Academic Research & Making an Interactive Documentary: Compatible Worlds?

Chapter 2: Practicalities 

This post follows on the one I wrote a couple of months ago about the challenges of using audiovisual documentation devices and techniques to do research simultaneously.

As I mentioned in that previous post, The Agri/Cultures Project attempts to investigate new ways to document and communicate scientific data. Our intention is to create an interactive documentary (also known as i-doc, web documentary, web doc or multimedia documentary). An i-doc differs from traditional forms of documentary by having a non-linear narrative, containing different sorts of interactive information (audio, infographics, photography, video and text material). In this type of documentary, interactivity offers more power and agency to users. It also allows them to navigate through a network of relations, exploring an ecosystem of dynamically interlinked nodes.

This time I will focus on the differences regarding some of the practicalities required for both processes.


For qualitative research, the equipment we need is quite simple. Basically, we need a recorder for the interviews, a notebook and a pen for the observations and it is convenient to bring a photo camera to illustrate the contexts we visit. For the documentary making, however, we need the video camera, the sound equipment (including headphones), the tripod and, additionally, depending on the situation, it might be also convenient to have a camera stabiliser, and a white screen for light management. That amount of equipment items makes it advisable to have more than one person to carry out all the tasks involved. Actually, most professional documentary teams are likely to consist of at least 3 people (one for the camera, one for the sound and one for running the interviews).

In our research there are mostly two of us doing the fieldwork: one takes care of the development of the interview and the other takes care of the technical aspects of filming. A couple of times, however, only one of us could attend the interview and the multitasking became extremely challenging. In this situation the researcher is required to meet the interviewee, have some small talk with him or her, explain again the aims of the project and how the interview will take place, run the interview, have a strong presence with all the senses and interact according to the interviewees responses. At the same time, the researcher needs to prepare all the equipment, do a soundcheck, look for an aesthetic spot to shoot and take care of the technical needs that might happen during the interview, as well as make sure there are different shots in the scene to be able for editing purposes. The few times that only one of us has done all the work alone, the audiovisual part has been slightly neglected (e.g not changing the shot in the whole interview and having some problems with the sound) because it was impossible to develop all these tasks well simultaneously. Specifically the ability to maintain full presence during the interview is a real challenge since for the research is really important to be engaged and active listen to the interviewee in that specific situation. If the interviewer is trying to manage the camera and the technical aspects at the same time while running the interview, the interviewee might feel slightly disrespected and the interviewee, also aware of the low presence, might feel overwhelmed by the situation.

In all her colorless glory.

Also, while audiovisual filming can occasionally happen at night, it is worthwhile to take into account the emotion tone triggered by images of certain weather conditions or the strength of light during the different hours of the day. Sometimes it might be better to reschedule the interview in order to have different nuances (e.g the effect of filming an interview under the midday sun or on a rainy day is very different). Research interviews in a more traditional form, on the contrary, are more time-independent and simple to perform, as they do not depend so much on the light conditions.

We are experimenting with all these processes and trying to navigate these waters the best we can. Any practical advice is greatly welcome.

Do you think are there additional practical challenges between these two (sometimes mixed) processes?