Planet in Focus doc makers explore ‘the spaces in-between’

The creatives behind Lost Rivers and Northwords, multi-platform docs which screened at Toronto's Planet in Focus festival this week, talk to realscreen about the process of making interactive experiences.
October 11, 2012

Two documentaries that screened this week during Toronto’s environmental film festival Planet in Focus have launched companion interactive experiences that explore ‘the spaces in-between’ the stories that ended up on screen, albeit via differing means.

Director Caroline Bâcle’s Lost Rivers, the festival’s opening night film, delves into the history of underground urban rivers that were hidden beneath five global cities throughout the industrial revolution. It arrives on the festival circuit with an iPhone app (pictured above) that residents of Montreal can use to discover the ancient watercourses flowing beneath the French-Canadian city.

Produced by Katarina Soukup of Montreal-based Catbird Productions – which also produced the documentary – in collaboration with Radio-Canada, Concordia University’s Mobile Media Lab and the Canada Media Fund, the Lost Rivers app uses augmented reality and geo-tags to link users to hot spots containing historical facts, 3D soundscapes, photos and clips from the film.

“What’s fascinating is when [an issue] is close to where you are, and so what we wanted to do with the iPhone app is allow people to understand the themes in the film but localized and in an immediate way,” Soukup tells realscreen.

Lost Rivers‘ producers conceived and developed the app in tandem with the doc and opted to handle the digital production in-house in order to streamline the process.

“It was really important for me to have produced the interactive component internally rather than hiring a third party company,” Soukup explains. “Part of it was so that the two teams could work closely together. I produced both so I was the go-between for both aspects of the project.”

Soukup hopes that the app will be the first in a series tied to each city featured in the film. In addition to tracing the history of Montreal’s lost Petite rivière St-Pierre, the doc also unearths the histories of Toronto’s Garrison Creek, London’s River Tyburn, New York City’s Saw Mill River and Bresica, Italy’s Bova-Celato River, all of which could become the subject of future additions of the app, which would either be produced through Catbird or local developers in the aforementioned cities.

She is also talking to Montreal’s tourism board about promoting the Lost Rivers app as a fun educational guide for visitors to the city.

The menu screen from Chapter 1 of the "Northwords" interactive experience.

The second Planet in Focus feature touting an interactive experience to audiences in Toronto this week was director Geoff Morrison’s Northwords, a cross-platform literary project that encompasses a television documentary, a radio program, an interactive website and an e-book.

The film follows CBC Radio journalist Shelagh Rogers as she leads Canadian authors Joseph Boyden, Alissa York, Noah Richler, Sarah Leavitt and Rabindranath Maharaj on a trek through Labrador’s remote Torngat Mountains National Park on a quest for creative inspiration.

At the end of their journey, the writers present an original piece of writing, later collected and published as Canadian publisher House of Anansi’s first e-book.

Produced through Toronto-based production company FilmCAN in association with Parks Canada, the projects includes a companion interactive experience designed for iPad and the web, which is styled as an e-book. It uses photos, video, audio and text to flush out how the events in the film influenced the authors’ creative processes.

“I came of age in a time when I just thought of myself as a writer and writing was for the page but everything is shifting. There is a lot of great energy in the spaces in-between film, television and radio,” York, one of the authors featured in the film, told realscreen. “It’s been quite eye-opening for me to see things you can get at if you begin with a piece of writing and it opens up into video or audio.”

Like the Lost Rivers team, Morrison and his partners developed Northwords as a cross-platform project from the beginning. As with FilmCAN’s National Parks Project, a hybrid music/film project that marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Parks of Canada system in 2011, this doc would result in an original work: an e-book.

Morrison believes that element was crucial in convincing funders to get on board at a time when the economic climate isn’t particularly favorable to makers of arts documentaries.

“We’re not just going out to document a group of artists, we’re also involved in the commissioning of new works,” he says.

The stories on the Northwords website are woven together and categorized in thematic chapters based on the areas the authors visited for the film. Users learn about the history and geology of each place and can listen to the writers reading their stories.

“It’s an educational and dynamic way to learn about this place,” he says. “You can get a similar experience out of watching the documentary but the interactive takes the lead from the author’s excerpts. It’s an alternative to the documentary narrative.”

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