The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is home to the Open Documentary Lab, a research group based at the department of Comparative Media Studies and Writing (CMS/W) and dedicated solely to studying emerging documentary forms. Suvi Andrea Helminen, currently an artist in residence at the Lab, met with William Uricchio – godfather of the group – to talk about his vision.
When entering William Uricchio’s office one can’t help but notice a blue and pink glowing brain on the desk. When he joined Henry Jenkins on the newly-founded Comparative Media Studies program (CMS) back in 2000, they jokingly used to call it “the brain of CMS”. Jenkins eventually moved to another university, but the brain was left with Uricchio. In 2012 Uricchio, who has a lifelong passion for documentaries, initiated the Open Documentary Lab.
But wait a minute, why is there a documentary research group at MIT? To the general public MIT is famous for hatching Nobel Prize-winning scientists from its STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Uricchio points out that an interdisciplinary marriage between science and media departments makes perfect sense, considering that shifts in media have always gone hand in hand with technological development.
“If you peel back the real activities of what goes on at a place like MIT, it’s amazing in terms of the impact it has on media. Technicolour was developed by former students. If you think of concepts like audio-visual accuracy and representation, then there was Amar Bose, who developed speakers with perfect sound reproduction and Harold “Doc” Edgerton, who took stroboscopic photographs of a bullet penetrating an apple, breaking time down to its minimum. MIT has an amazing array of people who have been important in shaping media.”
From a technological point of view MIT has had great impact on media history in terms of providing affordances for which type of content could be created. Curiously this impact is however often unplanned, because new technology is almost always repurposed and used in different ways than originally intended. Right now we are experiencing rapid and dramatic changes in the media landscape, recent technological developments are pushing the limits of both forms and content; the mission of Open Doc Lab is to observe and facilitate this change. One of the tendencies we are seeing now is a democratization of media production. Audience behaviour and expectation is changing. One might even say that audiences themselves are co-creating the new film language.
“Today many of us are carrying high definition video cameras around with our smart phones. We’ve entered a new era of image production. The YouTube upload rate right now is 100 hours per minute. People are clearly participating in a frenzy to this media creation, and what makes this stuff have real potential is the internet. It’s not just that we can record stuff with our phones, but that there is a network for distributing and accessing it widely.”
Advocates for traditional documentaries may find it unsettling that the role of the author is under scrutiny. New forms of documentary storytelling are emerging in the gray zone between creators, consumers and technology. Experimentation with interactive, participatory and non-linear forms is on the rise. The challenge for professional filmmakers is to be ready to follow these currents of change.
“As long as Moore’s Law keeps up, we can expect change to keep happening. What we found at Comparative Media Studies is that it is useful to learn from history, to go back and compare the present to developmental stages of earlier media forms. We look across media forms to see what their limits are, what their expressive capacities are, and how those are constantly in dialogue and changing.”
As an example, Uricchio compares the social dynamics we are seeing now in regard to emerging forms of documentaries to the beginning of Direct Cinema in the late 1950s. Between MIT and the neighbouring university, Harvard, a group of documentary filmmakers wanted to capture reality as it unfolded, with synchronized sound and image, which wasn’t possible at the time. In cooperation with engineers, instruments that enabled synchronized sound recording were developed.
“Seen in retrospect, a lot of established filmmakers at the time must have seen Direct Cinema as a mess. Shots were poorly edited, out of focus, and it was unruly and disruptive filmmaking in some way. It looked messy to someone who was shooting controlled 35 mm documentaries on a tripod. So what happened? The technologically-enabled change in style, in the relationship between the subject and the maker, triumphed thanks to a new distribution platform: television.”
The role of the author had to be reassessed in the following years, and as we now know, this new style, endorsed by some and questioned by others, changed the face of documentary forever. Throughout his academic career Uricchio has been studying changes in media history.
“Over the course of my career I kept coming back to the beginnings of things. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on really early documentaries, from the beginning of film until about 1927. I am just finishing a book on the early years of television. I’m interested in the infancy of the telephone, photography and cinema, that’s what my academic work has always been about. And it hit me that what we are seeing now with these emerging forms of documentary is the beginning and it’s wonderful to watch. Starting a research group like Open Documentary Lab just seemed consistent with all of my interests, except instead of trying to rediscover the past, I am actually in the present and can look at this and track it.”
Right now there is a sea of possibilities from which new documentary forms can be born, and no rules. Uricchio talks about his visions for the Open Documentary Lab:
“My interest is to study this change in documentary while it’s taking place, but I’m also interested in facilitating it. This area has not yet started to be constrained by the right way and the wrong way, by genres or by standards. It’s an open space where we are using many different kinds of language, and different forms. There is a ton of experimentation and not many limits, other than those of resources. Part of facilitating the change consists in helping people communicate. We are eager to find out what the rhetorical patterns are. Like anything else that has happened in the past, you know there is going to be an evolution towards a sort of vocabulary, and benchmarks and measures and reference points. We are trying to help it happen, not so much to impose categories, but more to extract a vocabulary from the words people are using.”
The YouTube upload rate right now is 100 hours per minute. People are clearly participating in a frenzy to this media creation, and what makes this stuff have real potential is the internet.
The Open Documentary Lab serves as a unique meeting space for academics, technologists and creators. On a day to day basis, it is run by Sarah Wolozin, who with years of experience as a documentary practitioner brings her own knowledge into the equation. Other important agents in the group are two research assistants and visiting fellows, who are both creators and researchers. The Open Documentary Lab has published two ongoing research projects, which are online: Moments of Innovation, which puts new documentary categories in a historical context, and _Docubase, which serves as a database of projects, but also seeks to discover a vocabulary and categorize.
“We are really eager to disseminate information and to get stuff out there. Projects like Moments of Innovation or _Docubase are public tools to help our community and makers imagine what this stuff is about. From my personal perspective it’s also an incredible time capsule of the first few years of this form. We want to push this field forward and there is clearly a bunch of different ways. I think we are just scratching the surface right now.”
Uricchio gives a few examples of areas that are still under-explored:
“I think the location-based component of new documentary forms is completely in its infancy. Now even our phones tell us our locations. Another area which is not fully explored is the use of data to tell stories. The building we are in right now has motion sensors, sound sensors, temperature sensors that can tell if a human is present. How could we use that data to enhance a story? As long as data can be modelled, we should be able to do something with it. Something else that has intriguing potentials is putting an algorithm to work to help us with some of our stories. When you turn an algorithm loose into large data sets, it can help find patterns and stories that humans would likely miss.”
Uricchio doesn’t think that we are going to lose the linear documentary form but there will be new ways of viewing authorship.
“Authorship will also be about constructing environments, modes of connectivity and space; maybe more like an architect.”
He underlines that the Open Documentary Lab holds an unbiased position, and is dedicated to giving every player in the field attention.
“Our job is to understand, to contextualize and to enable the field by enhancing communication. We are trying to be a space where professionals who are preoccupied with new documentary forms, can come together and trade ideas, experience, tips about technology, ideas about narrative, or questions or concerns about authorship. We are at a junction, where so much is possible. Our role is to make sure to support all those avenues and not just settle for one thing. So in that sense I see Open Documentary Lab as kind of a catalyst, and as a place that tries to make sure we don’t get too comfortable and keeps pushing the borders.”_
Links to MIT-labs mentioned