come we don’t do these things that are in the short-life of the internet?

So that was really the first thing: How can we push the super-short form? Look at other genres of creation, like literature, like film… Where’s the haiku poem, the comic-strip? Where’s the super short film or super short song to the interactive form? Not just a website with a two-minute video on it, but really like, How do I manipulate something that’s very short, but in a very short length of time, I will be touched and I will reflect on something? That’s where it came from.

POV: Why haiku? Why not a different term for something very short in another medium?

Hugues Sweeney: To trigger the imagination and the inclination to create a powerful image or thought. We’re not asking the creators to do exactly the interactive haiku, but in the spirit of the haiku — It’s to get to the point as fast as possible. Let’s be surprised by the propositions we get.

Also, we want to reach creators we don’t usually reach, necessarily, to be surprised by people who are in other territories and industries.

POV: After the projects are selected, how much time will the creators have to produce the proposed interactives?

Hugues Sweeney: Three months. So it’s really fast. [The submission] is like a three-pager. One page is the idea, one page is some visual or visuals that express the project, and a third page with just the team. And that’s all. And from that, each team will be given three months to create their proposal.

POV: What does the quickness of all the steps in Interactive Haiku — between registering, proposing and producing — do for creators on the Internet?

Hugues Sweeney: For registering to proposing, it’s just to give us enough time to prepare because it’s an international jury, people sit in different countries, with a bad Skype connection or something, so we want them to be as prepared as possible and so we can translate and everything.

We want people to have a simple idea and just be judged from the perspective of the intuition. The three-month period is not a very long time depending on where you stand, like if you stand from the ad agency point of view it’s a lot of time, if you think from the documentary or filmmaking point of view it’s not a lot of time at all.

There’s something about speed that is interesting, where people need to do stuff as quickly as possible and then re-adjust. I find sometimes, and this is not a generality, but my observation with everything we’ve done is that, yes, some projects need the time but for a lot of projects, having time was the worst thing for them. They had too much time, too much time talking and not doing things, and I think that some ideas need to be tested as quickly as possible. I think it’s also about the format. We want something that is an experience that lives under a minute. So I think that kind of brings it together.

POV: Can you define what “only one interactive concept” — one of the 10 rules for Interactive Haiku submissions — means for this project?

Hugues Sweeney: It’s more of a figure of speech. The idea is just that in such a period of time, you want to make a statement with what you have. It’s more about focusing the action of the user into one very specific direction and make sure that people don’t need to learn how to use it, that they can quickly go for it and get as much as possible out of it. It’s more about the action than the medium.

POV: Is there anything more that you can say about the last rule, the “obligatory break of one of the rules”?

Hugues Sweeney: We did a hackathon-like event last summer and we gave 10 rules and when we gave the rules to creators, they said, “Yes, but we want to break one rule.” So we said OK, we’ll give you that but you have to say why. So we gave them the challenge they gave us. It’s interesting in the dialogue of the creators about defining the project.

POV: What kind of submission would really blow you away?

Hugues Sweeney: I don’t know the answer because we want to be blown away by the submissions themselves, but for me, it’s about how the form takes shape of the content. How does what you make me do at my house with my trackpad or the surface of the screen tell the story? It’s not just pushing buttons and having stuff being played, but the actual movement and the actual behavior you’re asking me to do. Like for instance, if it’s about dragging stuff around… Is it about movement? Is it about migration? That’s what I’m looking for, to have a total symbiosis between the art and what’s happening with my interaction.

POV: What do you hope to achieve with this project?

Hugues Sweeney: To make us think about what interactive storytelling is and to open the door to the very short form. In literature, it’s not that the short story is the under-version of a novel, it’s just something else. And good short stories are sometimes better than novels because of the way they tell you something.

It’s really a way to make a sandbox for creators and producers to come in and try to push and open some new ways to tell stories on the Internet. Because right now, we’re seeing big projects that take three years to make and cost $300,000, and you need like 40 minutes of your time to go through it. I want to open it up and say, “OK, how can we do things that are quicker to make and quicker to explore, and show this world in a different way?”

The registration period for Interactive Haiku ends August 5, 2014 at 12 PM ET. Project submissions are due August 19, 2014 at 12 PM ET.

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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.