Hi all! IN SYNC is back after a bit of a hiatus. For this edition, I spoke to Aja Evans, a documentary producer who works at the intersection of emerging media, interactive, and experimental non-fiction. Yes, all of the cool things! We talk about “Otherly”, a series of seven short Instagram documentaries that Aja co-produced. There’s a lot in here for people working in new formats, trying to reach new audiences, and those who love experimentation (I know I do!).
Nikita Mandhani: Hi Aja! To begin, what is interactive video storytelling?
Aja: Interactivity is anything where someone needs to do something in order for a story to move forward. So, if the audience is just sitting and watching something passively, they'll get a version of that story but not the story as it was fully conceptualised.
Nikita: What’s your backstory? How did you get into the interactive filmmaking space?
Aja: I got into this space through many hoops. I studied neuroscience in undergrad and I also pursued a minor in documentary film. All along, I had a lot of questions about what stories do for us, how they change our minds, and how different stories change our perceptions about things. I was also curious about our behaviours and how we interacted with the world and saw other people. And I guess that curiosity brought me to this space.
Nikita: From neuroscience to interactive documentaries! Can you tell me more about how that pivot actually happened?
Aja: After undergrad, I was working in a research lab, mostly focused on cognitive neuroscience. I was applying to grad school and thinking about getting a PhD but storytelling was really important to me. I was living with two friends who had gone to film school and I knew I wanted to somehow get into this space.
My friends asked me to come on as a producer for one of their short films. It was an environment where I felt like I could learn quickly and bring in my organisational logic skills. At some point I quit my lab position and I started looking for any avenue into the documentary world because non-fiction has always been the most interesting to me - here are like 8 billion unique and wild stories on the planet!
So, I started working with a film company and from there I got an internship with the nonprofit organisation, American Documentary. I watched so many films and I got to analyse story structure critically and think about tone and pacing. At the same time, the interactive department was growing at American Documentary. It was called POV Spark. I got in at the right time - when things were being built from the ground. That’s when I got to learn in real time what interactive meant - from VR to augmented reality and AI. I realised these out of the box, weird format pieces were the kinds of stories I had been attracted to all along. So, I jumped in there and I really haven't looked back.
Nikita: Now, let’s talk about the Otherly series. How would you define it for people who haven’t watched it yet?
Aja: Otherly is an interactive documentary series made for Instagram Stories. It is a co-production between the National Film Board of Canada and POV Spark. We invited gender queer, non-binary, and female folks to pitch and conceptualize short stories about themselves or their community. We wanted them to join us on this adventure, to experiment in the space, and to create stories that would utilise the platform in new ways. Our hope was to expand what documentary means, and also expand expectations from content on social media.
Nikita: I’d love to know more about the choice of topics and also, why Instagram Stories?
Aja: When this project was first starting to be developed, the digital department had already done stories on Snapchat. They were thinking a lot about the concept of vertical films. Instagram Stories had just taken off – it was probably 2018. It was brand new and people weren't really sure what to do in that space. We wanted to think about where audiences were outside of public broadcasting, where young people were, and what they were thinking. So, to get to our final seven stories, we put out an open call.
We were looking for stories from queer, non-binary or female folks who belonged to the 18 to 29 year-old age group. We were looking for people who weren't necessarily filmmakers. They could be emerging makers. Maybe they had made films or were coming from other spaces and just had an idea. The theme we put out to them was “belonging.” So that’s how we chose this cohort - based on how they were approaching the concept of belonging, and their initial ideas about what Instagram Stories could do for filmmaking. As a queer person, I was also just really excited about the opportunity.
Nikita: Now it makes so much sense to me. All of the seven films in the Otherly series quite neatly fit into that central idea of belonging. What I like the most about these films is that they’re so real and raw and beautiful. Can you tell me more about the production process for some of the pieces
Aja: To start with, we brought all the filmmakers together in New York City. We took their pitches, and we broke them down to really lay out the story structure. We put it back together in a presentation and thought critically about Instagram – the ethos of that space, what the story is, and how you want to tell it.
For example, for the film FaceTime, Jackie, who created it, came in with this idea of what we share and what we don't, especially online and with our close friends and family. She really wanted a way to show that in a video space. FaceTime is a five-episode long piece. When it first premiered on Instagram, there was one episode a day, and so on Instagram Stories, you got a collection of stories about a brother and sister. You got to see glimpses of how their relationship changed as they grew up and grew apart.
For Jackie, the production process started with collecting almost 80 hours of phone footage, and asking Farrah, who’s the sister in the film, to record her Instagram, text messages, and her own experiences in life. Andy, the sibling, is less of a phone user, so they just gave Jackie access to their phone, Google photos, and to everything that they had. Jackie was kind of challenged to think - how do you show these two siblings and the lives they live separately, but also this need and want to be close to each other, even as they're growing up? And that took so many different iterations. Initially, every episode was one-half one sibling, one-half the other sibling and they come together in the middle of this FaceTime call, and we see what they share in that call, but also the lives they live outside of it.
Nikita: What was your role, specifically in these films?
Aja: I was an associate producer for the project, and I worked with another producer from POV - Akmyrat Tuyliyev. We worked really closely as partners to pare down the films and decide what they were going to look like.
Nikita: Another film from the series that I watched recently was “Elaine is Almost.” What was interesting for me was how there was a lot of design and animation but then you also eventually saw the person, Elaine. What was the thought behind that and how did that film come together
Aja: Em Yue, who’s the creator for Elaine is Almost, is an animator and mostly works in rotoscope. When they pitched us this film, they had already interviewed their sister Elaine, when she was turning 14. They were soon going back to their house in North Carolina for Elaine’s 15th birthday, and had the opportunity to be there in person, and to film a bit. Initially, they filmed with the intent to animate the entire thing - for it all to be a rotoscope.
I think a lot of creating that film, for all three of us, was really getting to the essence of a relationship between two sisters. Elaine is this quirky, young person and for me it was really important to give young people a voice and to take them quite seriously. And I think that's really evident in the film. Em really looks and listens to their sister in a way that uplifts her. Em expresses themselves through animation, so part of what was really fun about that film, was expressing and animating these parts of Elaine that they wanted to showcase.
When it got to the second film, we thought about what we wanted to do differently because Elaine was turning another year older. We wanted to show that Elaine was becoming more themselves, there was less of a mask. In Elaine's subconscious, I think, they were being a lot more honest about how they thought of themselves and how they wanted to show up in the world. So, we ended up using actual footage for that section.
Nikita: How were these films shot? Cameras or phones? Horizontally or vertically?
Aja: For the three films I was involved in, we exclusively filmed vertically on phones. For the film Integrate Me, we did an initial shoot in a studio with Tristan, the central person, dancing – a different dance for each section of their life – experiencing trauma, PTSD, healing, and ultimately integration. But it didn't end up really making the cut in the film. I think there are snippets of that but a lot of the dancing we do see of Tristan is just them. They film themselves dancing a lot, which is part of their integration and meditative process.
Nikita: Can you share more about how these films were planned or broken down to fit the Stories format?
Aja: Each story segment on Instagram can be a maximum of 15 seconds long. Also, any individual story can only be 100 segments long before the app starts deleting stories at the front. But this was not always the case. Instagram changed a lot of times as we were making this, which is its own problem when you're using tech that evolves very quickly.
So, for some films, it was just a matter of editing them so people's words didn't get cut off, so that one segment was really starting a new phrase or a new clause. Some artists thought a lot about that and leaned into it, or at least allowed these little breaks to be a part of their film. For Tristan, for instance, their piece is about dealing with trauma and PTSD and for them, those disruptions, especially in the beginning, represented actual disruptions in their own life. Their journey was not really fluid and then you get these moments, where they're talking and you have to kind of take that pause. It was kind of a metaphor for glitches in their life healing journey. Papier Accordéon, which follows long-distance friends over a span of 24 hours, was released piecemeal. Every hour a segment came out. The segments were also imagined as these singular moments, like little poems of conversation that were pieced together by the end. Other films were similarly conceptualised to make the best use of how Instagram Stories work.
Nikita: Who was the target audience for these films?
Aja: We were mainly thinking about the 18 to 29-year-old demographic, perhaps even a little bit younger, as well as people from different communities and backgrounds. When we set out, we wanted to bring young people into the fold of public media and see what public media could do for them, how it might be a space where young people could find content that they're interested in watching. We also wanted them to see us as partners for their own work.
Nikita: What were some of your key learnings from this project in terms of making something new for a specific platform?
Aja: You have to surrender control a little bit and know that the platform will change and maybe the thing you set out to make may not exist by the time you're ready to make it. Sometimes what works best on platforms are things that are working outside of them. Sincerity, vulnerability, and honesty go a long way. In the end, it’s better to just make the thing you want to make regardless of how people are using the platform, or what you think the form is supposed to look like in that space.
Nikita: What is one film from Otherly that you think people reading this interview should watch?
Aja: I think Elaine is Almost is a good place to start. When it first came out, I was so excited for people to just see this animated young person, walking across their screen, engrossed in the universe and the atmosphere of the world. I think it's jarring in a way – you're on Stories and you see your friends out partying, and the next thing you see is a brand and then you see Elaine on your screen, in this beautiful rotoscope animation.
Nikita: What do you love about interactive storytelling?
Aja: When you can embody an experience where you're asked to participate, it changes how you're experiencing the story, and what that story means to you. I think why I love the space and continue to champion it and work in it is because different formats can also portray the same idea in different ways. We don't all experience life in the same way and we don't all take in stories in the same way, either. When I see interactive or experimental formats, I really feel like the pieces are speaking to me and that I understand them. I think a lot of artists working in this space are really good at portraying specific feelings or concepts that I don't think linear formats can express in the same way.
Nikita: What’s a non-fiction video/film made by another filmmaker that you think people reading this interview should definitely watch.
Aja: Brainstream - Directed by Caroline Robert. This project is not quite non-fiction. It’s set in the future but really did something for my anxious pandemic brain in the present.
Nikita: What’s the hardest thing about making something new and different from standard industry practices?
Aja: There's no roadmap. You feel like you're starting from scratch every time. That opens up a lot of space to really be creative. It changes the way that we think we're supposed to experience certain stories and also opens up storytelling to different types of people who have different ways of expressing themselves and their experiences. But I think it can be a hard sell. Not everyone will be on board if you don't have something as a reference that people have seen or can imagine. Explaining what the end product is going to look like when you also have never made it before can be hard.
Nikita: I can totally relate to that feeling, having tried to come up with new formats of storytelling in the news space. If we continue to only rely on roadmaps, it will be hard to drastically change who we’re reaching and how. Now, leave us with one piece of advice you’d like to give to people working at the intersection of innovation and non-fiction filmmaking?
Aja: Don't be afraid for the first version of the thing you make to be messy. Make the messy version, and put pen to paper. I think films and definitely interactive projects go through so many iterations. There's so many cuts of what you can make and there's so many ways to tell a story.
Something I really learned from working in the interactive space is just prototyping. Maybe that's similar to making a paper cut or a rough draft of a film but I think prototyping is where you're actually making a physical version of the thing you want to see but you're intentionally making it very crude and fast and practical with whatever materials you have on hand. It's not how you hope for it to live in the world but at least it gives you a sense of what's working and what's not. I think we could all do a little bit more prototyping in our lives.
Note: Aja suggested a few resources for people who want to try their hand at interactive non-fiction films. Check these out if you’re curious!
Here’s the In Sync Spotify playlist that now includes Aja’s suggestions! (And more from Nikita!)
Thanks for reading. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions about who we should interview next as well as any suggestions to make this newsletter more useful (or to, just, say hello)!