AFI DigiFest 2008

I spent Friday, November 7th at AFI Fest 2008 kicking around in future space, attending the second day of AFI Digifest. Digifest is part of the AFI Digital Content Lab (DCL), a research and development incubator for new forms of digital entertainment.

Throughout the year, the Lab generates digital media prototypes conceived and built by collaborative teams of professional volunteer mentors. The first day of DigiFest, which I sadly was not able to attend, is dedicated to showing off the prototypes, which this year included project with HBOlab, the online Newshour team, ABC.com, and Earth Echo International, among others. The second day consists of a curated collection of presentations of top digital media projects from around the world. While many focused on scripted storytelling and gaming, non-fiction was well represented.

The day kicked off with Jesse Alexander, Co-Executive Producer, Heroes, talking about the "Heroes 360 Experience," the digital extension of the series. While it’s hard to compare the process of putting together a big genre television hit with that of a low-budget documentary, Alexander specifically made the point that no matter what kind of content you’re dealing with, taking advantage of new media tools like Twitter and Flickr can extend the reach of your project.

A perfect example of this is Gone Gitmo, from producer/director Nonny de la Peña and USC Interactive Media adjunct professor Peggy Weil. The two created the project, a virtual Guantánamo Bay Prison in Second Life, to extend the reach of de la Pena’s documentary Unconstitutional. The film details the way that the civil liberties of American citizens and immigrants alike have been infringed upon, curtailed and rolled back since 9/11 and the USA Patriot Act.

Four years after making her film, de la Peña was dismayed that Guantánamo was not being covered in the media to her satisfaction. She and Weil identified Gitmo’s physical inaccessibility to reporters as an obstacle in obtaining press coverage. Second Life offered a unique opportunity to make the detention center available, albeit virtually. Initially, the project was incubated during a ten day residency at the MacArthur Foundation funded New Media Producers
Institute at the Bay Area Video Coalition, where they provided a Second LIfe builder for 5 days. The Second Life "land" for the project was donated, but all work since the initial residency has been done gratis or in-kind.

The virtual Guantánamo Bay center allows visitors, via their avatars, to immerse themselves in the experience of military detention, including lying shackled on the floor of a plane, being hooded and getting locked up in a cell. There’s also a Habeas Corpus game, which gives participants a sense of what it’s like to lose one’s habeas corpus rights. Rather than engage in virtual torture, de la Peña and Weil built a contemplation chamber that includes newsfeeds, statements from public figures and poetry by detainees. There are also transcripts of actual interrogation sessions read by actors.

Says Weil, “The recordings are available all over the web, but we felt that aggregating them in a context would amplify the results. There have been studies that people closely associate with their avatar, so therefore they experience this in a different way.”

To enhance the experience for participants, the creators peppered Gone Gitmo with sounds based on descriptions from real detainees. They also experimented with integrating cinema into virtual reality, incorporating footage from Unconstitutional into the virtual prison.

A chronicle of the development of the project can be found here.


A video of one user's experience visiting Gone Gitmo.


Later in the day, writer/actor/producer L.M. Kit Carson showed several Moz Diaries, mini-docs shot in Mozambique on the Nokia N93 cell phone and edited on Mac iMovie. They are part of the Sundance Channel’s Africa Diary docu-series, a survey of current African nations and societies, which is currently expected to air in 2009. Tim Johnson edited the pieces and Cynthia Hargrave produced.

In 2006, Carson went to Africa to help work on a documentary, and a friend of his at Current TV requested that he shoot some video diaries while he was there. YouTube had recently launched, and Carson was intrigued with the intimacy and immediacy the site brought to video. He wanted to bring this same spirit to the video diaries, and thought a cell phone camera might just do the trick. The tri-band Nokia N93 has a 3.2 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, which give it superior picture quality (the N95, the latest version, has a 5 megapixel camera). But the most important thing to Carson was that the phone's small size meant that it would not intimidate the his subjects the way a larger video camera might.

Says Carson, “I started shooting with this because everyone thinks it’s a joke, so there’s no filter.”

One of the diaries Carson showed at DigiFest explores the contrast between the Mozambique “green” agricultural economy and the influx of money from places like Saudi Arabia. Shots of hand-picked cashews contrast with footage of the new five star hotel just built by a Saudi Arabian sheik.

The footage is grainy and raw. The images are powerful. Carson solves the problem of the limited screen real estate of the cell phone by panning across wide images like newspaper headlines. He does this throughout the diary, creating a visual motif for the piece, and in the process, inventing a new mobile cinema aesthetic. One can’t help but be drawn into the intimacy of the storytelling.

Would I perhaps feel differently if I didn’t know it was shot on a cell phone? It’s hard to tell. I was too busy enjoying this rare glimpse into life halfway around the world.

There were many other fascinating presentations throughout the day, ranging from all encompassing Web 2.0 experiences such as 42 Entertainment’s Year Zero, a project to promote Nine Inch Nails’ album of the same name; to Christopher Sandberg’s Truth About Marika, a “participation drama” that blends the boundaries between traditional television drama and alternate reality games; to Scott Snibbe’s whimsical interactive museum installations. And of course, the latest from the Guitar Hero World Tour had the entire audience envisioning themselves as rock stars. For more on the AFI Digital Content Lab and all of the presentations, click here.

In her closing remarks, Suzanne Stefanac, Director, AFI Digital Content Lab, mentioned that she had recently seen a statistic from CISCO that said that video in all its formats will constitute 90% of all IP traffic by 2012. Said Stefanac, “There are many modes of distribution and ways to exchange data. The projects we saw today had many other homes, such as television, the big screen or the gaming console, but almost all of them had some type of home on the Internet.”

As the traditional theatrical landscape continues to evolve, her statement perhaps offers a clue as to how to think about the future of distribution. Yet instead of letting the unknown be a source of panic, maybe instead it can be a source of inspiration, as evidenced by the new forms of compelling storytelling demonstrated in the projects at Digifest 2008.

 

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