“One Millionth Tower” premieres Online TODAY:
The story of Canadian high-rise residents reinventing their homes in the sky, the makers of new film One Millionth Tower reinvented the documentary format.
Premiere: One Millionth Tower High-Rise Documentary Takes Format to New Heights:
“We’ve added an entire new layer to the web and One Millionth Tower is one of the first examples of that,” said Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, the force behind the Popcorn.js toolkit that powers the film. “In the same way we all got really excited when you could highlight a word on a page and create a hyperlink … that’s happening now with film. I think of this as the first real web-made documentary.”
The resulting film is unlike any before it. It can be watched without much interaction, but it’s much more fun to play with it (see “How to Watch This Movie” at right). Some aspects change even without viewer input: For instance, the time of day and weather in the film change based on actual conditions in Toronto.
One Millionth Tower, which is premiering on Wired.com the same day it premieres at the Mozilla Festival in London, is not just a static story recorded on film and then edited together for audiences. It exists in a 3-D setting made possible by a tool called three.js, which lets viewers walk around the high-rise neighborhood. Moving through allows viewers to see the current state of urban decay, then activate elements to show ways the residents would change their world, like an animation showing where a new playground or garden would go.
The interactive movie is chock-full of photos from Flickr, street-views from Google Maps and changing environments fueled by real-time weather data from Yahoo. Everything is triggered by Popcorn.js, which acts like a conductor signaling which instruments play at what times.
One Millionth Tower wasn’t always supposed to be so immersive, or so revolutionary. When she started the film, director Katerina Cizek planned to make a traditional animated narrative documentary about reinvigorating urban housing complexes, showcasing residents’ ideas for improving their homes in the tower. But the film took a dramatic turn this spring when web developer Mike Robbins got his hands on it. “He said, ‘This is a movie about a 3-D space, so let’s make it in 3-D space,’” Cizek said in an interview with Wired.com. “Our jaws dropped open.”
‘This is a movie about a 3-D space, so let’s make it in 3-D space.’
After that revelation, the documentary, part of a series of media projects produced by Canada’s National Film Board called Highrise, was completely re-imagined. Robbins began collaborating with Bobby Richter, who worked on a Flash-based web documentary for Cizek called Out My Window before moving on to Mozilla’s Web Made Movies project and Popcorn. What they created amazed even those who had been working with Popcorn from the beginning.
“The way One Millionth Tower uses Popcorn is a great example of a use we didn’t anticipate,” Brett Gaylor, project lead for the Web Made Movies initiative, said in an e-mail to Wired.com. “Back when Kat approached us, we were very much thinking in terms of integrating other web services — like Twitter and Google Maps — into and alongside video. When Mike showed us how he was using it to trigger the camera in a 3-D scene, a light bulb wet off.”
As futuristic as One Millionth Tower is, it’s influenced by a project the publicly funded National Film Board started back in the 1960s. Called the Challenge for Change, a major initiative of the undertaking was to use then-new film and video technologies for making documentaries about social issues. The Highrise program was intended as a way to re-envision that project with modern tools, said National Film Board head Tom Perlmutter. “That’s our greatest responsibility: to constantly take risks, constantly push boundaries,” Perlmutter told Wired.com. “If we’re not doing that, then we don’t deserve to be funded.”
One Millionth Tower is just the beginning. Nearly everyone from the film board and Mozilla notes that the greatest innovations in Popcorn-enabled web movies will be made by future generations of filmmakers. Even Cizek — who accepted a Webby honor with the words, “The internet is a documentary” — acknowledges the best is yet to come. “What we’ve done with One Millionth Tower is not the future,” Cizek said. “It just points to it.”