Behind the scenes of “Prison Valley”

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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 Cañon 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 Déspres (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 Lévy-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.

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  • mbsch

    thanks for the powerful insights. i was a bit shocked when i saw how many people were involved. obviously productions like that are very complex and expensive. i have not seen anything like that on the german market. i wonder if these web documenatries are becoming more and more like “real” computer games? is there a need to fill the gap between journalism and gaming? is there are market?

  • Tracy Boyer

    Excellent thoughts Marcus. It goes to show that collaboration is key for such a complex production as Prison Valley! I'm sure some traditional journalists would argue that there is, and should be, a gap between journalism and gaming, but I actually see gaming as a tool for not only journalistic purposes, but for that of academia and advertising as well. With gaming becoming so popular, why should we continue to believe this stigma that gaming is childish when in reality it can be used to leverage a user's experience? (Not to mention that the average age of a gamer these days is 35 …)

  • mbsch

    i am really looking forward to tim bissell´s book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” – maybe that is going to have at least some impact on the games/jounalism debate that – by the way – seems to be very small. i would love to do some research on that. do you by any chance know where to look out for experts on that field? i just stumbled upon
    Jon Burton (lecturer in Online Journalism at RMIT University Melbourne) who wrote some lines about “News-Game Journalism: History, Current Use And Possible Futures ” in 2005!

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  • Sam Watson

    Leave it up to bunch of frogs to put an uberliberal spin on a wonderful little town. I have live all over the world and the quality of life here is much better than what is portrayed. Did they show the multi million dollar homes above the town? No, and there were so many inaccurate photos and comments that it was laughable. Stay in France and do a documentary on your failed socialist system and the inevitability of France being an Islamic country within our lifetime.

  • Tracy Boyer

    Note to everyone: I have deleted a comment that I felt was off-based and offensive. We will not allow rude comments to remain on this site. If you would like to make a critique about the project, feel free to do so in a mature manner. However, inappropriate language and demeaning comments will not be tolerated.

  • Tracy Boyer

    Note to everyone: I have deleted a comment that I felt was off-based and offensive. We will not allow rude comments to remain on this site. If you would like to make a critique about the project, feel free to do so in a mature manner. However, inappropriate language and demeaning comments will not be tolerated.

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  • Eliseo Barbàra

    Very interesting interview. Now I need to know the photographer’s pov?

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  • JAILexchange

    I thought your documentary Prison Valley was really well done. I commend you for taking the time and the willingness for you spend so much money on Canon City’s main industry. There are 8,906 jails and prisons in the United States now, and that’s not even counting all the thousands of smaller jails (2-10 cells) that hold people for up to 72 hours. The actual amount of people directly and indirectly involved in the incarceration business – who feed off of this industry is almost one million. And frankly, the common denominator in almost all of the inmates is a drug or alcohol problem. This is a problem that feeds on itself and will explode with the coming generation whose parents were not there for them. I could go on…and on.. and on.. but getting back to your documentary… please do more… there is a need, a desire by viewers..and with the quality of your project, you bring sensibility to the stories of all the people involved. Thank you.

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