The speakers at Tribeca Film Institute’s third annual Interactive Day were brimming with pixels of wisdom for storytellers playing in the digital sandbox. It’s worth noting that, unlike at other tech conferences, the majority of the presenters were independent, DIY-minded folks from small studios or collectives, rather than resource-heavy corporations. They are experimenting in the trenches — and the projects that they discussed are therefore relevant to a wider swath of documentary film and other indie makers. (Tribeca even launched a downloadableRoadmap for Creating High-Impact Interactive Documentary in anticipation of the event.)

This year, however, I found the more value in the questions the presenters asked than in the statements they made. As multi-platform creators, we have new considerations at the outset of projects, and many of these presenters are a couple steps ahead. Here are some of the provocative questions that they posed and wrestled with in their own creative processes.

How Can You Make Yourself Vulnerable?

Keynote speaker Lucy McRae works in what she calls, “speculative storytelling,” building hypothetical worlds underpinned by science to help us understand what the near future might hold. She uses various media to create highly conceptual works that explore questions like, “What if textiles could grow?” She points to vulnerability as the key to her innovation process. Though documentary filmmakers face different kinds of vulnerabilities than McRae — she’s placed herself in vacuum-sealed chambers to create dance pieces that help NASA ponder the complications of growing a fetus in zero gravity — the principal still applies. As McRae says, “When I give over to emotion, intuition and risk-taking is when I’m at my highest innovative self.”

Lucy McRae’s Prepping Your Body for Space

How Does Your Art See People vs. How People See It?

Kawandeep Virdee, co-founder of New American Public Art, makes large, public video, light and audio installations that are responsive to their passersby. In considering this work and the meaning of interactivity, he realized that the term doesn’t have to be limited to the user interacting with the piece — it can also mean that the piece interacts with the user. He now begins every project by asking, “How does my art see people? ” His project “Listener ” is comprised of LED lights that flash in response to noises made by their audience. It’s a fairly straightforward concept, but a video clip he showed of users interacting with “Listener ” in Boston proved that this type of responsive art excites the imagination of viewers. Virdee thinks there is broad potential for this kind of thinking in the storytelling space, particularly as the nature of narrative changes when a multitude of voices can contribute to a work even just by viewing it.

Kawandeep Virdee’s “Listener”

How Do You Take The Long View When Technology Moves So Fast?

Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill, directors of the interactive documentary Empire, distributed by POV, addressed an issue faced by everyone working in digital media: the rapid change and degradation of technology. O’Neill made the case that these are particular challenges for documentary filmmakers, who might have to follow their stories for several years. He said, “We’re chasing after these technologies but that’s the opposite of the creative process. You need to take time that doesn’t match the grind of technology development. ” O’Neill knows from whence he speaks. He and Jongsma spent four years full time on Empire, which traces the legacy of Dutch colonialism through 10 countries. Their solution was multi-pronged, including using the best technology available at the time to serve their story (video installations and the web), embracing the impermanence of technology to add a sense of urgency, and, ultimately, eschewing technology altogether to produce a hardcover book version of their project.

How Do You Make the Mundane Spectacular?

Between “The Internet of Things, ” sensor-based technology and highly portable recording devices, we are at a new frontier in our ability to turn everyday objects and spaces into storytelling experiences. For Amar C. Bakshi, founder & lead artist of Shared Studios, this notion led to the creation of two-way dialog portals between people in very different part of the world, housed inside the humble shipping container. Their first effort was creating a portal between New York City and Tehran, which led to student exchanges, collaborative art creation and even a young Iranian woman having the opportunity to talk with someone of the opposite gender in the same space for the first time in her life. Documentary filmmakers often have significant places or objects at the hearts of their stories and could unlock myriad potential by asking themselves how technology could help transform those things into part of their audience’s experience.

Amar C. Bakshi on “Portals.”

How Do You Capitalize on the Moments In-Between?

The most moving presentation of the day came from Ryan Green and Josh Larson, who created the video game That Dragon, Cancer, an interactive version of Green’s experience raising a son with terminal cancer. (A film of their story, Thank You For Playing, is also screening at the Tribeca Film Festival and will air on POV next year.) The game is a meditative journey through the settings and emotions of the main characters’ lives. The makers are convinced that inviting viewers into a virtual space that recreates actual events is more powerful than having an audience watch or read about it. As they explained, “Filmmakers are forced to do things to condense time and space. The moments of rest and in-between get lost. Video games enable creators to rest on a moment that a filmmaker would cut out or march by. They can acknowledge what matters to the viewer. ” Video games are only one of the interactive means that storytellers could use to give their viewers more autonomy and therefore more time to ponder and process the very heavy subjects that documentaries often tackle.

An overall theme among these presentations is that we, as creators, have the chance right now to loosen the grip on our stories and our creative processes, and let audiences our own environments help us push our work beyond conventional boundaries. As speaker Ida Benedetto of experiential design firm Sextantworks noted, “Control is overrated. The most delightful outcomes from your work are the unexpected ones.”

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Liz Nord
Filmmaker and multi-platform producer Liz Nord (Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock In The Holy Land) is embracing transmedia with her new documentary project, Jerusalem Unfiltered and as director of Lyka's Adventure Labs. She has produced media projects around the world, including MTV's Emmy Award-winning 2008 presidential election coverage, and has presented on a wide range of creativity and media-related topics, notably as a TED speaker at TEDxDumbo.