As transmedia has come and gone as a buzz word and various other words have come to take its place (will we agree on “Interactive storytelling”?), two things remain certain: The National Film Board of Canada has devoted the most resources, time, and energy to ensuring this mode of storytelling evolves and excites, and the work of Katerina Cizek is absolutely unmissable.
Today, her new interactive documentary “A Short History of the Highrise” has debuted on the website for the New York Times. The new film sucks you in immediately. “A Short History of the Highrise” works as an interactive and more focused companion piece to Gary Hustwit’s “Urbanized,” the “Helvetica” director’s examination of urban design, but more directly, it’s the masterpiece behind Cizek’s larger “Highrise” project.
If you’re unfamiliar with Cizek’s work, you may want to take a break and dig in now. Here’s a short, abridged history of her contribution to nonfiction storytelling:
After impressing the National Film Board of Canada with “Seeing is Believing,” a film she co-directed with Peter Wintonick about the power of small cameras to capture things flying under the nose of the world’s power brokers and written history, Cizek became a filmmaker-in-residence at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. In the film, Cizek gets close to several individuals in the hospital and tells professional stories that are incredible contributions to the now flourishing genre of medical non-fiction, which now usually finds its home in television.
For a few years after, Cizek began to start working on a project about highrises — tall buildings, often public housing, that mark cityscapes across the world. As public housing becomes less and less a priority for the world’s cities and the investment that is entailed in condominiums becomes the trend, Cizek wanted to document the goings on in this realm of living. She created a few exploratory videos, but then worked with six residents of Toronto highrises to create a film about these residents’ reimagining of their surroundings. The result is “One Millionth Tower.”
The highlights of “One Millionth Tower” are the project’s early experiment with HTML5, which shows you a 3D model of the tower, with the interactive weather designed to model the realtime weather in Toronto at the moment. There’s also a six-minute video that shows resident-activists claiming a place of their own in the neglected highrises, and a Google Maps interactive feature that allows you to zoom in on highrises in nearly every country in the world.
The Emmy-Award winning “Outside My Window” allows one to see the inside of various high rise apartments as well as their view of their neighborhood from above using photographs that create a 360 degree model. Various elements in each of the highrise apartments from around the world come alive when you click on them. Thus, you can see a 360 degree video of a musical performance of a Tibetan immigrant to Toronto with his family and friends. There’s also a pastry chef in Montreal who struggles to speak Arabic with his co-workers and a spoken word and hip hop artist in Havana.
Cizek’s latest project is in four parts, with the first three parts told in verse and the fourth set to song. In order, the film is: a brief history of human civilization (narrated by the singer Feist), an early history of the highrise (narrated by Cizek), the shift to condos and city’s catering to wealth (narrated by the musician Cold Specks), and a melange of readers’ photographs from atop or within highrises (set to music by Patrick Watson).
The second and third parts are made up of photos from the New York Times archive, and the fourth is built with photos from readers. One can easily let all four parts play in succession, but the fact that the project was made out of photographs allows for a great feature: One can interrupt their viewing experience to take a look at the fronts (and, yes, backs…they’ve either been scanned or contextualized with words by those who contributed). The first section is augmented with even more historical material (rather than photographic artifacts) to dig through.
Check out “A Short History of the Highrise” now; you won’t be sorry you did.
As with all projects, this one is not just one artist’s work. “A Short History of the Highrise” was made with the help of the National Film Board of Canada and the New York Times graphics and op-docs staff.
The New York Times also posted a video of a behind-the-scenes tour of the Morgue — their photo archive:
And here’s a trailer for “A Short History of the Highrise”: