Creating interactive narratives
Fiona Milburn talks with Ingrid Kopp, director of Digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute in
Ingrid Kopp is an inspiring figure in the world of interactive storytelling and will be in
For those unfamiliar with interactive storytelling, can you tell us what it is and how it's applied in the digital realm?
I think people will have different definitions depending on who you ask but I define it as anything that is NOT a linear film, although it can be part of a project that involves a linear film. So for example, a transmedia project might involve a story told across different platforms that includes a feature film or a television show. I tend to talk about interactive storytelling rather than transmedia because many of the projects I’m involved with do not work in this way. They can be web documentaries like Hollow, virtual reality immersive journalism pieces like Use of Force or documentary films that use other media to further their storytelling and outreach like American Promise and Promise Tracker and Who Is Dayani Cristal.
Use of Force
I also realize that some people will not see these projects as truly interactive because you can’t change what happens in them (like you would be able to in a game or choose your own adventure experience for example). I like the word “interactive” however, because it’s nice and elastic and I don’t think we should be too restrictive in our definitions as we are experimenting with new forms.
I’m also really interesting in interactive storytelling coming out of other disciplines and industries such as journalism (Snowfall, Firestorm and digital art/creative code projects like you saw at the recent Digital Revolution exhibit at the Barbican in London.
Much of our approach is focused on audiences, looking at how they are consuming media and how we can reach them with documentary stories in new ways. I’m also very interested in interactive storytelling as a way of reaching audiences who wouldn’t normally see themselves as fans of documentaries or who would be excluded from traditional production and distribution mechanisms. I think a lot about community, access and digital literacy. The proliferation of mobile technology in the developing world is very exiting for me because of this.
Why might traditional storytellers consider taking an interactive approach to their work? Is interactivity better suited to a particular form of storytelling, e.g. fiction vs non fiction works?
My focus has been non-fiction but there are a lot of people doing very exciting work on fiction projects (and Henry Jenkins’ original definition of transmedia is definitely aimed at fiction projects). The one thing I would say is that people shouldn’t feel that they have to take an interactive approach to their work. Not every project needs an interactive element. It all depends on your strategy, your audience, your personal, artistic vision. However, I do think storytellers need to be increasingly strategic about creating work that reaches an audience. In an attention economy you have to think deeply about engagement. So my advice is always to just be aware of all the tools and approaches available to you and then to create a strategy for your project that works for you. Part of this involves paying attention to audience behavior, new tools and other projects out there that are experimenting with what is now possible.
How does interactivity affect narrative structure and the storyteller's ability to control the journey? Are there degrees of interactivity?
I touched upon this briefly earlier but the short answer is YES! Like any artistic medium there are many different ways of telling an interactive story and much of this will depend on the storyteller (or the funder or broadcaster perhaps). You can make a project fully interactive or just add a “soft” interactive element like Alma. Or create a project that can work in a lean back and lean forward way like the NFB did with Bear71.
Many digital interactive works are solitary experiences, how might one incorporate a larger audience and shared experience into the work?
Great question. Festivals are starting to create spaces to show this work which is fantastic. A few that come to mind are Storyscapes which I curate at the Tribeca Film Festival, IDFA DocLab, New Frontier at Sundance, Interactive at Sheffield DocFest and Future of Storytelling. Caspar Sonnen at IDFA DocLab does live screenings of interactive work, led by the creator(s), that are scheduled much like traditional film screenings with a Q&A etc. Social media allows for community building and network creation online of course too. I’ve been really excited to see a project we funded Immigrant Nation create a really vibrant community on its Facebook page.
What are the main challenges faced by those new to creating digital interactive works? For instance, does a filmmaker need to learn how to code?
Filmmakers are filmmakers, they are good at telling stories. There are lots of coders out there who are good at coding. So the trick is really building new creative teams and new communities around this work. I do think that learning how code works as a creative tool is really useful for filmmakers though. That’s why we do story hackathons called Tribeca Hacks. It’s a great way to bring storytellers, developers and designers together to experiment and create work. I’ve taken coding classes just to get a sense of how these languages work and what they can do and I recommend doing this. There are some fantastic short courses that are great for making you feel more empowered to talk to coders about your creative vision. I think one of the greatest gaps right now are interactive project producers who can run a project and be the translator between all the different teams and skillsets. That and great digital/creative agencies who will work for documentary budgets.
Digital works often bring together storytellers, designers, and technologists who all contribute creatively to the project. Do you have any tips for facilitating a successful collaboration?
This was very hard for us at first when we first started running hackathons. I think one thing we learned early is to read the riot act at the beginning and make it clear that everyone is a creative collaborator and the people need to take the time to translate for each other so that they can truly work together. Otherwise you can end up with defensive filmmakers who don’t know how to ask for certain things and they treat the coders like monkeys with typewriters. Or coders who don’t understand the nuances of storytelling and are used to tech culture and who want to create fast, utilitarian products. Everyone has to learn. One thing we are passionate about is building in diversity from the ground up. And making sure that our hackathon teams are full of people who want to learn, not people who want to show off. There is a lot of sexism in tech culture here and we really want to make sure that this is not brought into our interactive storytelling culture. And in case it sounds like I’m attacking tech culture here I also want to make it clear that working with technologists, developers and designers has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career. They have given me a completely different sense of what is possible in terms of storytelling and how powerful code and design can be in terms of engaging people and I am hugely grateful for this.
As far as the projects we fund go we do regular Google Hangouts to make sure everyone is connected and to create a peer-to-peer support network and this is really important because the project creators are the experts, they are the ones actually building the projects and they are the best resources for each other in many ways.
I’m very grateful to Ford Foundation for supporting this work and enabling us to push documentary storytelling and audience engagement in all these exciting ways.
What are some pertinent examples of digital interactive narratives for those wanting to know more?
I’ve given a bunch already but you can see all the projects we’ve funded thus far on our website: https://tribecafilminstitute.org/films/artist_programs/tfi_new_media_fund
Check out the MIT DocuBase for more inspiration, it’s a wonderful resource: http://docubase.mit.edu/
And for an historical perspective their Moments of Innovation: http://momentsofinnovation.mit.edu/
IDFA DocLab has a great database of projects: http://www.doclab.org/category/projects/
The NFB Interactive team have led the way with much of their work: https://www.nfb.ca/interactive/
Kat Cizek’s work for the NFB is a big inspiration for me personally. I love Out My Window: http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/outmywindow
I-Docs are a great resource in the
And to finish, can you tell us a little about yourself, your passions, and what drives you out of bed each morning?
I’m hugely grateful and inspired by all the incredible filmmakers, storytellers and creators that I have had the honor to work with throughout my career. I see myself as a facilitator of other people’s work so I am profoundly grateful that they have the chutzpah and vision to go out everyday to tell important stories and help us all look at the world in a more nuanced way. Stories are hugely important to me. All stories, I read a lot and I love radio too. I carry an old fashioned radio around my apartment with me in a very analogue fashion! Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s TED talk about the danger of a single story is incredible.
I think it is vitally important to pay attention to who gets to tell stories and who gets to listen to them and to fund and support brave and creative artists. This gets me out of bed in the morning. But my other passions since you ask: good public transport, bicycles, kayaking, coffee, learning Xhosa and books. Paper books.
About Ingrid Kopp: An innovator in interactive storytelling and maker culture, Ingrid Kopp is Director of Digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute where she oversees the TFI New Media Fund. Recent supported projects include