The impact of the social documentary “Hollow” is undeniable. But when Elaine McMillion Sheldon set out to capture the essence of a small town community in America through film, she had no idea how the final product would look. She only knew that she wanted to highlight the lives of people who came from areas of the country where the population had been decreasing over the last few decades. McDowell County, West Virginia, very near to where Sheldon grew up, is one of those places.
In May 2012, Sheldon went to McDowell County to meet the residents, after about a year of research and pre-reporting. “Initially, I thought this would just be a linear film, some type of short film, or a feature length film, but it was after that first visit, where I met all these people and really got a sense of the wealth of archival footage that was available and the data and how it was being used to oversimplify these stories, I realized that we could really do something more with many skill sets, rather than just a film,” said Sheldon. She captured footage while there, but she knew that she needed a team to complete her vision.
That team (see below) has since won numerous awards, including Third Prize in the World Press Photo Interactive Documentary Awards and a 2013 Peabody Award. “Hollow” was also nominated for the 2014 Emmy, in the New Approaches for Documentary category.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Columbia Visuals: Why was this story important to you?
Elaine McMillion Sheldon: It’s a story about a place, which I love very much, but it’s also a story about a trend that we’re seeing all across America. I grew up in West Virginia, not in McDowell County, but close by, so this is a story that I am familiar with. I’m a young person who left the state for opportunity elsewhere. It was only after leaving the state that I looked at the numbers and the depopulation and how severe it is in some places in McDowell County. It’s one of those places where the towns have been decreasing in population since 1950s. So it’s not just a West Virginia story. It’s a story of small town America and the issues they face.
CV: What was your first step? How did you approach starting this project?
EMS: First, it was almost a year of research, reaching out to people, and looking into data about the demographic shifts in the state. This was all before I ever had a team. It was just a lot of research. Then I went down to McDowell and started meeting people on the ground. I started fundraising in April 2012. I started on Kickstarter and then through Tribeca. Somewhere around then is when the team really started to come together full force and we all started defining our roles.
CV: After the team was assembled, you took on the role of the producer. What were some of your responsibilities?
EMS: My role was pretty diverse, because it wasn’t like just creating a film. I did everything from fundraising to shooting. I was shooting and collecting audio for five months not really knowing what form the project would take. I shot every piece of content you see in Hollow. But I also wanted the community to contribute their own footage because we wanted the project to be partly participatory. There were about twenty people who wanted to shoot their own content, so I had to teach myself how to teach others. I was very busy collecting as much content as possible, instilling trust, and getting people to want to volunteer their time to come out for workshops to learn how to shoot their own content.
CV: When did Jeff get involved?
Jeff Soyk: I started getting involved around April 2012. Initially I was just helping Elaine with some of the visual content for the Kickstarter campaign. She was looking to build a bigger team to deal with the interactive side of things, and then I kind of jumped on board with her and became creator – my background is in interactive. I worked in advertising for five years prior. Then everything started to be more of a collaboration. We started to spend a lot of time trying to conceptualize how the story content would be visualized in an interactive space. I went to McDowell County a couple times, during the period when Elaine was there, and I sat in on the workshops and met with a lot of the residents.
CV: Was it difficult to find participants in the community and convince them to get involved?
EMS: Actually, I found the first few people on Facebook and on the Internet. The first guy that I met- his name is Josh- is a high school student. I saw a photo of him in the newspaper. He was a mascot at his school and seemed like a pretty interesting character. Another person I met was Alan Johnston. He’s a bluegrass musician. His photographs are all over the web. So I knew he was pretty passionate about that area. So it started with those two people, along with another local artist out there.
We just started building trust with those people and didn’t necessarily worry about winning everyone. And once I met them in person, and we got to know each other a little bit more, I asked them to be on the advisory board, which basically was the mouthpiece of “Hollow” before I arrived. We used the local papers as a resource and the local high school as a meeting place. It was a small but strong following of about twenty people that showed up every single month to be a part of it. I called around two hundred and seventy five people. But at the end of the day we have around thirty people featured in the project.
I also think it helped that I’m from West Virginia. They knew that I wasn’t just coming in from somewhere wanting to tell their story the way that I wanted it to be told. That trust, the trust of the fact that they knew I could relate to the story, was obviously important to the people there. You can’t get a real story without trust. If they can’t trust that you’re going to handle their story properly, then you can’t trust that they’re going to tell you the honest truth about their real story. If there’s no trust there then there’s no story.
CV: When did you know that you had enough content?
EMS: We put strict deadlines on the production. From May to September was the cutoff for shooting. We were sort of making this time capsule of McDowell County, West Virginia in 2012. I wanted all the things that I shot to feel like a day in someone’s life. We were comfortable with that constraint. Everything had to be captured in these moments. But I think at the end of the day we had too much material – we have over two and a half hours of content in there.
Also, the internet is full of stuff so we needed a strong launch. June 20th is the anniversary of West Virginia’s year of statehood and the year we launched (2013) was the 150th year of statehood. So we were really pushing to launch on June 20th of 2013, because we knew that West Virginians would be looking for a way to show their pride for their state. And we felt that this could be the thing that they would share; a marketing tool and distribution tool.
CV: How did you handle the challenge of putting all of those different elements together for a user experience that you felt people would enjoy?
JS: From the very beginning we created a list of priorities regarding usability that we wanted to keep in back of our minds when we were conceptualizing. We also kind of reverse engineered it in a way. We were getting everyone’s videos and we knew that we were going to include data, photography, and soundscapes, but we didn’t really know how they were going to interact with each other or how they would come together for the end product. A lot of it was trouble shooting that along the way. Elaine interviewed over seventy people and we weren’t sure who was going to be included in the final piece.
There were many unknowns during production so a lot of it was really playing things out, discussing the pros and cons, and seeing what worked and what didn’t. It was also a matter of creating a framework, site maps, and early concepts of how someone might navigate the content that we knew we wanted to include. But as things kind of evolved and kept changing, we started considering and reconsidering ideas. We also initially considered the idea of social media playing a large part. And even though it still plays somewhat of a part, it’s on a much lesser scale than in earlier considerations.
Also, I did a ton of market research and checked out other i-docs that were out there at the time. I listed off their pros and cons and we discussed things that we thought worked and didn’t work; things we could use to our advantage.
EMS: We knew that we wanted the audience to have an experience that was both exploratory and guided. We were trying not to create an experience that would make the user feel confused about how they got there.
CV: When did the site design begin to come together?
JS: Once the filming was completed, around September, we were still kind of figuring things out. It was some time in the winter we really decided on a direction. Initially the intro, the history part, was going to be the only parallax part of the website and then it was going to launch into something a little bit more complex for the rest of the experience. But then we ended up making the whole thing kind of parallax. Initially I didn’t want to ride the parallax too much because it was trendy. In 2011 or so it was becoming popular – it was more in advertising than it was in the documentary world. But Elaine wanted it to play out all the way through and then I started to see that there was potential there.
At that time we didn’t really know how to treat the community content and the data. There were all these little pieces that seemed to all kind of conflict in a lot of ways. From there we went back to the drawing board, storyboarding and figuring out how all these little pieces of content would fit together. I looked through the plethora of content – Elaine captured like seven terabytes of video, photography, and so forth – finding images and things that would support the parallax approach. Once we hit that on the nose, we kind of realized that was a huge turn for the project. And then Elaine and I talked about how those individual chapters and sequences would play out.
CV: What advice would you give to new designers who want to execute a multimedia project like this?
JS: It’s challenging right now. It’s interesting how experienced media-makers all have to adapt. Whether it be interactive designers dealing with these kinds of web-based pieces but not really having experience with documentary filmmaking or filmmakers getting into the interactive space for the first time and really trying to understand that space. They’re very different thinking spaces. For me it’s always case-by-case in terms of the inspiration and impetus for the story. I try to figure out the goal of the story or the project, how the story needs to be told, and what the most appropriate technology could be to help tell that story or accomplish that goal. You’re not just using technology for technology’s sake. It comes down to knowing what technology and mediums are really appropriate for your project, why you are using it, and how does it propel the goals of the project forward.
Also thinking of who can be pulled in to accomplish those goals. It’s very collaborative, that’s for sure. Everyone’s getting used to that a little bit. Some mediums were more individually driven, but now there’s a need to bring people with multiple skill sets together, which requires a whole different approach to workflow and process. You have to be willing to collaborate and make compromises. That’s a huge part of being successful.
CV: Elaine, what advice would you give from a producer’s perspective?
EMS: I went in knowing I wanted it to be short films and day-in-the-life. I scheduled the production that way and I think that saved a lot of time and hassle. I don’t think you should go into any production without a general idea of what the outcome could be; even if you don’t know the specifics. You need to have a pretty good idea of who your audience is. That’s really important. Where are they going to see this? Where are they going to access it? How much control do you want them to have over the story?
The platform you’re distributing on is important. Those things should be in media-makers’ heads now. Those are no longer questions we can ignore until we figure out which film festival is going to play our films. You should also have a sense of what your team is going to look like and how much money you’re going to have to raise. That’s another thing filmmakers can’t ignore anymore.
You can see Hollow during the free exhibition hosted by the Brown Institute from January 21 – February 6, 4pm-8pm Monday through Friday. The exhibition features nine award winning productions from the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia Contest. More information can be found here.
The Hollow team includes: Elaine McMillion Sheldon (producer), Jeff Soyk (interactive designer and architect), Tricia Fulks (associate producer), Robert Hall (senior technologist), Russell Goldenberg (interactive developer), Billy Wirasnik (sound designer and editor), Sarah Ginsburg (video editor), Kerrin Sheldon (video editor), Lee Strauss (composer), Michelle Miller (community outreach), Nathaniel Hansen (project manager), Jason Headley (copywriter), Eric Lovell (cartographer), Megan Bowers Sutherland (videographer) and Rheanna O’Neil Bellomo (production assistant).