Building the final story of the NFB’s “Highrise”

Following the launch of the final 'Highrise' installment, director Katerina Cizek (pictured) talks to realscreen about the National Film Board of Canada's seven-year interactive undertaking and its latest, most ambitious offering.
June 23, 2015

After seven years directing the National Film Board of Canada’s ‘Highrise’ project, Katerina Cizek (pictured, left) has difficulty understanding why some balk at interactive, digital documentaries when so much of their lives are lived online.

“It’s funny how interactive documentaries can somehow stop people in their tracks and go, ‘Wow that’s weird,’ when, in fact, we do everything online – the way we govern ourselves, the way we entertain ourselves, the way we love and hate,” she tells realscreen. “We’re all on these devices [and] on the web all the time, and so even if you aren’t on it, those infrastructures affect the way our lives unfold.”

Cizek and her now-retired producer Gerry Flahive concluded the seven-year interactive doc project earlier this month with the launch of Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise - the fifth and final installment in a series that includes The Thousandth Tower, Out My Window, One Millionth Tower and A Short History of the Highrise, alongside more than 20 off-shoots such as public art exhibits and live performances. The total cost of production has been CAD$2.8 million (US$2.28 million).

From the outset, the concept for the NFB-funded project was simple: understanding the human experience as it is lived ‘vertically’ around the world. The first project, The Thousandth Tower, asked six Toronto residents to photograph their lives within a suburban highrise, while Out My Window used 360-degree photography, video, text and music to explore highrise living in 13 international cities.

2011′s One Millionth Tower was one of the world’s first documentaries to use HTML5/WebGL, which renders interactive 3D and 2D graphics within compatible web browsers without plug-ins. For that installment, the team worked in collaboration with the Mozilla Foundation to create a 3D world for a dilapidated highrise neighborhood that can be re-imagined by interacting with the space.

a short history of the highrise

A Short History of the Highrise

Then, in 2013, the NFB partnered with The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ division on the four-part series A Short History of the Highrise, which used the outlet’s vast collection of archival images to trace a history of the highrise throughout the 20th century.

But it is Universe Within – which is four years in the making and cost $628,000  - that Cizek deems the most ambitious and, necessarily, the most challenging. Much like other ‘Highrise’ projects, she aimed to deconstruct the highrise and profile its otherwise anonymous denizens, but the other part of it, she says, was a curiosity about the residents’ digital behaviors.

“We knew that people worked there from around the world, and that they must have really important relationships internationally, so how are they connecting and what tools are they using and how are they using these tools?” adds the director.

Cizek and her producers joined forces with academics Deborah Cowen and Emily Paradis at the University of Toronto and the team conducted peer-to-peer research within the buildings, hiring 14 residents who went door-to-door asking neighbors about their digital lives. The researchers found that 80% of households in the Toronto apartment complex they studied had Internet access either at home or through their mobile device, despite the low-income status of most residents.

“That led us to thinking there’s a real, invisible story here that we’re not seeing in the media or even in academic literature about how the digital maps out in the vertical, so we went to over 20 locations around the world, to speak with [people] – through local journalists and photographers – and to find stories of how the digital and the vertical intersect in really intimate, personal and political ways.”

Universe Within asks participants to choose between three avatars who discuss their own personal histories, and guide viewers through the story using sets of questions about their lives. Depending on the answer, a different documentary – each profiling an individual in cities such as Accra, Seoul and Ramallah – is presented.

The resulting project is what the director calls “a whole larger than the sum” of its predecessors. While it has the international elements of previous installments, it is also rooted in community-based research. Universe Within is also more advanced technologically, using 3D point cloud data to create the avatars through a collaboration with Toronto-based digital agency, Secret Location.

universe within

Universe Within

Reflecting on how ‘Highrise’ has advanced over seven years, Cizek says strides made in open source development have helped considerably. While the earlier projects were made using Flash – at the time, one of the only options if you wanted to work with video and immersive experiences – the innovation of WebGL/HTML5 now allows for more “fluid and seamless” experiences, the director says.

The audiences for these projects have also surprised Cizek. The most interesting participants, she says, aren’t documentary enthusiasts at all, but rather early adopters of certain technologies.

“With One Millionth Tower, so many of the first people to come to the site came because we had a partnership with,” the director explains. “They’re people primarily interested in open source technology but the people that came for the tech stayed for the story.

“As much as it’s niche, it’s also a new way of connecting with audiences that might be in remote parts of the world with less access to traditional documentary forms,” she continues. “And also people who might not think of themselves as doc lovers. As much as it’s small, it can also reach out to some unusual communities.”

Now, after seven years with ‘Highrise,’ Cizek says she’s frequently asked if she was ever bored with the subject.

“That’s why ‘Highrise’ was such a wonderful conceit,” she points out. “It was really about just taking a very simple idea of the highrise building being a storytelling prism for all the really big things happening in the 21st century: globalization, digitization, urbanization. All these big things that we could neatly shine a light through [using] the ‘Highrise’ prism.”

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