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Reality Comes to Cyberspace: Web Docs Offer Multimedia Options

By Russell Sparkman

Faces of Donation, a section from Russell Sparkman's Web-based documentary 'The Gift of a Lifetime' ( Courtesy of Fusionpark Media

Just as the Internet has changed the way we get news and information, plan vacations, communicate with friends and purchase goods, so, too, is it changing the way documentary makers reach and influence audiences.

When the words "Web" and "documentary" are joined together the first image that often comes to mind is a linear film or video playing over the Internet on the computer screen. However, the multimedia, interactive characteristics of the Internet provide documentary makers with a unique medium to create nonlinear Web productions that combine photography, text, audio, video, animation and infographics.

While people don't normally think of the Web in terms of the emotional storytelling associated with television, it is possible to evoke an emotional response through online storytelling.

For veteran and new filmmakers, why is it important to embrace the Web as a tool for documentary making?

There are a number of answers. Web documentaries, as companions to film projects, help filmmakers extend the life and distribution of their projects beyond the broadcast and add depth to and expand the filmmaker's platform for storytelling by going beyond the boundaries of a broadcast or theatrical engagement. As a medium, the Web's multimedia characteristics afford filmmakers great flexibility and creativity to determine how their stories can be told. Additionally, funding possibilities can be significantly enhanced when filmmakers and producers demonstrate a commitment to expanding their stories on the Web.

What are some of the similarities between Web and film documentaries? For starters, the success of both is dependent upon a good story. Both focus on real world issues or stories that have social, political, cultural or environmental importance. And both are designed to provide information, insight and knowledge in an effort to increase awareness about a given subject.

Like film documentaries, their Web counterparts may be short, focused presentations based on a current event, or they may be in-depth presentations that take a year or more to produce. Finally, the combination of subject, voice, perspective and design are intrinsic to the storytelling in both formats.

The similarities pretty much end there--and that's where things become really interesting.

For starters, a Web documentary is available for viewing on the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week, around the globe, and is not beholden to competition for broadcast time or a theater venue. Additionally, with a comparatively small investment, a Web documentary's "run" can be indefinite, if it is a skillfully produced presentation. Most importantly, the affordability of keeping the project online is equally available to the independent producer as it is to large media organizations.

In terms of presentation style, the Web documentary differs greatly from film docs through the integration of a combination of multimedia assets (photos, text, audio, animation, graphic design, etc.) and the requirement on the part of the viewer to interact with, or navigate through, the story.

Compared to a linear narrative, where the destination of the story is pre-determined by the filmmaker, a Web documentary provides a viewer with the experience of moving through the story via clusters of information. The integration of information architecture, graphic design, imagery, titles and sub-titles all play a role in providing visual clues as to the sequence through which a viewer should move through the Web documentary. From there, it's up to the viewers to explore the components of the story that interest them the most.

The experience of moving through clusters of information using a mixture of multimedia assets is one of the Web documentary format's greatest strengths, says Tom Kennedy, former director of photography at National Geographic and now managing editor of multimedia for WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive. "The Web enables the unity of every medium in a multi-perspective presentation," Kennedy explains. "When you have text, audio, video and photo imagery working in parity within a strong interactive design, you create a very potent documentary, one that promotes further curiosity and inspires the viewer to learn more."

For Richard Beckman, a professor of journalism and the director of visual communication in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of North Carolina, there's a specific audience-driven need for providing a multi-perspective presentation. "We see that the younger generation learns by interacting with media," Beckman notes. "Young consumers of information are more apt to select parts of a story based on how they rank their own priorities and interests."

By providing multiple perspectives on the story through combinations of content, viewers can choose whatever they want to absorb and the order in which they want to observe it, Beckman continues. "They may start by focusing on a component of a Web documentary that might deal with music or history or something else that attracts them, but eventually they get to the other areas of the production as well."

One example of how storytelling is enhanced by its presentation is Fusionspark Media's The Gift of a Lifetime, an in-depth Web documentary about organ and tissue transplantation in America told through patients, families and those in the medical profession whose lives are impacted by organ and tissue transplantation.

The documentary is sub-divided into sections of dramatic real-life storytelling and factual information. Two sections of the project--"Transplant Journey" and "Faces of Donation"--use imagery, audio and text in a slideshow format to make donor and transplant recipients' stories come alive online. It is this ability to generate an emotional response that inspires viewers to learn more, then enables them to take action. Viewers are only a couple of clicks away from expanding their understanding through an animated, illustrated tour of the human body and downloading organ donor cards or classroom activities to aid integration of the subject matter into science or health classes.

The idea of moving viewers from inspiration to action on the Web hit home with Florida-based environmental filmmaker Wes Skiles. "I was in the final pre-production stages for a PBS project called Water's Journey: The Hidden Rivers of Florida when I first learned about the Web documentary format,"  recalls Skiles. "I was excited by the potential to not only reach another audience with my project, but to enable that audience to take action in a way that the film couldn't."

The subsequent Web documentary, Florida Springs: Protecting Nature's Gems , was launched a year in advance of Water's Journey 's first broadcast on PBS. During that year, the site generated advanced interest in the film and fulfilled significant public awareness and public education goals, according to Skiles.  "Months prior to the first broadcast, the Web documentary was being used in schools," he explains. "One group of students even used the production to create a promotional campaign targeted at getting their parents to watch the film's PBS broadcast.

"The combination of the Web presence along with our own film has created a very circular flow path in which tens of thousands of people have found themselves visiting the site, then making it a point to see the film, or vice versa," adds Skiles. "It's simply amazing the positive responses we have had to this logical partnership."

Two years after the broadcast of Water's Journey , Florida Springs continues to inform an audience, inspire action and promote the film. "We get regular e-mail from people who've come across Florida Springs who are interested in purchasing a copy of the film, or simply want to share with us that they plan to visit the springs," Skiles says.

For Chris Palmer, Distinguished Film Producer in Residence and founder of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, DC, direct contact with the audience is one of the Web documentary's most important features. "As storytellers, we have an obligation to create and explore new ways of getting around the traditional networks and to create news ways of teaching, new ways of reaching the audience," he maintains.

For Palmer, who has spent most of his career producing TV programs and films for the National Audubon Society and then for National Wildlife Federation, the long shelf-life of Web documentaries is one of the most important aspects to consider. "I began to tire of spending several years producing a program for TV, only to have it be shown at 8:00 p.m. and then disappear into relative obscurity," Palmer explains. "So I began to produce large format films because they offered not only six-month-long runs, but [were] a way to better reach schoolchildren. I see publishing Web documentaries--either as independent projects or as companions to films--as the natural evolution for reaching audiences with meaningful stories that should be available for viewing for long periods of time."

"As a filmmaker, you can't ignore the primacy of the Web in people's lives today," continues Palmer. "Because of that I'm making Web documentaries an important component of what we'll be teaching future filmmakers at the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. It isn't often that you can help define for future generations a whole new form of storytelling, and I see our work with Web documentaries as providing that opportunity."

As exciting as the prospects for Web documentaries are, the discussion inevitably turns to how they're funded and how they find an audience. Raising funds for Web documentaries isn't all that different from raising funds for a film documentary--through a combination of corporate sponsorships, government and foundation grants, academic partnerships and nonprofit support.

The funding scenario for Web documentaries, however, is clouded by the lack of experience with the medium among the aforementioned funding sources. But that's changing as the Internet becomes more deeply intertwined in our lives, and funding partners are beginning to realize its importance in terms of visibility.

Once the Web documentary is funded and launched, its marketing campaign takes place both offline and online. For Web docs not aligned with a TV program or a film, it's important to garner online publicity and reviews in addition to using other methods for bringing viewers to one's project, including search engine optimization, viral marketing techniques, online outreach to special interest groups and promotion by funding partners.

For Web documentaries that are created as companions to films, and which may be launched well in advance of the film, all of the above applies for marketing the site. By bringing viewers to the film's companion Web documentary, the online component will, in turn, generate interest in the film. Obviously, once the TV program or film is showing, it's important to promote the URL in all possible places--in the program's promotional materials, within the film itself, etc.

There are a few websites that could be considered "channels" through which it's possible to get an overview of original Web documentary work. One of the best resources for the widest range of work is Interactive Narratives. Another good example of original Web documentary work can be seen at the website for Frontline 's Fellows Program.


Russell Sparkman is CEO of Fusionspark Media Inc., which specializes in the development of Web documentaries and educational Web productions. You can reach him at