Things We Did That People Liked That Might Benefit You
Today’s calendar says simply: ‘Write Manifesto’.
As though that’s normal.
We sat down to respond to this thrown-down-gauntlet, and the first thing we thought was that a list of how we do things is a bit absolute, and didn’t reflect how we actually do things, which is probably the opposite of dogma, fixed rituals or even logical processing.
And so, instead of writing our own list, we decided to compile a Manifesto of the things that other people have said about what makes our work, well, work.
First, a very little bit about the project in question, Welcome to Pine Point, starting with what it is, since there aren’t many projects like it.
When we first started sending it to people to have a look, we were somewhat stumped. When you send things to busy people, you’re hoping to cut to the chase, quickly give them some sense of what they might expect, that it’d be worth their time. The problem was, it wasn’t like most other things. So, we’d call it a ‘new thing’, hoping this might intrigue and surprise, which met with not-so-great response rates. Then we tried ‘online documentary’, which was more accurate, but sort of boring, and didn’t speak to any real novelty. For a brief moment, we tried to wrap it with a newly coined descriptor: ‘liquid book’, but (mercifully) stopped doing that soon after. What we ended up saying was this: “We thought you might like a new thing we just finished – part book, part film, part website – about a town that existed for a generation, then was demolished. It was produced by the National Film Board of Canada.” That had enough in it to pique curiosity, it seems.
It was all new, to them and more importantly, to us. Pine Point was our first-ever long form digital project. Actually, it was our first-ever digital project of any size. We came from a print world, creating magazines (we were art and creative directors at Adbusters Magazine for half a dozen years, and also co-authored a number of books, including I Live Here, “A visually stunning narrative in which the lives of refugees and displaced people become at once personal and global.”). If you’re keen, look here, and here, and at Pine Point here.
Pine Point, in fact, was supposed to be a book – one chapter in a book we were planning on the death of photo albums. It was sitting, as projects often do, on our whiteboard. A good friend of ours, Sean Embury, suggested we take it to Rob McLaughlin, the head of the NFB’s newly minted interactive division. They liked it, we partnered up, and away we went.
We finished Pine Point just over a year ago. None of us had any idea if it was something other people would like, but we were satisfied with what we had done; we’d made it – as we always try to do– while imagining the sort of thing we’d make for ourselves.
Much to our surprise, it became a project other people seemed to like. A lot… it won dozens of prestigious awards, was featured in countless media outlets and at festivals around the world. This went on for over a year, and continues to this day. It is humbling.
Now that the dust has settled, we’ve gathered up some of the things people have said about what made Pine Point so successful. Some came up repeatedly, while others were singular, but equally insightful.
They frequently referred to things we didn’t realize we’d done.
The Things We Did In Welcome to Pine Point That People Said They Liked and That Might Benefit Other Digital Storytellers.
It told an interesting story. (Stories, actually.)
This one is on every list of how to make compelling media. It’s especially relevant in a digital world, however, where the idea of form is still so young, and can very easily crowd out the need to put story first.
We began with the story of a little Northern town – the first place Michael had ever travelled to alone as a kid. He went online one night, and found out that it had been demolished. So, good start.
When we looked further into the how and when, we came across Richard Cloutier, the guy who had compiled all these photos of the town in one charmingly constructed website. It turns out Richard was once the town tough guy. Handsome, strong, a rough and tumble guy, loved and loathed.
Then we found out he was in the advanced stages of MS. He was building the website using only his voice.
The fact we had a character as strong as Richard, who was as human as they come – with flaws and dreams – and could represent a bit of who we all are, was definitely an important structural aspect.
We found other Pine Pointers, people who were compelling in their own ways – the town’s former beauty, and a pair of brothers who could round out the set of perspectives.
We had hundreds of people write us, telling us they spent hours on the site, had laughed and cried, that it was unlike anything they’d ever experienced on the internet. This wouldn’t have been possible if there weren’t characters who represented universal truths – that we were all young once, trying to shape ourselves into meaningful beings, using whatever means we had, and would all grow up with bits of those efforts in us, that these bits might form a lens of nostalgia we could look through at the place we came from – to which people could attach themselves.
The sound is great.
Oh yes. We learned this: Sound is important in digital experiences. It builds the room that surrounds users, pulls them into the story, moves them along, makes them comfortable, gives them continuity, surprises and saddens them.
We were very lucky. We got to work with people who care a great deal about the finished product. Our Flash team at mod7 was incredibly patient and respectful of the money-losing process we had to go through. The NFB spent months finalizing it all before it went out. We also got some amazing music from The Besnard Lakes, a band from Montréal, including two custom pieces that drive the whole thing. Our sound designer, Raph Choi, worked tirelessly to make sure the sound was seamless.
Do not underestimate sound.
It was distinct.
When we were making Pine Point, we looked at very few examples of what else was out there. (And at the time, there wasn’t a lot!) We took each page as a unique stage, looked at the content, tone or point we wanted to get across, then figured out the best way to do that – whether that was a lo-fi animation or a full screen video, or a little doodle that unfolds as the user scrolls around. The beauty of a digital space is that you can adopt whatever technique suits the material best, even techniques you’ve never had the opportunity to employ, and it seems that users are willing to forgive (and even like!) the multiplicity of authorial voices.
It was written.
We wrestled a bit with whether or not the main voice should be narrated or not, after all, who’s going on the internet to read things? But the things we wanted to say, and the way we wanted to say them wouldn’t have worked with a voiceover. It’s harder to swing a voice from telling a joke to then making a blanket statement about our existence… Besides, a voiceover introduces a bunch of other problems: How long will they blather on? I don’t like their voice. I’m going to turn the sound off. Etc.
The weird thing is, probably half the people who went through the site (even Mike’s mom, whose own actual voice makes an appearance) thought it was narrated. People have insisted on this fact, and we do little to correct them.
To a degree, of course, they were right; some writing activates an inner narrator; you’re reading the story to yourself. We’re not sure this is true of all text, but it seems to be true when it’s narrative.
It was written in an interesting voice.
The voice is first person, though we co-wrote it. We did our best to make sure the voice was trustworthy, and said things that we wanted to say, ranging from the trivial to the profound. It is self-deprecating, irreverent, but also attempting to be profound.
A writer friend of ours passed on the wisdom: “Readers want to be taken on a journey. Preferably on your back. With you pointing out interesting things along the way.” This tour guide mentality is especially true in a digital world, where the tendency for user distraction and confusion is so high.
It was linear.
It’s funny, this one. Of all the things that we think we did right, it was this. As consumers of media, we’re so used to linear content, since it’s basically all we’ve consumed. TV, Radio, Books, Film, Plays – they all unfold in a linear way, and have developed conventions that reinforce navigation of this linearity: chapters, page numbers, ellipses, etc. More temporal media has this built in as a matter of how it unfolds. The movie starts, the play begins, the television show is at 9.
Many people have said that Pine Point is ‘like a choose your own adventure book’. While the digital space, and the control it offers, seems to indicate that this is true, it is most definitely not structured that way. Sure, in Pine Point you can skip ahead, in the same way you can fast forward a movie or skip to the end of a book, but there are dozens of little things that we employed to keep you moving forward, one spread at a time. The simple Previous and Next buttons, for instance, give some reassurance that there’s no other path, no up or down, or diagonal. The content that does allow you to drill down is contextualized in the page – a pile of photos, a series of videos, with reassuring numbers and controls.
The interaction was simple, intuitive.
Constructing a digital world offers up a whole host of problems. Since there are no established forms, as there are in every other media, most projects offer up one-off interactive spaces and ways to navigate them.
Video games have not helped in this regard, since they provide users ultimate control. (What’s interesting, however, is that most games have your representative seeking out what are ultimately linear experiences – enemy engagement, treasure, love – in keeping with our love of the beginning-middle-end story structure.)
We worked for years constructing magazines and books, and it was almost a given that we would borrow from the venerability of these established forms. And so, it’s page-by-page, all vital content on top.
The one question we always asked ourselves was, does this interaction serve content? It had to be obvious that you could click on the damn thing too, since we are not huge fans of hidden content, which we find completely vexing; if we ever ask ourselves – can I click on that? – we’re done.
Then there’s the problem of what space you’re inviting users into. Since a digital world is able to break the left/right axis of traditional media forms, and shatter the potential for paced, temporal delivery of content, you’ve got some questions to answer. Why can’t I go forward, up, down, turn around? What happens if I’m also checking Facebook at the same time? What if I’m at work, and can’t have the sound on (bye-bye voiceover!)
We built the content with simple tools, putting it in meaningful piles. We thought of these piles in the same way you’d think of footnotes in a book: as additional content. If you’re a footnote person, then you’ll love digging through our piles of photographs. And not to worry, the main story is all on the top layer, and digging through the various layers will only reveal subtle shades that inform that space. There are no hidden clues on layer 12, promise.
It was human.
Our background is in print, that most tactile of all media. Before this project, we co-authored a book that was almost entirely hand-made, and we’ve always tended towards design that is authorial and distinct.
The use of a hand-made aesthetic in a digital environment helped on a number of levels. First off, we think people react differently to design that is intensely digital; it’s out there, rather than right here, ready to be absorbed.
Let’s clarify ‘intensely digital’. The default aesthetic for digital design is slick. Straight. Clean. When you make a box, or draw a line on a computer, by default, it’s straight, perfect. It is tough to get across the sense that a human actually created it. Add this to the fact you’re consuming it on a machine that is equally hermetically sealed, and you’ve moved your content several steps away from a human-to-human connection.
We spent a lot of time constructing each page, trying to respectfully present the content in a meaningful way. We tried numerous things that just didn’t work, or come across how we were hoping. (At one point, the initial intro sequence unfolded as though it was a snow globe being inverted. Seemed like it was conceptually solid, but appeared cheesy to some.) We think people sensed this extra time and craft, and consumed it as such: something more delicate and meaningful.
There’s a great quote by this guy Friedensreich Hundertwasser that drives much of what we do: “The straight line is godless and immoral.”
Now that’s the kind of thing that should be in a manifesto.
I have never seen anything like it.
Pine Point had hundreds of missteps. It took years of hard work, especially at the end, when tons of little things needed doing to drag it over the finish line.
When it was released, no one had any idea if there was an audience, or even if it was any good. Those close to us, the people involved in its creation, all seemed to like it.
It would not have been possible without the freeing creative space provided by the National Film Board of Canada, which has always pushed the boundaries of storytelling innovation. Hopefully the shifting tectonic plates of old media will see that the digital world is becoming a viable new space for emotive, long-form content, and encourage our best storytellers to fill it with meaningful tales.