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Does Mozilla's Living Docs Project Give Us a Taste of the Future of Documentary Storytelling?

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire April 9, 2012 at 1:21PM

A few days before this year's SXSW, the Mozilla Foundation (the nonprofit organization that most famously gives us the Firefox web browser) launched Living Docs Project, an online home for transmedia documentary storytelling.
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living docs project

A few days before this year's SXSW, the Mozilla Foundation (the nonprofit organization that most famously gives us the Firefox web browser) launched Living Docs Project, an online home for transmedia documentary storytelling.

The Living Docs Project is facilitated by a network of technology and film organizations. The site and the infrastructure are primarily provided by Mozilla, with Tribeca Film Insitute, Bay Area Video Coalition, the American University Center for Social Media and doc film producer ITVS are all contributing to the project's development.

The Living Docs Project has been a product a bit a few months of tinkering with the unique multimedia capabilities of HTML5.  Using a HTML-coding toolkit called popcorn.js, coders have been able to enhance the experience of watching documentary content by providing opportunities to watch bonus content as a break from or simultaneous to the "main" documentary content.

The multimedia capabilities of HTML5 were most famously showcased in the interactive Google Maps-based web-based music video for The Arcade Fire's "The Wilderness Downtown," which was created to show off the deployment of HTML5 within Google's Chrome browser.

So what makes Popcorn.js different?  The Mozilla Project's Popcorn.js (js stands for javascript, a coding language) has been deployed to provide such things as an annotated mashup of Donald Duck and Glenn Beck and a demo of a multimedia presentation of the wildly popular Radiolab science radio show (For more demos of what Popcorn.js has been used to do, you can visit their demos page here.).  You may feel like you've seen this kind of interactive content on commercial sites before, but what makes Popcorn.js special is that it's totally open-source and free.  The only barrier to making a transmedia project through Popcorn.js is one's knowledge of code.

How have documentary filmmakers taken to making transmedia projects through Popcorn.js?  In a post on the Living Docs blog, filmmaker Musa Syeed ("Bronx Princess" and the recent Sundance narrative "Valley of Saints") starts by saying, "as a filmmaker, I had reason to fear technological advancements in the field. New media / interactive / transmedia was making a medium I revered as a child seemingly obsolete, banishing motion pictures from the majestic big screen to pathetic, paltry iPhones."  But after talking about the game created around his "Valley of Saints" and his Popcorn.js-enabled "30 Mosques" project, he says, "while I’m still just getting my feet wet in the interactive realm, I’m beginning to see it as an essential part of making a traditional film. As much as I embrace these nonlinear forms of storytelling, I take comfort in knowing the story of storytelling is also not linear."

In addition, documentary filmmaker Brett Gaylor ("Rip! A Remix Manifesto") is heading up the Living Docs Project at Mozilla.  Recently, interactive prototypes of Amir Bar-Lev's Oscar-nominated "The Tillman Story" and Steve James' "The Interrupters" have been developed.

How do documentary filmmakers get help from developers on their transmedia projects?  While the Living Docs Project is interested in launching several web native documentaries (That is, documentaries that start off on the web, like "30 Mosques" and Kat Cizek's exploration of highrise living in "The Millionth Tower" (best seen in Google Chrome)), many documentary filmmakers are taking advantage of Mozilla's various hack days, held in conjunction with their partner organizations and other documentary institutions.  

At the next Hack Days, during Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival and appropriately called Hot Hacks, six documentarians will be teamed with Mozilla developers to create a prototype of a web-based dynamic version of their documentary over a quick two days.

Why are most of these examples "demos" or "prototypes"?  The Living Docs Project is trying to bring attention to the innovative storytelling that can be done using HTML5, with hopes that, like the National Film Board of Canada and Kat Cizek's transmedia projects, proper funding can be invested in these new forms of storytelling. With a series of several hack days per year, the Living Docs Project is testing different approaches to storytelling on this new medium to see what catches on, what works and, of course, what doesn't.

So what say you, Indiewire readers?  The days of thinking choose-your-own adventure storytelling may be long over, but does the Living Docs Project excite you?  Any documentaries you think would benefit from enhanced content?






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