Sustainable & Accessible Interactive Documentary Storytelling Without Heavy Coding: The Story of the Stuff

The Story of the Stuff was conceived as a multi-faceted interactive documentary project that explores case studies about how communities, libraries, and archives deal with the influx of condolence material or “stuff” following public tragedies. It tracks the disposition and archival decisions for condolence items sent to Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Texas A&M following school shootings and a deadly accident, respectively.

The feature-length story consists of videos, photos, text, and interactive elements (such as a timeline) on a scrolling website divided into 7 chapters. There is additionally an educational companion module intended for students of library and information science called The Story of the Stuff: Issues in Temporary Memorial Preservation. The project was designed to appeal to and serve a wide variety of audiences, from casual viewers to librarians and archivists to students in disciplines such as public history, archival sciences, or information sciences.

The project was produced independently but with some institutional support from the University of Tennessee Libraries.

Why you needed it

The contemporary practice of creating large-scale temporary memorials in the Western world that exploded in the 1990s and is largely characterized by leaving teddy bears, cards, candles, and other items at sites of violent death continues to grow and evolve alongside the 24-hour news cycle and advent of the Internet and social media. Evolving alongside this mourning ritual are museum and institutional collections preserving the “stuff” of temporary memorials.

Much of the theoretical attention, at least in the United States, has centered on the memorials following national tragedies and draws heavily on anthropological and ethnographic practices. References to condolence collections formed from memorials are typically found in journals of anthropology, archeology, grief studies, and American studies/cultural studies/public history. Consideration of what these objects mean or represent about our culture is limited in professional literature. The topic is conspicuously absent in the field of libraries and information sciences (LIS). Where condolence collections are discussed in the existing literature, the practical, logistical, and archival concerns of such collections are largely eschewed in favor of discussions that explore the materiality of grief, and the role these objects play in our collective consciousness and cultural memory.

Writings in disaster management, too, rarely address the curation and preservation of condolence material following crises, as they are concentrated on the immediate concerns of patron safety or damage to existing collection materials and structures.

Similarly, while the documentary field is rife with films that explore gun violence, public tragedies including Newtown, and policy issues, there are no documentary projects that focus on grief materials or archives formed in the aftermath.

Despite the lack of direct critical attention, these “archives of grief” and condolence artifact collections are becoming more widespread. From the September 11th museum that opened in Spring 2014 to the Northeastern University Libraries’ crowd-sourced digital collection of remembrances following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, there is a growing and diverse collection practice that remains at this point largely unexplored.

These expanding collection practices—especially those that rise to a scale and scope of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which encompasses thousands of items now held in off-site storage facilities—raise a number of important questions for the curators of our cultural memory to consider. Among them are: For whom are these items being kept? What purpose does each archive serve? Does each have a future value and use?

To begin to address these pertinent and timely questions, The Story of the Stuff explores three modern instances of a large-scale outpouring of condolence materials, the management of those objects, and what kind of collection, if any, was created to preserve these materials. The Story of the Stuff does so through an interactive web documentary, an educational module for LIS students, and a traditional book chapter for academics and specialists (accessible through the project website).

What we used

Documentary Workflow

Data and documentation of each case was gathered through a variety of low-budget documentary field techniques, including direct observation (cinema vérité-style filming), sit-down interviews, and research method inspired by investigative journalism. A crew of 2-3 people—cinematographer, interviewer, and sound/second camera—was used for each shoot. The production kit consisted of a Sony FS-100 HD Digital Camcorder with an E-mount 18-200mm zoom lens, tripod with fluid-head tripod, Sennheiser ME64 shotgun mic, Sennheiser G3 Wireless Lavalier mic, Canon 60D DSLR for stills and use as a second camera, and accessories (such as XLR cables, headphones, camera slider, etc.)

News footage, archival video documentation, and photographs were consulted in the production of the Texas A&M and Virginia Tech segments in addition to making trips to both university archives. In the case of Sandy Hook, documentation materials (e.g. photographs, home movies, and notes/journals) from the town and from individuals interviewed were consulted but the majority of the observation took place firsthand and was videotaped by the project coordinator and team over the course of 2013 during four site visits to Newtown.

Following each shoot, footage was logged and labeled in Adobe Prelude Creative Cloud (CC), a logging and ingest program, and transcribed using InqScribe, a low cost and easy-to-use video transcription software. Transcriptions were then reformatted in Adobe Story CC, a screenwriting software program, in order to be linked to the video files in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, a non-linear video editor. Linking the transcripts to the video files allowed for online and offline editing of the video according to the audio transcripts. Once edited, videos were compressed in Adobe Media Encoder CC before being uploaded, closed captioned (via Amara), and hosted by Vimeo for embedding in the project site.

Web Tools & Platforms

For reasons of cost and sustainability, The Story of the Stuff was designed to have few custom coding and web development needs, a minimal number of required team members, and to rely on very little to no institutional infrastructure.

The project was completed with a total of 16 collaborators and roles were clearly defined at the outset. The project coordinator (an experienced documentarian and oral historian with an MFA in Film and Media Arts, in addition to an MSIS), served as the director for the documentary shoots, editor of the videos, and overall supervisor of the project. Those with highly defined roles included the additional film crew (camera operators), web developer, music composer, and two illustrators. Student workers who were graduate practicum students in LIS, and volunteers (primarily undergraduate cinema studies students or recent graduates) had more fluid roles and skill sets. Typically, they were trained to use tools for a limited number of specific tasks (e.g. InqScribe for video transcriptions, Adobe Prelude CC for logging footage, Premiere Pro CC for creating rough edits or videos for the educational module, Adobe Story CC for transcription linking, Scalar for building an educational module, etc.) by the project coordinator and worked closely under her supervision on discrete portions of the project during the 18-month editing process.

The project website was built with “out of the box” platforms and readymade tools: the design is a customized Wordpress template created by drawing on freely available templates, requiring few specialized plugins (WPBakery Visual Composer for design/layout and EWWW Image Optimizer for minimizing site load time/bandwidth) and requiring just 56 professional coding hours.

Above Left: A “frontend” view of The Story of the Stuff webpage showing a SoundCloud audio file embed, text, and Timeline.JS timeline.

Above Right: The same page as viewed in the Wordpress WYSIWYG editor.

For the custom coding and troubleshooting, the director first tried to find a local collaborator at the University or in the surrounding community who met the skills, budget, and availability requirements but was unable to do so. Instead, she hired a freelance developer easily, quickly, and affordably using UpWork with the requisite skills (expertise in Javascript and PHP). The project coordinator communicated needs to the coder via UpWork messages, phone, and Skype, to keep the project on time and on budget. The coder mainly focused on glitches and appearance challenges and reducing site loading time and bandwidth by optimizing images and setting videos to play using Lightbox.JS rather than through direct site embeds.

The interactive timeline within the site relies on Knight Lab’s free, open source Timeline.JS. Videos, images, and illustrations were edited and created using Adobe Creative Cloud software ($29/month academic pricing). The educational module was built in the freely available, open source, and easy-to-use Scalar 2 multimedia authoring platform.

The site itself is hosted by Reclaim ($40/year, including web domain) with the 68 minutes of videos hosted separately on Vimeo (Vimeo Plus or Pro Account $60-199/year).

Music that was not original to the project was licensed affordably from AudioSocket.

Above: A screenshot from the site shows the Vimeo video, displayed via LightBox, on the site with closed-captioning enabled. The closed captions were created in Amara, a tool that integrates directly with Vimeo.

Accessibility & Sustainability

In addition to sustainability decisions around cost and using established platforms detailed above, we designed the site to require minimal upkeep. The relative lack of “bells and whistles” has the added benefit of keeping the project more accessible for a variety of users. For instance, there are no autoplaying videos or advanced scroll and mouse hover effects (e.g. no audio that begins to play, image overlays, or parallax scrolling). In this way, design beauty and “wow” factor were sacrificed in lieu of sustainability and accessibility.

All videos include closed captioning, done through Amara, a captioning software platform with optional professional service, which integrates directly with Vimeo; any audio-only files are accompanied by transcripts; and the interactive timeline can also be accessed as a Google spreadsheet.

Why you chose it

Unlike a traditional documentary, it was hoped that by telling this story in an interactive format it would reach a wider and more diverse audience than the typical independent film, be disseminated quickly upon completion (as opposed to the long and limiting festival and theatrical distribution cycle), and be accessible in multiple senses; that is, the documentary could be viewed by audiences with different abilities, education levels, geographic locations, and with various internet speed/access.

Given the sensitive nature of the subject matter (i.e. mass shootings, school shootings, etc.), we also felt it was more empowering to allow the viewers to explore the documentary at their own pace and have the ability to skip or revisit specific content.

The process was approximately 3 years from research and conception to filming and editing (over 18 months) to site development and creation (6 months) to launch, which is much shorter than the typical feature-length documentary production/post-production/distribution cycle.

Funding

The project was funded through a variety of means:

  • personal funding from the principal investigator/filmmaker
  • two University of Tennessee at Knoxville Faculty Research Incentive Grants for travel to gather two expert interviews, pay for coding, music licenses, and original art/illustrations
  • 501(c) 3 fiscal sponsorship for accepting donations
  • a modest crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo to pay for closed captioning
  • in-kind donations of services from some collaborators

Fiscal sponsorship and crowd-funding guidance was provided by Fractured Atlas, who also offers a handbook on fundraising for all of their sponsored projects.

Above: Percentage breakdowns of funding sources and major project expenses for The Story of  the Stuff.

Skills & Resources

Technical skills needed: basic web Content Management System (CMS) familiarity (i.e. Wordpress.org); some knowledge of basic CSS and HTML; familiarity with Scalar 2 platform/interface; HD video and audio capture and non-linear editing; basic graphic design and photo editing; Knight Lab’s Timeline.JS

Competencies needed: academic research and qualitative analysis skills, documentary interview techniques; video filming, transcribing, editing, and closed captioning;
video asset management

Resources: StoryCode Immersive Storytelling Network, The Shut Up and Shoot Guide to Documentary; Lynda.com tutorials for filmmaking and Adobe Creative Suite, especially Premiere Pro CC (non-linear video editing), including transcription linking with Adobe Story CC (screenwriting), Photoshop CC, and Illustrator CC (graphic design); Closed Captioning on Vimeo with Amara, freelance web development on UpWork, Scalar webinars

1. How did your academic background, experience, and/or professional interests prepare you for this project, and projects like it generally?

This project is, in many ways, a culmination of my background, experiences, and interests. I hold an MFA in Film & Media Arts that I received before getting my MS in Information Sciences, though I’ve long had an interest in archives. Researching and creating this project really allowed me to combine those seemingly disparate interests and see how they converge.

It was a lot of fun to put these two worlds together. For instance, when thinking about the design and purpose of this project, I went back to the canonical Ranganathan’s Rules (of library science) and tried to adapt them for the world of interactive storytelling. 

These new “rules” helped me to shape this project:

  • Books are for use. —> Stories are for audiences.
  • Every reader his / her book. —> Every audience member his/her story.
  • Every book its reader. —> Every story its audience.
  • Save the time of the reader. —> Respect the time and autonomy of the audience.
  • The library is a growing organism. —> The story world is an ever-changing organism.

2. If needed, what new things did you learn during the project (technical skills, managerial skills, team building, project management, etc.)? How did you approach learning them?

While I had experience building websites and using various CMS systems, this was my first attempt at designing and creating an interactive documentary. I relied on conversations and explorations of other projects by leaders in the field, many of which came to my attention through the StoryCode community and newsletter. I also needed to skill up in terms of CSS and HTML; my subscription to lynda.com came in handy to say the least.

While I’ve managed many projects and teams, this was the first one where very little to no time was spent in person with the team members. I had to learn how to manage a group of people virtually, without much knowledge of when they were working on the project (because this was a side gig). UpWork was tremendously helpful for finding digital collaborators and tracking their work; Basecamp is another favorite for managing complex digital projects and virtual teams.

3. Thinking on the project as a whole, if you could distill your experience what key lessons would you share?

My key takeaways were as follows:

  •   Conceive of story + audience first, tech second.
  •   To strike the balance between beautiful design and accessibility, think about your audience and project lifecycle.
  •   Don’t hesitate to make an ask but don’t waste time chasing money or collaborators.
  •   Play the long game: aim for topical relevance rather than novelty.

4. Any final thoughts?

There’s no need to wait for permission to begin your next project, even if the skill sets required are a little out of reach. I started this project with the simple requirement that I needed to do one thing a day towards its creation. Some days, that meant I only sent an email to a potential collaborator; other days, I would spend 15 hours editing and forgetting to eat. But most of this project was build in the “in-between” times and small tasks I did each day.

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The Story of the Stuff

Posted by Ashley Maynor on March 28, 2016

In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, more than half a million letters and 65,000 teddy bears poured into Newtown, Connecticut. The interactive web documentary, The Story of the Stuff, explores the phenomenon of spontaneous memorials by tracking the disposition of the condolence items sent to Newtown and examining the larger phenomenon of pubic responses to tragedy. 

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