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AFI DigiFest 2009: Storytelling Everywhere

By Tamara Krinsky

Apocalyptic worlds, African farmers aided by digital media, Augmented Reality, David Lynch's Interview Project and Curious George iPhone applications were just a few of the topics explored during the 2009 edition of AFI DigiFest. A project of AFI's Digital Content Lab, DigiFest has a dual purpose: to showcase projects incubated in the Lab, all of which center on advanced digital technology, and to introduce the creative community to some of the most innovative projects currently making use of digital media in a variety of ways.

Big trends this year included mobile development, community involvement and 24/7 connectivity. It's no longer a question as to whether or not you have a social networking component to your project--the question is now how are you going to create it, how many man hours should you donate to its feed and care, and what tools and types of engagement offer you the biggest bang for your buck.





Trailer for AFI DigiFest

One of the Lab projects showcased on Day One was David Lynch's Interview Project. Director/editors Austin Lynch and Jason S. had the idea of driving around the United States and talking to people about their lives, asking everything from "How would you describe yourself?" to "What were your dreams as a child?" to "How did you meet your spouse?" They were on the road for 70 days, during which they traversed approximately 20,000 miles and interviewed about 120 people.  

Says Austin, "There's not a lot of planning you can do for this. We didn't know who would agree to talk to us. We were pleased to see so many people were willing to share their stories with a great deal of passion."

Christopher Trela, executive producer of the documentary Guest of Cindy Sherman, got involved with Interview Project after a chance encounter with the Lynch clan at a festival in Norway. Previously an agent at ICM in New York who worked on sponsorship and monetizing projects, he was also involved with during the first Internet boom (if Pseudo rings a bell, it's because it was founded by Josh Harris, the subject of Ondi Timoner's film We Live In Public).

Once the interviews were shot, they needed to figure out what kind of website would be best to showcase the Project. They worked with designer Noah Wall, who has done a lot of sites for architects and photographers. In addition to the videos themselves, the site includes an interactive map that updates as new episodes of the Project launch.  Interview Project puts up a new video every three days, and releases a video on their YouTube channel every 15 days to help raise awareness of the project. Currently, about half of the episodes have aired.

Chris and AFI Digital Content Lab director Suzanne Stefanac were old friends who reconnected while Chris happened to be working on Interview Project. When Suzanne told Chris about the Lab, he thought Interview Project would be a perfect candidate for a mentor slot. Suzanne was already aware of the experiment, and agreed.

She says, "Their numbers were not terrible, but both the quality of the work they had done and the fact that they had the association with David Lynch would suggest that they weren't yet meeting their potential."

The Lab paired Interview Project with a set of mentors to help figure out how to bring it to a larger audience, including Avatar Labs, EQAL and Tubefilter. EQAL, the company behind such Web series as lonelygirl15 and Kate Modern, came aboard as a technology partner to help expand the digital reach of the project. They've taken the technology platform they used for the shows they created and adapted it into new umbrella publishing platform for others that combines forums and discussions, blogging tools and user profiles. It also has the ability to integrate discussions across sites, as well as with external entities such as Twitter and Facebook. Adapting this kind of community platform for Interview Project was a natural step in its evolution, as the Project is all about everyday people., one of the few sites dedicated to broad coverage of Web television, came aboard to help figure out how to leverage the creative community online and have them become a part of the Interview Project.  They applied voting software they developed for the Streamy Awards and integrated it into Eqal's technology platform. They are now in the process of putting together a call-to-action video asking people to submit their own Interview Project-style videos. The public will be able to vote on them, and popular pieces will rise to the top. Said co-Founder Drew Baldwin, "If we want to leave a legacy, the more people involved, the better."

For those with issue-oriented documentaries who are looking to use their films as a jumping off point for social action, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation offered an interesting model. After producing the environmental film The 11th Hour, IDA Board Member Brian Gerber of Tree Media and the DiCaprio Foundation co-created the "11th Hour Action Campaign," an online initiative designed to help those inspired by the film take concrete action on the ground.

The success of the initiative excited the Foundation about using social media to further a nonprofit organization's cause. They realized they could harness the power of existing online tools to support other groups and initiatives with whom they were already working. The wonderful thing about having a movie star like DiCaprio on board is that it brings an extra jolt of attention to the organizations he and his foundation champion; social media then helps to amplify that jolt to electrify a much larger audience and spur them into action.

IDA Board Member Thomas Rigler had previously been a mentor with the Lab, and thought this type of brainstorming would be a perfect challenge for DCL. The goal of the project was not to build an actual prototype, as most of the technology already exists, but rather to fully explore how to best use that technology for outreach purposes. Their endgame: a cohesive plan for invited environmental and media partners to issue action-oriented challenges via DiCaprio's online presence.

Nonprofit organizations are not exactly known for their huge budgets, so a big piece of the puzzle was figuring out how to create a robust framework, yet limit expenses. The team purposefully included a number of cloud components available for free or minimal costs, including a Ning custom social network, YouTube video and Flickr photo embeds, RSS feeds, Open ID and Facebook Connect tools and action items delivered via Twitter. All of these are tools that can easily be utilized by documentary filmmakers when considering how to build an outreach campaign.

Rigler explained that there were several different types of users they had to create initiatives for: lurkers, members, entrants and leaders; therefore, different types of engagement activities were necessary in order to incentivize participants. The team came up with a reward structure for participation, ranging from digital bonuses, such as the ability to access special areas of the DiCaprio Foundation website, to tangible items participants could earn, such as having a tree planted, reusable grocery bags or custom ringtones.

On the second day of DigiFest, 11 different projects were showcased in rapid-fire presentations, giving a glimpse into the future of storytelling.  One of the most intriguing was Jenny Asarnow's "The Corner: 23rd and Union," a project of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which uses a variety of tools to create radio documentaries about a Seattle neighborhood in transition. Formerly a center for African-American culture, rising housing prices have forced many of the long-time residents out. Newcomers – many of them white – have moved in, and all are struggling to find their places in the changing community.  

From June to August 2009, "The Corner" opened up a phone line and asked people to call in, listen to stories, and share their own. Asarnow worked with an engineer to set up a Skype phone line, and the messages callers left became mp3's on the project server. They were also programmed to show up automatically on the project's website. The phone number received over 900 calls, and more than 200 messages were left. These became the basis for three 9 to 12-minute radio pieces that aired on KUOW 94.9 Public Radio and Hollow Earth Radio.

To let people know that the project existed, Asarnow got permission from the owner of an empty lot on the southwest corner of 23rd and Union to put up an art installation that advertised the call-in number. It included larger-than-life photographs of people from the neighborhood, creating a connection between the stories on the phone, the local residents and the physical location. To further that connection, they held a community barbeque on the lot. Someone who used to run a restaurant that formerly occupied the site did the cooking.

The project was live and dynamic for just under three months, and is now archived at, where you can still listen to the recorded calls. Images from the installation can be found on Flickr, and the project's Facebook page is still active.

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.