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A New Kind of Popcorn Movie: Documentary Filmmaking Re-Imagined for the Digital Future

By Laura Almo

Have you seen ¿Más Bébes? or Land of Opportunity? By linking to these online productions, you have dipped your toe into the vast pool of the future: Mozilla, Living Docs, and the world of HTML5. This new filmmaking experience is brought to you by an ever-expanding consortium of organizations that are making your computer and the Web the burgeoning new frontier of filmmaking. As Tiffany Shlain, cloud filmmaking pioneer and creator of the Webbys, proclaimed in her talk at TEDxBerkeley, "If you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. If you have a camera in your hand, everything is a story. What idea or story are you going to share?"

The objective of this newly formed technology is to create interdependence and prototypes, and in order to achieve those goals, you must, as those in the know declare, iterate, iterate, iterate!!!

What does this all mean?

HTML 5, a Web-native video platform, is an extension of the HTML code that affords conventional, linear-based filmmakers entry into a new technology that has been hailed by Ben Moskowitz of Mozilla as the "the silent film days of the Web"-a collaborative storytelling experience that changes the way we conceive of what is possible in documentary storytelling.

Imagine this: You're watching ¿Más Bébes?, Renee Tajima-Peña's Web-based documentary about forced sterilization of Mexican-American women in the 1960s and '70s, and, with a click of your mouse or a swipe of your mobile device, you can skip from 1927 to 1941. You don't have to watch the story in linear fashion.

From Renee Tajima-Pena's Mas Bebes

Or consider the HTML5 version of The Interrupters, Steve James' 2011 film about urban violence in Chicago and the efforts being made on the grassroots level to thwart it. With the click of a button, you can leave the main story for the Interrupt Violence Campaign and learn more about memorial shrines.

The Living Docs Project, a collaboration among Mozilla, ITVS, Tribeca Film Institute, Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) and the Center for Social Media, was founded in late 2011 as a way to highlight the innovative work of Web-native documentary storytelling using HTML5 and Popcorn, Mozilla's free open-source software. This came on the heels of the first Living Docs "hackathon," which brought together filmmakers and Web developers (called "coders") to try their hand at new forms of non-linear storytelling.

The Living Docs website serves as ground zero for the collaboration. The experimentation has been going on in little pockets all over, but Living Docs centralizes the evolution of this experiment. Root around the website and you will see examples of filmmakers experimenting with this new form, as well as blog posts, tutorials and announcements of upcoming events.

HTML 5 and Popcorn are at the digital heart of the Living Docs Project. Canadian documentary filmmaker Brett Gaylor, who leads the Living Docs Project at Mozilla, was interested in ways the Web could advance non-linear, user-generated storytelling. What could you do in the medium of the Web that you couldn't do in film or TV?

Gaylor developed Popcorn, the open-source software that enables Web developers to write code that will complement the viewer's film experience-well, not just complement it; alter it. Popcorn fit right in with Mozilla's philosophy, which is to make the Web as open as possible. The belief is that the Web will be a better place if people see it as a canvas-something on which they can "make, hack, re-create and customize themselves."

"The Web is not something people have to passively accept, but rather it's something they can actively build," says Mozilla's Moskowitz. "Anyone can have agency in developing the software." In fact, before Popcorn was released to the public, Mozilla used it as training tool in conjunction with BAVC's Factory program, a youth video production collective for burgeoning teen filmmakers. Using media the filmmakers had already collected, filmmakers and coders worked together on "guinea-pig projects," hammering out ideas to create "prototypes" for an interactive documentary experience. "This was the first experience where we worked with Mozilla and we got our hands on Popcorn," says Jen Gilloman, director of independent media at BAVC.

This new, user-friendly technology affords technophobes the ability to learn some code. "You can actually read it," says Gilloman. "It's not rocket science. When people hear the word ‘developer' or ‘developing an interactive documentary,' it sounds like it's going to be this really giant, cumbersome project, but it doesn't have to be that hard." 

Hackathons, Living Docs' signature live event, are intended to bring filmmakers and code writers together to try out new forms of storytelling. Mozilla has collaborated with ITVS, Hot Docs and Silverdocs on hackathons this year. This is a very organic process as developers begin to think about storytelling and filmmakers begin to think algorithmically. "We're trying to foster the idea that developers are making an equally important contribution to the craft, and they are creative partners, full stop," Moskowitz asserts.

The technology is still new, and at this point everything is prototypes and experimentation. The prevailing ethos: Fail early and fail often. "It's about taking that kernel of an idea and ‘iterating' on it," says Matthew Mescherry, director of digital initiatives at ITVS. "We're not trying to make the final version. We don't know what the final version is going to look like; this is just an experiment. We're just going to make something small as one example of where this could go."

At the moment, there are two main kinds of interactive, Web-based media projects: those that are Web native in their very construction, such as ¿Más Bébes? and 18 Days in Egypt, and traditional feature-length documentaries that have some kind of interactive component around them.

Take, for example, The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev's 2010 film about US Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed in 2004 while serving in Afghanistan. The award-winning film got wide distribution, but Bar-Lev had to leave a lot of material on the cutting-room floor, including the thousands of government documents that were acquired while making this film. The documents are part of the story, but could not be included because the narrative would suffer. Now, with HTML 5, Popcorn and the software Document Cloud, this fascinating, and very relevant, material can be plugged back into the film. You can watch the film in its entirety, or you can click on individual documents and read further.

The interactive version, currently in development, incorporates these documents, and would go something like this, according to Moskowitz: Imagine you're watching a scene featuring US Army General Stanley McChrystal, who had ordered the cover-up of the circumstances surrounding Tillman's death. The document that came to his desk appears in the scene. You, the viewer, can click on the document and pause the action, see every document that mentions McChrystal, and see the ways in which the documents are linked to each other.

This taps into the idea of annotating a film experience, says Ingrid Kopp, director of digital initiatives at Tribeca Film Institute, one of the funders of The Tillman Story. What's more, by using Popcorn and Document Cloud, Bar-Lev has created a tool that other people will be able to use.

However, giving the viewer the ability to click a button that takes them out of the narrative makes some traditional filmmakers nervous. As filmmaker James says in the Living Docs Hackathon promo video, "When you're a filmmaker, you want to put people in a theater, lock the door and make them watch your movie start to finish without any distraction. So the idea of having your movie work in a different way, which is all about interrupting the flow, is a tough one." 

This is a slice of the future, but have no fear; the traditional long-form documentary isn't going anywhere. This is a different kind of experience, and an opportunity for filmmakers to think more broadly, says Angelica Das, associate director of the Center for Social Media. "My hope is that filmmakers at all stages will look at this as a new possibility, rather than as some kind of challenge to the way they're doing things now."

People have pondered what the future of traditional documentary filmmaking may be now that digital technology has taken such a dominant role in the craft of storytelling. There is space for long-form and online interactive documentaries to co-exist. "People want to interface with media in different kinds of ways," says Kopp. "Sometimes they want to be passive and sometimes they want to be active and sometimes they want to click on things and sometimes they don't. I think the best projects are the kinds of projects that allow that to happen, or at least give a range of options."


Laura Almo is a writer and documentary filmmaker. She teaches video editing at El Camino College in Torrance, CA and is a frequent contributor to CineMontage. Almo is on the Los Angeles steering committee of Human Rights Watch and continues to work with the International Center for Transitional Justice. She is contributing editor with Documentary Magazine. Laura Almo can be reached at