SXSW 2011: Unexpected Nonfiction Storytelling (with Ze Frank!)

The Nonfiction Storytelling Panel

The Panelists: Ze Frank, Caspar Sonnen (a Dutch guy, natch), Tommy Pallotta and Rob McLaughlin with the National Film Board of Canada.

So we’re here to learn about new ways to tell nonfiction stories, which duh, winning, can be applied to news. Pallotta started making documentaries but switched to animation and now primarily makes media for the internet. Frank has been toying with online media for many years. “I don’t consider myself a documentarian, I work with lots and lots of people to find moments and find a way to bubble them to the top,” Ze Frank. “I have to compete with the rest of the world to find the best way to tell my story.”

Buzzwords and examples (!) from this session:

TRANSMEDIA (noun): Cross-platform storytelling.
Example: Creating a gaming aspect to put you in simulations/give a hands-on experience of the energy crisis. At the same time, having a documentary shown on television but also broken up into clips onto YouTube. To create an emotional anchor, filmmakers then take abstract ideas and embodied them in characters and stories. The combo: a documentary, a fictional part, and an interactive. How to tie it together? In a Pallotta film, they designed three panels at once, that slides left to right with interactive on left, fiction story in the middle, and more info with documentary talking heads and text info on the right. It’s annotated storytelling. “It’s interactive in that if you want to engage more with it, you can,” Pallotta says.

Encouraging people to crowdsource their own projects, by putting up various video archive elements online and putting up an online editing tool to allow the community to take part in storytelling. “I think so long as they’re talking about it, that’s a good thing,” Pallotta says.

Example: The Test Tube: with David Suzuki, which examines what we’d do with our global sustainability problem in an interactive. It involves an online video,  with people contributing on Twitter with their reactions, what they would do with only one minute left in our biosphere. That data that comes in will then get visualized in bubbles that show the community reactions. “Sleep” was the largest bubble.

See also: Welcome to Pine Point, a 25 minute experience that you click through and read and experience the overall story with video elements. This is allowing the print and publishing world to open it up to new possibilities. Nieman StoryLab coverage of this project is worth a read as well.

INTERVENTION STYLE: (aka the Ze Frank style) Not so much telling stories but creating small, weird little engagements that get people to experience something particular or take risks. “When you start saying you’re going to interact with audiences, the problem is it’s really hard to even interact with one person,” says Ze Frank. “The translation to online work is how do we hyper hyper simplify the goal of these interactions?”

Examples: Heavily moderated due to porn. But this is a simple way to share an interaction. allows you to give stars to people you think are awesome. Your desktop is then filled with appreciations with other people. recreates photographs from your childhood. “There’s something wonderfully special in that,” Frank says. With these submission projects, then it’s hard to get meaningful text from the users. He then has to ask questions in a “sneaky” way to get people to open up in a way that’s useful to getting a story.
Pain Pack: Frank opened up a hotline for people to leave their painful experiences. Audioclips were given to sound editors, and they cut them and chopped them into a library of discreet sounds. And those sounds were then given to music makers to create songs just from sounds from the Pain Pack. “The audio of the original recordings is super compelling, the project itself, I cannot figure out how to make it compelling.”


– Having a “voice is important to interacting with your audience. If it’s playful, it’s playful, if it’s serious, serious.”
– To finance these things or monetize them after the fact, there’s no pat answer. You have to be creative with the resources you have. “Don’t worry about it right now,” says Pallotta. “Just make it.”
– Scale your idea. If you have a small amount of resources do a soft launch to get people excited and interested in your idea.
– In every industry landscape, the leaders are afraid they are missing something. If you can create a project and pitch it like “this is what they’re missing,” you can make some money.