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The New Digital Storytelling Series: Caspar Sonnen

For the final installment of Filmmaker and the MIT Open Documentary Lab’s interview project with the foremost thinkers on transmedia, IDFA DocLab’s Caspar Sonnen answers our questions. Sonnen is the new media coordinator for the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and curator of the festival’s IDFA DocLab, a competition program for new forms of documentary and interactive storytelling. In 2008, Sonnen founded IDFA DocLab to create a platform for interactive and multimedia documentary storytelling that expands the genre beyond traditional cinema. Besides his work at IDFA, he is co-founder and programmer of the Open Air Film Festival Amsterdam.

For an introduction to this entire series, and links to all the installments so far, check out “Should Filmmakers Learn to Code,” by MIT Open Documentary Lab’s Sarah Wolozin.

MIT OpenDocLab: How do you see people making the transition to digital interactive storytelling?

Sonnen: When I launched the IDFA DocLab program at IDFA in 2008, the situation was fairly black and white — or binary if you will. People seemed to either over hype or underestimate the digital revolution, from Web 2.0 evangelists predicting a world where everyone would be a filmmaker to grumpy old broadcasters dismissing digital storytelling as niche experiments for kids and/or geeks. Of course, both sides were wrong. Just like photography didn’t replace painting, the digital revolution and interactive storytelling didn’t replace documentary cinema or the need for great documentary storytellers. But at the same time, the Internet is not just another television pipe and we’ve entered a new golden age of documentary innovation.

Mostly unaware of each other, a small number of digital pioneers have been redefining documentary art — creating new platforms, audiences, genres and ways of collaborating and telling stories along the way. These pioneers — including traditional institutions like NFB, ARTE France and NPR, as well as independent artists and producers like Upian, Submarine, Aaron Koblin, Jonathan Harris, Lance Weiler and Ze Frank — are starting to reach and inspire more and more audiences, as well as documentary filmmakers, media artists and a whole new generation of digital natives. That said, the digital revolution did also violently disrupt the business models of print publishing and broadcast television, creating a much more complicated and unpredictable space for both established and upcoming interactive storytellers and artists. As a result, we are living in exciting but risky times: while traditional documentary financiers have less to spend and find it harder to support artistic innovation, the possibilities for doing meaningful and successful interactive stories has never been greater.

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

Sonnen: The most useful skill for an interactive storyteller is an open mind. Forget about definitions and play with technology, approaching it with a healthy dose of humor and scepticism. Know what story you want to tell or what experience you want to create, but also be honest about the skills you have yourself and in which cases you can better collaborate. Unless you’re Aaron Koblin, you probably shouldn’t try building a project like The Wilderness Downtown. If you’re a traditional photographer or filmmaker you can probably better collaborate with a great interaction designer instead of doing a html5 workshop. And when I say collaborate, I don’t mean hire a web guy to build it for you. I mean co-create it together.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know more about code. Just like a film director needs to know editing and cinematography, an interactive storyteller needs to know his options too. In the end, it’s about knowing the classics (start here), knowing the basic building blocks (types of interfaces, narrative structures, modes of participation, etc.) and being able to get the right team together. Tools of the trade don’t really exist yet. Platforms such as Zeega, Storyplanet and Klynt are great starting points, just like Mozilla’s Popcorn. As a result it’s easier than ever before to create a prototype or do a hackathon. But as of yet, the best projects are all custom built and the most crucial tool will be the people you work with.

Caspar Sonnen
Caspar Sonnen

MIT OpenDocLab: How would you recommend that storytellers put together a team for an interactive project?

Sonnen: People first moving into interactive storytelling are most worried about funding, but often find out that the real challenge is finding the right people to collaborate with. The storytelling and film world is way too inexperienced with technology and software to know how to find and choose the right people to work with. The tech community is often lacking the sensibility to tell stories, or is simply not willing to work for the small budgets. The more you know about the work, the better you can collaborate. I would focus on finding the right people for interface and story first, the rest is secondary.

MIT OpenDocLab: Where is this community and how can people access it?

Sonnen: It’s very early days still. There is not one community out there traveling the circuit, like we have in film or photography. Those industries took a century to develop and the digital storytelling world can probably best be compared to cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. Right now, there are a few pockets of innovation, with Canada, USA and France being the most important countries. Some of these pockets are centered around a single organization (like the NFB in Canada or the CNC in France) or the social media account of specific pioneers. My best advice for people who want to access the interactive community is following the the people you admire online and see what they share. Then of course there is coming to IDFA DocLab and meeting them there, or going to other festivals like SXSW, Tribeca Interactive or Power to the Pixel. On our website we have a section with people and company profiles of innovative producers, funds and storytellers.

MIT OpenDocLab: How does the role of a director change? What are the creative challenges?

Sonnen: The biggest creative challenge of interactive documentary is knowing how to create something without having the comfortable confinements of an existing art form. We are used to define a great filmmaker by his/her capability to re-invent cinema’s language and by breaking out of the box of Hollywood and television conventions. But on the web there are still very few boxes or formats to break out of. This means a creative freedom that has been unparalleled since the birth of cinema itself, but that can also be pretty lonely and daunting. With nothing to rebel against and nothing to hold on to, I’ve seen some amazing filmmakers and photographers fail completely when doing interactive documentary. The endless opportunities the web offers can be a big risk. In short: if a shot was not good enough for the film, don’t put in your interactive documentary either.

MIT OpenDocLab: How does the role of the audience change?

Sonnen: The web has given the audience more control than ever. With access to more content than ever, audiences are becoming more and more critical. The time that we could dictate what people watched are over. That is why artists today are increasingly forced to choose between making timeless masterpieces, or making short, cheap and easy to digest works.

Interactive storytelling is a great way to engage audiences, but giving them control over the navigation within a story still requires the author to create the story and make sure that every possible route within the narrative is perfect. That is why interaction should always be used with caution — like when adding salt to a delicate dish. Thanatorama is probably still one of the best examples ever of doing an interactive narrative right, providing a unique experience in which by every navigation choice the viewer makes, the story becomes more personal and immersive.

Participatory stories are also drastically changing the role of the audience, but it’s a misconception that the audience will ever replace the auteur. As much as a work can become co-authored with a community of people online, participation in storytelling means the role of the auteur only becomes more important. This is best observed in participatory projects like Ze Frank’s Young Me Now Me, Kat Cizek’s HIGHRISE or the NFB’s latest project A Journal of Insomnia.

MIT OpenDocLab: 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?)

Sonnen: I am not a coder at all. I played computer games since I was eight and loved to pull things apart as a kid, but never was able to put them back together again. As mentioned above, it depends on the type of project you’re doing to decide how much coding you need to be able to do yourself. If the director provides a story, but has no clue about coding or design, he should not be leading the design effort. This is a hard thing for any film director to accept, and a tough responsibility for developers to deal with. As a result, the interface is probably the hardest part to get right when creating an interactive documentary. But when it’s done right, it’s magic. Just take a look at Waterlife or Gaza Sderot, and note how the interface is already conveying the story itself.

MIT OpenDocLab: How do you find funding for digital interactive storytelling projects?

Sonnen: Although the amount of money in broadcasting is shrinking, there are new opportunities. I would suggest applying to the Tribeca New Media Fund and pitching at our own IDFA Crossmedia Forum. But also consider Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket, Power to the Pixel, NGO’s and local arts funds like CNC in France. Also take a good look at funds outside the film and photography world, as interactive storytelling often fits other types of arts funds too. Lastly, be clever about sponsorship. Just make sure there is no contamination between your story and the brand financing it. For me, a good example of how a brand can support great art is Chris Milk and Beck’s collaboration Hello Again.

MIT OpenDocLab: What’s your idea of the new model of distribution?

Sonnen: Reaching a huge audience still means getting your content there where the audience is, be it a major newspaper like New York Times or a website that gains a lot of traffic like YouTube or The Pirate Bay. However, the web has made distribution of content so cheap and instantaneous, that the need for curation is becoming bigger. Traditional festivals and other curators are filling this void, but only to a certain level. Increasingly, audiences are becoming curators and artists are turning into publishers. One really interesting example of online distribution is Jonathan Harris’ latest project I Love Your Work, which only allows 10 people per day to visit the project online. Harris is making the web exclusive again, making us think about the way we are currently distributing and consuming content.

Like Harris, I am a strong believer in the concept of the slow web. In today’s digital age our everyday life increasingly consists of navigating multiple streams of data. As a result, we all crave for more focused and meaningful experiences, both online and offline. Interactive documentary is one of the best examples of what the slow web can be.

MIT OpenDocLab: What’s your vision for how to exhibit interactive projects?

Sonnen: When I started IDFA DocLab, my biggest challenge was how to turn interactive documentaries into meaningful collective offline experiences. Over the years we have experimented with many different forms of exhibition — from computer kiosks and installations to live cinema events, director’s navigations, performing robots and virtual reality walks. As a festival organizer, I believe we need to play an active role when showcasing new forms of web-based storytelling. Festivals are a great place to celebrate and discover art, especially if we can experience them together. We should not simply place computers in a room, but create lively events and moments for reflection. Interactive art, usually made for individual consumption makes this difficult, but not impossible.


New Digital Storytelling Exhibition Spaces


Tribeca Storyscapes

Sundance New Frontier

Cannes Film Festival Cross Media Corner

Sheffield Doc/Fest

WebDox at Docville International Documentary Film Festival

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