How an interactive documentary on West Virginia was put together

Behind the scenes, Interviews
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In 2013, the interactive documentary Hollow won a Peabody Award for its exploration of West Virginia’s McDowell County and the hardships and economic contraction the community is facing.

Jeff Soyk, an award-winning media artist and Open Documentary Lab fellow at M.I.T., collaborated with Elaine McMillion Sheldon on the documentary, planning the layout and producing the interactive elements. (Read Storybench’s  interview with McMillion Sheldon here.)

Storybench sat down with Soyk to discuss the roadblocks to progress, his design process, and what inspired the project.

At what point did you become involved with the project Hollow?

I got involved in April 2012. At the time, we were enrolled in Emerson media art program. There was a Kickstarter kick off for the project. It all started as Elaine’s thesis project. I was working on a different thesis and I offered to help her out with kind of branding her Hollow project because she could use some help and promotion. I could tell she was so caught up in other things, and my background is design and interactive media, so I was like, “I can help with that.” It became clear quickly that she was really looking to pursue the interactive route. She was bringing her traditional film maker background to the table but for me, film making and documentary was new. I came to Emerson to get more of that. But my background was interactive media, so, I suggested to her that we should collaborate on this and make it a joint project. And we actually had to talk with our committees at Emerson, who were very resilient at first, to allow us to do a joint thesis because the project was getting so large and required so much work, regarding the interactive and the filming components of it.

Credit: Hollow.

 

When you got involved in the project, did you have a vision for it? Regarding layout or design?

No, we didn’t have a vision initially. When I joined in April, Elaine was looking at some student developers to help build it up, but all there was to show for it was a basic and typical mock up, so we were a blank canvas really. It was a matter of brainstorming during the summer of 2012 and it’s kind of like the chicken and the egg thing, where you have the story developing and you’re meeting the people while you’re trying to figure out the format and how you’re going to put it all together. Over the summer we were brainstorming and trying different things. I went through multiple concepts and designs that got thrown in the garbage. It wasn’t until the fall that we landed on the final direction.

What sort of resources did you utilize to get the information? Was everyone willing to talk and volunteer their stories for the project?

Elaine is from a neighboring county, but she drove through there and met some people. She met Tom Acosta, the painter, to see his mural and introduce him to the project. And from there she networked and even though she was from West Virginia there was a lot of resistance because journalists and things had gone through there with an agenda and they [the county] were a target for all the reporting on poverty and drugs and other topics so obviously, they were hesitant to let someone in to tell their story. But over time she gained their trust and we set up workshops at local schools over the summer and many showed interest and got involved. They were part of the process to tell the story and they were seeing the content that we were capturing and getting a sense of the themes that we should address and concerns. It went to become a classic storytelling process.

 

Credit: Hollow.

Did the people that you interviewed and that participated get a first look at this?

During production they saw content in raw form. When we launched publicly we went down to West Virginia and had a screening and also went to the library and provided a local version of it as well. Not everyone had access to high speed internet, so we wanted to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to access it.

What was the overall response to the project? Not just from those that it featured, but from the overall public?

It took some time in the general public to generate some momentum, but overall the community was very excited. They really liked being a part of that because it was like they were sharing something with the

“One of the most important things is not leading with tech”

outside world, their stories. They were very proud of it and we had a very positive response to the screening. It wasn’t until Huffington Post wrote about us because someone there had seen it and it really caught their eye, and then the LA Times wrote about us, and it took a little while but it gained popularity.

Did this project lead into any other more recent projects? Did it give you any inspiration?

This was really exciting for me because I put my interactive back on the shelf a little bit when I went to Emerson. I always had the interactive media in me and when this whole IDOC generation came out, it was like the perfect marriage. It was very exciting for me and it was my first dive into it with Hollow and I really enjoyed putting a lot of myself into it. It definitely has influenced my trajectory professionally and personally and how I think about storytelling.

For anyone who want to get involved in interactive media and storytelling, what do you think is most important to know and understand?

I guess one of the most important things is not leading with tech, and really know the heart of the story and what your motivations are, your main objective, who you’re reaching, and always staying true to that. I think it’s very easy for a project to go on tangents and kind of turns in different directions and shifts, and you need to understand that shift and why that’s happening and whether that’s good for the project or appropriate. I always say to try and think about projects with an “inside out” mentality. You start with a really small, strong, and tight core and then you build out organically. And you think big, really broadly, and then kind of bring it back in again, and explode it again at some point, tear everything apart and then put it all back together again. It’s kind of an expansion and contraction process. While always knowing what’s in your core and never losing sight of that and reminding yourself and your team about that.

Also, it is important to be willing to throw stuff out and reiterate. Especially in this field where there are no roadmaps here and no manuals. It’s important to show a lot of humility with a team of people especially with different backgrounds, which can be hard to do. Especially people who aren’t used to working in a team environment. There must be overlap and there has to be give and take. Like I was saying with the concepts and designs [created for Hollow]… we came up with several ideas that some of them I think could probably still work, and could probably work for other projects, but they just weren’t appropriate for that story. I had to throw a lot of stuff out, and that can be disheartening for some people. To me if I don’t throw something out I get worried. It should never be the first thing you come up with, in my opinion throwing stuff out is progress.

Elizabeth is a journalism student at Northeastern University.

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