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Now This is How to Do Immersive Storytelling

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire June 12, 2014 at 10:22AM

"Door Into the Dark" at Sheffield Doc/Fest awakens the senses and leaves you both disoriented and hyper-alert.
"Door Into the Dark" at Sheffield Doc/Fest
"Door Into the Dark" at Sheffield Doc/Fest

It seems only fitting that I got lost on the way to find "Door Into the Dark," which is one of three immersive projects at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014. By the time I found the door to "Door in the Dark," I was thoroughly disoriented, a stranger in a strange land stumbling around looking for a sign that I was in the right place. Along the way, I spotted a familiar face and, in a panic because I was late for my appointment (you have to schedule the "Door Into the Dark" session in advance because spots are limited for the personalized experience), I shouted out, "Where is 'Door Into the Dark?' I realized how ridiculous it sounded out of context and I was met with a blank look. Clearly, he had no idea what I was talking about.

About 10 minutes from the film festival's center at the Showroom Cinema, I entered another world that seemed to have been created in order to prepare me for the experience ahead. The pricey cafes faded away and were replaced by graffiti -- paintings of aliens and pin-up girls led me to the door where I entered not knowing what to expect.

I hadn't studied the program which described the experience:

On a quiet street, just minutes from the Showroom Cinema, a Door Into the Dark has been installed. Behind it lies a concealed corner of the unknown, kept safe for you to sample. There are very few of them left; of the 57.5 million square miles of land on Earth, not 1 quadrant is unmapped. Like the sound of the fax machine, being lost is soon to be extinct. Be led by the hand into a pitch-black world of characters who know the true meaning of being lost and find your way back into the light following clues hidden along the way. The journey is contained within a carefully designed physical space in which the architecture relies on atmosphere, texture, smell and scale. You begin on the rope, but then it splits, the room spins and empty space opens out in front of you. This is documentary as physical experience, using geo-locative technology constructed at the Pervasive Media Studio to facilitate a multi-sensory narrative. Come prepared for a journey into the unknown.

I don't want to give away too many details that will spoil the experience for you if and when it comes to your town. But here are some glimpses into the "Door Into the Dark" experience. After entering and taking a seat in a small "waiting room," the previous guest to the installation stumbles in, removes their darkened goggles (which serve as a blind fold) and headset, provides you with basic instructions, helps you put on the goggles and headset, opens the door and helps you find the rope.

READ MORE: How to Win an Oscar for Best Documentary (Or At Least Have a Shot)

The door closes behind you and you are in the dark, guided only by a rope and the instructions on the headset. At first, you might feel panicked, but then you give into the experience. Not knowing where you are or what to expect is a little bit terrifying and also oddly liberating -- a little bit like I imagine floating in space might feel.

Though there is no narrative per se, there is a beginning, middle and end to the experience. It's truly immersive storytelling in that you become part of the "narrative" and must rely on all of your senses (except sight and taste) to find your way. There are some choices along the way (as well as an opportunity to cut out early if you've had enough).

Experiencing a bit of what it must feel like to be blind, your senses are awakened and you are left feeling both disoriented and hyper-alert. Though I never left the room, I climbed a mountain, explored a jungle and relaxed into a carpeted bed.

By the time I found my way back to the waiting room where it was my turn to deliver instructions to the next participant, I felt rejuvenated and fully alive -- much the way I feel after a satisfying film. 

Watch a "trailer" for "Door Into the Dark" below and find out more about the project, directed by Amy Rose and May Abdalla of Anagram, here.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, transmedia, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries

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