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Technology affects how we do pretty much anything, including the age-old craft of storytelling. Now there are more choices of what we can read, watch, listen to and play with — and those choices are expanding by the moment. Every minute, 100 hours of video are being uploaded to YouTube alone. But with the ease of production comes a danger: Much of what is created risks becoming background noise. So it is important to create quality over quantity. The “cream” can rise when the medium is masterfully used to advance the story or message.
Some old truths about storytelling still apply, such as the need for compelling characters and for something to be at stake. Now those old techniques are being combined with new technology, often by teams that include writers, photographers and videographers. Storytelling becomes a group effort. Programmers are creating infrastructure and environments for the audience to explore an electronic landscape that encompasses multiple mediums, and these robust environments are less about the technology than about blending the strength of each craft to add to the experience.
The New York Times project “Snow Fall” is a shining example of collaborative storytelling. Awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, the effort was lauded for its “deft integration of multimedia elements.” It relates the harrowing experiences of a group of the nation’s top skiers when they were swept up in a massive avalanche at Tunnel Creek, Wash., an avalanche that would claim three of their lives.
New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abrahamson credited Joe Sexton — then the paper’s sports editor and now senior editor at ProPublica — for seeing the multimedia potential from the beginning. “ ‘Snow Fall’ has actually become a verb.… ‘To snowfall’ means to tell a story with fantastic graphics and video and every kind of multimedia, and that is absolutely organic to the storytelling itself,” she said. As Andrew DeVigal — former multimedia editor for the New York Times and now a content strategist — put it, the viewer puts in little work for a lot of payoff. What would have been an 18,000-word story was turned into a streamlined storytelling experience. The text version of the story is enhanced by harrowing first-person accounts, interactive graphics that illuminated the scientific perspectives of the story and photos and videos that brought the experience together into a project that reached 3.5 million viewers in the first six days of publication.
Taking traditional elements of storytelling and parlaying them into experiences that connect as well as inform is what journalism instructor and documentary producer Chad Stevens strives to get out of his journalism students who participate in the Powering a Nation project. The project is an annual University of North Carolina initiative that investigates the political, economic and scientific tension behind energy in the United States. Powering a Nation’s collaborative efforts garnered an Emmy nomination in the new approaches to news & documentary category for “100 Gallons: Reflections from a Nation Powered by Water,” its 2012 project about the country’s dependence on water.
Powering a Nation’s most recent project, “Over Water Under Fire,” intertwines two stories, one about the state of the Colorado River, the other about soldiers coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. It blends the two stories by following soldiers taking a trip down the river. Parallel narratives emerge as at-risk humans travel a river facing its own ecological challenges. A non-hierarchical, bottom-up management approach has been cornerstone of Powering a Nation. Created with students’ sensibilities from the get go, students were encouraged to push the boundaries of storytelling. Taking inspiration from projects such as the Canadian National Film Board’s “Bear 71” and “Welcome to Pine Point,” the goal was to create a storytelling experience that created a sense of wonder, that appealed to people of all ages on many levels, blending traditional elements of media into a seamless experience. “Over Water Under Fire” pushes the bounds of storytelling, a feat made possible through collaboration, not to mention lots of time and effort. With little time off and much sleep lost, the student team quickly learned to understand the role and strengths of each participant — and to communicate efficiently. Basically put, the more perspectives, the wider the view.
Storytelling once was a narrow experience. The storyteller told; the listener listened.
Filmmaker Elaine McMillion’s project “Hollow: An Interactive Documentary” bridges that gap between the storyteller and the audience. Perhaps it was her roots of growing up next the McDowell County, W.Va., that drew her to tell the story of “rural brain drain,” the phenomenon of dying towns, where population loss exceeds births. All 10 incorporated towns in McDowell County have been defined as dying towns.
Her first approach to the project was linear, and that reflected some of her training: She earned a degree in newspaper journalism, had writing experience and was a videographer for the Washington Post. But as the West Virginia project progressed, she realized that a story with a simple “the end” would not be enough. Appalachia stories are often oversimplified and stereotypical. The simple statistics of drug abuse, obesity and other problems often create a narrow, impersonal picture. McMillan encountered too many stories of hope and pride to craft such a bleak “black and white” picture. She wanted to challenge preconceptions and create a more authentic view that included the day-to-day human stories of McDowell County.
The Hollow project evolved into a hybrid community participatory project, a place to create dialogue and ignite social awareness in an ever-changing story of McDowell County. The project became a landscape of ideas, a public arena for deliberating the common concerns of the community.
A major component of the project was creating tech that interconnects, creating a central place to share events, goals and real-time storytelling. It includes a mix of producer- and local-made content, including offerings from local volunteers ranging in age from 9 to 65. The project is practically a living, breathing thing; viewers can subscribe for updates on individual people. Such connections create insight and understanding.
There are other examples of this kind of storytelling, where the audience joins in creating the narrative. Consider “Star Wars Uncut – The Fan-made Galactic Saga,” a site that invites fans to reimagine the classic Star Wars films through crowd-sourced re-creations. There’s also “Sandy Storyline,” an online hub that gives residents recovering from Superstorm Sandy a place to tell their stories. In both cases, the sites rely on the audience to create the story. In fact, the audience pretty much is the story.
The craft of storytelling is entering a brave new phase. Organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the Tribeca Film Institute are holding storytelling “hackathons,” events where storytellers gather to deconstruct a story — be it a movie, news event, book or TV show — and discuss ways to reinvent it.
Experience is the killer app.
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