Interactive Documentary – Is It Worth It?

How do you transform media that has traditionally been a passive experience into one in which the viewer/user has some agency? That is the question facing contemporary  filmmakers wishing to venture into the cutting edge world of interactive documentary making, and the one I’ll be attempting to answer in this article. I’ll be taking a look at examples of interactive filmmaking that have gained traction, how the games industry employs successful user interaction, and considering other films that attempted to use emerging and future technologies to enhance the viewer experience. I will also consider whether the documentary genre benefits from offering any level of user/viewer interactivity and the future possibilities for this type of filmmaking. And whether there’s any point.

One of the first, and indeed most vital, challenges confronting the interactive filmmaker is a question of engagement.  Put simply: how do you get the viewer to push a button or swipe an icon on their screen?  It’s a challenge that the gaming industry has been addressing since around 1972 when Allan Alcorn produced Pong, widely considered to be the first video game that achieved mainstream appeal. The game was played by the mass market and used emerging technologies of the time. One of the reasons that it held such appeal (and indeed that many video games ‘work’) is down to the simplicity of use. Gaming history is littered with examples of successful games that achieved mainstream success due, in part, to their simplicity of use.  From Pong, through to Space Invaders, through Frogger, to Pac-Man; and even more recent app-based games such as Cut The Rope and Angry Birds.  All are titles that can pretty much be picked up and played with minimum instruction, but taker longer to master.    It’s something of an irony, therefore, that an experience reliant on emerging and/or future technologies should also be dependent on ease of use in determining whether they are successful or not.  This fact, I believe, is key to the future of the interactive filmmaking – it should be easy to interact with.  Or, at the very least, as is the case with so many successful video games, have a well judged learning curve.

User agency is absolutely essential in video gaming though. It isn’t in filmmaking. Quite the opposite in fact. Going to watch a film is a passive experience. And, unlike gaming, interactive filmmaking is not in the mainstream.  I say this because whilst making an interactive documentary myself in 2017 none of the potential interviewees I approached for the film had even heard of the genre. They had all experienced some form of interactive documentary experience, but were not aware it was a defined genre as such. So that I could explain the type of interface we were hoping to achieve, I sent links to two examples of the genre which have worked well.  The first was the New York Times’ Snow Fall, which documents the events of the 2012 Tunnel Creek Avalanche in Washington, U.S.A. The interactive multimedia feature achieved an unusually high level of ‘user stickability’, that is to say the average viewer spent more time than would normally be expected exploring the site.  The reason for this is that there is a very clear narrative arc to the story and a demonstrable sense of tension and curiosity because we know a disaster has happened, and we are curious to discover how, and also which of the characters perished or survived, and by what means.

The other example of non linear storytelling I hyperlinked to was Time magazine’s list of 100 ‘Most Influential Images of All Time’.  The Time piece is effective for another reason altogether. Yes, there are narrative arcs within each story, but that is not the primary appeal with this list of memorable photos.  The interactivity works with the Time article because it follows the aforementioned easy-to-use model of video games.   The photos are shown on our screen and all that’s required of the user is to click on the image. Once clicked, the options start to expand, offering the user more options and the history behind the shot (if required) along with a litany of other information, links,  and purchase options, or the simple ability to move to the next image. Crucially, once the button is pushed the rabbit hole is entered, and the story behind the famous photo is revealed, thus engaging the user with the interface through the combination of clear writing, simple storytelling and striking images.  It’s simple but very effective.

So engaging the user to become an active participant in an interactive documentary is vital, but what’s perhaps even more important is encouraging them to stay engaged with the process. That Snow Fall  achieved success in this area, with users spending more time than would normally be expected with the interface, is the exception rather than the rule.

It remains to be seen whether interactive filmmaking takes off or will it be consigned to the bin marked ‘gimmick’ that has become the resting place for other agency-required viewing innovations like 3D. Three dimensional viewing was always facing something of an uphill battle because it required the viewer to don a pair of questionable-looking, easy-to-misplace, cumbersome glasses which made you look like a bit of a twat.  Back in the mists of time of the early eighties, Tomorrow’s World dedicated an entire episode to the technology, with the Radio Times for that long-ago week coming with a free pair of the requisite cardboard green and red glasses. Then, in 1983, the third film in the Jaws franchise was released utilising 3D technology.  The film though, despite a respectable return at the box office, was so utterly dreadful that use of the three dimensional technology was largely irrelevant.  Mind you, Jaws 3D is so shockingly inferior to the original film that even had the 3D effects been so realistic as to make an actual shark replete with smells of the ocean appear from the screen then the film would have still been a box office flop in comparison to the original.  That said, Jaws 4  with its tagline – ‘This time time it’s personal’ somehow managed to be even worse.   Numerous other films have tried it, including the third in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and Friday the 13th Part Three, with varying degrees of success.  It still, to me at least, feels too much of a gimmick and lends very little to the experience of watching a film.  Even the otherwise sublime Toy Story 3 (It’s probably not a coincidence that all these films were the third in the franchise – thereby allowing the makers to take advantage of the rather obvious ‘three’ D puns.) foray into the world added very little.  I would argue, in fact, that it detracts because you can find yourself thinking when, say, Woody’s hand is (supposedly) outstretched beyond the screen, it is only being shot thus to utilise the 3D technology.

Whether viewer interactivity ultimately succeeds or fails will, like many things in life, come down to money. There is an economic logic to most things. Just to cite one example, DVD boxes are the size they are rather than CD-sized because the packaging replicated the dimensions of VHS tapes to allow retailers to slot them into their existing retail displays.

So what of the future for interactive filmmaking?  My view is that, at this moment in time,  technology is still not significantly advanced to make interactive documentary a mainstream, commercially viable, concern. If we take one relatively recent award-winning example of the genre, Prison Valley (2009), as a case study we can see why, in part, interactive filmmaking still lives in the margins of popular culture.  Prison Valley is a more than competent example of the genre.  Winner of a slew of international awards, it is widely regarded as being an exemplary piece of interactive filmmaking.  The experience is, however, clunky to use when compared to modern video gaming (I appreciate games and films are different entities but this is surely the market interactive documentary filmmakers should be trying to attract because gamers are seeking a participatory experience) and too slow paced to be anything other than mildly diverting rather than an attention-grabbing, sit-forward, totally immersive experience. In attempting to bridge the considerable gap between film and game it ends up delivering a pale imitation of both genres, thereby creating a curiously liminal experience which, in attempting to be two things, ends up being neither, thereby offering up a somewhat vapid, slow-paced, un-engaging user experience.  Nothing feels instinctive on the interface and decisions take the too long to recognise, slowing the process down to such an extent that it felt far too pedestrian to be enjoyable.  I daresay that more advanced technology would have rendered the interaction to be more intuitive and ‘real’ but it clearly just wasn’t available in 2009.

The future, then, for interactive filmmaking remains, rather like it did for Sarah Connor at the end of the first Terminator, unclear. There are unquestionably some brave projects out there.  Given ongoing technological advancements and, with the current generation of school children learning coding from such an early age (In March 2016 the BBC dispatched up to 1 million micro:bit, credit card-sized computers to all children in year 7 across the UK to help teach them how to code), I have little doubt that in the not too distant future, interactive documentary making will be the truly interactive, immersive, instinctive experience that today’s models strive to be.  Alas, at this current time, they fall short of achieving this.