Interactive Documentary Filmmaking: An Interview with Allison Otto
Written by Catherine Stewart | Posted by: NewEnglandFilm.com
This series of articles features interviews with established and emerging female filmmakers living and working in New England, as well as prominent industry figures from our region. Filmmaker Catherine Stewart discusses distribution, finding work, making connections, and handling collaborations, along with whatever else comes along. We encourage you to join the conversation here on NewEnglandFilm.com or on Twitter using #femalesinfilm.
I ask each and every filmmaker that I interview for the Females in Film series here on NewEnglandFilm.com about their inspirations, and in particular, the women who have encouraged, excited and galvanised their interest in making cinema. I feel like I can’t peruse my favorite film blogs, papers or magazines without hearing a new statistic about women in this industry – perhaps they do not startle us anymore, however, they still sadden. But when interviewing industry females, like Allison Otto, I can’t help but feel that all is not lost.
‘I love Lucy Walker’s documentaries and her approach–she often uses a small crew, she films fascinating characters, and her cinematography often reminds me of a visual haiku,’ explains the multi-talented Otto. ‘I especially love The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom and The Lion’s Mouth Opens.’ Otto also cites film mavericks Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Katerina Cizek as creating beautiful work for the interactive genre.
So next time you are having a film chat with friends, family or colleagues – male or female, share a few names. I’ve added Lucy Walker to my watchlist. Keep talking about the great work that is being created each and every day, particularly in the indie scene. If we keep the conversation going, we don’t unwittingly add to the imbalance but in fact redress inequality that exists in our industry.
Allison Otto, a Colorado native, and Denver inhabitant, has directed, filmed, and edited web and television content for such clients as the Travel Channel, Lonely Planet, USA Today, MTV, and Outside Television. She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in Communications and a master’s degree in Sociology. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Film from the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA).
‘In 2012, I directed and filmed my first documentary short, Keeper of the Mountains,’ says Otto. The film premiered in 2013 and has screened at more than 30 festivals, won 11 awards, and was included in Outside magazine’s list of Best Adventure Films of 2013. ‘The film was about American journalist Elizabeth Hawley, who at 90 maintains the world’s largest archive of Himalayan mountaineering expeditions and is considered the world’s foremost authority on Himalayan mountaineering. And yet she’s never climbed a mountain herself.’
Keeper of the Mountains is a portrait of a woman who played an unlikely key role in the Golden Age of Himalayan mountaineering, defied the traditional gender roles of her day, settled alone in Kathmandu in 1960, and has famously lived life on her own terms ever since. Otto describes the making of this film as ‘[A] wonderful and challenging crash course for me in everything that’s entailed in putting a film together.’ Otto is thrilled by the response she received.
‘I started out as a newspaper reporter, so I believe foremost in the importance of a strong, well-developed story with compelling characters. I began learning to film and edit about six years ago and have been largely self-taught before attending VCFA.’ The MFA is a low-residency program filled with inspiration, advice and opportunities to showcase and discuss work with industry professionals, peers and the wider community. ‘I’ve always loved films because of their power to tell a story visually,’ continues Otto. ‘I’m intrigued by the interactive genre because it explores non-linear storytelling, utilizes a variety of media, and encourages participation from the users.’
Otto is currently working on an interactive documentary about life in the remote Borderlands town of Bisbee, Arizona. ‘I’ve spent about 18 months gathering footage and content and working with my collaborators on design concepts.’ Otto and her team participated in the POV Hackathon 5 NYC in April to develop the piece. ‘I really want to create an immersive experience that invites the users to explore the concepts of home and identity.’
Otto is working with Jeff Soyk, an award-winning UI/UX designer and architect, and Billy Wirasnik, an award-winning sound designer on the project. ‘While I’m often focusing on the story as told through the footage and the media I’ve gathered, Jeff approaches the project from what the experience might look like from a user’s perspective and how the interface should best complement the story. Billy, meanwhile, has recorded beautiful soundscapes from Bisbee–everything from summer monsoons to rattlesnakes in the desert. He then focuses on the ways in which these can best be incorporated in the website to create a more immersive, richer experience.’
Otto believes this is an exciting, groundbreaking time for the interactive genre. ‘We’re experiencing a historic shift in the way stories are viewed and consumed. I believe more and more stories will be shared via the web and will involve user participation. Compared to the ‘lean back’ approach of traditional documentaries, in which the story arc is predetermined by the director, interactive documentaries encourage the user to actively engage in–and contribute to—the shaping of the story.”
An interactive documentary utilizes the multimedia and interactive capabilities of the internet to create non-linear productions that combine mediums such as video, soundscapes, photography, text, animation, and user-generated content. It’s evolving and growing rapidly and Otto’s Arizona project will be part of a unique transition in cinema history.
You can learn more about Allison Otto on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/user661709) and through her production company, Small Dog on the Go. (http://www.smalldogonthego.com/). For more information about the VCFA program in film, visit http://vcfa.edu/film