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"Neighbourhood Watch" by Sean Yelland, courtesy of Ingram Gallery

Out My Window won the 2011 Interactive Emmy for Digital Non-Fiction, the inaugural IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling, and is available along with other HIGHRISE projects on the NFB’s site: http://highrise.nfb.ca/

For the past year I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with the National Film Board of Canada on the marketing of a project called Out My Window. Directed by Filmmaker in Residence Katerina Cizek, the project is one of the first to launch under the umbrella of the HIGHRISE program at the NFB; a multiyear and multimedia exploration into vertical living in the global suburbs. Out My Window is comprised of several 360º virtual environments representing highrise apartments in 13 cities around the world, and explores how people living in similar architectural structures around the world have customized their space in response to physical, psychological, social, and political factors.

Led by veteran production and coordination teams at the NFB, and brought to life through the creative input of dozens of artists and technicians around the world, Out My Window is a flagship production for the Film Board (an institution internationally renowned for its documentary content) and for Canada. The project advocates Canadian values around storytelling, equity, and diversity while meaningfully engaging with global audiences.

What drew me to the project was how it represented an attempt, sometimes explicit and sometimes emergent, to experiment using multiple systems at the foundation of documentary cinema, all at once: production technique, distribution strategy, and audience engagement. During the creation of Out My Window, all of these “tools” that support documentary projects were rounded up and brought in for analysis, and in many cases, reinvention.


The central interface of Out My Window seems elegantly simple: 360º panoramas of apartments in highrise towers all over the world, within which viewers can interact with objects, people, or views of the cities outside. Most of the people who I’ve shown the piece to over the last several months have remarked at how simple to understand and engaging the panoramic interface is. Asking those same people to explain how they might actually go about filming that 360º panoramic action shot tends to result in a bit of head-scratching.

The wizardry behind Out My Window’s innovative interface came out of a collaboration with the Dutch 360º camera company yellowBird (they also happen to have the best domain name ever: http://www.yellowbirdsdonthavewingsbuttheyflytomakeyouexperiencea3dreality.com). While Stanley Kubrick utilized an f/0.7 lens (allegedly machined for use in U2 spy-planes) to film his epic Barry Lyndon using natural light; and James Cameron developed the Pace/Cameron Fusion Camera System to bring the virtual world of Pandora to life in Avatar; it’s unusual for a group of filmmakers to reinvent the technology with which they capture their scene for a one-off project. But experiments in technology is a part of what Highrise is all about. Some of the content at the heart of Out My Window has already been adapted into a physical installation called StorySpace (in collaboration with the CFC Media Lab, of all institutions… I swear that I’m not part of any recursive linking conspiracy). The living panoramic visuals are probably the aspect of the project that most directly illustrates how its execution was dependent on innovative uses of new tools.

But for all of its benefits, access to new production technology certainly isn’t something to be assumed or taken for granted. Aside from the NFB’s working relationship with yellowBird, creative collaboration with freelance photographers from 13 cities was central to the production of Out My Window. Musicians that appear on the project’s soundtrack were also as much participants in the film’s creation as subjects for its cameras and microphones. I came to the project as a fan of digital storytelling interested in thinking about big issues, and I was welcomed aboard the team to help define strategies for engaging audiences new kinds of media experiences.

In the human research field, there has been an effort in play for decades to recast subjects as participants – it’s at the core of the evolution of modern research ethics. But to see the same shift occurring in documentary production – of subjects and audiences into active co-creators – is exciting. Last week, Kat Cizek posted to the Highrise blog about the interplay between technology and citizen journalism in the Los Angeles Riots of 1992.

A flurry of online activity emerged last month when Paleofuture posted part of a 1987 OMNI Magazine interview about the future of cinema with Roger Ebert. Most of the ruckus was due to the accuracy that seemed to be attached to some of Mr. Ebert’s forecasts about then-emerging revolutions in entertainment. One of his forecasts is particularly interesting, I think because it’s the one we most easily forget to remember as a huge leap – the sheer diversity of cinematic content we have access to, through the Internet (or even Netflix, Canadian content agreements be-damned). What Ebert was most excited about in terms of the digital cinema revolution ahead was how films would no longer only open in a handful of cities around the world. They would open everywhere, in homes and on the go, to roars of applause from Non-Angelinos everywhere. Out My Window is a decidedly international story, and it’s (appropriately) available, online and free-of-charge, to audiences equally scattered across the globe.

Of all the systematic “tools” that act as the foundations of documentary, the one presently under the most intense reinvention is actually the audience. Global audiences are great, but globally connected creative audiences are even better. Out My Window: PARTICIPATE, a side project to the original documentary, invites people from all over the world to contribute views and stories from out their windows to the experience; widening the net of contributors to the project, and ultimately resulting in a completely different viewer experience. Photos and stories submitted to the Flickr Participate pool are fed into an interface on the NFB’s site allowing visitors to interact with a tapestry of views on the world by window-framed image, keyword text, or landscape colour.

While Out My Window is highly innovative in terms of its experience and packaged form, its release also highlighted one of the key benefits of an adaptive online documentary: the option to respond to relevant “Black Swan Events” (an idea developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to reference high-impact events that are extremely difficult to predict with much accuracy) on the global stage. Participate has had a number of submissions inviting online viewers into the surging unrest in Alexandria earlier this year, as well as the resulting celebrations in Tahrir Square.

If you haven’t experienced Out My Window yet, I recommend you dim the lights, come to terms with your fear of heights, and get ready for a moving and deeply innovative interactive experience.

Thanks to Ingram Gallery for letting me show off some of Sean Yelland’s work (on display right now in a great show at 45 Avenue Road). Special thanks to Katerina Cizek, Gerry Flahive, and Sarah Arruda for entertaining my questions about cinema and/or the breadth of social media these past several months!

Trevor Haldenby is a producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.