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March 29 2013


Inside “Snow Fall,” the New York Times multimedia storytelling sensation

Snow Fall,” the widely celebrated New York Times multimedia narrative on a deadly avalanche in Washington State, won a Peabody this week for being “a spectacular example of the potential of digital-age storytelling.” The project packaged a six-part story by Pulitzer finalist John Branch, accompanied by interactive graphics, video and character bios of the expert skiers and snowboarders caught in the danger. It also marked the Times’ foray into the e-publishing of long-form singles.

“Snow Fall” opens with an otherworldly video loop of snow blowing across a mountain slope—functioning as a photo that moves—and Branch’s action-oriented lede:

UnknownThe snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

Snow shattered and spilled down the slope. Within seconds, the avalanche was the size of more than a thousand cars barreling down the mountain and weighed millions of pounds. Moving about 7o miles per hour, it crashed through the sturdy old-growth trees, snapping their limbs and shredding bark from their trunks.

The avalanche, in Washington’s Cascades in February, slid past some trees and rocks, like ocean swells around a ship’s prow. Others it captured and added to its violent load.

Somewhere inside, it also carried people. How many, no one knew.

This week, Branch walked an audience through the project—conception to clicks—at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. (For the thread, search #SnowFallUGA on Twitter.) Click through for Storyboard’s Storified version of Branch’s talk about the reporting, organization, buildout, intention and editing behind one of the most ambitious storytelling projects in Times history:

Screen shot 2013-03-27 at 12.48.09 PM

February 08 2011


What we’re watching: two takes on documentary

Lately, we’ve been pondering the full range of documentary projects. From a storytelling standpoint, “Hell and Back Again” represents one end of the spectrum. The film, which won the documentary award at Sundance this year, tracks a soldier through combat, injury and back home to North Carolina. Watch the brief trailer and see a gallery of filmmaker Danfung Dennis’ powerful images from the movie.

A more experimental approach to delivering documentary, “HIGHRISE” is a multi-city, multi-year project recording “the human experience in global vertical suburbs.” Under the direction of documentarian Katerina Cizek, “HIGHRISE” uses layered images to recreate 360-degree views of participants’ living spaces, and offers audio of them talking about life in apartments and projects from Beruit to Phnom Penh and Chicago to Havana. Viewers can scroll through people or places, and click on rooms in a virtual highrise to find the apartment of a real person somewhere in the world. See the trailer or visit the site.

Even simple talking-head video posted by Amnesty International on the 25th anniversary of disgraced ruler Jean-Claude Duvalier’s 1986 flight from Haiti underlines the power of the human voice in storytelling. Since Duvalier recently returned home, it’s worth noting video’s instantaneous ability to remind viewers of just what life was like prior to his departure (via @PulitzerCenter).

And on the lighter (and interactive) side, “The Johnny Cash Project” is a crowdsourced tribute to the Man in Black – or, as the project’s site calls it, a “global collective art project.” Working within a framework of images and using a tool on the site, participants create their own portraits of Cash, which will eventually be included in a music video (via @MediaStorm).

An image from Danfung Dennis' "Hell and Back Again"

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January 14 2011


Harvey Smith on environmental storytelling and embedding narrative: “It has to be possible to miss some things to make finding them meaningful”

In a bit of serendipitous surfing last fall, I stumbled onto “What Happened Here?” a presentation by Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch at the 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The presentation focused on environmental storytelling and referred not only to gaming, but also to documentary photography, narrative journalism and a treatise on comic books.

It’s hard to imagine news organizations spending the kind of resources on game design that commercial developers do, but in efforts such as Nonny de la Peña’s Gone Gitmo” and Wired’s “Cutthroat Capitalism,” storytellers are already exploring how game experiences can intersect with journalism. And the Online News Association’s Interactive Narratives site includes hundreds of projects that give the audience a hand in events (though some are simply multimedia).

All of which makes Smith and Worch’s presentation to their commercial-designer audience relevant. Their distinctions between what film does and what games do, their thoughts on players’ relationship to the game environment, and their ideas on enriching interactive narrative deserve some pondering.

I decided to call Harvey Smith with some questions. What follows is a summary of the notes from their conference presentation, followed by comments from Smith related to the idea of nonfiction or reality-based games. It’s heady stuff, but worth a look for anyone thinking about how stories work in different media.

Smith and Worch contrast gaming with fictional exposition, arguing that gaming requires the player to take a role in interpreting information, building a story of “what happened here.” While a lot of stellar narrative nonfiction also leaves room for readers or viewers to interpret events, they suggest that gaming takes it to another level entirely.

Surroundings help create and reinforce the identity of the player. Signs of violence and looting may suggest to a player that future violence will happen, or that the player will be called on to perform similar behaviors. Lab-rat-type mazes will probably make the player feel, well … like a lab rat.

At root, Worch and Smith suggest that environmental storytelling involves the player making connections: “What we’re talking about here is subtext, which transforms simple scenes into something with a deeper meaning.” While all stories have subtext, Smith and Worch say that in games, subtext emerges differently. While print and film direct the audience’s gaze and focus its attention, Smith says, “In games, we explore.”

The pair illustrate their point with photos from a book by Robert Polidori. The first image is two goldfish that almost seem to float in the air, but on close examination look to be stuck to a screen door or window. Each subsequent image pulls back on the view and examines other perspectives – a muddied room with furniture topsy-turvy, a damaged house, a devastated neighborhood, and then a wide-angle overhead picture that shows a flooded, pulverized landscape. The series of photographs are taken from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and their accumulation into meaning mimics the kind of narrative experience that games offer, in which player exploration both yields and shapes a narrative. According to Smith and Worch, environmental storytelling “fundamentally integrates player perception and active problem solving, which builds investment.”

So a central question of the narrative is to create a desire in the player to find out “What happened here?” But all players may not answer the question the same way – clues left in game environments can be interpreted differently. Why is interpretation more compelling than exposition? Smith asks then answers the question:

What that really comes down to is the fact that environmental storytelling is active. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget showed that play, discovery and interaction are key to learning. This active approach to learning creates participation, which breeds investment. Students and players alike bring their own experiences, so the act of interpretation gains personal meaning.

“Active” also means that the story isn’t shoved down the player’s throat – quite the opposite, discovery is self-paced. The player is pulling the narrative. This leads to a familiar world, which is self-reinforced, more complete, and more immersive.

The concept behind this is the Law of Closure. As humans we have an innate need to categorize and fit visual elements into a larger framework. To do so, we draw conclusions. Scott McCloud applied this concept to visual storytelling in “Understanding Comics”: “What’s important is what happens between the panels.”

Smith and Worch urge developers who are creating a setting to “think about how the elements connect. A single prop can transform the scene … In good environmental storytelling the elements combine to a larger picture, but have individual significance as well.” To keep the story coherent, they suggest having environmental elements draw from the main premise and echo the larger setting. The premise generates the events of the story, and the events remind players of the premise. “Every anonymous environmental storytelling moment wastes the opportunity to say something about the game.”

Talking with Smith by phone, I asked him about challenges and ideas particular to nonfiction settings. I mentioned a few examples, including “Peacemaker,” a game that allows users to play as Israeli or Palestinian leaders, requiring them to manage an escalating crisis. Smith was not familiar with the game but said that factional setups might be ideal for generating powerful narratives: “That strikes me as a really great way to give them an implicit understanding of why the conflict exists and what the motives are. It’s sort of a stealth way of putting a player in the shoes of another faction that they normally might pass judgment on and not understand at all.”

He repeatedly noted the difference between a “push narrative” and a “pull narrative” – both of which are embedded in a story but unfold very differently.

If you walk into a room and a character pops up and says, “Hi, I’m going to be your ally, and I’m at the edge of this ruined city, and I’ve been trading with these people. If you take this gem over to the edge of the city, I’ll give you some gold,” that’s an embedded narrative.

But you can also embed narrative not in a push way, but in a pull way. If I leave a body in a cave and put some monsters in the cave wandering around, some rocks on the ground near the body, and a  hole in the ceiling with a shaft of light coming down, and the body has prospector gear, things that you might find on a miner, the player might look at that and say, “Oh, this guy was mining, and he fell through the hole and they killed him. I might need that equipment.” That’s still embedded narrative; the designer still places those elements. But instead of the designer pushing it to you through a conversation, you pull it from the environment yourself.  You walk past it, you observe the scene, and you infer what happened. Or you might miss it. That’s the thing.

Discussing the temptation to prioritize newsworthy elements in a nonfiction game and force viewers to encounter them in a certain way, Smith noted that there’s a tradeoff. You may want to herd players through certain experiences, but it often works best if you let them get there themselves. He explains:

That’s the classic insecurity of interactivity: Things might go badly. If you set up some systems where the player can’t fail, and everything is very protected, it’s not a game anymore. It’s boring, in fact. It has to be possible to make bad decisions in order to make the good decisions meaningful. It has to be possible to miss some things to make finding them meaningful. You have to trust your players. Depending on execution, you can be successful at providing those details to the player while making it likely that they’ll find them.

Sid Meier is one of my heroes, and he says, “A game is a series of interesting decisions,” or something to that effect. I would add to that: a game is a series of interesting decisions in an emotionally meaningful context or situation. You can do a lot with a little. You don’t have to simultaneously make the most elegant artful, state-of-the-art game ever and also get your point across. The main reason for trying to adhere to some of this is that the experience is more powerful. The more it feels interactive, that the player authored it based on the outcome, the more powerful and memorable it is.

For more, see the full presentation, which includes images from games such as “Doom” and “Bioshock.” It’s not particularly graphic but might not be ideal for the tenderhearted.

January 03 2011


Nonny de la Peña on “Gone Gitmo,” Stroome and the future of interactive storytelling

I recently talked about journalism and storytelling with Nonny de la Peña, who is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, where she explores 3-D environments for news, nonfiction and documentary. She is also co-founder of Stroome.com, a community that allows online collaborative remixing of visual journalism. A graduate of Harvard University with 20 years of news experience, de la Peña is a former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine and many other publications. Her award-winning documentary films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the world.

I met de la Peña in London last summer and was particularly curious to hear her thoughts on “Gone Gitmo,” an immersive storytelling installation built as a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, “Gone Gitmo” was constructed inside Second Life and appeared in prototype at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Users who enter the project experience a virtual detention inside the prison camp, with documentary footage embedded to create spatial narrative. De la Peña and I connected again last month via Skype to discuss her work. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

You have explained that the main idea of immersive journalism “is to allow the participant, typically represented as a digital avatar, to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story.” Immersive systems give the participant “access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions, that accompany the news.” How would you explain your main motivation to explore immersive journalism?

Immersive journalism really comes from understanding that there is a growing use of virtual and gaming platforms in which individuals are extremely comfortable with a virtual body. Using that as a starting point, I began to consider what that might mean for nonfiction. In the same way documentary grew in parallel with fiction film, I believe immersive journalism (which can also be considered as immersive documentary or immersive nonfiction) has an appropriate potential using new technologies. My journalistic work has often considered human rights issues, which makes it more likely such issues will be reflected in my immersive journalism work.

However, there are some very interesting questions that arise. For example, does the fact that the stories are accessed through a virtual body mean that they are necessarily subjective experiences? How do we ensure “objectivity?”

Our director of the journalism school at Annenberg, Geneva Overholser, really feels that transparency is the key here. If we can point to our sources, provide excellent research and be open to comment and criticism, immersive journalism can live up to its potential. In a sense, it’s simply about applying traditional journalistic principles to the new technologies.

Your work, as you say, is interrogating the phenomenology of narrative journalism. It seems to me that 3-D animation still presents a barrier to verisimilar storytelling in a way that “live action” or photographic realism does not…

I am not sure that is true. I think that “experience” can have value, especially given stories that are inaccessible. For example, Gitmo is off limits to most citizens and press, so we’ve made it accessible. You can read all you want to about the carbon markets, but when you literally follow the money, does that make the story better understood? And yet, the video released in the Baha Mousa case is extraordinarily disturbing, but when we built our piece in Mel Slater’s lab, that video had not yet been released. I would suggest we did a pretty good job considering that the information came from International Red Cross data and interrogation logs.

Now, what is the role of realism?  If the graphics get better, will the experiences become more comparable to the realism of video now? Mel’s work has shown that the video graphics don’t have to be great to work. Still, the last piece I saw in his lab on understanding violence used extremely good audio and dialogue (as well as very good voice actors). In terms of current technology, one thing I can say: If the audio is bad, forget it.

Yet that exact same premise holds true in documentary filmmaking. If you have bad lighting but good audio, the drama can still be pronounced. Without good audio, even the best sequences can fail.

So orality and sound still play a major role in storytelling…


Are you concerned by the possible ethical implications? The proximity with video games, even serious games, the connotations of 3-D animation…

I am always concerned about ethical implications. I think the history of the use of propaganda makes it clear that we have to be ever vigilant.

I’m thinking of the widespread discourse of the first-person shooter for instance, in video games. Will people want to be in the place of the perpetrators? How would a journalist go about that, how to control the script?

I have gotten a lot of pushback on the Gitmo piece that we did not tell the story of the soldiers there. But as studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment make clear, giving people the role of the soldier can create some pretty intense scenarios. We decided it wasn’t appropriate for this project although we would be absolutely happy to have their experiences recounted in some way on the site. I would agree that the first-person shooter has to be considered carefully and ethically, but it would be a knee-jerk reaction to just shut down this avenue of storytelling based on that issue. For example, check out what happened with the Columbine game at Slamdance.

Would you say that in these exercises of immersive journalism or storytelling, the user, though he or she experiences situations physically, retains a level of passivity?

Very good question. The fact the user can move through the story raises a lot of issues. I have an earlier paper, when I was just starting to sort out the ideas about immersive journalism, which discusses such passive moments as the “embodied edit.” In “Gitmo,” that would be when we move the user along the “story” by teleporting them from place to place within the build. However, there are many moments when the user makes the decision where to go; still, they are within the context of the “news report” that is clearly consistent with reading about a story or watching it on TV.

A key aspect of your immersive journalism project is the blurring of boundaries between different fields, and one of the main elements in immersive experiences may be what you called the embodied edit. And Stroome allows users to remix, which is a form of editing…

Yes, considering how stories can be told differently in this new wave of technology. I consider immersive journalism still under development, but Stroome is about trying to give users a way to start telling stories today, collaboratively, journalistically and from different perspectives. For example, rather than write a letter to an editor or call up a TV station to dispute veracity, the audience member could just remix the story, telling it the way they see it.

Do you think that’s where journalism is headed, to giving users/readers the tools to re-tell the stories?

Once again, I quote Geneva (although I understand she borrowed it as well): The group formerly known as the audience, they are participants. Whether as sophisticated producers of content, or if they commit an “act of journalism” by capturing key footage on cell phones, Stroome supports both approaches.

How receptive do you think the major players in journalism are to this new form of storytelling, one open to empowering “the group formerly known as the audience”?

I think they are finding it very difficult. Even J-schools. I heard one major dean complain: “We are training professional journalists, not citizen journalists!” So they still aren’t recognizing how much this has all blurred. However, as Julian Assange explains in the “Wiki Rebels” documentary, at first he turned all of the data loose hoping that it would get vetted by the public, but ended up having to turn to journalists to analyze and distill and present to the public. However, what we are offering at Stroome offers really nice pillars of ways to collaborate and support. It is designed to consider how content is discoverable and not overwhelming.

And it is curated by a community and enabled by a specific platform…


So, what you are suggesting is an important redefinition of the role of the nonfiction storyteller and therefore of the press…

Yes. In some ways both ends of the spectrum achieving the same goal. In one, similar editorial control present with news orgs now comes with having to design and build a 3-D immersive space. In the other, Stroome opens the landscape to all. Yet both focus on user participation with journalism that is unique to our technological present.

Where do you see written journalism going in this landscape?

We will always need good analysis.

Perhaps as ancillary material for the immersive or audiovisual experiences?

Yes, I agree. And sometimes the immersive component will be ancillary to the text.


[Ernesto Priego is researching comics and narrative as a Ph.D. candidate in information studies in the U.K. at University College London. He has written previously for Nieman Storyboard on the death of Harvey Pekar, manga memoir and on comics as narrative journalism.]

December 06 2010


Twitter as story: a work in progress

Stephen Colbert mocking the national Christmas tree’s Twitter account shows that the frivolousness of the plucky social media tool is still up for debate. No doubt Twitter’s popularity offsets some of the mockery, and it has contributed to newsgathering and crisis reporting. But does it have any storytelling potential?

Twitter has been a home for crowdsourced fiction, sometimes with involvement from storytelling superstars. Neil Gaiman launched a Twitter story more than a year ago in partnership with BBC Audiobooks America. Even before that, comic bloggers and artists over at Monkey on My Back solicited text for comics via Twitter, and then created the visuals to complete the story. More recently, the Toronto International Film Festival has joined with Tim Burton to launch a Tworror story that is currently being crowdsourced to completion.*

We’ve previously noted conceptual artist and Storyboard contributor Peggy Nelson’s development of a “Twitter movie.” And a few users, such as @VeryShortStory, have created truly minimalist stories in 140 characters or less on Twitter:

On the nonfiction side, news organizations are learning how to use Twitter not only as a newsgathering tool to troll for sources or to find specialized information but also to curate tweets for a kind of snapshot of a moment in time. (See The Washington Post’s coverage of victory and concession speeches after the November elections.) These collected tweets tend to reflect a series of opinions or to recreate the experience of a community without necessarily telling a story in which there is movement from A to B.

But in October, TBD used Storify to show how curated tweets can engage the devices of fiction – suspense, forward motion and characters – in a story that unfolds close on the heels of real events. Images paired with tweets reconstructed the first hours of confusion after a death outside a nightclub in D.C. This TBD piece may be a game-changer in showing the narrative potential of social media.

So what are the differences between the fictional and the nonfiction storytelling on Twitter? The self-consciousness of doing crowdsourced fiction in a fixed time period tends toward action narratives – or maybe that’s ACTION! NARATIVES! – without much breathing space or opportunity for future readers to enter the story by making connections themselves. As contributors compete for the attention of project curators, their tweets tend to drive stories toward ever more improbable and outrageous outcomes.

The encapsulated nature of shared Tweets does lend itself to projects audiences are used to reading in book form with minimal text-per-page ratios, like children’s stories and adventure comics. But it will likely take a while to suss out how to apply Twitter to stories that need a slow-building, longer arc.

Crowdsourcing tweets that already exist seems to have more immediate potential for nonfiction storytelling. Curating tweets in the wake of news events fosters creation of a story with less self-consciousness in the voices that emerge. And the real-time nature of Twitter preserves reactions from newsmakers and audiences to events, sometimes before they’ve been swamped by a common interpretation or spun out of self-interest. Twitter’s conversational language provides some of the material for the natural trivia that can make fiction work (humorous asides, what’s for breakfast, what’s on TV), fleshing out the action and surprises necessary to any story.

If Twitter continues to build its user base, journalists will have an expanding pool of  millions of voices and characters on hand with individual stories authors can weave into a larger nonfiction narrative. We’re not there yet, but as more and more people get used to watching news unfold via feeds, it’s easier and easier to imagine.

And as for that Tim Burton project, it ends today. If you don’t read this post in time to contribute yourself, you can at least find out how the story ends.

*Hat tip to Megan Garber at Nieman Lab for pointing out the Burton project to us.

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