When Documentary Becomes a Physical Experience
Digital company Anagram produce immersive films where storytelling enters the physical realm.
There aren't many documentaries where part of the experience involves being temporarily blinded and feeling your way around in the dark with a piece of rope as your only guide. In fact, there's currently only one and it's called Door Into The Dark. The immersive documentary is UK-based filmmakers and artists Amy Rose and May Abdalla—of digital company Anagram—and was originally developed at Watershed's Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, England.
The piece made waves at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, becoming one of the highlights and winning the Storyscapes prize for best interactive work. Although the experience is interactive, Abdalla and Rose emphasise that they didn't want the audience to be distracted by this aspect of the production: "A lot our experiences are about getting you as immersed in the story as if you would be in the cinema when you have nothing to do but sit down and chill," Abdalla explains to The Creators Project. "We want you to really listen and engage, not be engrossed in worrying about how you're going to interact. It's immersive in a narrative sense."
The way they did that was to create an installation inside a 2,000 sq ft room which visitors arrive at and experience on their own. First, they're led into a smaller room where they're blindfolded by a helmet with a visor, and given headphones to wear. For the next 40 minutes, participants have to find their ways around the large, elaborate set, feeling their way along a piece of rope and engaging in various other actions.
'Door into the Dark' logo
While this happens, they're also listening to audio about what it means to be lost, hearing different people's real stories and experiences of being disorientated and adrift—for instance, one of those is someone talking about going blind. Inside the headset is a hidden phone running a locative app that reads the various beacons laid out in the space, activating different chapters in the audio at the right places. Rose explains that this way the story feels bespoke to the audience member, making them think it's just for them and aiding with their emotional engagement.
"We wanted to create a documentary that was a physical experience," Rose explains, "something that was involving and emotional, and we were very interested in the concept of being lost, being out of control and what that would do to you, what it feels like to be out of your comfort zone."
By placing the audience into the narrative this way they were intrigued by how it would change and challenge their engagement with the stories they were hearing. "We're trying to ask questions like 'If we do what we hear does it change how we listen?'" Rose notes, "Does it change how we feel about the person we're listening to? Do we understand them better? Will we empathise with their situation more if we're experiencing something similar in our bodies and not just in our heads?"
With this project, and their others, the idea is to translate real experiences into new platforms. "In terms of what we're doing now, it's inventing platforms as much as translating," Abdalla notes. "To think beyond a linear film experience, to look at what you can do to really feel, to become tacitly involved in the story and create something that really resonates with the audience."
The pair are now working on an R&D project which has the working title Teleportation Tent. The idea is for a child to build a den and within this den they'll be able to activate a projector and audio using RFID-chipped toys and objects, allowing them to interact with 360-degree visuals and a story—a story which they can play with and take in their own direction. It's another project that will see them having to overcome the manifold challenges of bringing physical experiences and storytelling together.
"It's a project that raises a lot of questions," says Rose, "Like, how does all this happen inside a narrative? How do you get a kid to believe in the beginning of a story and then pick it up for themselves? How does that become an endless experience? Is it a game? What is it?"
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