Story and technology converge at Sheffield

Gerry Flahive is an award-winning documentary producer at the National Film Board in Toronto, with credits including Manufactured Landscapes and Just Watch Me: Trudeau and the 70′s Generation.

Spotted on a historical plaque on a railway bridge in Sheffield, Eng.: ‘No guarantee can be given that passengers commencing their journey will be able to reach their destination.’

In this most analog of places, built on the steel industry and coping for some years now with its demise, the digital road ahead is a bit uncertain, too. But as the key documentary event in the U.K., Yorkshire’s tiny, perfect Sheffield International Documentary Festival (which this year ran Nov. 7-11) is developing a niche for itself as a center for the discussion of ‘digidocs.’ Even terms like ‘the visualization of massive datasets’ can seem interesting and sexy here, challenging notions of what ‘documentary’ media can be.

The last time I was here, in 1998, British filmmakers were apprehensive about the coming explosion of digital TV channels, and the feared impact on licence fees. Now, it seems like TV itself needs a hug – and maybe some help from its kid sister in figuring out how to download some music onto that iPod thingy.

This time I was with my colleagues Kat Cizek with our project www.nfb.ca/filmakerinresidence, nominated for the Grierson: Sheffield Innovation Award, and Michelle van Beusekom, who chaired the pitch session for the $10,500 NFB Cross-Media Challenge, a competition for socially engaged content with applications for mobile and broadband. (See sidebar.)

Television dominates the funding schemes in British production, and many mumbled approvingly of Canada’s perceived head start in new media – with special pots of money such as the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund – meaning that these very same broadcasters are certainly working hard to ‘get it.’

Sheffield delegate Lalita Krishna, a Toronto producer and Documentary Organization of Canada rep, was one of several Canadians in attendance. ‘I was reassured to see that the U.K. is not much ahead of us – the issues and challenges are similar to the ones we face,’ she says.

Xenophile Media’s Thomas Wallner agrees: ‘Last year, at the International Emmy Awards, three of the four nominees in the category of best interactive program were Canadian. I do think, though, that Canadian broadcasters have been slower to take risks and invest in the new emerging area of programming, but that, too, is rapidly changing.’

Matt Locke, commissioning editor for the U.K.’s Channel 4 – who was repeatedly introduced as having had no traditional TV or documentary production experience whatsoever – has six million pounds to spend this year on new media projects – and no requirement to put them all on Channel 4′s own website, as young audiences don’t go there.

Locke cited one of the biggest challenges in this transition from old to new media as ‘trying to find a vocabulary to bring together creators who talk about ‘story’ and those who talk about ‘technology’ and ‘platforms” – often difficult when many in film and television see new media merely as a ‘distribution machine.’

He also brought some common sense to what is often a jargon-fogged discussion by focusing on what he called ‘the warm bodies.’ In assessing new media pitches, he considers the spaces people like to spend time in, rather than technologies they use to do so. In his framework, there are secret spaces (e.g. mobile/SMS/IM), group spaces (e.g. Bebo/Facebook/Tagged), publishing spaces (e.g. LiveJournal/Blogger/Flickr), performing spaces (e.g. Second Life/World of Warcraft), participation spaces (e.g. marches, meetings), and watching spaces, (e.g. TV, concerts, theater, etc.).

He cited World Without Oil, an American multi-level doc project (funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and ITVS) with an alternate reality game element (‘they radically cast the seeds of narrative into the world for users to play with’) as one that truly embraces these varying levels of engaged-ness.

At the BBC, Nick Cohen, multi-platform commissioning executive for factual programming, will provide the new media talent from inside the corporation to work closely with documentary teams (which likely consist of new media newbies) pitching from the outside to ensure all levels of a cross-platform project mesh.

He doesn’t foresee the ‘death’ of the commissioning editor model (as some imagine, or secretly hope for), but rather its transformation in the new media realm into something more akin to a venture capitalist – taking risks, seeking out the next big thing, and willing to take losses.

In this vein, the laboratory model is used here to incubate new media projects – intense week-long creative immersions, exemplified by Crossover UK, run by Frank Boyd of Unexpected Media – in which documentary film and television makers from Yorkshire and London collaborated with new media producers and game developers on interactive projects for cross-platform delivery.

The pitches here that benefited from the Crossover prep shone – everything from a mobile phone-driven re-energizing of staid historical sites in the Dirty History project, to the pitch winner, Museums of Our Futures, which invites web visitors to suggest and debate just what in our present world might be likely to vanish, like, say, countries – or even as one wag suggested, cross-media pitch sessions themselves.

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