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The New Digital Storytelling Series: Elaine McMillion

Last week, Filmmaker and the MIT Open Documentary Lab kicked off their collaborative series of interviews with digital storytellers with a conversation with Zeega. (For an introduction to this entire series, read “Should Filmmakers Learn to Code,” by MIT Open Documentary Lab’s Sarah Wolozin.)

In the second part in this series, Elaine McMillion talks about her work, mainly focusing on her interactive documentary Hollow, a “hybrid community participatory project and interactive documentary” that uses HTML5 to depict a West Virginia community via video, photography, soundscapes and interactive data. From her website, McMillion describes herself thusly:

Elaine McMillion is a documentary storyteller based in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work focuses on contemporary social and cultural issues and strives to share stories from people and places that are often stereotyped by mass media.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How did you become a digital storyteller? Were there any projects that inspired you? If not, where did you look for inspiration?

McMillion: I started my career as a writer and videographer for several media outlets in West Virginia and Washington, D.C. In 2009, I made my first feature-length documentary about police brutality in West Virginia. During the summer of 2010, I co-directed The Lower 9, a film that examines life in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans five years after Katrina. My experiences with documentary filmmaking and journalism inspired me to expand my horizons and learn more about non-linear storytelling and new media. I entered the Masters of Fine Arts program for Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College and was able to combine my love for non-fiction storytelling and my ideas of telling stories across platforms. Now I am devoted to exploring new ways to tell stories, how to involve communities in that process and the power of connecting individuals across the country and world through digital narratives. I met many of the colleagues that are currently working on Hollow in the MFA program. I continue to freelance in Boston but am currently focused on finishing Hollow for its launch in May 2013.

I am very impressed with the National Film Board of Canada’s multi-year project Highrise and the beautifully crafted pieces of Out My Window and One Millionth Tower. There are many similarities between the work that Katerina Cizek is doing in urban areas with residents and how I feel about rural areas; they are neglected, and we have no vision for them. What inspires me most about Cizek’s work is her devotion to not only unique storytelling but also involving residents in the process. Empowering individuals to tell their own story is something that I am also very passionate about. The Hollow team and I really feel that there is a level of untapped emotional storytelling on the web. Because this new genre is emerging quickly, I am seeing more and more projects, but so many fall back into the conventions of the web and either rely on database storytelling or are too linear for a user-controlled scenario. As a team, we actually find ourselves looking at brand and advertising HTML5 sites. We look at these examples for ideas for user experience then try to imagine ways they could work to help tell a story.

MIT Open Documentary Lab:  What are the most useful skills for an interactive storyteller? What are the tools of the trade?

McMillion: As an interactive storyteller, you need to have an understanding of user experience, design and coding, but most importantly you have to understand what makes a strong narrative. Recently, I have seen many projects and storytellers getting so caught up in using new technologies that they have forgotten what makes an engaging and powerful story. So while it’s helpful to understand the technology, it’s essential to understand how stories are consumed, generated, shared, repurposed and controlled by online audiences. I think it’s important for an interactive storyteller to give up a level of control and work with your team to discuss the number of ways a story should and could be told. Some stories are best told through video, while others may be more powerful through audio and photos. Working closely with your team allows for stories to come to life in a number of ways that you may have never imagined, whether through data visualizations, animation or text. I think the tools I acquired as a journalist prepared me for most of the experiences I have encountered. You have to be on your toes, you have to be flexible, and you have to be dedicated.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: When you start an interactive project, how do you put together a team?

McMillion: The Hollow team is made up of extremely diverse talent. We have community organizers, cartographers, editors, writers, designers, researchers, programmers and community members in West Virginia. Everyone on our team is interested in how stories are created, consumed and shared and how stories can become a part of creating change. In the beginning, the team organically came together when fellow West Virginia natives reached out and lent their time and skills. After that point, we started handpicking those with skills we wanted to bring in. Finding a developer was tough. They are in high demand, and I wanted someone that wouldn’t just write code but understood narrative and would add their own artistic input to our discussions. Because we are partly participatory-driven it was essential to have a community organizer on board. I was lucky enough to have someone reach out to me with years of experience in cultural organizing. Eric Lovell, our participatory cartographer, was an interesting addition to the team. We chose to do balloon mapping to include more youth in the documentary process. Not everyone in the community was interested in shooting video, so the balloon mapping activities throughout the summer allowed them to get involved in a very different way. The balloon mapping provided high-resolution aerial photography of the area and will be exhibited in the community when we launch.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: Where is this community and how can people access it?

McMillion: Within the United States, the community of interactive storytelling seems to be spread across both coasts. I have friends and contacts working in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and New York on digital media projects. The best way to access the community it to take part in the many meet-ups, hackathons, screenings and events in your area. Last year, I attended a Union Docs event where I met several people who have been helpful in the process of creating Hollow. When I moved to Boston, I reached out to Mapping Main Street and Zeega co-founder, Kara Oehler, to learn about her experiences. My meeting with her taught me that there were many of us interested in this form of storytelling, but we were all having to put our belongings in storage, sublet our homes and empty our own pockets to make it happen. Working with Ingrid Kopp, the director of Digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute, has been great, as well. We have participated on panels at film festivals, spoken at MIT’s Open Doc Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Center and taken part in the Tribeca Zeega hackathon in Cambridge thanks to Tribeca’s support. As with any field, the best way to access the community is to get out and start meeting people. I have never been shy or intimidated to email people who inspire me and ask them to meet for coffee; most of the time you will find people are happy to help you learn more.

Elaine McMillion

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How does the role of a director change? What are the creative challenges?

McMillion: When you are the director of a traditional film you control the linear narrative. You control the emotional arcs and edit those “key moments” for impact. You sit in the back of the theatre and hope that people laugh when they are “supposed to” and gasp in shock at the right time. With interactive storytelling you have a different challenge. There is no guarantee that your users will ever hit those “key points” because you have allowed them to choose from many different paths to reach a unique destination. With non-linear storytelling you have to learn to come at your viewers with those impacts from many different directions because they are accessing all the content in a non-linear fashion.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How does the role of the audience change?

McMillion: The audience is no longer sitting back and consuming content. They are active participants in the experience. A level of engagement is expected and required for them to learn about the stories. With Hollow we have considered providing an autopilot option, as well. It’s a balancing act when trying to provide your audience with choices and providing them with a more guided, emotional experience. The Hollow team believes that we should give a user a reason to click and explore, not just expect them to. It is our job to draw in the audience and keep them interested and hopefully it will all seem seamless and effortless on their end. Allowing an audience to create their own unique path out of the narratives makes them active participants and engages them on a level beyond consuming a film.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What’s your level of understanding of coding or programming? Do you see the relationship of director and creative technologist as analogous to director and cinematographer? (Why or why not?)

McMillion: I have basic HTML, CSS and JavaScript skills. Last fall, I challenged myself to learn more about using APIs so I could understand the programmer’s role and communicate what I want more efficiently. I don’t really see that relationship between director and technologist the same as a director and cinematographer. Actually, I think that oversimplifies things. I am fortunate to be working with two developers, Robert Hall and Russell Goldenberg; and a designer and architect, Jeff Soyk. I would say that it’s more of Jeff’s role to be the cinematographer. He designs the user experience of the story, I control the script and mini narratives, and then we work with the programmers to see what technologies are available to us to enhance the story. The programmers are the magicians. They bring all these complex ideas to life and give us feedback on what they believe makes a stronger narrative.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How do you find funding for digital interactive storytelling projects?

McMillion: In April of 2012, we held a Kickstarter campaign where we raised $28,000. We exceeded our goal and were able to create hype and a community around Hollow before we headed down for production. Since then we have received funding from Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund, as well as regional funding from West Virginia Humanities Council. Money is hard to find in this new genre, which is unfortunate because your budget is twice as big to afford all the talent it takes to pull something like this off.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What’s your idea of the new model of distribution?

McMillion: We are in the process of figuring out our distribution model and are planning many event-based live screenings. Whether university-hosted, community-led or at film festivals, we hope to coordinate some interesting real-time interactive between the community and participants at the event. Because our project focuses on the future of rural America, we are currently seeking partner towns across the country that want to become part of the discussion through Hollow and become “sister” counties with McDowell County, West Virginia. We also plan to create an educational component to the project focusing on the participatory media aspect. My dream is to engage youth all over rural America to start documenting their vanishing towns and spark a conversation about the future of these areas.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What’s your vision for how to exhibit interactive projects?

McMillion: I would like to have exhibits for Hollow be less about the content we have on the web and more about generating thoughts and ideas about the subject. Ideally, people would have the chance to interact with the content and then add their ideas for rural America to create a new interactive, installation that would feed into the online experience. The reason I feel that interactive storytelling is a perfect fit for Hollow is because it’s an evolving story. We are encouraging a discussion and not simply accepting the fate of these towns. The idea that this is a story that changes over time, paired with the desire to create local change and include individual’s voices in the process, makes Hollow a perfect project to push the boundaries for a multi-year interactive exhibit and experience.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How do you envision the future of the field of interactive storytelling?

McMillion: It’s hard to say exactly what will happen in the future, but the Hollow team and I hope several things will emerge. First, we would like for future formats to rely less on a single proprietary cinematic experience delivered online. Traditional documentary and interactive documentary are two different approaches that can work separately or in tandem, but interactive documentaries should not be seen as converting or translating a traditional film to an online environment. With that said, traditional docs will not die and will continue to play a huge role in meaningful storytelling experiences. Second, we believe the role of the “storyteller” will continue to morph and shift as new technologies offer opportunities for the media maker, subjects, community and audience. I would like to see more media artists use these new tools to empower underrepresented communities across the world. Third, we believe a stronger distribution model will be developed to support interactive storytellers. Major organizations with an online presence will cater more to interactive projects and will assist in the promotion and distribution of content. Finally, we believe that collaboration and action will be central to the new direction. People with similar interests will have a stronger venue to meet and join forces. Audiences and communities will not only be able to take part in sharing a story, but they will have a clearer direction on how to work towards a desired goal.


Community Storytelling Projects:


18 Days in Egypt

Mapping Main Street

Planet Takeout

Welcome to Pine Point

Soul of Athens

The Block

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