Behind the scenes of “Prison Valley”
Last week I highlighted the extremely innovative French interactive documentary “Prison Valley.” I was so impressed with the end product that I had to learn more. My amazing Spanish editor Andrea Ballocchi also speaks French (how convenient!) so she conducted an email interview in French with writer-director David Dufresne. After reading the English translation, I am extremely excited to share his behind the scenes account with you all.
I hope you take the time to read more about this project and how it came together. If you have any questions for the producers, feel free to ask them here in the comments and we will translate as necessary.
Q) How did this project evolve from idea to storyboard to final execution?
A) There were several stages. On one hand, there is the graphic aspect of the site itself. It is the work of Sebastian Brothier. Very quickly, Sebastian showed us a proposal that suited us perfectly. It was after our first trip to CaÃ±on City (in June 2009). We just showed him a color that dominates over there: orange. In fact, we were able to discuss these before we left for our second trip (Fall 2009): it was essential for Philippe Brault and I to know which artistic direction we were taking.
For the film portion and the bonus (videos, texts, additional interviews), I used a program to help with the script writing called Scrivener. This software has a demonic power! It offers enormous opportunities for the author of a documentary. It allowed me to make the very clear cuts between the main story (the film) and the interactive areas. Its function was to serve as a storyboard through a tag system.
Q) How many people were involved in the project and how long did it take from the beginning to end?
A) Besides Philippe (Brault) and me, there was Sebastian Brothier (Graphic Design), David DÃ©spres (Flash), Alexandre Brachet (producer) and Cedric Delport (film editing) who worked full time on Prison Valley for several months + Bertrand Toty (music and sound), Bertrand Tronsson (Flash), Jerome Goncalves and Mathieu Chapuis, Maxime Quintard and Hans Lemuet (HTML, databases), three translators (English, French, German), not to mention the whole team from Upian, a production/web agency in Paris, which was already behind programs like Gaza / Sderot or Thanatorama. There is Marianne LÃ©vy-Leblond, from the documentary unit of Arte, who brought an invaluable insight throughout the editing of Prison Valley. Also Joel Ronez, from the Web division of Arte, who played a central role in agreeing to support us very quickly. Also, Eric Drier, was very important bringing Social Media into Prison Valley.
Prison Valley required sixteen months of development, between the original idea, born in December 2008 in a bar in Paris, and the launch online in April 2010.
Q) What programs and languages were used to produce this site, both in the storytelling phase and the back-end web/mobile development phases?
A) For the movie: Final Cut Pro, Color and Motion. For the rest: Flash, PHP, SQL, HTML, iPhone SDK, etc.. Nothing but the very classic. We have also worked a lot remotely with the Basecamp tool between the Upian team, Philippe and me. Not to mention the wonderful Scrivener and Photoshop for the photo part. As for the producer, Alexandre Brachet, I think at one point he lost his Excel. And that was good for us …
Q) Will you tell us a bit about the response you have gotten so far? What is the average time spent on the site and unique visitors? Are you getting decent traffic to your mobile app?
A) It is still too early to say, but we promised to be transparent as soon as possible. It’s too early, in fact, for every day the numbers change and are refined. Our greatest satisfaction is to see, every day, that people come back more and more and go to the end of the film. So 59 minutes. That was our challenge: to believe in the long format on the Internet, in the stories that are told in length. And not only believe in an Internet done by frantic video clips. Another satisfaction is to see the forums grow. Our goal here is: to provide the elements and tools of the debate about prisons.
Q) If you could go back and do it all over again, would you do anything differently? Why or why not?
R) Honestly, I think we would do the same but … being warned that it would be hard and long. The difficulty, indeed, is trying to design a simple interface, a story that will be seen, all while offering great freedom to the viewers. To be effective and fun, this double movement (linear narrative and freedom of navigation) should not be seen. It has to be invisible. We must move from one to another without perceiving it. In other words: to be simple, is sometimes complicated.
Q) Do you think projects like “Prison Valley” will become more common in terms of your strategy to publish first for mobile and web, and then reverse publish to the more traditional formats of TV and book?
A) That is what happened to us, at least. And it happened to us naturally. The Prison Valley Team, we all consider that Internet is now the major media, even if not yet dominant. The Internet offers so many opportunities for the creation, dissemination, invention, production, that it has become what it is: a machine that is both powerful and open to all. At the beginning of Prison Valley, we only though about doing an audio slideshow (Portfolio). At the end, it will be a web documentary, a documentary, a book, an iPhone application and even an exhibition this May in Paris. The strangest and most beautiful thing for us is to see how a web documentary is a living art piece: it is the strength of the Internet. We see, we feel the people react directly to our piece. It’s fascinating and sweet to see how the audience takes ownership of the object, makes and derives what it wants.
Q) What one piece of advice would you give producers who hope to attempt an interactive project of this scale?
A) To believe in two things: themselves and in a story. Everything is there: a story, a story, a story.
Tags: Alexandre Brachet, Arte France, David DesprÃ©s, David Dufresne, documentary, Flash, FranceInter.com, Gregory Trowbridge, interactive, Liberation.fr, Philippe Brault, Prison Valley, SÃ©bastien Brothier, Upian, Yahoo.fr