How a web-based interactive documentary creates a new kind of book-reading experience
I’ve been writing about and helping create digital books for about 15 years now and I don’t think I’ve seen anything as innovative, as well executed, and as plain lovely to look at as Welcome to Pine Point. No disrespect to the great work done by teams at Push Pop (Our Choice), Touch Press (The Elements), or Potion (NYPL Biblion), but all those projects take the print page as the starting point and ask: how can we best recreate that reading experience onscreen?
Pine Point, instead, is an example of something that couldn’t exist in any other medium. Its creators describe it as “part book, part film, part website”, which sounds about right; it mixes audio, video, still photos, prose, and movable images to tell the story of a Canadian town that was abandoned, and then demolished, in the late 1980s. But as most people reading this blog know: that multimedia stew’s been cooked before.
So why is Pine Point such a success?
Quality, for starters. The team behind this project—Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, aka The Goggles—have sweated the details on how to integrate all those various media elements in a viewer-friendly way, one that immerses the audience in the story. A story that, not incidentally, touches on themes (abandonment, aging, environmentalism) moving enough to reward the time it takes—about 30 minutes—to watch it.
I’ll highlight below some features that make the work especially noteworthy, but I urge you to have a look for yourself. It’s Flash, so no go for Apple’s mobile gadgets. But, please, don’t let that scare you off. And, hey, one other suggestion: don’t try gulping this one down between meetings or while on a conference call. Wake up early one of these days or watch after the kids have gone to bed. Like any great book, it rewards attention and suffers from skimming.
Creator-led Reading Path
The impulse to hand over navigational control to readers in a digital book is considerable. After all, the Web gave us the thrill of wandering across its endless terrain…and who hasn’t delighted in that? But books are different. Part of their appeal—especially those that tell stories—is how they offer a “sit-back” experience for readers. We follow, entranced, the author’s tale; our only job as audience is turning the page. Tarting up a story with links to Wikipedia, “enhancements” that launch other apps, and anything else that requires the reader to decide what to explore—none of these things are in and of themselves bad; they just don’t induce that magical feeling of losing yourself in a book.
And what you get when viewing Pine Point is exactly that. Thanks to the authors’ decisions on what not to include, on how to arrange this picture next to that bit of prose, on how to compose a tightly scripted narrative….they’ve betrayed every 21st century notion of reader-as-director and in exchange given us something precious: a polished vision that only happens when an artist labors and creates.
Now, that doesn’t mean there are no bells, whistles and clickable lures in this work (more on those baubles in a moment); but the viewer is only invited to explore in ways that, to me, matched how my eye might linger on a rich and complexly designed print page.
Movies proceed at whatever pace the director decides. A book, by contrast, puts the reader in charge of pacing. You can pause at any point to digest some surprising revelation, or re-read a passage that didn’t quite register or moved you deeply. Pine Point, it’s true, is a kind of book/film/website hybrid. But where it feels most “book-like” to me is the way it’s been designed to let the reader determine the speed at which he moves through the material.
Everything, in other words, is not clickable—only the stuff that benefits from reader inspection (e.g. playing a video, click-turning a platter of buttons to explore what’s on their backside). For everything else, the designers’ have made the great choice to minimize distraction and user anxiety by not littering the screeen with “Hey!, Yo! Click me!” options.
You know how, in a great movie, the score becomes part of the film in a way that’s practically inseparable from the visuals and whatever the actors are saying? You don’t notice the music because it’s blended with all those other elements. Meanwhile the quality (even if you know nothing about sound design) matches the rest of what’s onscreen. That’s what you get in Pine Point: a serious, contemplative, mood-setting score (courtesy of The Besnard Lakes); it’s mesmerizing.
So maybe The Goggles guys didn’t come up with this one on their own. I’ve seen it done elsewhere on the Web and football fans will recognize it from the player/stat profiles in most big time games: the headshot that’s not a still, but rather uses video. The effect is as instructive as it is unsettling: you watch the person and it’s not exactly that they’re squirming, but their face moves—an eye twitches or wanders; a finger comes up to scratch the face; lips get wetted. All told, you learn something more, something different, in these video portraits than you do in a normal headshot.
There’s a definite visual theme—call it something like Nostalgic Scrapbook—throughout this work. And by spending the extra time to hand craft control elements (“page next” and “Go” buttons, menu trees, and so on), the designers have made sure that no visual intrusions occur, as would be the case if the stock Adobe controls were visible.
Graceful integration of text and images
This one rarely get done well, in my opinion. And you don’t have to be a typography geek to notice what’s easy to botch: as prose, pictures, and video mingle in digital books there’s a certain amateur quality to things like font selection and positioning. What the Pine Point designers have done right is settled on a thematically consistent font, crafted a nice background for each phrase (to ensure visibility on the widely ranging videos & pix upon which the text is superimposed), and laid each block down with line breaks & alignment that’s suggestive of the poetry that this writing aspires to. It’s wonderful to read, it’s lovely to look at, and it meshes perfectly with the visuals that accompany it.
If a page appears with a video queued up and waiting, readers need to lean forward and press play. That leads to the problem I touched on earlier: audiences like authors to “drive”; they’re used to not having to make any decisions beyond turning the page. But then there’s the flipside risk: if you present a viewer with a video on auto-start: a) if it’s annoying you’re gonna alienate the viewer, and b) what do you do when the video stops?
There’s a kind of fluid continuity—a momentum—to books that can easily get disrupted if you reach the end of, say, a one-minute video and it just shuts off. So the Pine Point creators make the risky but ultimately successful decision to play their videos in an endless loop. What you’ll notice, though, if you look closely at the start/restart seams, is the care they’ve taken to choose these points for maximimum continuity. The effect of these video loops is that they contribute to the work’s overall mesmerizing quality…you can linger on a page and even forget you’re seeing the same thing over and over.
From start to finish: it’s spare, finely crafted, and consistent with the elegiac visual tone. Lovely.
Exploration encouraged…within limits
I know, I know: I just got finished writing about how reader-controlled exploration is poison to the book-reading experience. But we’re talking about a web-based book here for pete’s sake, so maybe a teensy bit of well-crafted, carefully selected, and browsing-within-close-boundaries is ok? Okay. One of the best instances can be found in the Shelf Life section. It’s a grid of looping videos, each of which you can click to play.
You’ll see how smoothly the play action is when you switch between videos: no lag, no jarring audio break…the sound of one gently gives way to the sound of the next. No pop-up window or different media player launches to break the spell of the book that you’re within. It’s all perfectly immersive.
For example: the opening frame of the What’s Weird section. It’s a comparison between 1987 (left) and 2009 (right).
It’s a powerful way of depicting before & after, with the left video underscoring the point that life was teeming back then and the right side showing how, today, it’s a desolate and abandoned site.
Source document integration
This one’s also in the What’s Weird section, about four screens in. (Okay, I’ve done enough gushing to lodge one complaint: they need to come up with a better way to cite individual pages.) Here we see memos from the government announcing the town’s closing. Without any annotations these documents contain too much text to focus on what’s important. The solution? Highlight the key points in yellow so the viewer can home in on the key points.
Enough telling. Go, watch it yourself. See what digital books can do that can’t be done in print and still satisfy that reading experience that all of us book fans crave.
P.S.: Just learned a bit more about The Goggles’ production partners in this effort: the interactive division of the National Film Board of Canada. Looks like they’ve got a bunch of neat projects on their site.