Over nine months, SBS interaction specialist Matt Smith designed and built the The Block: Stories from a Meeting Place.
There are many ways to define the interactive documentary genre. Some may describe it as deconstructed storytelling. Others, non-linear narratives. Or maybe London College of Media lecturer Sandra Gaudenzi is onto something with this all-encompassing explanation: “I would consider an interactive documentary is not linked by the industry with the ‘documentary family’ and is called an online forum, a digital art piece, a locative game, an educational product, a 3D world, an emotional map.”
For SBS interaction designer and developer Matt Smith, good interactive documentary is defined by providing a level of insight that cannot be achieved through linear storytelling. “I think that insight can come from shaping your own path; digesting that information in your own way. I think, then, it falls on the storytellers’ shoulders to make sure all these divergent paths in some way overlap and provide the whole,” he says.
In The Block: Stories from a Meeting Place, users are invited to become immersed in the physical landscape of Redfern’s infamous Indigenous-owned housing precinct by ‘dragging’ themselves through a series of panoramas. Within each panorama, users will find icons and images that lead to interviews with former residents, a timeline of events from the Block’s 40-year history and photo galleries. It is up to the user to create their “own way”; whether it be by consuming all of the almost-two hours of video content (to paint a multi-faceted picture of the Block), or perhaps by selecting characters whose stories they find appealing.
Smith says he doesn’t have a design or interaction philosophy that informs his work, but his ‘thing’, if you will, is to give users surprises. “That comes into a level of throwaway detail – I put a detail in there that only 10 per cent of users might see. That sense of surprise and exploration is very important to these kinds of projects,” he says.
I ask Smith if it’s his intention to reward users who spend more time on the site than others: “I don’t think explicitly,” he says. “It’s not like there’s a goal at the end. But I think, the more you explore, the more level of detail you uncover. And that can be satisfying for some people.”
Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want said surprises ruined, but with this project they include: the bouncing day/night switch, the stylised loading status and the blinking panorama button. These are the ones that immediately come to mind for me; there are many others, but they're for you to discover.
Much like the structure of The Block, Smith doesn’t go about his work in a linear fashion. “I don’t go from a wireframe to a design to building the thing. I often jump back and forth between design and the build. Something that looked good in Photoshop doesn’t always work very well when you build it out or you may come across more creative ideas,” he says.
The design entry point to the project was the panoramas: “In terms of navigation, you let those panoramas feed a lot of the UX (user experience) as well,” he says. Also approached early in the process was the logo. Smith had presented five options to the production working group (of which I was a member), but tells me he had about 15 variations up his sleeve. It was important, says Smith, to avoid being clichéd with the design of the site: “On the creative side, with Indigenous content there is that risk of making it a bit trite by incorporating too many Aboriginal motifs, which is why I looked at the protest side of things to inform the creative direction.”
The site was built in Flash (users will need to ensure Flash 11 is installed on their computer in order to view it). Smith considered building the site in HTML5 by investigating the capabilities of different browsers. “We ended up going down the Flash path to achieve something that was fairly consistent across all these desktop browsers,” he says.
There were also a host of other tools Smith used to build the site: the code editor Flash Develop; Ant, to “build all the bits and pieces, bring them together and pump them out into the final website”; the API Stage 3D for the libraries; and the library Gaia, to “manage the deep linking and the transitions”. On top of that, Smith built the panorama engine. “Things crashed a lot,” he says.
Making The Block: Direction
Making The Block: Research and interviews
Making The Block: Panoramas
Making The Block: Sound design
Explore the web documentary sbs.com.au/theblock
Join the conversation on Twitter twitter.com/SBSDocumentary #TheBlockSBS
Full SBS NAIDOC Week Offering sbs.com.au/naidoc
About this writer
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns’ provocative documentary is a “devastating portrait of contemporary social inequality" - The New Yorker.
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