Our presentation “Empire: Experimental Storytelling Across Platforms” is a Prezi Staff Pick (and the most watched SXSW presentation on their site): http://prezi.com/ehxk964muf1g/empire-sxsw-presentation/
The following article by Ricardo Almeida, originally titled SXSW: Project Empire e a reinvenção do conceito de narrativa, was published on the Brazilian technology site IDG Now on March 10th, 2014. Thanks to our friends from Brazil for helping out with the translation:
Most of the history of the world, regardless of what we’re examining, is absolutely three-dimensional. While we strive to create timelines in our minds—to establish a beginning, middle and end—the truth of our experience is actually a chaos of colliding perspectives that generate a multiplicity of competing stories with every impact.
The diverse behavior of audiences at SXSW presents a good example: while experts lecture here, individuals in the audience assume different behaviors : some watch quietly, while others take notes; some others write articles, and others just sit back and meditate on their lives. Each audience member is affected in their own, unique way. If you want to tell your a story truthfully, you must take into account this diversity.
Although this is still a concept too complex to be adopted by many brands, one recent project— Empire—has made a vital and valid attempt to address this subjectivity.
The central theme of the project is the impact of Dutch colonization around the world, from the most remote locations such as Sri Lanka, to the city of Amsterdam itself .
But how do you address an issue as broad as the current-day effects of one of the largest global-imperial missions that this planet has ever seen? And how can you transmit your findings in a manner that is adequately all-encompassing to a dispersed, global audience?
The answer the creators found was unusual: the work allows several artistically-rendered narratives that play out simultaneously, effectively bombarding the audience with content, and forcing them to dive deep into the project’s filmic universe .
The “movie” is divided into four layers:
1 ) Art installations
Empire is not traditional cinema. To watch the film in its originally intended form, users have to enter one of the four installations that have been presented at exhibitions around the world (not yet in Brazil, unfortunately). The exhibitions have generally been presented indoors, with monitors everywhere and stories running simultaneously. Interwoven soundtracks from the various countries give viewers a narrative thread to hold onto.
For example, while a resident of Ghana grabs your attention in one video, people from a secluded Brazilian village talk about their day-to-day lives in another. There is a bond between these narratives that comes from a shared Dutch colonial history—and eventually a multifaceted narrative arises and allows the audience to recognize the overlapping habits, customs and beliefs of these people, and to understand more deeply the details and subtleties of colonial legacy. From the point of view of art, few things could be more revolutionary for film.
2 ) Online adaptation
The problem with physical exhibitions, however, is that they are physically limited. They require space and require the user to actually attend and walk around in order to take them in. This problem led to the birth of the second layer of the project: the online version, which can be found at www.empireproject.eu. Experiencing the work on a computer, the user can replicate the installations’ feeling of simultaneous narratives through UX design that is absolutely unusual and innovative. It is well worth a browse, if only to experience a site that was explicitly created to tell several stories (that share an original foundation) simultaneously.
3 ) Book
The entire project, from its conception to execution, has also been recorded in a book. The objective of the book is clear: to document the documentary in the most logical, direct way for anyone who wants to understand its legacy in concrete terms. In the words of the directors, the book is the history of the project, and will be available to future generations who want to understand it. It is funny, but a project that is built on so much cutting edge technology uses a good old-fashioned book to secure its immortality.
4 ) Supplementary Materials
Throughout production and distribution of such an innovative project as Empire, a ton of reports, articles (like this one), photos, and making-of videos were generated.* To the creators, all of this material is also part of the narrative. This is a simple idea, but one that is nevertheless ignored by almost all filmmakers or authors. A whole story can only be told truthfully when you supplement it with all of the aftershocks and impressions that it produces in its viewers. All the chaos caused by the idea of creating a story made up of a mass of simultaneous narratives ends up being part of the overall story of the project, closing a powerful cycle that can help draw new boundaries of storytelling.
And if storytelling is the great theme of SXSW, we in the media would do well to look closely at initiatives that are challenging and beyond the commonplace. Might a model like the one used in Empire fail in the long run because of its complexity? It could, but one should never forget that innovation is generated from a plurality of trial and error—and just knowing that is a big step .
So what should we do now? Open another browser window and soak in the world of www.empireproject.eu
Have a good trip!
*One very minor quibble here: the supplementary materials we were referring to in our presentation primarily consisted of Empire-related pieces that we’ve made throughout production and sold to third parties, including this article for Vice, this series for The Creators Project, and this short for De Correspondent. That said, we applaud the author’s understanding of a project that has a lot of moving parts and can be hard to boil down (even for us).
Empire: Experimental Storytelling Across Platforms
For all of you who missed us at SXSW Digital Domain, here’s our presentation in all its glory.
Eline is one of Filmmaker Magazine’s Women of SXSW!
“Why make an experimental documentary and not a feature film?”
The answer to that would be that the structure of the project arose organically to match the sprawling nature of the subject matter. It’s not just the time of movies right now, since we have long form TV and online video, and all kinds of new forms coming up. Because it is distributed across so many platforms, Empire is very much of this time.
Photo by Kramer O’Neill
EMPIRE AT SXSW
Tomorrow, 11 AM, Austin Convention Center. New work will be revealed!
Empire directors Kel O’Neill & Eline Jongsma
20x24 Polaroid by Myrna Suarez for The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Mars Simulation, Southern Utah by Kel O’Neill & Eline Jongsma
Go to our new website to see more of what we’re working on when we’re not working on Empire.
We opened our email today to find these images of the first test print of the upcoming Empire book.
Made in collaboration with the brilliant designers at Atelier Carvalho Bernau, the book is a layered exploration of the project that combines travel writing and behind-the-scenes photography with historical essays and images from the Empire installations. Follow us here and on facebook to find out when it will be available (hint, summer 2014).
Thanks to our supporters at the Creative Industries Fund NL for helping to make this happen.
EMPIRE is going to SXSW!
Come see our “Empire: Experimental Storytelling Across Platforms" presentation at the Austin Convention Center on March 10th at 11 AM.
“Shot in 10 countries over the course of 4 years, Eline Jongsma & Kel O’Neill’s acclaimed documentary project Empire (NYFF 2013, IDFA 2012) is an epic investigation into the legacy of Dutch colonialism. It is also a one-of-a-kind storytelling experiment—instead of making a traditional film for theaters or TV, Jongsma + O’Neill have created a non-linear, multiplatform story experience that includes video installations, a book, an interactive website, and a growing collection of ancillary journalism pieces. In the lead up to Empire’s completion, Jongsma + O’Neill offer a session that explores their DIY production methods, and touches on the triumphs (winning PBS’s POV Hackathon) and sacrifices (prolonged homelessness) that have shaped this uncontainable interactive nonfiction project.”
POV Digital has curated a program of interactive documentaries with walkthroughs for Filmgate Interactive 2014. Now entering its 27th year on PBS, POV is television’s longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films and has a long-standing tradition in interactive storytelling, starting with online forums and multimedia websites in the 1990s to digital-native documentaries in the early 2000s to today’s experiments with POV Hackathons. The Aatsinki Season, Empire and Unknown Spring are among the dozens of projects incubated at POV Hackathon. Each will be presented to Miami audiences as stellar examples of interactive storytelling created over the past year.
February 2 @ 11:00 am - 1:00 pm
Life on the Inside
20 years ago, South Africa was on the cusp of a momentous change. Parliament moved to constitutionally dismantle Apartheid, and Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize. While the world celebrated the rise of South Africa’s Rainbow Nation, a small group of white Afrikaners went into retreat. They settled in an abandoned stretch of desert in the Northern Cape and began building a community that would preserve the values of a divided South Africa.
They called their community Orania, the town where Apartheid survived.
We have a new job making short documentaries for De Correspondent, a wonderful, forward-thinking Dutch journalism outlet. It’s a great way to stretch our legs a little bit while we finish Empire, and to focus on small, self-contained stories.
Our first piece is a portrait of Dan Phiffer, the creator of Occupy.here, a “tiny self-contained darknet” that just may change the way that people communicate online.
When we decided to become professional transients in the service of Empire, we held a “Give Away/Going Away” party in our old apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Friends came by from noon until midnight and picked our apartment clean of furniture, books, DVDs, and appliances. We put what was left into boxes, put those boxes into a 5’ by 15’ storage unit in Sheepshead Bay, and then boarded a flight to Jakarta, and lived out of a big green rolling suitcase for the next four years.
Today, our boxes arrived at our new apartment in Los Angeles, where we’ll be working on a video project for at least the next year. There’s still a lot to do for Empire—there’s a book to publish, and an online adaptation to finish—but the days of the green suitcase are over. Time to buy some new shit.
Thanks to Berenice Reynaud, Bill Ballou and Steve Anker for making the REDCAT evening happen.
Check out this article in which IndieWire dives into the world of transmedia and includes The Empire Project under “successful examples”!