One Millionth Tower Uses New Technology to Explore Aging Buildings
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One Millionth Tower Uses New Technology to Explore Aging Buildings

New web-native documentary by Katerina Cizek and the NFB goes wandering through the apartment buildings many of us call home.

Katerina Cizek’s biggest challenge has been working in a medium “that hasn’t been invented yet.”

No mere film, Cizek’s new documentary, One Millionth Tower, combines video, photos, and animation in a 3D virtual space to tell the story of an aging Toronto highrise apartment and the people that live there. It’s being billed as “one of the world’s first interactive documentaries to utilize WebGL technology”—which uses the power of a computer’s video graphics card to produce the film’s complex visual effects.

It’s cutting-edge stuff that hasn’t been done before. Part tech-demo, part film, the result is utterly compelling.

One Millionth Tower is the National Film Board’s latest HIGHRISE project—a series of collaborative documentary experiments which aim to explore “vertical living in global suburbs.” In the film, residents suggest ideas for revitalizing their aging community, which are then realized through animation and brought to life on-screen. Viewers can choose to have the experience unfold automatically, or explore the virtual space on their own.

For Cizek’s previous interactive documentary, Out My Window, she thought “it would be really interesting to take these global stories, and put them in one highrise.” But with One Millionth Tower she has taken a slightly different approach, using one tower to represent communities across the globe. Although Toronto viewers might identify with the building as part of their city, this nondescript building could easily be anywhere in the world.

This particular highrise is located in Etobicoke, at 2667 Kipling Ave. For the past two-and-a-half years, Cizek has worked with E.R.A Architects and residents of the building to brainstorm ideas and gather stories for the film. The goal was to examine “how documentary could be a part of the world that it’s documenting, rather than just being about it,” explained Cizek, who directed the film—or put another way, “making documentaries [not] about people, but with people.”

Although it may not be immediately obvious, the technology behind One Millionth Tower is particularly cutting edge. Unlike proprietary plug-ins such as Adobe Flash Player, WebGL and HTML5 are open web standards built directly into the framework of most modern web browsers. WebGL in particular has only surged in popularity this past year.

In fact, Google first demonstrated the technology earlier this year with a film of its own, titled Three Dreams of Black. Like One Millionth Tower, the interactive film was a collaboration between artists, programmers, and musicians, including Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi. But unlike Three Dreams of Black, Cizek says her project’s conception actually predated Google’s reveal. In fact, seeing the search giant demo its project on-stage at the company’s annual I/O conference only validated the efforts of Cizek and her team—specifically Mike Robbins of Helios Design Labs, who first suggested the unique idea. (A testament to the project’s technological complexity, One Millionth Tower premiered at Mozilla’s “Media, Freedom and the Web” festival in London, England last Sunday, and was featured prominently on the Wired homepage earlier this week.)

Cizek, of course, is no stranger to technological experimentation with form and medium. In Out My Window, she filmed the interiors of apartments around the world using a specialized camera that captured the entire scene in 360°, allowing viewers to pan around the video in real-time.

“There’s not an assurance the world is going to be the same four or five years later, so why not have a laboratory project like HIGHRISE?” said producer Gerry Flahive of the decision to experiment with technologies such as WebGL and the 360° camera. Later projects could easily take the form of a game or a mobile project, for example—or in other words, whatever “fits best.”

As with Cizek’s previous film, One Millionth Tower also enlists the help of some popular musicians, like Toronto artists Jim Guthrie and Owen Pallett. “There are so many moving parts in the film, and [Katerina] really wanted each story to have its own voice,” explained Guthrie. Pallett, for example, contributed a six-minute composition that was integrated with Guthrie’s own compositions and arrangements later in the process. “At the end is where it really sings. It has this emotional, ominous vibe that’s really powerful.”

Given the positive reception thus far, One Millionth Tower could also prove powerful enough to win Cizek another award. When she was chosen as a Webby honouree earlier this year for her work on Out My Window, she was allowed just a five-word speech. “The internet as a documentary” seemed especially apt at the time. But with HTML5 and WebGL heralding the next generation of online experiences, she’s beginning to see things differently. “Documentary,” she says, “is becoming the web.”

One Millionth Tower can be viewed online.