This year, Indiewire is teaming up with the MIT Open Documentary Lab in the department of Comparative Media Studies and the Sundance Institute for a series on articles about the festival's New Frontiers section written by two graduate students attending the festival.
Today, "crowdsourced" projects seem to be everywhere. As people flood platforms like YouTube and Instagram with homemade media, artists and advertisers alike are taking note. Kevin MacDonald’s feature-length documentary "Life in a Day" created a story from 80,000 video clips submitted by people across the globe. Toshiba and Intel’s web series "The Beauty Inside" used audience-submitted audition tapes to crowdsource the lead actor of each episode. It’s been widely publicized that Beyonce’s upcoming Super Bowl halftime show will feature crowdsourced images — perhaps the clearest sign of the trend hitting the mainstream.
Crowdsourcing may be everywhere, but is it here to stay? Is it a gimmick or a viable filmmaking tactic? Some of the stickiest questions center on practicalities. Collaborative storytelling is a noble aspiration, but how does it work in practice?
Last Saturday, "99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film" premiered at Sundance to a packed house. The film described the Occupy protest movement with such a clear voice it was almost impossible to believe that over 100 people contributed to the onscreen story. Both moving and thought-provoking, "99%" provides a resounding answer to the question of whether collaborative filmmaking can work. That doesn’t mean the process was easy.
At an interview the following Monday, filmmakers Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites told me that the film's success owed a great deal to organization. "Everything we did up until we started editing was built to incorporate many voices,” said Aites. "All the systems we set up were designed to make collaboration possible." To see the film to completion, Ewell and Aites coordinated a network of contributors across the United States. The film’s diversity of voices enabled its sweeping scope: a co-director based in the U.S. South, worked on a segment about poverty in Mississippi. A collaborating war photographer profiled veterans involved with Occupy. "People brought their own backgrounds and ideas to the topic, and really enriched the film," added Ewell.
The idea for "99%" started with the New York City-based Ewell and Aites. "The first time we went down to Zuccotti Park, Aaron and I saw people from all over the country, all walks of life," recalled Ewell. "Every ethnicity was represented, all different ages, blue collar and white collar — and all these people were standing up and telling their stories. It was something I'd never seen before, and I was blown away."
Ultimately, it was the Occupy protestors' decision-making methods that inspired Ewell and Aites to create a collaborative film. "At first, their processes seemed strange to me," said Ewell. “They used consensus. They had hand signals. I was fascinated that they'd formed these structures. So I thought, what if you took these processes and applied them to a real-world project with goals and deadlines?"
That project evolved into "99%." At the height of production, Ewell and Aites worked regularly with two other directors — Nina Krstic and Lucian Read — five co-directors, and up to 100 collaborators, 70 of whom contributed footage. Following the Occupy movement from its September 2011 inception to New Year’s Eve 2012, the feature-length documentary includes footage sourced from all across the United States. "It seemed important to tell this story in this way," explained Ewell. Aites agreed. "I wasn't interested in what one person thought," he said. "We liked the idea of having many subjective views and creating some kind of objectivity from that."
Ewell and Aites built their network of collaborators from scratch. After recruiting filmmaker friends based in New York and Los Angeles, they decided "99%" needed a national scope. They placed press releases announcing the project in national newspapers and trade publications. "Suddenly, we were inundated," recalled Ewell.
Hundreds of respondents joined the email list Ewell and Aites set up to coordinate ideas for "99%." Many had no filmmaking experience. "It was an experimental process," noted Ewell. "We knew from the get-go that we were going to have to adjust as we went, and one of the first things we learned was that you can't make a film on an email list with a hundred people."
To bring order to the project, Ewell and Aites submitted a rough outline of "99%" to their listserv. People self-selected the topics they wanted to work on, and experienced filmmakers took the lead. Prior to production, Ewell and Aites coordinated with the film's directors and co-directors to make sure all contributors were on the same page. The lead directors came up with questions that each team would ask the people they interviewed — so that the editors would be able to weave a coherent story together later in the process. "The film was very coordinated," said Ewell. "People didn't work off on their own satellites. Everything ran through a centralized organizational system."
Post-production was equally critical. Ewell and Aites had a series of post-production meetings during production's early stages. Due to the sheer volume of footage and the number of contributors, "we knew post was going to be an obstacle in this film," said Ewell. "I asked all the directors and co-directors to do a rough pre-edit to see what their intention was with the piece. When it came into us, we took everything apart and put it back together mixed in with all the other footage, but we knew from the pre-edits what people wanted to say with their piece. So even if the structure changed or the edits changed, the intent stayed." In this way, Ewell and Aites were able to unify the films collaborative voices into a coherent narrative.
"We used an experimental process to make this film," said Aites, "but we didn't make an experimental film. We set out to make a film that anyone could watch to gain an understanding of what the Occupy movement was really like."
"The film is so much bigger than one person," added Ewell. "It's an American portrait of an American movement, and a moment in our contemporary, collective history. We wanted to have a patchwork of voices take part in telling this story."
Katie Edgerton is a research assistant at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.