Behind the Prizes: A Short History of the Highrise

A Short History of the Highrise is an interactive documentary that “explores the 2,500-year global history of vertical living and the issue of social equality in an increasingly urbanized world.” It was produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and the New York Times, and won First Prize at the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia awards in the Interactive Documentary category.

This is the third interactive documentary in the NFB Highrise series, which started in 2009 and documents the global high rise culture. The first project, The Thousandth Tower, follows six residents of a low income high-rise building in a suburb of Toronto. The second project, Out of My Window, documents the indoor and outdoor lives of high-rise residents across the world.


Producer Gerry Flahive and director Katerina Cizek (Kat) applied the same principles to the three documentaries: be collaborative, be platform-agnostic, and let the research from working with communities lead them to stories that would take them in different directions. Most importantly, they didn’t want to decide in advance what they were going to make or what the products would be.

Columbia Visuals interviewed Gerry Flahive by phone. This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity and length.

Columbia Visuals: How did the ‘A Short History if the Highrise’ project start?

Gerry Flahive: In 2012, I was presenting the Highrise Project at an MIT conference on the future of documentary. Jason Spingarn-Koff, the commissioning editor at the New York Times for Op-Docs, came up to me and asked if I would be interested in doing a high-rise short film, perhaps about New York. I wanted to do something about the history of the high-rise.

In one of our meetings with Kat and Jason, he mentioned that the New York Times had a huge photo archive in the basement of the building on 8th Avenue, around six to eight million undigitized photos.  So Kat went there for a week and swam in a sea of photos that were literally just in filing cabinets with one man who takes care of it all. Kat came back and said there was an amazing amount of material; not just about New York, but about the whole world. She wove together a treatment for what was, at first, going to be three short films: the 2,500-year history of the high-rise, going back to the Tower of Babel.

Watch Kat dig in the New York Times archives, in this short movie by the NYTimes.

Meanwhile, the Times had started experimenting with interactive projects like Snow Fall and The Jockey, so we said, “Let’s do that too. Let’s do short films and related interactives.” But we had to make it somehow seamless. So you can just watch the films in a linear way and not do anything else, or you can stop the films to dive down to the rich content. Then the social media people at the New York Times said maybe there is a way to involve Times readers from all over the world. They had often put up a call for photographs. So they did that and we made that fourth film, called Home, which is made up entirely from photos from New York Times readers.

It’s just this beautiful poetic piece about people living in high-rises today, from morning to night. Kat edited that together.

It was a very good collaboration with the New York Times, we needed each other. The two organizations couldn’t have done this on their own.

Highrise project_back of a postcard

A post-war picture of a high rise building in New York

CV: How many people worked on the project?

GF: It was a small team. There was no original shooting- it was all still photography- so I would say probably 30 to 40 people. The whole thing, from start to finish, took about a year.

What challenges did you face?

GF: We’re always pushing the creative, so the narration is written in rhymes; that’s not something you’d normally have in a documentary. We sought out some really interesting voices to do the narration because it was quite untraditional (Feist, the pop singer, narrated the first film, Kat narrated the second, and Cold Specks, who’s a Toronto hip-hop artist, narrated the third). 

We’re telling 2,500 years of history in 12 minutes, we wanted to make it playful and visually interesting. So we decided to animate the photos. And that often presented a challenge, in terms of rights, because while most of the photos came from the New York Times, we had to get some photos from other sources to fill in the gap. For me as a producer that was kind of a pain in the neck. There were hundreds of photos with layers of rights for each one, but we made it work.

Highrise Project_ front of a postcard

The back of the picture shown above, showcasing the date it was published in the New York Times and all the related information.

A Short History of the High Rise has a gaming component, an interactive component, and an animation component, along with  the videos and photos.  How did you come up with these ideas and make them work?

GF: Because the NFB is a public agency, we had the freedom, me as a producer, Kat as a director, to take creative risks. The Film Board certainly earns revenue, and sells its films and licenses its work when it can, but that’s not the primary goal. In a way, we’re expected to innovate. We’re not even allowed to repeat our successes, we can’t just do sequels and do the same things over and over again..

We also have an in-house animation department, which is quite unusual for any documentary production unit.  Animations often have a more powerful social change bite to them, and they often influenced the documentaries to be more artistic.

[As for the animation and gaming],  it was a way to be playful, to pass information in different ways. We have something to learn from gaming. People will spend two hours, three to four hours immersed in a game. There are qualities in games that encourage people to stay longer and I’d love to see some of those lessons come to interactive documentary. And vice versa, there could be amazing stories in the real world that could be transferred to games.

How can you reproduce that on a smaller scale as a young journalist? 

GF: It’s very hard for anyone to reproduce what we’ve done: we spent five years making a bunch of things, and our budget was about one million dollars over the course of those years.

If you have visual storytelling skills though, you can find someone to collaborate with you on a very simple visual essay that has some music, some audio mixed-in, it doesn’t have to cost $100,000, you could do something for $5,000. Embrace podcast and still photography, just start with something really simple. And get to know people who do data visualization, that’s also a burgeoning form that’s largely driven by journalism, but I think it has a real artistic storytelling future ahead of it as well.

If you’re a young journalist and, for example, really interested in that one neighborhood in your city that’s going through difficult times, and is going to change over the next five years : don’t spend five years making one big film; make a whole bunch of things, tell stories in different ways. If it’s all under a very clear, clever, creative umbrella, then I think people would be attracted to it. Maybe after a few things you will start attracting funders even.

It’s all about coming up with a concept that makes sense for the resources you have, the skills you have and the collaborators you can find. Don’t say, “I can’t make this project because it’s two million dollar project and I have to film in 20 countries.” That isn’t the project you should be working on as a young visual journalist, find something of a smaller scale. Some of the best work is hyper local and very simple. But the storytelling and craft levels are very, very high.

Highrise project_game

A screenshot of a gaming component of the interactive project.

What were the reactions of readers about A Short History of the High Rise?

GF: The reaction was very positive. We got a lot of international traffic, we had 5,000 tweets in the first couple of weeks, it premiered on the front page of the New York Times, we had hundreds of thousands of visits in the first couple of days.

We could see from analytics that we had very high return rates, of 30-40%. People came back at other times, they would stay for 10 to 15 minutes.

Some of the comments on the New York Times were negative, some people didn’t like the rhyming: “How can you have a serious documentary where the narration is rhyme?” They thought that was a bit silly. Some people said: “Why is there a documentary in my newspaper? I go to the New York Times for news. I don’t think of the New York Times as a place for documentaries, so what is this doing here? It should be over at PBS or somewhere else.”

That did not trouble me. First of all it wasn’t that many people. If you’re going to do something new, some people are going to find it odd. It’s like modern dance or modern painting. People say: “That’s not art, that’s not dance, this isn’t journalism, a documentary should have a serious narrator, not rhyming, why are the photographs animated? That’s not showing respect for the original work!”

I think we address some of that in the piece itself, because if you’re interested in a particular photograph, you click, you can turn it over, you can stare at it for 20 minutes if you want, it’s got all the information about it.

CV: What is the future of interactive documentaries?

GF: This is an emerging art form, and there are still not a lot of people all over the world doing it, and I think its partly because there isn’t really a strong business model, there isn’t much a revenue for this kind of work.

I’m convinced it’s going to be embraced as a platform by many more people. The thing I like about it is it opens up possibilities to tell new stories for people who never had the chance to tell stories. Some people who don’t even think as themselves as filmmakers can make beautiful things on the web.

The definition of documentary was coined by John Grierson, the founder of the NFB, in the 20s: “Documentary is the creative treatment of actuality.” It doesn’t say a documentary is a film with a beginning, a middle and an end. It means it’s also not simply journalism; it has a point of view, it’s a creative treatment, it’s not just a record. There are wonderful documentaries that are journalistically driven, but there are just as many that really have a strong point of view and they’re works of cinema. 

The interactive realm is not so much driven by information and education and traditional journalism, it’s really coming from an artistic place. I think it’s more akin to a beautiful installation in an art gallery than it is to a ten-minute documentary on prime time television.

I think the biggest challenge is conceptual. If you can approach it with that open-mindedness, it’s going to be a wonderful platform for new kinds of storytelling. You will need all sorts of people. Maybe somebody is an animator, maybe somebody is a data visualization person, maybe somebody else is a composer, and we’re kind of like, “Hey, what can we make together here? We have a great story to tell, what’s the best way to tell it?”

You can see  A Short History of the Highrise at the World Press Photo Multimedia exhibition at the Brown Institute at Columbia Journalism School. The exhibit will be open from January 19-February 6 (Monday-Friday) from 4pm to 8pm. More information click here.

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