Highrise – A Landmark I-doc, with Room for Improvement

Highrise is an ongoing interactive web documentary that chronicles “the highrises of the world, and the worlds inside the highrises”. Director Katerina Cizek recognizes that the fastest growing and most diverse areas of the world’s cities are along the fringes, where highrises shoot up and suburbs form around a menagerie of incredibly diverse cultures.

Cizek’s goal with Highrise is to raise awareness for the low quality of life these people often suffer due to institutional neglect, including poor sanitation, gang violence, and lack of employment opportunities. Governments around the world are slowly recognizing that the growing edges of their cities are experiencing necrosis. Some political movements are enacting “reclamation projects” to breathe life back into these places.

However it is not yet enough. One of the aims of Highrise is to foster a community of action and support between people around the world through the creation of a shared highrise experience. Highrise invites the user to virtually stand inside a selection of international apartment complexes and share a space with its inhabitants. Captured in these images and stories are experiences of both tragedy and inspirational community life.

Highrise is certainly an achievement from a technological standpoint. The website is dynamic and enjoyable to navigate. The presentation is an internet marvel, incorporating navigable 360 degree videos and interactive photo panoramas (loads of new technology was developed by the NFB as part of the development of this project). All of this makes the site a great stopover for the internet sightseer at the very least.

I have been studying interactive documentaries like this one for a while now. The field is new and its conventions relatively un-established, but its potential is clear to many. At the time (year) this project’ realization was groundbreaking. It’s so interactive, easy to participate in, it has a unique visual and aural presentation, and all while reaching what it sets out to achieve.

That being said, there is a ‘beef’ that I have with interactive documentary. I always feel like I want to leave them after about 10 minutes, long before the all the content has been explored. Once I hit the mark where I say to myself “oh, cool. I get what this is about”, I feel like closing my browser tab. For the most part I stick it out and explore everything I can, either because I am writing a critique on or because I feel like I’m going to miss out on something.

This may not be a legitimate criticism. I can’t say if this is a result of the documentary being bad or an attention problem of mine. All I know is that the goal of the project is to engage me interactively enough to want to keep clicking, but I ultimately feel like my hand is forced. This might not be a problem if there wasn’t still an hour’s worth of videos to click through. Since we all know that nobody is a perfectly unique butterfly, I can only assume that there are others who share my reaction.

The interactive docs that have kept me along until the end have – and I know this may sound strange – shared qualities with video games. Bear 71 for instance is an NFB interactive doc that had a 20 minute length and then it was over, but in those 20 minutes I was riveted and ultimately satisfied. I still praise its ingenuity. Peers who also praised it described it as immersive, said they loved the open world design, and felt a real sense of discovery along with purposeful participation, and a compulsion to go on.

I think that had Highrise been presented to me as a linear documentary, I could have watched it from beginning to end and been mesmerized in thought. In its clickable online version, I found the freedom of choice made it hard to keep clicking for an indefinite amount of time until every piece of information was received. I just wanted it to talk to me, because I lost interest to interrogate it.

I do not mean to reduce Highrise to its flaws. Highrise is an important piece and a necessary one that helped lay out some conventions of interactive documentary. I have focused this reflection to decipher and point in the direction of what the medium can gain most by improving; the ability to inspire a continued willingness to participate and interrogate. Interactive doc has potential over linear film for a user to experience immersion, purpose, and fun. If these propensities of the medium are not built upon, it is my opinion that the medium will fail to distinguish itself as a viable form. However, I have faith.

I think that interactive documentary has enormous potential that hasn’t been reached yet. Studying it makes me feel like I’m living on the brink of a breakthrough new storytelling medium, one where the ability of games to engage and immerse is being used shift perspectives of people and show our world the way a good documentary does.

My peers and I may be in the perfect place to define that revolution.


FILM4130 Final Project Report

Brainstormed with Mike Zdero about the interface and logic for the Korsakow’s presentation.

Joe – Conducted, filmed, and edited interview

Malin – Conducted, filmed, and edited interview

Lucas – Conducted, filmed and edited interview

Kolasa – Conducted, filmed, and edited interview

Thomas – Conducted, filmed interview (this was a great interview, it fell through the cracks when Elli was supposed to make changes to it)

Adam – Conducted, filmed interview

Monica – Conducted, filmed interview

Library Girl – Conducted, filmed interview

Conducted and filmed at least a half a dozen other interviews that didn’t contain valuable material.

Brought my own equipment back and forth to school (Camera, SD Cards, Tripod, Light, etc.)

Borrowed and returned the cage microphone under my name.


I think the project succeeded in getting all of the students to try some production. For better or for worse, every student came out knowing more about the interview process.

It was hard for me to accept that the interviews I conducted would be edited by someone else because I had a vision to complete them, but not the time. One of my favorite interviews disappeared somewhere along the process because its editor couldn’t take her responsibilities seriously. I thought the second editor I had was excellent however.

The class project forced me to work in a group, which was a good thing. It pushed the boundaries of what I thought I could do. I think everyone involved had their boundaries pushed in their participation.

A Dirge For Little Bird – Internet Archive Remix Project

My goal for the public domain remix is simple and impactful.

A Song Of The Birds (1935) remixed with Betty Boop: Snow White (1933), both by Max Fleischer.

These public domain cartoons are both relics from my childhood, as I would imagine they are for many people my age and much older.

As innocent as these cartoons are, there is a haunting quality to them that children are sensitive to, but cannot express. Or perhaps they begin to haunt a person when they are pulled out of the recesses of childhood memory and resurrected to an adult mind. Either way, I’ve always been sensitive to it.

third cut_effects.Still003

This remix places Koko the clown’s haunting performance of “St. James Infirmary Blues” (as performed by the great Cab Calloway) alongside the tale of a little bird who is taken from this world the same day he learns to fly.

third cut_effects.Still006

I like it as a sad little piece. It differs from my recent work but recalls more directly my earliest work; sad, dark, frightening, but quirky, off, and somehow cute. This is how I would clumsily describe the vein of inspiration I most relish. Of course everybody is free to call it whatever they like, even ‘not for me’, ‘dumb’, ‘weird (in a bad way)’ and ‘simply shit’. I still believe there are people who may feel a connection with it, as I do.

It runs at exactly a minute forty, YouTube adds an extra second (that’s for you Taravat, so you know I’m not over!!!)

“Betty Boop: Snow White (1933),” Archive.org video, 7:06, accessed March 26, 2013, http://archive.org/details/bb_snow_white

“A Song Of The Birds (1935),”  Archive.org video, 7:17, accessed March 26, 2013, http://archive.org/details/A_Song_Of_The_Birds_1935

Here is an original Cab Calloway performance.

Here is the full performance from Betty Boop.

third cut_effects.Still002

Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” – visual storytelling perfected

There ate very little words spoken in Hunger. Found within the deafening silence is another form of language. Always right before your eyes, the visual vocabulary of films often makes itself invisible. Hunger, directed by steve mcqueen with cinematography by sean boppit, achieves a level of depth and magnitude in its materful visual articulatuon.

Scenes like the prisoners being ganges up on by armed guards, anally and orally probed with the same set of gloves or the degeneration of Bobby’s frame over the course of the hunger strike, and even the coordinated piss-spilling in the hallway – all of these scenes are wordless, but they speak volumes. The entire film carries an air of sophistication that may be undervalued when taken for granted.

I for one have a hard time paying attention to long and worst dialogue, and talking that fills the air throughout some films. Hunger, however, had my eyes and ears and mind linked and synced to every action on the screen. In a way I felt like I was reading a novel, albeit a visual novel, but the relation is that I was very much “reading” the story. Descriptions or updates or dialogue wasnt being fed to me, but with the right pair of eyes, which I’m sure many people have judging by the acclaim the film has gotten, every shot is a phrase and every scene is a chapter.

The film is absolutely polarizing. That we are sure of just from watching it but also from the reviews – the Tiff screening in 2009 inspired both walk-outs and standing ovations. Where the film may push boundaries the furthest is the 17.minute long uncut dialogue between bobby andi a priest. The scene is somewhat brutally minimalist and focused, reflecting the surroundings of the prison and the overall tone of the film. What makes it special is that it pays off. If someone doesn’t like it, they can walk out, but for the others who have the faith, audacity, or self-control, whatever it takes to stick around for just. While longer, one can find themself invested in the story.

The feeling of enjoying Hunger is not unlike being swept up in a novel so good that the only option is to power through it in one sitting.

Anything learned from this film in regards to telling a story visually should be highly valued.

Montage Assignment: Skinface Gets A Date

Skinface Gets A Date is on the surface a tale about an ugly monster who manages to score a date with a hot piece of pony. But deep down, it is also a tale about an ugly monster who manages to score a date with a hot piece of pony. Of course, we are art majors, so it is other things, too.


With this assignment, I wanted to push myself to tell a narrative through cinematic language alone. This included first reducing the story to a single sentence, as seen above. From there followed a number of creative choices to ensure the viewer’s understanding.

I approached the film like a long sentence. Or a series of sentences. The same way that each word in a sentence relates, modifies, or gives context to another word, each still image (or shot)  in a film is a word in a visual vocabulary.


The word sex alone is very powerful. But it is not a story. To convey a specific idea about sex, it must be accompanied by the proper wordsmithing.

The big ugly monster had sex with the pink pony.

(For clarity’s sake, the above sentence does not reference Skinface Gets A Date)

Now sex has a context from the words around it. Every word in that sentence was crucial to locking down the idea that needs to be conveyed. The same is true for shots.

the gaze1

In Skinface Gets A Date, to show that the monster was lusting for the pony, I used a shot of him (right justified), juxtaposed with a shot of the ponies (more left justified). His eye line corresponds to the idea of “gaze”. Then I use a different angle of the pony (without breaking the axis) to convey their relational distance, both physical and metaphorical, and to set up the sense of space. Seeing the monster gazing from the distance also gives him that “lonely” and “creeper” feeling. He looks voyeuristic.

the gaze2

His gaze turns crazed and lustful, and then (from the same angle we recognize as his gaze from before) we see the pony looking back as well. We see the monster looking, and then quickly look away. This is a reaction shot, and through juxtaposition the audience understands that when the monster has the pony’s attention, he gets nervous.

the gaze3

The hope is that all of this comes across without me explaining it. The point was for the images to speak for themselves.


The music helped a little bit, but the story works without it. This is a good test to make sure the images speak for themselves. Colors came into play to differentiate moods. Lighting to evoke feeling. Juxtaposition is very important in a project like this because there is no dialogue, and only still images, so each image has to “speak” to another. The meaning is not in the image itself, but in each image giving context to another. Just like the word sex is not very meaningful on its own, the juxtaposition of the words, “Consensual or not, sex happened between a monster and a pony” tells a story not in the words themselves, but in their context with each other.


“Reminder”, a short piece for my Making Movies class

 Reminder is what came of my long take assignment for Film1001: Making Movies.

I wanted to do something more than purely aesthetic, such as a long take of landscape or a crowd of people – something without any planned narrative. At the same time, I found it very difficult to come up with a plot that would fit into 70 seconds. I experimented with some scenarios, but ultimately I settled with something that could be part of describing a much larger character.


I wanted the piece to say something real in a way that makes sense. The man holding the photos is actually my father, and the photos are his. They include images of his three older brothers, his mom, dad (whom he hardly knew) and the first photos taken of him after he had the accident that left his right hand missing some fingers. He immigrated to Canada from Italy not long after the last photo was taken. He really hadn’t seen the photos for quite a while, so the sentimental attachment was authentic.

My strengths lie in visual aesthetics, so I had a lot of fun lighting and setting up the scene. There are three lights in play; one behind the subject, shining through a window, one minor fill to the left, and of course the highlight on the right. I also beat a dusty pillow right before the take.


My dad’s hand has shaped his identity. He was once right handed – and after the accident, he now has to use his left. As a child, he not only stood out because he was an Italian immigrant, but he also was the kid with the “weird hand”. This must have been very socially isolating for him.Whenever someone asks him about his hand, he is quick to tell a nonchalant story about the accident. And even though he was just a little kid when it happened, I bet that for a long time telling that story made him feel a little bit dumb. As if being a curious kid was such an intellectual blunder. He has always identified himself with the underdog, and even 40 years later, I don’t think he has ever forgotten that people notice it..

What I wanted more than anything from this assignment was not to make it look the prettiest or be the funniest. I just wanted to say something about myself that people could understand. In this case, it was about my father and his history, which is very much a part of my history.


I have some criticisms of course. I think that the relationship at the end of the piece, that of the boy in the photograph being the man who now holds the photos, could be stronger. When I showed the video to some friends, they didn’t make the connection. But I think that in the context of a larger film (this being a scene thereof) it is a subtle way to tell a piece of someone’s larger story.

Themes include: the distances between time, self-identity, and personal history. There are of course many more contexts this could be placed in but these are the more apparent ones. The rest are for individual people to make on their own.

I’d like to hear what you think about this, good or bad. What good is an exercise if you don’t learn anything?

A haunting memorial to Johnny Cash, a Dziga Vertov Community Remake, and living a bear’s story in Banff – Three Interactive Documentary Reviews

The Johnny Cash Project

In memory of Johnny Cash, an aptly chosen song entitled “Aint no grave” gets a hand-drawn treatment. This interactive music video is user-created. Fans get to choose a frame from the video and redraw it. A favorite frame is then voted on by users and it gets elected to be the frame that is shown. When played it looks like a slightly schizophrenic rotoscoping of live action, but the exclusion of any colors besides black and white adds a unity to the overall piece, and the flickering frames, each one different than the last, is somewhat sombre and haunting. Often a frame appears with text scrawled in the corner that wasn’t in the original, and skeletons and crosses blink in and out of existence in different areas. Both cryptic and meaningful symbols sit beside Cash at a table or walk beside him by a train. These are ghosts. These are artifacts of people, placing themselves beside cash in a way that was never possible before. As the old adage goes, “Death levels all…”

Seeing all the inconsistencies and additions in the renderings in a way feels like watching a thousand people’s graffiti drawn on Johnny Cash’s gravestone. It is well suited for the treatment of a dead man’s music.

I would imagine that the video will stay open to additions for a long while to come, maybe even forever. Perhaps the fate of this video is to remain an ongoing, evolving piece. One could only imagine what the video may look like in a few years time, after hundreds of thousands of user generated drawings have been filtered through, with the best and most interesting representing what you see. It really keeps the man alive. For as long as he has living fans, generation after generation of people could feed this memorial with new content. Aint’ no grave is right. In this piece his body is a perpetual living collage.

Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake

Commisioned by the BBC, funded partially by The Arts Council of England and the Canada Arts Council (these are the notable participants, in my opinion), this is a remake of the classic and monumental Dziga Vertov film using the recent technique of user-submitted content. Much like the Johnny Cash video, this site uses software to assemble a cut of the ‘remake’ shown alongside the original film. Scene by scene is recreated (or re-interpreted) by users. The overall result leaves a lot desired, but not much more expected.

Upon my viewing of the film (in which my cut may be unique to my viewing, but generally summative of the universal experience), I was a little bit unimpressed. The user footage was amateurish, with the exception of very few (maybe 3 or 4 scenes overall) which had something interesting to show. Maybe its the fault of the project’s creators. Maybe they expected too much, or left the project guidelines too open. Maybe its the lack of the video user-ranking, like the Johnny Cash one. Maybe its just that Vertov’s original is just too damn good. Whatever the issue, the users can’t be blamed. They participated and thats great. Good for them. Besides a very faint and dim intellectual value to this piece – to the idea of this piece, as a concept – there is not much to recommend of it. In fact, I recommend not viewing it at all. At just over an hour, its more worth it to watch the original and see a piece of film history. Try to imagine what conventions Vertov may have invented himself with that film, or how the audience may have reacted seeing it.

Or if your too lazy for some daydreaming while watching ninety year-old black and white footage, load up netflix and watch an episode of Futurama (always my second choice activity).

Bear 71

This one is an NFB production which started off as a traditional documentary, but was redirected into an interactive piece. I sure am glad that it happened. This one floored me. It tells the story of a bear who is tagged by rangers. The video of the tagging is seen, and the bear’s voice is narrated in first person style. She tells the story of raising her cubs, living in a valley that smells like hash browns, and the dangers and troubles she faces in this new world.

What this doc really does, is it gives the viewer a completely new perspective on the impact of humans on the environment. It stays away from being preachy, and instead allows the viewer to develop empathy for the animal themselves.

The most magnificent part of the project is the presentation of Banff provincial park. The digital map represents points of data, little bubbles with titles like “Wolf 113” and “Fox 28” dot the park and move around. I really got the feeling that I was looking at real data, real information on the movement of these animals. I was very impressed and more importantly  completely immersed.

The bear’s monologue continues over my personal exploration of the park. I discover traffic cams and video feeds, and I really get a feeling of this park as a place.  A marker represents my place on the map, I am Human 11463782. I can see Bear 71. I stay close to him. I wonder if he can see me. How he is reacting to me. The better part of me knows that this is not live data, and the little blip named Human 11463782 has no real-life counterpart, but between these flashes of realization I am there. I am navigating Banff. I am one of the animals. I can fly, bolt over mountains, split lakes with my movement. The sense of immersion was astonishing.

The doc is 20 minutes long. That basically comes down to 20 minutes of monologue from Bear 71, interspersed with video key points – which you may or may not see, depending on how far you’ve strayed away from bear 71 on the map. For 20 minutes, you can be an animal in Banff.

The ending of the piece really moved me. I won’t say what it was about, because you have to experience it yourself. The point is, the entire experience is immersive, it grants the power of exploration into the subject and into the viewers hands, and it really tells a story. It really, truly does. And a fun fact to boot? I was more engrossed in this 20 minute experience than any video game I’ve played all year.

Final Word: A marvel

Hello People!

What motivated me to start this blog was my film 1001 class. I’ll be reflecting on readings and assignments here. I also hope to share musings and thoughts on filmmaking in general.

Let’s inaugurate this wordpress with a movie clip.

The film is Walk Hard; The Dewey Cox Story. I just only saw this film a few days ago, but I was very pleasantly surprised. No film in recent memory has made me laugh out loud as often as Walk Hard. The music references are fantastic, there are so many little minor jokes about musical periods (Dewey’s Brian Wilson phase when on LSD was left vague, but was something an observant fan would get giddy over). Overall, the humor has a very consistent tone and style, and I’m surprised the film got made at all (and with so many stars) in what seems to be an atmosphere of un-intelligent comedies that everyone will “get”. Final words: Underrated Treasure.