For the past three years, we've been working on Empire, a series of documentary video installations about the unintended consequences of Dutch colonialism. While exhibiting the Empire installations at museums and film festivals is our main focus, we also want to reach an audience outside of the art/film echo chamber. So the big question is: how do we bring a three-dimensional, video-based project like Empire online in a compelling way?
Our search for an answer to this question led us to the POV Hackathon, a two-day event where filmmakers team up with designers and developers to create web-based, non-fiction storytelling prototypes. Web development is new territory for us, and frankly, it’s pretty scary. If you drop us in the middle of nowhere with a camera and a laptop, we will find our way back with a film in our pocket. But when it comes to programming, we are unfrozen cavemen.
Here’s how we survived our 40-hour hackathon experience:
Clint Beharry and his wireframes.
9:30 AM: We arrive at the offices of HUGE, the digital branding/ad agency in Dumbo that’s hosting the event. The place is simultaneously cavernous and comfortable, all fluorescent-lit concrete and soothing ventilator hum. A common space in the center of the office holds the cluster of eight tables that will be our scenery for most of the next 40 hours. The Empire table is empty, save for four POV totebags. It is suddenly clear that we are at a public broadcasting event.
Adnaan Wasey, POV’s Digital Director, gives a quick speech letting us know what we’re in for. Groups can stay overnight if they want to, and there will be food, etc. He also puts a Hackathon-wide ban on the use of the word "transmedia."
More speakers. Sam Bailey, the architect behind Frontline‘s digital presence, has a warning for all of us. "Don’t go down a rabbit hole!" he says. He tells a story about his last hackathon, where a designer got obsessed with a few clouds on the prototype’s splash page and ended up wasting hours moving them around. Sam’s gruff and funny.
We meet our team. Claire Mitchell, a grad student at NYU’s ITP program, is our first teammate to show up. She is apologetic about her programming skills, which she says are still developing. We have to take her word for it since we have no way of personally testing her statement. Our lead designer is Clint Beharry, a fast thinker with a brooding demeanor. We like them both immediately. We occupy a table together, with Claire and Clint on one side, and us on the other.
Adnaan takes the mic a final time and says something about awards at the end. The pressure is on.
11:30 AM: Instead of trying to adapt all of the Empire project in one weekend, we’ll focus on bringing one of the installations to the web. We choose Empire: Bakermat, a two-channel video piece we shot at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in 2012. Most of our conversation is about stripping down the installation to its core ideas. What’s the emotional journey that a viewer experiences in the installation and how do we approximate that journey in the online space? What is the central theme of the work, and how can the interface we develop reflect that theme?
2:30 PM: Sam Bailey has taken up residence at our table. He keeps telling us that he’s going to walk the Brooklyn Bridge to go get hand-pulled noodles, but instead he stays riveted to his chair. Much of the talk coming from the design/code side of the table sounds like "bleep bloop bleep bloopity bloo." Every now and then we learn a new term, and it becomes less opaque: "bleep bloop bleep bloopity bloo functionality." It is literally like learning another language.
We’re trying to make ourselves useful. We put together a copy deck for the Bakermat site. We correct stills in Photoshop, pop compressions out of Final Cut, and drink cup after cup of coffee. All talk in the office dissipates, as if by unilateral agreement. The only sound is the air vents and the clacking of fingers on keyboards.
5:00 PM: We’re starting to recognize a core pattern to the programming process. Everything works, and then it doesn’t. Specifics are discussed, Google is consulted, and code is changed. Everything works again. Repeat. The pattern continues until everything works for what seems like a very long time. Clint looks at Claire. "Do you want to exchange code?" he asks softly.
We all burst out laughing. It sounds like he’s asking her out.
Claire Mitchell makes our video and her code merge.
6:30 PM: Everyone has to stop working to do a dry run pitch for the group. The Empire group goes late in the rotation and we fall flat on our faces. It’s a disaster of epic proportions: our interface doesn’t work, and we talk in cliches about gamification and user experience. At a certain point in our demo, Claire’s laptop freezes, leaving the rest of the groups to contemplate a spinning pinwheel for a few minutes.
9:45 PM: A few groups are already starting to go home for the night. Sam Bailey has been gone for hours, and Claire and Clint are running into problems that their minds can’t handle this late in the work day. Adnaan enters with a few cases of beer. Everyone looks up from their screens and groans in appreciation. Normally we’re Brooklyn Brewery haters, but at this point in the process, their Pennant Ale tastes like the nectar of the gods.
11:45 PM: We go home exhausted, with no real oversight on where we are, or whether or not our prototype will work. We all silently pray for the return of Sam Bailey.
Kel O'Neill gets interviewed by HUGE.
10:30 AM: We’ve been working for almost two hours when someone from POV approaches us about an interview. We talk in happy, peppy voices about how inspiring the hackathon is and are surprised to notice that we’re not bullshitting. Then, with the camera person still present, Clint starts taking us to task about the language in our pitch. The terms "gamification" and "time wasters" have to go. They cheapen the work he says.
"It’s art!" he insists. "It’s a piece of art!" There’s exasperation in his tone, exasperation with us. Sometime in the last day, Empire became his work too. The language disappears from the pitch and our respect for Clint grows.
Sam walks in. Cheers from everyone, coupled with relief.
3:00 PM: Clint’s looking really tired and his mood is going downhill. All prototypes will be locked in three hours, and there’s a lot more to do than just crossing t’s and dotting i’s. Major parts of the site don’t work, and major design elements are still missing. Sam doesn’t leave his side. "What are the z-indexes generated by the plug in?" he asks Clint. He might as well be talking Klingon, but Clint understands.
While Clint continues to wrestle with the code, Claire finishes her work. She stares at the screen, running the video over and over, perfecting her use of the interface for the live screening. She is calm, and her eyes are rimmed with red.
Claire's eye after 15 hours of hacking.
5:09 PM: Keyboard Cat break. We’re losing it.
5:10 PM: Clint informs us that Keyboard Cat is dead. Google confirms.
6:00 PM: The prototype’s locked, but there’s no relief in sight. We have one hour before our pitch and the first live screening of our group’s creation.
7:15 PM: Our tables have been put away and the audience has arrived. The pitches begin.
We’re second in the rotation. The site works beautifully, and the energy seems good. Adnaan asks the audience if they have any questions. There are none. This could either be a very bad sign, or a very good sign.
10:00 PM: It’s a good thing. We win "Participants Choice." Kel cries. A lot. There are pictures on Twitter.
Coming up in Part 3: Revealing Empire: Bakermat, the prototype.
Previously: Hacking The Shit Out Of Everything: Part 1