Last year in Tibet, on a classic-car road rally that went from Beijing to Paris, Drew Fellman encountered a bureaucratic snag. “A Chinese official did not want us there,” recalled Fellman of the work he was doing for Discovery Channel Online. “They threatened to put us in jail. They didn’t like the fact that we were documenting a sporting event through China.” Fellman and his colleague Michael Bettison decided to get out any way they could. They hitched a ride on a German tour bus, got to the Tibet-Nepal checkpoint ahead of the rally, and went through the border without being red-flagged. Thankfully, that was the most dangerous situation he’s been in while making a Web documentary. So far.
Next month, Dan Buettner, world-class cyclist and the original Web documentary maker, will go on an expedition to Africa to document the threat of extinction to Africa’s animals. In partnership with the American Museum of Natural History, AfricaQuest will link to over a thousand classrooms in the U.S. through Classroom Connect, an education site that’s also planning to broadcast the return of Keiko the killer whale to his home waters.
While they have yet to catch on in profit-hungry Silicon Alley, Web documentaries have been developing into a sophisticated journalistic genre. Documentarians generally record an expedition by posting a daily travelogue and pictures, and taking suggestions from Net users via e-mail. Some post photographs that allow the user to pan and zoom in using a relatively new virtual reality program. Despite their inability so far to attract significant attention, documentaries have remained one of the more consistently appearing content formats on the Web–along with chat rooms, search engines, and weather reports.
“It was bound to happen,” says Patrick Keane, an Internet analyst at Jupiter Communications. “Any offline content that has seen success will ultimately try to replicate itself online.”
Webumentaries, for lack of a better term, have been around for at least three years. In February of 1995, Buettnerexplored the ancient Mayan ruins of Central America on his bicycle and documented it on the Internet (the Web was still in its infancy). “We actually did it through Gopher, I believe,” says Buettner of the old-school protocol.
Using what at the time was sophisticated military communications equipment, Buettner linked to a satellite, posted a weekly travelogue on the now-defunct Prodigy network with his rather large laptop, and asked his Internet audience where he should go next.
Doing the first Internet documentary, however, was a difficult technical task. Buettner struggled with the prototype technology. On the first day of the expedition he recalls wiping out on his bike and breaking part of the heavy satellite phone he was carrying. He couldn’t pinpoint the satellite location for an uplink. “It was like trying to hit the head of a pin a hundred miles away with a BB gun,” he remembers.
After the trouble-laden initial documentary, Buettner embarked on three more expeditions to the Mayan region of Central America, this time with a focus on teaching kids in the classroom. Biking between various ancient Mayan sites, Buettner worked with archaeologists for his subsequent expeditions, collating the findings from digs and posting them to the Net. “The kids learn from the dig as it’s happening,” says Buettner. “But what’s really exciting is they can interact by sending us suggestions on where to go next or ask us to look into things we may have missed.”
The interactive element is what makes Web documentaries distinct from the traditional film version. “Being out there, it’s an incredible thing to receive e-mails from people,” says Liesl Clark, a producer of film and Web documentaries for PBS’s NOVA. “It doesn’t mean that [Web] outweighs [film]. The film documentary has its own place when we sit down and we want to be educated passively. But on the Web, you [the viewer] are in a way the director, viewing things at your own pace.”
In her expeditions for NOVA, Clark has landed in places as far away as Easter Island and as dangerous as Mount Everest, becoming in the process one of PBS’s more seasoned Web documentary makers and developing very specific skills for the format.
“You have to find someone who knows that if you put your batteries in a plastic baggie under your pillow at night on Mount Everest, it will preserve them better,” says Kevin Dando, communications manager for PBS Online. “We do these things all the time and in very difficult terrain. You have to find people who are technically savvy, have a sense of journalism, and can deal with being in the jungle.”
All Web documentary makers use essentially the same tools: a satellite phone that creates a link to the Net, a laptop, a modem (when you can’t find a satellite and a landline is near), a digital camera, a digital audio recorder, and preferably a solar battery recharger. “And any one of these things can go wrong,” notes Fellman. “We can break anything, and we have.” Fellman and his crew also employ Apple Newtons when in the field, sort of an updated version of the reporter’s notepad.
Clark prefers traditional cameras to digital ones since “they’re still much better and sharper.” When working on Mount Everest, she sent rolls of film via a runner or a yak down to an air strip, where they were helicoptered to Katmandu for developing. Snafus canrun from the technical to the, well, animal. “One time, when we reached the summit of Everest, we tried to do a Webcast press conference,” says Clark. “But the yak carrying the sat phone was lost.”
The process of documenting for the Web isn’t just about juggling multiple technical elements. A Web documentarian straddles documentary filmmaking and broadcast journalism–offline mediums that flirt with each other as they draw on similar skills.
“I essentially do both,” says Fellman, a graduate of Columbia’s journalism school. “I consider myself a journalist first but I also make documentary films. I try to make the most of any event by doing a film, putting it on the Web, writing a book. Anything and everything.”
“It’s hard to come up with an accurate term for what we do,” says Clark. “I guess you could call it ‘parallel producing.'”
Parallel producing is the only way to do it these days when developing content for the Web. “I’m skeptical of Web-only productions,” says Seema Williams, an Internet analyst for Forrester Research. “People who do more than one [medium] work better. For a single-production effort, they’re producing more than one product.” Candide Media Works, the Silicon Alley company Fellman works for, is primarily in the business of making Web documentaries, but it also does the Silicon Alley shuffle by contracting itself to create Web sites for media corporations. “That’s how we pay the bills,” admits Fellman.
Currently, Candide and larger entities like PBS and the Discovery Channel are the only ones who make Web documentaries on a regular basis. “But not that long ago a lot of people were throwing money at this,” says Fellman. “It just went through a correction recently, but I think there will be renewed interest.”
Microsoft’s Mungo Park is perhaps the best example of the correction. As part of MSN’s Expedia site, a travel site that allows users to book airfares and hotel reservations, Mungo Park was a gimmick to exploit consumers’ dollars by documenting expeditions to faraway romantic places like Timbuktu or Java. But the gimmick was dropped–along with all the other content products Microsoft was developing–back in February, as part of the company’s new strategy to offer more practical services like news, weather, travel, and search.
Today, producing content has taken a back seat to becoming a “portal” or Internet hub–a permanent home page, so to speak. Heavy hitters on the Net, from Yahoo and Lycos to MSN and AltaVista, are flaunting their portal status. Still, some think that Web documentaries are closer to the true sense of what the Net wants to be. “We are fulfilling the promise of the medium,” claims Buettner. “We’re taking people places and letting them participate in the real world.”