Digital Documentary

Digital Documentary

Intro from Jay Allison: I confess, I'm a story guy. I resist the idea of listeners messing around with my time. My story goes this way, not that way. You want to make your own radio story, get a tape recorder. I'll help. That's my idea of interacting. But the notion of interactive story has always been intriguing, made moreso by endlessly clickable possibilities of the Web. Intriguing, too, are the possibilities of text and photos firing along a guide track of audio. So, as long as we're here on the Web in its early multimedia days, let's play. Ian David Aaronson has been thinking the same way. His subjects and sensibility have their roots in public radio, certainly. His work is not exactly radio, but sound drives it. His stories fit the mission. He is interested in accessibility and has managed to create a fine sheen to the image and audio, while still keeping it available to people with very basic connections. There's a lot to talk about in here. Read what Ian has to say first. Then check out the work (you need to download the Flash plug in if you don't have it), and join the discussion.

Brown – The experiences of a bi-racial family in New York.
Brown – The experiences of a bi-racial family in New York.

I first had the idea for multimedia documentaries in 1995 when I was working as News and Public Affairs Producer at NPR member station WBFO in Buffalo, NY. PRI had recently distributed “The First Year,” an hour-long radio documentary I produced following a group of students through their first year of college. I had all this great tape that didn’t fit into a linear documentary, but I still wanted to use it. I figured if I could create a program that people could navigate through in any way they wanted, I’d be able to work in all my out-takes. Of course at the time I didn’t know anything about multimedia, so I put the idea on hold.

After spending three years at WBFO, I left to attend graduate school at Stanford, where I received a Master’s degree in Documentary Film and Video in 1997. I edited my thesis documentary “Tell Them You’re Fine,” a which follows three recently diagnosed cancer patients as they come to terms with their illness, on an Avid and realized that the only difference between digital post production and multimedia is the method of delivery. A documentary film is edited digitally on a computer and then put back into an analog format (a video tape or reel of film) to reach its audience. I thought, why not create something entirely digital that could be delivered over the web? In 1997, however, the newest and fastest modems were only 56K, so while my idea was good in theory an online documentary was not the most practical idea I could have come up with.

I went to work as an assistant editor on some PBS documentaries, edited digital audio for some CD-ROMs, and taught two multimedia courses at City College of San Francisco. I still loved to work with audio and I kept looking for a way to make something substantive and interactive. Audio files take up lots of memory, but just around the time I graduated from film school, people started to stream audio files on the web. Streaming means a file starts to play while it’s still downloading, so people don’t have to wait forever to listen to your work. I converted some of the audio from “Tell Them You’re Fine” and put it onto a web page. Although it worked technically, it was no great artistic success.

“Tell Them You’re Fine” is a movie and trying to make it into an audio program was the wrong direction to go in. Just like reading a newspaper in front of a microphone doesn’t make for good radio, I realized that Internet I’d have to start from the ground up.

Kelly was the project manager at UniversityAccess.com.
Kelly was the project manager at UniversityAccess.com.
Russell was responsible for hiring at Amisto.com.
Russell was responsible for hiring at Amisto.com.
Miranda, a former news producer from NBCI.com.
Miranda, a former news producer from NBCI.com.

I returned to my native New York City on Christmas Eve 1999 and about two weeks later found a job at an Internet company (this was the height of the dot-com gold rush). At the job I taught myself Flash, a streaming vector graphics program I had been hearing about for years. Vector graphics are drawings such as shapes or logos which download very quickly on the Internet, unlike bitmap graphics such as photos. Flash also compresses audio using MP3 technology, which in a nutshell makes audio files about 95% smaller while maintaining really good sound quality. This means you can put two or three minute chunks of near-broadcast quality audio online and only take up about 450k for each chunk (not even half the capacity of a floppy disk). Best of all, Flash streams automatically from any server – other streaming technology like Quicktime and RealAudio require special servers which you have to pay for. In addition, the Flash player is transparent, so the viewer to your Website sees only what you have put on the page. RealAudio requires viewers to use the RealAudio Player which opens in its own window and displays advertisements. As you can see, I was ready to make something with Flash. All I needed was the right story.

I was re-exploring my hometown of lower Manhattan when I ran into a friend from high school. Alex had gotten married and was raising his first child. A few weeks later I had drinks with Alex and his wife, Cheryl. They started telling me about the prejudice they encountered as a bi-racial family (Alex is Italian American, Cheryl is the daughter of an Irish American father and an African American mother). Their story was really powerful, and I thought this could turn into the multimedia documentary I had been daydreaming about for the past five years.

I interviewed the two of them using a Tascam DAT recorder and an ElectoVoice RE-50, which is the same mic I used back in Buffalo. I have always loved good audio, especially interviews, and look at documentary as a way to bring people new perspectives. When the interview was over I knew I had something good, the trick was how to package it.

I logged my tape, decided what to use, copied those parts as .aiff files (.aiff is the native audio compression that Mac computers use), loaded them onto a Zip disk and took them home. I edited them on an iMac DV SE using SoundEdit 16, which is a really good multi-track digital editing software package. I then scanned in some of Alex and Cheryl’s family photos for visuals (I edited them in Photoshop) and went to work putting them into Flash.

There were two big considerations I faced. The first is the non-linear nature of the web. People don’t want to watch movies online, they want to interact with things they can click through. The second is the limitation of current Internet connections – most people use 56K modems in their homes so in order not to alienate a significant portion of my audience I needed to design something that would work on a standard dial-up connection. As it turns out, these two considerations worked together to form my solution.

I chose really strong pieces of tape to work with and the test I used was whether or not each piece would stand up on its own. I wanted tape that was so good people would be intrigued enough to wonder what came next. I also knew that if I could play each piece by itself the file size would be much smaller. As a result, the download would be a lot easier for users at their home computers. Through trial and error, I managed to come up with a system that loaded a menu on screen and allowed users to choose what part of “Brown” they’d like to see. When they click on a button, that piece of the story loads, replacing the menu on screen. When each piece of the story (known technically as a “Flash movie”) ends, it automatically loads the menu back onto the screen. This makes “Brown” more workable, since the viewer doesn’t need to download all the material at once, and also makes it more interesting since the user can choose what they see and when they see it.

My job at the dot-com didn’t work out (how many times have you heard that before?), so I made a second online documentary called “After the New Economy.” Digital media has become remarkably affordable. I recorded the interviews with a minidisc recorder I bought for less than $200 and they sound great. Online production is also efficient and a great space saver, I was able to produce all of digitaldocumentary.org in my living room – and believe me I have a small apartment, I live in the East Village.

I recently started a job as Assistant Professor of Digital Media at Ramapo College, a public liberal arts college in Northern New Jersey. So far the job is a perfect fit – as you may have noticed, I love electronic media and I’m really interested in sharing my experience. I encourage anyone who’s interested to send me an email at contact@digitaldocumentary.org, or write to the discussion board here at Transom.org. I look forward to hearing from you.

Ian Aronson

About
Ian Aronson

Ian David Aronson is Assistant Professor of Digital Media at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is also the Director and Producer of digitaldocumentary.org, a website dedicated to furthering the art form of online documentary. Aronson graduated from the Stanford University Master's program in Documentary Film and Video in 1997. His thesis documentary, "Tell Them You're Fine," follows three recently diagnosed cancer patients and is distributed to hospitals and medical schools by Fanlight Productions: (www.fanlight.com/catalog/films/235_ttyf.htm). Before graduate school, Aronson worked as a stringer for the New York Times and as News and Public Affairs Producer at NPR member station WBFO in Buffalo, NY. He currently lives in New York City.

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  • Jay Allison

    9.05.01

    Reply
    Digital Documentary

    This isn’t radio. But its roots are. The multi in the multimedia here are in service to the sound and story. Aren’t they?

    Our most recent piece on Transom, Street Dogs, has accompanying photos. This goes a bit farther. It’s a perfectly fitting piece to have on the site while our Special Guest is a photojournalist writing messages to storytellers about images.

    Ian David Aaronson does his work in a way that’s accessible, for makers and viewers/auditioners, with basic gear and connections. His Show Page tells us a lot about his process and intent. We can talk to him more about how he makes the work. How writing and image and sound converge. But, more importantly, we can talk about the nature of the stories, how they unfold, how people are revealed, what we learn by encountering them in this way that we can’t in any other, and what public radio and public radio websites might gain from this.

  • Tony Kahn

    9.06.01

    Reply

    Ian, I’m impressed. Seems to me, Brown’s a great example not just of how to use a new medium to make a point, but how to refresh an older one, TV. TV has too many images, moving too fast with little or no relevance to the track (which basically tells the story and nudges the emotions), causing too much of a mental disconnect in the audience. The best Tv is the one that, visually, moves the slowest and where the visuals support or compliment the words and music. Come to think of it, that so-called "scourge" of TV programming, the "talking head," is one of the most memorable things about TV, if the talking head is saying something honest, personal, and with feeling. May even have something to do with the fact that the talking head on TV tends to be near-human size, making it feel more like a real person in your room.

    Anyway, congratulations!

    What are your thoughts aboout the partnership between sound and pix?

  • Rachel Thompson

    9.06.01

    Reply
    These are beautiful

    Brown, in particular, reminds me of some experimental animation I saw years ago that used rotoscoping, or a basically true human movement, but softened it and abstracted it to the point where there was something to watch, something kind of simmering on the screen — and it just lit up the sound. The pace of the images I found exceedingly pleasant, and the way pieces of images came and went — for these stories. I was also surprised to find that I liked the pullouts of different phrases, the way they lingered. If the stories were longer that might get to me. In terms of sound alone, I did find myself wishing the cuts were longer — actually do think they could be longer and not clog up my brain or my modem. Thank you…

  • Jay Allison

    9.07.01

    Reply
    Other examples

    Perhaps, in the course of discussion, other Transomites could post examples of Flash shows they like for reference. There are good ones out there, many of them more picture-driven than Ian’s.

    One good spot is the pioneering Picture Projects which houses the "360degrees" project from our friend Susan Johnson. This contains companion Flash shows for Joe Richman’s Prison Diaries series. Maybe they’ll be along to talk about that.

  • Jake Warga

    9.07.01

    Reply
    Response

    I have to say that I was rather frightened watching(?) "brown." It was like playing a video game or CD-ROM adventure–minimally interactive, yet still one way. Guess I’m an old-fashioned Gen-X’er, but I found the experience uncomfortable. Manipulating/fragmenting images. Clicking to release a fragment of a documentary… poking little holes in a pressurized can of a story. I like the idea of sample clips when the target is highlighted, like reading a headline, then clicking for the further story. Informative story, but I got lost with her ranting for so long that her voice became an ignored blur.

    I apologize for THIS rant, my nature very rarely allows me to be devil’s advocate. I hope it will help spur debate if nothing else.

  • Ian Aronson

    9.08.01

    Reply
    response to posting #2 (by Tony Kahn)

    Tony,

    As I mentioned in the text I wrote for Transom, I’ve been a big fan of interviews for a very long time. In fact, interviews make up the heart of my work in documentary. I think there’s a point in an interview when the discussion moves past what people think they’re supposed to say and arrives at a deeper level of honesty. That depth of feeling and quality is equally powerful on the radio, on television, or online.

    I’ve never been bothered by "talking head" interviews and think when used well they can add great value to a piece. I like the way you ask about the "partnership between sound and pix" as I think that’s a good description. Television and the Web are in many ways visual media — few people will sit in front of a screen to watch a radio program — so image and sound need to work together.

    When you come down to it, I’m all about content, but I also know that if my work isn’t well packaged no one will take it seriously. Brown is a blend of image and sound I created specifically for the online medium. I’m glad you enjoyed it enough to write in.

  • Andy Knight

    9.11.01

    Reply

    This was written yesterday, but thanks to the net connection mentioned in it, it could not be sent:

    I waited until I was on the horrible, intermittent ISDN connection I have at work (average of 56k split between 5 users), running on a Win95 200mHz box, to ‘watch’ these shows and it worked very well (well, the stupid router (which I could swear was made by Hasbro) lost its connection for a few minutes… so other than that).

    They are done quite nicely. The images and words had a nice flow that corresponded directly to the audio, without siphoning attention away from the audio. They were quite a bit more linear than I had expected… for example, in the section on Kelly, her husband (or was it boyfriend? David?) played a role in all 3 segments, but was only introduced in the top segment. He played such a role that I have to wonder why the section wasn’t called "Kelly and David".

    My only gripe (well, so far… some things need time to ferment before they really bother me) is that I wanted much more. The sum of the segments wasn’t really enough to equal an entire story. They seemed like trailers to something larger. Like, I could see TAL or Savvy Traveler using this format to promote the next show. Kind of like, "Here, come to our site. Play with this flash dealie. Listen to some snippets from within the next show with some bonus stuff that may not have made the show– along with nifty pictures. Is your appetite wet? Tune in this weekend to hear more."

    The segments in these 2 shows seem to be teasing and leading up to another larger, more in-depth, show… but it just ends and that’s it… The End. There are limits to the old proverb "leave them wanting more", and these stories (for me) just haven’t managed to land within those limits. More, More, More….

    Today: I hope all of you transomites and your friends and loved ones escaped the attacks.

  • Mark Ehling

    9.14.01

    Reply
    The uses of interactivity

    "Brown" was the first web-exclusive documentary I’ve seen, and I liked the possibilities–the ability, say, to put a face to a voice–and I liked the piece itself. I was wondering about a couple of things, though… maybe questions for Mr. Aronson:

    Why choose "interactivity" as an option for this piece? It had all the elements that a linear, real-time narrative would have: (1) an intro to the issue at hand, (2) several ruminations on various angles of that issue, and (3) and ending. But these elements were broken up into links; we, the audience, could create a sequence all of our own. And I noticed a curious thing about this: that narrative habit being so strong, I simply selected the "intro" first, then the ruminations in order (top to bottom) and then lastly clicked on the "ending." In other words, the interactivity seemed like a moot point (although not entirely, since you could argue that these broken-up segments invite the audience to play them multiple times, to revisit certain moments, etc.).

    All this isn’t to take away from the piece–I’m just curious about the medium itself, and what sort place the web can go that TV or audio or the page can’t. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d rather listen now….

    –Mark

  • Ian Aronson

    9.14.01

    Reply
    response to Mark Ehling

    Hi Mark,

    You ask a really good question.

    My primary goal here was to use the web to deliver a substantive and powerful piece online. I think the web has tremendous potential for documentary, as well as the potential to democratize media in a way never seen before. For example, I don’t own a radio or television station, but I do own a computer with an Internet connection. My home computer enables me to create work I think is important and share it with audiences both nearby and around the world. If I did not create Brown as an online documentary but instead looked for a radio or television organization to broadcast a piece about this bi-racial family, would it ever have reached you? We don’t know, but we do know that because I put it on the web you were able to access it.

    As for format (interactive versus linear) you’re right, there are some elements of straightforward narrative at play here. As you also mention, an audience member can view the segments in any order they want. Many people jump straight to the segment labeled "explain to a four year old." Others view the segments in the order they’re listed. Both approaches are great.

    Brown is an attempt to work in a new medium, and is an exploration of new possibilities. What’s the best way to put a documentary on the Internet? I don’t think any one has figured that out yet. Brown is my first suggestion.

    Thanks for writing,

    Ian

  • Nannette Drake Oldenbourg

    9.24.01

    Reply
    Wow

    I find this gorgeous, moving, fun, and … terrifying.

    Brown was great (working from 2+ week old memory here). Among other things was beautiful to see/hear their relationship. Physically, for example, the way they fit together when we see them lean on eachother after we see them alone. Maybe I’d seen it all before on television and in magazines, staged and cutified. But it worked here because it was genuine.

    I would trust this producer to take me on a great slide show ride, or through a film, whatever. I didn’t feel much of a need to see one part before another. It was slightly annoying to have to click and wait. I’d rather trust the ride, with interactivity offering an emergency exit/selection.

    What scared me already two weeks ago: in other producer’s hands I trust this less. What a great propaganda tool. So many more editorial decisions, all in the name of entertainment or effective communication.

    Already here, in the second show, one of the female speakers said "it is NOT something" and the floating headlline quote left off the NOT.
    YIKES!

    and the format invites the shortest sound bites, all in a jumble, with cut and paste context. And it’s all very exciting and loveable.

    So far so good with Brown, but imagine the political uses of this. How do we keep the media literacy and healthy skepticism ahead of such power? I can only hope others are less talented and patient than you are, Ian.

    and, (where’s the footnote button?) I’m amused to note that I moved in opposite direction from you, but now perhaps it comes full circle. Years ago I was excited to be in a multimedia lab when it was all new (& called something else). Then I had children, decided they – and I – didn’t need all the bells and whistles, at least not in their first years. So I came to appreciate how much radio had answered my needs and had been taken for granted.
    Actually, that media lab was yards away from public radio studios.
    Anyway, thank you for beautiful work. Please tell me whether the power of the medium makes you wonder what it might be used for…

  • peter snowdon

    10.11.01

    Reply
    devil’s advocate (2)

    ian:

    on the issue of interactivity, what strikes me most is that, on a first viewing, we don’t have enough information in advance to make an ‘informed’ choice. why would we not simply follow our standard behavioural patterns, left to right, top to bottom? of course’ we’re free not to: but not to know why not. so the interactive element is basically a form of labour-intensive randomness.

    I liked the interviews, and it’s nice to see pictures: in that sense, i prefered ‘after the new’, because there was less distracting animation. still, i couldn’t get away from the feeling that this could have been even better as ‘straight’ radio.

    I think if interactivity is going to take off in serious documentary work, there has to be a reason for it. the fact that (with flash) it’s there, like everest, is not enough.

    good wishes and look forward to seeing what you come up with next:

    peter

  • roundfood

    9.23.14

    Reply

    Hi Ian,

    This is Diana, and I was in your documentary “Tell them you’re fine.” And yes, I’m still fine!

    I’m thrilled to see that you are thriving in the documentary biz.

    You may not see this, but if you do look me up on YouTube > under roundlaady. message me from there. I’d love to hear from you.

    Diana

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