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Elaine McMillion and Jeff Soyk on Hollow


Elaine McMillion, one of Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces of Independent Film for 2013, has been keeping busy since launching her interactive doc Hollow, about life in the hard-hit county of McDowell in south-western West Virginia, in June at http://hollowdocumentary.com. It immediately earned praise and a sizeable audience; she’s since presented for events and organizations like StoryCode and Independent Film Week, and Hollow continues racking up the positive reviews. The project includes an html5 site with dozens of short videos, photographs, text, user-generated content on Instagram, and content such as videos produced by the film’s subjects, many of whom the Hollow team trained in storytelling techniques. Now the project is poised to raise awareness not just of problems in rural America but of potential solutions there too, exploding stereotypes along the way.

The Hollow team approached the piece with dedication and thoughtfulness, as shown in this recent essay by lead coder Robert Hall. McMillion and Jeff Soyk, the project’s co-producer and lead designer, spoke with Filmmaker from West Virginia, where they were busy launching various components of the project, in June just before Filmmaker annouced its 25 New Faces. The full interview is running now in honor of an exhibit and screening of Hollow at the New York Film Festival later this week; McMillion will be speaking at Lincoln Center on Sunday.

Filmmaker: How did this project begin? Did you want to tell the story of McDowell county and found an interactive doc would best do it, or did you start wanting to make something interactive and found McDowell as an appropriate subject?

McMillion: It definitely started with the story first. In 2009 I read a book called Hollowing Out the Middle. It was about brain drain in small towns, specifically in a town in the Midwest. I had just graduated from my undergrad in 2009 from West Virginia University and had moved to Washington, D.C. I really felt like part of the problem of that exodus, but I also knew that I was ready to get out. So that sparked the question about what’s happening in small towns and where these young people, including myself, are going. Then in 2011 when I actually had done enough research and felt like I was ready to take on a new project I came to McDowell county. I grew up next door in Logan county, but I actually had only driven through McDowell before, I’d never actually stopped in. McDowell is frequently seen as the worst of everything in West Virginia: it’s always “highest teen pregnancy,” “highest obesity,” “highest heart disease,” “highest rate of drug overdose,” and on and on. But what I learned in 2011 when I came here was that there were a lot of people with fascinating stories to tell. And the first person I saw when I came to town was a muralist painting what is now the largest mural in the state on the side of this abandoned building. That said to me that there’s a lot of pride and hope here that’s being undocumented. Plus they’ve lost 80% of their population since 1950, so they’re down to 20,000 people and there’s a lot of culture and history that’s being lost.

So when I first went down there I sort of thought of this as a linear film that maybe would follow a couple characters: you’d press play, sit back, and watch. But after I met all these amazing people in one day and started talking with the team as we started coming together, I kept really thinking about all the data that was there like from the census and other forms, that we could use. And there were historical photographs that showed what this place was, and we just thought it would be a really rich new media experience, more so than a linear film, that would allow more voices to be heard and allow participation from the community to shoot their own content.

Filmmaker: Do you have any background in new media or were you coming from a traditional film background?

McMillion: I come from a journalism and traditional film background. That’s why when we started building out the team it was so important to find the right people–and they started falling in the right positions, and we all have our talents to make it happen. We have two developers and Jeff is our new media architect and designer.

Soyk: I came to the project as Elaine was deciding to make it interactive. I come from a new media background, where we’re working to create that fusion between traditional film and the web and really create a cinematic experience and tell a meaningful story online. That was really our ultimate goal with Hollow.

Filmmaker: Where are you from, Jeff, and what was the experience in McDowell county like for you?

Soyk: I’m originally from a small town in New York. I went to school in Rochester and when I came last year for a month and a half, total, while Elaine was shooting a lot of video content, all the stereotypes were just obliterated by the people that she introduced me to. I was really impressed by the community members that were really being leaders and contributing content, telling stories. It really motivated me to put out some of their ideas and push some initiatives of theirs and rebuild their community. So I was really impressed when I arrived.

Filmmaker: Was that early in the production process?

Soyk: Yeah, it was. It was right in the middle of summer, and video production was like May through August.

McMillion: May through the first week in September; the last shoot I did here was Labor Day. And then we held three storytelling workshops, and those really were opportunities for the community to get in a room with the team and say what the stories were and what the narrative that takes place should be, what community members felt should be highlighted, specific stories they felt that should be told that were part of their history. It also let them air some grievances about other media portrayals that have been out there. We did activities where they made lists of how they had been portrayed, and words that had been used to describe them, words they felt actually described them, and how to pull stories from each of those to really combat the media that is out there right now.

Filmmaker: A lot of new media projects talk about using a more iterative production process full of revisions like in software design. In getting feedback from community members did it feel that way to you, like you were creating drafts of a film?

Soyk: It was definitely an organic process in figuring out how we wanted to deliver all the content. We didn’t want to focus so much on creating a platform necessarily; we definitely wanted the story to drive our decisions with the technology. So we definitely went through several different contexts before landing on our final direction. It really was driven by finding the most effective way to tell these stories and combine all the content, and make it compelling for the user and also an appropriate collage of all these narratives. So it definitely took some time to experiment, to really find the appropriate path.

McMillion: And coming from a linear film background I can tell you it’s a completely different process, because as a linear filmmaker I’ve never had to think about user experience. You craft the one user experience and you edit those arcs and those moments where you’re hoping people will laugh or cringe. But with this type of project where people can come at the narrative from all different directions you have to think through all these different pathways, and that’s something that Jeff really spearheaded and taught me about. I learned about storytelling in a lot of different forms beyond just delivering short films. So we really tried to cater to the two audiences: the audience that wants to sit back with the short films and just listen to the story, and those who wanted more interactivity — although for both groups we also provided an experience before you dive into the video content that tells you about the person, with some context that sort of creates an environment with sound and image, so that people feel compelled to watch it.

Soyk: Yeah, our biggest challenge was definitely the fact that the web and film are two mediums that kind of contradict each other in a lot of ways. People want to get information very quickly on the web and get out of there as quickly as possible, but there are people doing more a little more passive type of experience where they’re sitting down for an hour and a half or so and taking in the content. Like Elaine was saying, there’s an intent for each user to dig deeper, so we want to layer the content and make it so there is that context and something that kind of draws you in. And ideally the user will lose track of time and get submersed in the experience, and just get caught up in the content. So that was a major goal of ours.

McMillion: And it’s been so exciting and shocking and amazing that people have actually written us and tweeted at us that they’re going through the entire experience. I mean, I would have never dreamed that. Like some guy tweeted “Halfway through Hollow” yesterday and I’m like, “What in the world? You’re sitting down and you’re going through this entire thing?” I’ve personally never done that with any interactive doc that’s out there. And I’m creating them! So, I mean, that was just huge, and we’ve had several people say they spent three hours with it. I’ll email them with the link and they’ll email me three hours later and say, “Oh my gosh I just got sucked in for three hours.” I don’t know if we ever really thought that all of our philosophy behind this would actually pay off but we’re seeing it through these people’s emails and tweets to us and through the average durations spent on the site, which are pretty high. Our average is eleven minutes now?

Soyk: Yeah. Between ten and fifteen minutes, which is actually incredibly high for web retention.

Filmmaker: How much video content do you have total? Are you going to keep increasing it with more content generated by the subjects there in West Virginia?

McMillion: Between all the content that the community and I produced there are 30 short films of mine and about 15 shorts from the community, including loops and different things. We did a screening this past Saturday in Welch, WV and I laid out a majority of the videos — I left out probably eight or 10 — and there was two hours and 30 minutes worth of content. So there’s probably right around three hours’ worth of video content on there.

Filmmaker: Plus the text and the photographs and everything that’s not video. Are you going to continue aggregating more to that?

McMillion: The Instagram material is user-generated and will continue to change. Data visualization will continue to change as people add to those. Community content from here on out is being added to the Holler Home tool we’ve built for them, and we’re just now going through the process of training the residents on how to use it. So that will work in a blog format in WordPress: after you watch Linda’s portrait or some other character’s portrait you’re alerted that there’s an update and that you can actually go see her new photos or videos and an update on her life.

Filmmaker: A lot of filmmakers are interested in the monetization aspect of this. Can you tell me a bit about the grants that you applied for or how you were able to get this all to happen?

McMillion: Back in March when the team didn’t really exist, I applied for the Tribeca Film Institute New Media Grant and got that — which has been amazing. Without that I’m not sure how this project would have been possible. We also got $20,000 from the West Virginia Humanities Council, and then we also raised $28,000 on Kickstarter with the help of over 500 people. So the Kickstarter money went to paying for production, and actually we didn’t use all of it during production so we had some left over, and then the Tribeca and Humanities money went to the development costs and postproduction of all this.

Filmmaker: What kind of logistical help did you get from the Tribeca Film Institute?

McMillion: They provide mentorship during the festival and we got to meet with a lot of people. One industry meeting led to the “Op-Doc” that we got in the New York Times, and we met a lot of the people that we needed to meet. The support that we needed was around having someone with big IT chops and when we reached out to them they gave us their best options. They also helped out with introducing us to people and recommending us for film panels that we’ve been on and discussions that we’ve taken part in. But just having the Tribeca Film Institute stamp on your project gives it a level of approval because there’s so much work on the Internet and there’s so much going on out there that having them essentially curate the projects each year and identify things you should look forward to definitely helps bring attention to our project that we wouldn’t have been able to by ourselves.

Filmmaker: Do you have any advice to filmmakers who may be looking to apply to this or other new media grants? What do you think you did that got you in?

McMillion: I don’t know. Actually I will say that this is not a project that I applied for just to get money; this was a project that I was going to do even without money. And I think that came through in the application because I asked one of the women who read the applications and she said, “I read your application and I just felt like it had so much heart. It was just so well put together and so well thought out that you weren’t going to let us down.” So I think that if any filmmaker is going to apply for any type of funding they really need to know themselves and their project before they try to ask for money — because it comes through.

Filmmaker: What was it like for both of you working with the developers in creating the interactive elements?

Soyk: I’m used to working with developers. This time we were working remotely in a lot of cases, and we would have definitely benefited from having the same workspace when faced with some of the challenges along the way. But ultimately because we were a bunch of individuals who really hadn’t worked together before we had to find our workflow over time, but I think things came together. Definitely we had our lead developer and our team developer and everybody was working up to the very last minute and cranking it out. And I think everybody really put in some extra effort and, again, it was a passion project for everybody on the team, and were willing to put in extra time to get it done.

McMillion: And I think that most filmmakers would reach out to an agency to do this. But I think that by creating our own little non-agency team we sort of became like a team of misfits that all just found our way on this passion project. It made for an interesting type of dedication that I haven’t seen among many teams — it was all or none. There was no one else, no net to fall back on. We had to do this. We’re not working with a big agency and when we get questions like, “Why are you not compatible with Firefox?” and things like that, the answer is that we are a team of six people. And it’s amazing what we’ve been able to pull off, considering that most of us have never even worked together, that we just assembled randomly and were like, “Okay let’s do this.” And we all essentially made a pact that we were all going to see this through because it was the right thing to do, no matter what the money situation is, and we all did it and it’s something to be really proud of. I think this conception among new media that you have to hire the big guns or you have to let the New York Times do projects like this, and that individuals and smaller filmmakers like us can’t just assemble them, and we really wanted to see if we could do it, and I think what we pulled off was impressive given our team’s limitations.

I think with more hackathons and events like that where they actually connect people like me who have very little new media and coding background with people who are super experienced in that, things can grow organically. But one thing I will say is that we did find developers who were interested in stories. So our lead developer got to know all the characters and was asking questions about them and was thinking through the narrative just as Jeff was designing it and I was editing it. So that was good to have someone who cared about the story as well, and not just who wanted to write code.

Filmmaker: Now that it’s all online what’s your ultimate hope or goal for the project?

Soyk: There are some community-based goals and more technical goals. Just to get a broader reach we definitely want to have it be available on mobile devices like tablets, which is going to require some conversion of some of our coding, our back end to make that work. And we definitely want to have a version of this in exhibit spaces, not just a reiteration of what we created but some kind of next step in terms of how we can make use of people who come to an exhibit space and share stories, and build upon what we’ve created through that venue. But then obviously keeping tabs on the community’s initiatives and their work moving forward, and if they’re going to make use of this WordPress site that we’ve created to help with their local initiatives.

McMillion: Adding into that, I don’t think that any of us realized the impact this project would have on the people here. I really hoped it would, but to see as many people come out as they did the other night was something that could bring tears to any of our eyes. This has been an on-going project for such a long time and we’ve been working so hard on it that to see the community own it and embrace it and really feel like it’s theirs is really gratifying. And it’s the first time they’ve seen themselves this way, and now thousands of people are seeing it all over the world and there are eyes on them, so there’s this accountability and pressure that’s put on them now. So we hope that they’ll use the tools we’ve given them to help make these small local changes that they’ve been wanting to make for so many years. And I think that that’s really empowering for the people here — and exciting for us that we’ve been able to see new media actually have an effect already, even when we’re not even a week out of the gate. So we just hope that the enthusiasm in the community stays up because it’s easy to get off-track with these types of things. And we’ll never be able to disconnect from this place; we’ll always be providing support for them. They’ve sort of adopted us and we want to make sure they have everything that they need to be successful.

Soyk: We’re definitely just playing it by ear a little bit and seeing how people will react to the tools and the content; we need to see what community members start to generate on their own, and if new needs arise down the road then we can re-evaluate when those come up. But we’re definitely planning to try to build upon this because we keep saying, “You know, just because you’ve launched a project that doesn’t mean that the project’s done.”

McMillion: When I first read about the history of rural brain drain I was thinking this project would be shot all over the country. It wasn’t, but now, beyond getting Hollow on tablets and handheld devices, we’d like to somehow start making tools that could potentially help other small towns, that could eventually connect other small towns with McDowell and they could essentially become partners in whatever they’re doing. And we’re very interested in that exhibit space for a number of reasons but particularly to target those people who have left — you know, if you have an exhibit space in a bigger city you’re going to have people who didn’t grow up in that big city, you’re going to have people from all over the country including from small towns, so we hope that we can find that target audience through exhibit spaces where they can share their own stories like that.

So it’s really about broadening the conversation about rural America and starting to ask the hard questions of “What’s going to be there in 25 years? What’s the future hold for small-town America?”

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