Frontline Documentary

On January 12th 2010, violent earthquakes ripped through the earth’s crust 13 kilometres beneath southern Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and millions more were displaced from their homes. Massive collapses took place across health care, transportation, and communications infrastructure systems. Within hours, this world ripped apart was descended upon by a sea of visitors from across the globe. Supplies and rescue personnel from the Dominican Republic arrived in Haiti alongside their equivalents from Iceland, China, Qatar, and Canada. One of the groups that arrived in Port-au-Prince on January 15th was made up of members of the Red Cross Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT).

The members of the Red Cross FACT Team had come to Haiti to manage and oversee logistics around the international disaster recovery. But they also brought with them a team of photographers and filmmakers, as well as a web content producer. The first group was intended to produce a three-part documentary for TVO on the challenges FACT faced in stabilizing the situation, and the second unit was dedicated to capturing additional individual and social stories for a set of interactive segments.

The documentary team attached to the FACT was capturing the chaos and upturned humanity of Haiti in the weeks following the earthquake for a project called Inside Disaster: Haiti – a densely populated and excellently designed multimedia information resource on the Haiti earthquake, and ongoing recovery efforts. Inside Disaster provides clean and understandable data on the history of humanitarian aid; media assets presenting objective views of the disaster; and interactive mini-documentaries exploring the experiences of survivors, journalists, and NGO workers.

This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Inside Disaster’s Web Field Producer, Nicolas Jolliet. We discussed his involvement in the project, and his understanding of the relationship between innovation and the evolving media landscape.

Presently, Nico is spending his spare hours pioneering the integration of numerous robotic and sensing technologies into a tool he has (in collaboration with whole communities of independent filmmakers) been dreaming of for years. After relocating to a nearby park, he demonstrated his newest creation to me: a helicopter-mounted DSLR camera rig capable of lifting several kilograms of equipment to altitudes of thousands of feet. While the rotors spin too noisily to let him track the birds migrating through Toronto this time of year, his helicopter (I suppose it’s technically a hexicopter) will be an invaluable tool for documentary production. The tool provides high quality HD footage (check out a tropical demo video on YouTube) along GPS-routed paths, at a meaningfully human scale that has previously been difficult to negotiate in the field – higher than a dolly or third-story window, and lower than a helicopter. It’s easy to find more adaptations of technological tools for the frontlines of filmmaking in a blog post Nico published for Inside Disaster, before the earthquake in Haiti even determined the project’s setting.

I shot this video of Nico testing out his hexicopter in a Toronto park.

Many new documentary filmmaking technologies, from super-light camera rigs to DIY cranes and follow-focus units, have emerged out of lead-user communities. Eric von Hippel coined that term in 1986 in reference to groups of hobbyists doing a better job designing products than product designers. Some of the earliest innovations in 35mm adapters for HD camcorders came out of indie filmmaker messageboards and fora. Companies like Redrock and Zacuto quickly realized that a product category had emerged, and that they could make quite a bit of money selling premium versions of what the cutting-edge filmmakers had identified as offering a significant competitive advantage. The DSLR revolution in independent filmmaking is presently closing the loop – offering the look-and-feel of 35mm cinema at a relatively low price, with minimal hassle (depending on your preference for P mode over M). Nico built a mind-blowing customized collapsible crane and dolly system for a documentary he shot in the Amazon a few years ago, but apparently you can already buy one that’s lighter (if not on your wallet) from one of the big DSLR rig manufacturers. There’s a great interactive slideshow on the Inside Disaster site that explores some technology specifically adapted for disaster recovery, as well.

One of the most interesting things I learned about Inside Disaster from Nico was how the crew challenged themselves to compress documentary workflows into live journalistic timelines. To produce content for the Inside Disaster website and social media channels, Nico was working 24-hour shifts of concept development, travel, filming, editing, writing, compression, blogging, and transmission. While documentaries used to be associated with months or years of incubation prior to release, new expectations in an age of always-on media have condensed the equipment and responsibilities of entire film crews down into the hands (and backpacks) of a single operator. Nico claims that backgrounds in languages, musical performance and production, photography, writing, and filmmaking helped land him the job as Field Producer.

In a recent piece for Point of View magazine, Katie McKenna, the producer of Inside Disaster, noted that the project launched in two phases – one entirely dedicated to logistics and pre-positioning within social media networks, and another dedicated to storytelling from teams in Haiti with a long tail made up of resequenced content for branching online interactive experiences. But while open-sourcing the marketing and distribution is one way to embrace emerging toolkits in documentary production, open-sourcing the production and storytelling is something altogether different.

In the world of ethnographic research, everything exists within a cultural context. In isolated or marginalized communities, just getting a realistic research understanding of the landscape in which cultural values are situated can be a difficult task. Photovoice, a participatory research method pioneered in the late 1990’s by Caroline Wang and Mary Anne Burris, operates through the provision of cameras to these communities in hopes that the process of taking and analyzing pictures will stimulate the community to engage in critical dialogue around the opportunities and challenges it faces. In a way, photovoice represents an evolution of the documentary form in the direction of open-source ideation and production. Inside Disaster hails from a different lineage, but broke new ground in other ways relative to the social commons. All of the photos and footage that Nico transmitted each night from Haiti are available under Creative Commons licenses from Flickr and YouTube. While there is plenty of context from frontline journalism and documentary cinema surrounding the Inside Disaster content, open-source status is itself a significant challenge to the patterns and structures of mainstream media.

Discussing these topics in Nico’s Toronto studio, it was difficult not to let my mind wander to the feedback loops linking new innovations and the tools that support them. Guitars and mixing equipment undulate across one of Nico’s walls, and a fully realized robotics bay juts from the other. While inspecting his newest hexicopter prototype (comprised of firmware, structural elements, and sensors tweaked from upon the shoulders of thousands of collaborating un-experts online), I asked Nico how he would feel about me outing him as a closet engineer. He laughed, and told me that it’s not really about engineering, it’s about using new tools to reach new levels of quality in production values and accessibility. “It’s about creating a Steven Spielberg film from your backpack.”

This year, Inside Disaster provided the world with unmatched views of a human and natural disaster. In order to meld the traditions and techniques of journalism and storytelling with the realities of an always-on media landscape, Nicholas Jolliet and the production team of Inside Disaster brought new innovations not only to their vision for documentary storytelling, but also to the tools required to realize it.

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.