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The Web Documentary

Note: The following article first appeared in the International Documentary Association’s publication, “Documentary” in early 2005

Just as the Internet has changed the way we get news and information, plan vacations, communicate with friends, and buy stuff, so too is it changing the way documentary makers reach and influence audiences.

Often, when the words “web” and “documentary” are joined together the first image that comes to mind is of a linear film or video playing over the Internet on the computer screen.

However, the multi-media, interactive characteristics of the Internet provide documentary makers with a unique medium to create non-linear web productions that combine photography, text, audio, video, animation and infographics into a compelling and unified documentary productions.

While people don’t normally think of the web in terms of the emotional storytelling associated with television, it is possible to evoke an emotional response — a smile, a tear or a lump in the throat — through online storytelling. That’s the exciting potential of documentary storytelling on the web.

For veteran and new filmmakers, why is it important to embrace the web as a tool for documentary making?

There are a number of answers. Web documentaries, as companions to film projects, help filmmakers extend the life and distribution of their projects beyond the broadcast, add depth to the storytelling, and expand the filmmaker’s platform for storytelling by going beyond the boundaries of a broadcast or theater engagement. As a medium, the web’s multi-media characteristics afford filmmakers great flexibility and creativity to determine how their stories can be told. Additionally, funding possibilities can be greatly enhanced when filmmakers and producers demonstrate a commitment to expanding their stories on the web.

What are some of the similarities between web and film documentaries? For starters, the success of both is dependent upon a good story. Both focus on real world issues or stories that have social, political, cultural or environmental importance. And both are designed to provide information, insight and knowledge in an effort to increase awareness about a given subject.

Like film documentaries, web documentaries may be short, focused presentations based on a current event, or they may be in-depth presentations that take a year or more to produce. Finally, the combination of subject, voice, perspective and design are intrinsic to the storytelling in both film and web documentaries.

The similarities pretty much end there. It’s where web documentaries and film documentaries differ that things become really interesting.

For starters, a web documentary’s existence on the Internet means it’s available for viewing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, around the globe. A web documentary is not beholden to the competition for and challenges of getting broadcast time or a theater venue that often plague filmmakers.

Additionally, with a comparatively small investment, a web documentary’s “run” can be indefinite. There is an extended shelf-life for a web documentary if it is a skillfully produced presentation. Most importantly, the affordability of keeping the project online is equally available to the independent producer as it is to large media organizations.

In terms of presentation style, the web documentary differs significantly from film docs through the integration of a combination of multimedia assets (photos, text, audio, animation, graphic design, etc) and the requirement on the part of the viewer to interact with, or navigate through, the story.

Compared to a linear narrative where the destination of the story is pre-determined by the filmmaker, a web documentary provides a viewer with the experience of moving through the story via clusters of information. The integration of information architecture, graphic design, imagery, titles and sub-titles all play a role in providing visual clues to the viewer as to the sequence through which a viewer should move through the web documentary. But from that point, it becomes the discretion of viewers to poke their heads into the nooks and crannies of the project, exploring the components of the story that interest them the most.

It’s the experience of moving through clusters of information using a mixture of multimedia assets that is one of the web documentary format’s greatest strengths, says Tom Kennedy, former director of photography at National Geographic and Managing Editor of Multimedia for WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive.

“The web enables the unity of every medium in a multi-perspective presentation. When you have text, audio, video and photo imagery working in parity within a strong interactive design,” Kennedy explains, “you create a very potent documentary, one that promotes further curiosity and inspires the viewer to learn more.”

For Richard Beckman, a professor of journalism and the director of visual communication in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of North Carolina, there’s a specific audience-driven need for providing the multi-perspective found in the web documentary.

“We see that the younger generation learns by interacting with media,” Beckman explains, “young consumers of information are more apt to select parts of a story based on how they rank their own priorities and interests.”

By providing multiple perspectives on the story through combinations of content, viewers can choose whatever they want to absorb, and in the order they want to observe it, Beckman says. That means they may start by focusing on a “component of a web documentary that might deal with music, or with history, or something else that attracts them,” he explains, “but eventually they get to the other areas of the production as well.”

One example of how the storytelling in a web documentary is enhanced by its presentation as clusters of information is The Gift of a Lifetime [www.organtransplants.org], which we produced at Fusionspark Media.

The Gift of a Lifetime is an in-depth web documentary about organ and tissue transplantation in America told through the voices of patients, families and those in the medical profession whose lives are impacted by organ and tissue transplantation. The documentary is sub-divided into sections of dramatic real-life storytelling and factual information for achieving both the communications and education objectives of the project.

Two sections of the project – Transplant Journey and Faces of Donation – use imagery, audio and text in a slideshow format to make donor and transplant recipient’s stories come alive online. In Faces of Donation, for example, there are first-person accounts from people whose lives have been impacted by organ donation that move even the most stoic to tears

It is this ability to generate an emotional response that we, and others working in this area, firmly believe is what not only makes the web documentary unforgettable, but truly unique in the way it inspires viewers to learn more, and then enables them to take action.

For example, in the Gift of a Lifetime, viewers moved by the story are only a couple of clicks away from expanding their understanding through an animated, illustrated tour of the human body, downloading organ donor cards or classroom activities to aid integration of the subject matter into science or health classes.

Whether the actions are simply to learn more, or to become actively involved in a cause, it is the fact that as storytellers we can facilitate this outcome from our work that is uniquely enabled by the web.

The ability to move viewers from inspiration to action on the web was an idea that hit home with environmental filmmaker Wes Skiles, who sat in on a panel focusing on the web at the 2001 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

“I was in the final pre-production stages for a PBS project called Water’s Journey: The Hidden Rivers of Florida when I first learned about the web documentary format,” recalls Skiles, “I was excited by the potential to not only reach another audience with my project, but to enable that audience to take action in a way that the film couldn’t.”

The subsequent web documentary, Florida Springs: Protecting Nature’s Gems launched a year in advance of the film’s first broadcast on PBS. During that year, the site generated advanced interest in the film and fulfilled significant public awareness and public education goals, according to Skiles

“Months prior to the first broadcast, the web documentary was being used in schools. One group of students even used the web production to create a promotional campaign targeted at getting their parents to watch the film’s PBS broadcast,” explains Skiles whose production company Karst Productions is based in High Springs, Fl.

“The combination of the web presence along with our own film has created a very circular flow path in which tens of thousands of people have found themselves visiting the site, then making it a point to see the film, or vice versa,” adds Skiles, “It’s simply amazing the positive responses we have had to this logical partnership.”

Two years after the film’s broadcast by PBS affiliates in Florida and throughout the U.S., the companion web documentary to Skile’s HD film continues to inform an audience, inspire action and to promote the film. “We get regular email from people who’ve come across the Florida Springs web documentary who are interested in purchasing a copy of the film, or simply want to share with us that they plan to visit the springs,” he says.

For Chris Palmer, Distinguished Film Producer in Residence and founder of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, D.C., direct contact with the audience is one of the web documentary’s most important features.

“I think that, as storytellers, we have an obligation to create and explore new ways of getting around the traditional networks,” he says, “and to create news ways of teaching, new ways of reaching the audience.”

For Palmer, who has spent most of his career producing TV programs and films for the National Audubon Society and then for National Wildlife Federation, the long shelf-life of web documentaries is one of the most important aspects to consider.

“I began to tire of spending several years producing a program for TV, only to have it be shown at 8 pm and then disappear into relative obscurity,” Palmer explains, “so I began to produce large format films because they offered not only six-month long runs, but a way to better reach schoolchildren. I see publishing web documentaries – either as independent projects or as companions to films — as the natural evolution for reaching audiences with meaningful stories that should be available for viewing for long periods of time.”

“As a filmmaker, you can’t ignore the primacy of the web in people’s lives today,” continues Palmer, “and because of that I’m making web documentaries an important component of what we’ll be teaching future filmmakers at the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. It isn’t often that you can help define for future generations a whole new form of storytelling, and I see our work with web documentaries as providing that opportunity.”

As exciting as the prospects for web documentaries are, inevitably the discussion turns to how are they funded, and how do they find an audience.

When it comes to raising funds for web documentaries, it isn’t all that different from raising funds for a film documentary. This means doing everything possible to raise funds through a combination of corporate sponsorship, government agency, academic partners, foundation grants and non-profit support.

Currently, the funding scenario for web documentaries is clouded by the lack of experience with the medium amongst the aforementioned funding sources. But that’s changing as the Internet becomes even more deeply intertwined in our lives, and funding partners realize with increasing frequency that it’s an important area to be seen in.

Once the web documentary is funded, and launched, the marketing of the production takes place both offline and online. For web docs not aligned with a TV program’s or film’s marketing budget, and which have little or no marketing budget at all, it’s important to receive online publicity and reviews in addition to using other methods of bringing viewers to your project, including search engine optimization, viral marketing techniques, online outreach to special interest groups and promotion by funding partners.

For web documentaries that are created as companions to films, and which may be launched well in advance of the film, all of the above applies for marketing the site. By bringing viewers to the film’s companion web documentary, the online component will generate interest in the film. Obviously, once the TV program or film is showing, it’s important to promote the URL in all possible places – in the program’s promotional materials, within the film itself and so on.

Currently, there are a few web sites that could be considered “channels” through which it’s possible to get an overview of original web documentary work. One of the best resources for seeing the widest range of work, from independent to major media, from short format to long format, is through a web site called Interactive Narratives, at http://www.interactivenarratives.org.

A good example of original web documentary work can also be seen at the website of Frontline’s Fellows program at http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/index.html