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Open Documentary Lab puts MIT in the vanguard of new media storytelling

Detail from "Moments of Immersion," Open Documentary Lab
Detail from "Moments of Immersion," Open Documentary Lab

Internet, cellphone cameras, big data, interactive games, and other technologies have created an explosion of new storytelling methods that is transforming the media landscape. The Open Documentary Lab (OpenDocLab), located in MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, explores the challenges and opportunities these changes present for the makers of today’s documentaries.

“We’re at a great moment of change, similar to when early cinema appeared on the scene,” OpenDocLab Director Sarah Wolozin says. “Media are changing dramatically, so people want to know how to keep up.”

MIT's leadership in new media

Founded in 2012 as a research initiative within the Comparative Media Studies/Writing section, OpenDocLab builds on MIT’s impressive legacy of media innovation — from Technicolor to one of the world's first video games, "Spacewar." MIT’s accomplishments in film include pioneering work in Direct Cinema by Ed Pincus and Richard Leacock, who tapped the new availability of portable sync-sound cameras for documentary work in the 1960s and ’70s, and early explorations in interactive cinema by Glorianna Davenport, who used digital technology to involve audiences in narration in the 1980s and ’90s.

“MIT has a long history in the area of new media. It just made sense to take the next step,” says Professor William Uricchio, principal investigator of the OpenDocLab. Indeed, the lab’s first project was a visual whitepaper, Moments of Innovation, which outlines the long human search for a more immersive story experience and highlights the themes that continue to drive modern documentary makers — including participation, data visualization, and sense of place.

The OpenDocLab again puts MIT in the vanguard. “MIT is uniquely qualified to lead this endeavor because of the level of expertise here in areas that storytellers are now incorporating — new technologies, civic media, games — and the deep understanding, developed in our Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W) program, of how people use media," Wolozin says.

Interventionist research

The lab’s official launch in March 2012, during the New Arts of Documentary summit, highlighted the goal of the new initiative: to bring documentary scholars, media makers, technologists, and curators together to investigate leading-edge developments in authorship, textual form, technology, and interactivity.
Since then, the lab has pursued what Wolozin calls “interventionist research,” collaborating with community groups and top film institutions such as the Sundance Institute, the Tribeca Film Institute, the National Film Board of Canada to tell documentary stories and to identify opportunities for social impact.

“People are pushing the boundaries of what documentary can be,” Wolozin says. "One of our goals is to help people recognize what they can do with a nonfiction idea.”

Featured projects

"Highrise" by Katarina Cizek.

An Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and member of the National Film Board of Canada, MIT visiting artist Katarina Cizek asked people all over the world to document their experiences for her work, which centers on the often-marginalized high-rise dwellings common to major cities. The project includes linear films, a story world (or fictional universe) that users can explore, and a number of clickable add-ons that enable viewers to learn more about high-rise living throughout history.

"Hollow" by Elaine McMillion.

An interactive documentary that combines video portraits, data visualizations, photography, and soundscapes with community-generated content, Elaine McMillion’s “Hollow” portrays life in a rural county of West Virginia decimated by the decline of the coal-mining industry. This work includes an interactive map of the county and has a continuing presence online as residents can update their stories at will.

"Robots in Residence" by Alexander Reben.

A creation of lab research affiliate and MIT Media Lab alumnus Alexander Reben, “Robots in Residence” provides an unedited view of what people say when a little robot rolls up and starts talking to them. Reben’s robots looked like cardboard sandwich boxes with smiley faces but were equipped with sensors and high-resolution video cameras. Set to roam autonomously, they recorded answers to questions such as “Tell me something you have never told a stranger before.” Answers included: “I have been to the dentist just once in my life” and “I think boys with British accents are cute.”

New voices supported by new technologies

New documentary techniques and technologies run the gamut from 360-degree video, which enables viewers to explore a scene from every angle, to location-based film, which provides video clips to cellphones based on GPS coordinates. To stay ahead in this fast-moving field, the OpenDocLab developed docubase, a curated online archive of interactive documentary projects. Currently in beta testing, docubase enables users to explore a rich selection of modern documentaries in a variety of ways — such as by theme, technology, or director.

“The ubiquity and connectivity of today's media technologies enable new voices to be heard,” Wolozin says. “We want to put professional storytellers together with communities because there is great potential for audiences and the subjects of the documentaries to have an active role.”

Research mission

Naturally, pedagogy is a key mission for the lab, which hosts a weekly research meeting for faculty and students as well a public speaker series to disseminate developments in the field. In addition, the lab posts a full range of relevant course listings on its website — several of which are taught by affiliated faculty members.

The CMS/W labs are a key component of the CMS/W pedagogy. They offer a place for students to try out some of the theories they learn and develop in the classroom. The lab offers them real world experience and professional contacts and a chance to learn new skills such as problem-solving, brainstorming, and collaboration, skills that are necessary for workplace success.

This year, the OpenDocLab also welcomed its first class of fellows, six midcareer professionals from a variety of disciplines — including arts, engineering, and human rights — who have brought their expertise to MIT to learn, collaborate, and share insights on digital documentary storytelling.

“We’re trying to forge ahead, identify new trends in the field, and put technologists in touch with storytellers,” Uricchio says. “It’s like looking at the first five to eight years of television. There’s no orthodoxy as yet. We see documentary as a mission, not a medium. New tools, storytelling techniques, and modes of participation combine to make this a very exciting moment.”

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski

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