III Production and design
Place-based journalism, aesthetics, and branding
David O. Dowling
The debut of Bear 7I at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 established a major milestone in the evolution of interactive cinema. Five years later, the film’s reformatting and re-release in 2017 as a virtual reality' (VR) experience viewed through head- mounted displays (HMDs) signaled the future of immersive journalism ([ardine 2017). In it, the viewer tracks the movement and behavior of a female grizzly bear in Canada’s Banff National Park, which provides the setting for this poignant piece revealing the human impact on wildlife. The VR edition enabled the large- scale setting of the wilderness to take on the powerful intimacy of an immersive news experience of the sort showcased in Nonny de la Pena’s pioneering Hunger in L.A., which also debuted at Sundance in 2012. As with Bear 71, Hunger in L.A. offered a moving human encounter rather than “cold facts and figures”, in its case “by taking a small scale drama and turning it into an emotional confrontation with the everyday reality of hunger in one of the richest countries in the world” (van der Haak 2014). Despite being only seven minutes in length, the work left a deep impression on audiences. “Viewers of the piece tried to touch the nonexistent characters and many cried at the conclusion”, according to de la Pena (as quoted in van der Haak 2014). Roughly three times the length, Bear 7/’s 2017VR edition expanded the template for the virtual news experience into a more distinctly cinematic, longform mode of storytelling, extending the reach of the medium’s already considerable empathic powers.
This chapter examines interactive documentary’s evolution since 2012, particularly visible in the emergence of VR/360 journalism. 360- degree video (in spherical rather than flat formatting) viewed through the “magic window” on mobile devices or with HMDs in the more fully immersive VR format have propelled documentary journalism to new technological and narrative heights, achievements attained in part through alternative brand economies, industrial logics and marketing strategies. News organizations, researchers, and tech companies have begun to explore cost-efficient ways of bringing immersive video to a mainstream audience. As Watson (2017) notes, 360- degree videos have “made [VR] more accessible to consumers” despite not providing “the immersive experience delivered by a high-end (and more expensive) headset”. For journalists, the newVR technology' presents one of the most potent storytelling tools in all media, one that demands a thorough reconsideration of editing methods, which have radically destabilized ethical principles of production. Out of this early experimental phase an uneven and highly contested set of best practices has begun to take shape, bearing distinct advantages in spatial storytelling, while diminishing the importance of the cut as a vital editorial tool and means of expression. Interactive video’s function as place- based journalism is discussed in the following section. Case studies then examine Google’s Beyond the Map, Spo ts IUustrated’s Capturing Everest, and the National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 7/, immersive documentaries that reflect the industrial protocols of their respective production companies and demonstrate corporate synergies converging into promotional media.
VR documentary as place-based journalism
The latest phase in the evolution of digital journalism has expanded beyond the linear presentation of facts for passive consumption. Now longer-branching narrative formats within expansive virtual environments situate subjects in their social, political, and economic contexts, which are embodied and dramatized through their geographical surroundings. Subjects of such situated documentaries are thus “more contextualized and placed within a broader environment of events, trends, and issues” (Pavlik & Bridges 2013, 22). The analytic and ethnographic approach scholars call for as a means of producing more accurate journalism (Neveu 2014; Davis 2016) can be realized in interactive documentary.
Unlike the highly distracting interface of conventional online news, digital journalism produced as interactive documentary provides an immersive app-like environment that eliminates distraction from having multiple windows open in addition to banner and pop-up advertising (Hernandez & Rue 2016, 105). This highly engaging and interactive design functions as a cognitive container, as the viewer’s attention remains in the space of the story world and its embedded multimedia elements without being scattered onto the open web via hyperlinks (Dowling 2017, 103). Although interactive documentaries deploy a wide spectrum of diverse digital designs, most create a sense “of embarking on an experience similar to a video game or movie” within a unified and self-contained story world (Hernandez & Rue 2016,103).
Interactive documentaries are linked to VR in important ways that bear on narrative content as well as user understanding. Aston, Gaudenzi, and Rose (2017) note that interactive documentaries, or “i-docs”, include a vast array of projects such as “transmedia documentaries, serious games, locative docs, interactive community media, docu-games”, as well as nonfictional VR and live performance documentary. Each of these shares innovation in “documenting away from the lineage of documentary film” (2).The cases examined in this chapter provide an interactive experience, one featuring a radical diversity of genre conventions across media akin to Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, an artwork synthesizing a variety of different forms (Aston 2017a). Cases examined here hybridize conventions from documentary film to journalistic data visualization and video games, in the process re-mediating reporting and writing associated with older forms of print longform journalism, particularly investigative and profile feature storytelling. By breaking down the “fourth wall”, as Aston (2017a) explains, new “forms of audience engagement and participation [goj beyond the ‘point and click’ interactivity to screen- based work” (224). Of particular interest here is the effect of works that create “both experiential and readerly ways into documentary content” specifically to challenge the user to “make things feel a little more difficult”, as in interactive theater’s capacity to “make the hairs stand up on the back of peoples’ necks, and to make them feeTalive’” (Aston 2017a,224-225). Each case underscores the affirmation that“the future of storytelling is absolutely about placing the audience at the heart of the experience”, as Aston (2017a) notes of interactive theater (225).
By navigating data-rich maps, users can experience interactive documentaries on the most intimate level, while also seeing the full expanse of the virtual environment from the seemingly omniscient perspective of 360-degree footage. In this sense, the genre resonates with twenty-first-century place-based literacies and the rise of spatial journalism (Schmitz Weiss 2015). According to Murray (2011), the affordances of digital media are procedural (a set of rules), participator)' (inviting action and manipulation of the virtual environment), encyclopedic (the presence of large amounts of data presented in various forms), and spatial (that allows for navigation throughout an information repository and/or virtual environment) (as cited in Aston 2017b). Immersive media - particularly the interactive documentary and multimedia feature - have evolved in such a way as to bring a spatial orientation to the other three major affordances of digital media. Indeed, the spatial dimension of interactive documentary storytelling, as this chapter demonstrates, subsumes procedural, participator)' and encyclopedic affordances. Prior to the emergence of immersive storytelling such as 360- degree video and VR, each of these four affordances was more evenly represented in digital publications, precisely because they lacked the capacity to represent three-dimensional space with such fidelity to the real world, and to plunge the viewer into it so deeply (Aston 2017b).
Interactive documentary encourages a process that in effect “engages a citizenry increasingly disengaged from traditional news” (Pavlik & Bridges 2013). New media’s potential for increased user engagement is particularly evident in 360- degree video, which intensifies immediacy through fictional techniques used to capture nonfictional lived events and subjects rather than escapist fantasies (Atkins, McLean, & Canter 2017). In VR stories viewed through HMDs, imagery plays a crucial role in the effects of narrative transportation (Green & Brock 2002). There are significant differences, however, between the effects ofVR stories, 360-degree video (without HMD), and text on presence, memory, credibility empathy, and sharing (Sundar et al. 2017).
This new medium builds on the longstanding principle of nonfiction film as “the art of re-presentation” responsive to “immediate moments” and therefore “rooted in a cultural context that should be studied” (Barsam 1979, 583). Like its pre-digital forbears, the interactive documentary “is usually filmed without sets, costumes, written dialogue, or created sound effects”, with the ostensible aim of recreating the sense of “being there” with as much veracity' as the situation allows (Barsam 1979, 583). Just as nonfiction film evolved toward increasingly immersive forms in the late 1960s and early 1970s, interactive documentaries have begun expanding toward longer templates, as seen in Capturing Everest.
Prior to HMD and 360 VR technology associated with spherical film, the narrative complexity and emotional import of documentary shot in traditional flat formats steadily increased from the late 1960s to the early 2000s (Bondebjerg 2014). Documentarians have experimented with surreal representations of psychological interiority as in the Japanese film The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975 Academy Award Winner), dramatic character-based multi-plot narratives as in the critically acclaimed Hoop Dreams (1994), and scientific data visualization as in A1 Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006 Academy Award Winner). In such cases, “emotional layers in documentaries appear through narrative structures, through character identification, and through audio-visual effects”, techniques also used in fiction films. “But they are also directly connected to content and themes with links to real life” in documentary films, and crucially, “to our decisions to act directly or indirectly when confronted with social problems” (Bondebjerg 2014,21).