How Pop-Up Books Inspired The Spectacular “Short History Of The Highrise” Series

“Documentary has always been at the forefront of innovation,” says Canadian filmmaker Katerina Cizek, whose latest project takes inspiration from a kid-lit favorite.

This week, the home page of the featured an unusual, wonderful Op-Doc called “A Short History of the Highrise.” Billed as an “interactive documentary,” the project was a collaboration between the Times and the National Film Board of Canada.


With influences ranging from traditional documentary to video games to the tablet experience, “A Short History of the Highrise” is a digital publishing rabbit hole. A casual viewer can consume the film in a few minutes, while the obsessive can delve deep into supplemental content for hours. Fast Company caught up with the project’s Emmy Award-winning director, Katerina Cizek, to learn more about how the documentary form is being transformed in a digital age.

FAST COMPANY: The collaboration with the Times is the latest in a years-long series on high-rise living. What was the genesis of the series?

KATERINA CIZEK: The material is very different in each project–there are different people and different technologies we use. Each project is a new page, but all in the same book. How we started with “Highrise” was that I wanted to learn about vertical living. It’s the most commonly built form of the last century, yet we don’t think much about this basic vernacular piece of our urban fabric. At the beginning of “Highrise,” we did two things: We asked a team of researchers, including some PhDs at the University of Toronto, to find great stories in high-rises around the world. Another part was that we wanted to learn about high-rise living here in Toronto. We met with six residents at a high-rise by the airport and started documenting their lives.

KATERINA CIZEK | Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times

You’ve been working on the broader “Highrise” series since 2008. How did the collaboration with the Times come about?

The best friend the documentarian can have is time. It allowed people to come to us. I never imagined the [digital] New York Times would approach us, which they did 18 months ago. Jason Spingarn-Koff, the editor of the fantastic Op-Docs series, is pushing the boundaries of how documentary is understood in the digital age.

How did you get the idea for the immersive, interactive component for your “Short History of the Highrise”?

Earlier, we had partnered with Mozilla Foundation here in Toronto. Mozilla developed a technology called Popcorn that explores how the video box online can become more connected to the Web, and we used that technology in our earlier project, “One Millionth Tower” [an interactive documentary that uses open-source HTML5 and a Web-based Graphics Library to create a sense of 3-D immersion]. For the project with the Times, I wanted a very simple idea: You could just watch the film and do nothing at all–but if you were interested, you could swipe down and find out more. I was inspired how tablets are changing the way we read. I looked at some of the more successful storytelling on tablets, and found some great examples in children’s literature. I was inspired by pop-up storybooks. I was reading this dense and difficult and overwhelming history of humanity and social inequality, of civilizations rising and falling, and I thought this epic story is not unlike some storybooks we have. I thought it might be an interesting juxtaposition, to tell the story of our verticalizing world, using the pop-up storybook as a metaphor.


Sound seems key to your documentary, too.

In a YouTube video, if you click “stop,” the sound cuts off abruptly. But when you swipe down in “A Short History of the Highrise,” I wanted you to feel like you’re still in the piece. We did that by cross-fading the sounds of both experiences, to create the sense of a more immersive world and for the user to stay in the mood. Simple ideas like stitching and knitting sound can really make a difference.

Why is it important for you to experiment with forms in documentary?

Documentary has always been at the forefront of innovation, and documentarians have always been at the forefront of exploring new technologies to tell important the stories of their time. With the invention of cinema, the first film was a documentary. With the first introduction of sound, who was there? Documentarians. The same with handheld cameras. I think it’s no surprise that some of the most important innovation in new storytelling comes from documentaries. We need as documentarians not only to tell stories about how technology changes our lives, but to use that technology to tell the story, too. It’s not a digital revolution anymore–the digital revolution is over, and we’re in a digital age, and we need to understand how that’s rewiring us.

For “Highrise,” though, I imagine you’re documenting populations largely on the other side of the digital divide. Have you examined how digital technologies are used by high-rise dwellers?

That’s the subject of the next piece. That’s what we’re studying now: how to tell the story about the invisible digital lives of high-rise residents around the world. How do these incredible ways of connecting the world relate to the actual physical spaces that we live in? In the same Toronto high-rise we’ve used for previous projects, we surveyed over 100 households. Based on income levels, we expected only 60% to 70% might have connectivity, but it turned out that 80% were connected. Not only that, but they talked about the Internet being as important to them as air and water. Much of that is because many of these people have just arrived in Canada–they’re new Canadians, and many of them went straight from the airport to live in the high-rise–and the people they love are across the world. In these transnational lives, the Internet is crucial to the feeling of belonging. We’ve got a team going to India in two weeks to do research for us there. Stories from around the world are starting to come in in various forms, and we hope to have this next project in about a year to 18 months.


This interview has been condensed and edited.


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal


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