Interactive content and the poetics of online docmaking

Forward thinking sessions about interactive content and non-linear documentary filmmaking featured in the final two days of Hot Docs' industry conference.
May 10, 2010

In a move towards giving more time to interactive content at Hot Docs, this year’s edition of the Canadian documentary festival featured panels such as ‘Poetics of Online Documentary’ and ‘The Interactive State of the Nation.’ Each panel looked at how to integrate docs into the online space and how to make non-linear content that audiences can interact with.

‘Poetics of Online Documentary’ featured filmmaker Kat Cizek, CBC interactive producer Annette Bradford, head of development and interactive producer for Kensington Communication Inc. David Oppenheim and non-linear filmmaker Florian Thalhofer, The panel was moderated by Ana Serrano, director of the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab.

Out of the group of passionate online and interactive creators, Berlin-based Thalhofer seemed to live and breathe non-linear the most as he discussed the Korsakow System he developed to help filmmakers create interactive programs. The Korsakow System is a computer program invented by Thalhofer in 2000 that allows directors who are not programming-savvy to create online films which allow viewers to determine the flow through their use of the film. The newest version of his program is free and open source. Thalhofer has been creating non-linear docs for the past 10 years and he calls linear docs ‘dangerous’ because he feels they try too hard to create a narrative that may not be natural to the reality of the content being filmed. His most recent project is The Bridge of Istanbul which examines the importance of the Galata Bridge to the city.

Cizek, whose last Filmmaker in Residence project with the NFB was featured on, gave the first sneak preview to her new project with the NFB, HIGHRISE. The project looks at urbanity around the world from the ground up and features a creation called Out My Window – a virtual highrise in which every window is a different city. Clicking through each window will take viewers to various immersive environments where Cizek and her team have experimented using yellowBird’s 360 camera, which incorporates Google Streetview technology to allow viewers to scroll all the way around an environment.

Kensington Communication’s Oppenheim unveiled the City Sonic project, which combines GPS and mobile tech to allow viewers to interact with content and their surroundings. City Sonic hosts 20 short films about various Toronto bands and the key locales (clubs, etc.) in their careers and connects with those locations using GPS technology to trigger additional content. Via the iPhone app viewers are directed to locations where they can pick up codes to unlock more content.

The bottom line for creating online and interactive documentaries, says Berlin’s Thalhofer, is that it’s a mistake to focus too much on how to make the work interactive, or what paths to allow viewers to take in interacting with the work. Cizek agreed, saying that, with the ability to alter and edit content via new touch-screen interactive technologies or the good, old-fashioned mouse, the sense of touch is now a part of the experience of doc viewing. Once the viewer starts ‘touching’ the content the director needs to let go and allow the users to take over and make it their own.

During ‘The Interactive State of the Nation,’ experts from the UK, U.S. and Canada weighed in on the subject of interactive content beginning with the current state of creating and licensing for the Web. Eric Freeland, director of digital video for PBS Interactive, discussed PBS’s redesign of its website, which will be unveiled this summer and will feature more videos and have a stronger back end for PBS’ broadcast, editorial and technical divisions. Freeland adds that PBS Interactive is looking for more diverse web content from new voices.

Frank Boyd, creative director of UK-based Crossover Labs, talked about how UK broadcasters approach interactive content in varying degrees. He cited BBC’s Britain From Above, which won an International Digital Emmy Award, as a good example of what the BBC is doing with the Internet. Over at Channel 4, commissioning editors have more room to work with the Web, says Boyd, and have been able to find success with younger demos on projects like, which lives off of the Channel 4 URL. ‘You have to go find them where they are,’ said Boyd of finding audiences receptive to interactive storytelling, which means creating online components on a variety of social networks.

As for funding interactive projects like Battlefront, Games for Change executive producer Asi Burak says that there are many directions that one can go in, from government funding, foundations and corporations, to a ‘freemium’ method where content is free to play, but has pay options for extras, like in Facebook’s simulation game Farmville.

Victoria Ha, producer/partner at Canadian company Stitch Media, summed up the new interactive realities for doc-makers by saying, ‘People want to live on demand. They feel their time is precious… You have to make your story accessible.’

About The Author