Center for Documentary Studies publishing intern Joel Mora recently came across a new interactive multimedia documentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Clouds Over Cuba, created to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s stare-down with the Soviet Union in October 1962 over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The filmmakers worked closely with the John F. Kennedy Library and were given unprecedented access to letters, memos, documents, audio recordings, and imagery that viewers can engage with as the documentary takes them through a timeline of the crisis until its resolution. Clouds Over Cuba also includes an eye-popping companion film, an alternative history that imagines what might have been had the crisis not been averted. Though the film is not the first interactive documentary out there, Joel was struck by “the filmmakers’ ability to make essentially a history lesson seem fresh and new. Documentarians go through so many materials in their research, but this is the first one I’ve seen that puts all the documents out there for the viewer, in essence allowing people to come to their own conclusions as to what happened,” he says. “Not only do viewers have that access, but they have it in a fresh layout with expert commentary, online and for free.”
Clouds Over Cuba was created by the Martin Agency and Tool of North America on behalf of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, directed by Ben Tricklebank and Erich Joiner, and narrated by actor Matthew Modine. Joel spoke with Tricklebank about the project:
Joel Mora: Before we get into Clouds Over Cuba tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you study? Is filmmaking your background or is it more art and design?
Ben Tricklebank: My background is originally in sound recording and music production and that was back in the mid-90s in Manchester in the UK. I did that for a few years and then decided to go back to school to study design and art direction primarily for advertising; that’s where I discovered motion graphics and did a lot of animation work, which led me to working in more interactive projects. It was around the time when people were starting to do rich content online. In 2006, I moved to New York and started doing advertising work; one of the projects I worked on was We Choose the Moon with the JFK Library and the Martin Agency. We were retracing steps of the four-day mission that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. That was a pretty big success; at the time the project was groundbreaking in the way it was presented. The Martin Agency approached me earlier this year to do this project about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I jumped at the opportunity to research that story in more detail and then put it together for a different audience.
JM: What was your process in choosing what viewers would see, read, or hear out of all of the material that was available to you?
BT: We ended up with something like 175 to 180 documents in the actual piece. There wasn’t a lot that we didn’t put in, to be honest. My feeling really was, the more photographs, the more declassified documents and audio recordings there are the better, because those things make this thing real. Listening to JFK on the phone with former President Truman discussing the crisis adds such a level of authenticity—none of this is over-dramatized, this really happened.
JM: What do you feel this format does for the viewer that maybe the traditional documentary format doesn’t do?
BT: I think the subject matter for this particular piece is perfect for an interactive format because of that wealth of documentation that supports the story. It gives the viewer the opportunity to dig through and decide just how deep they want to go. That’s not the case with every subject. And the idea of a timeline fits with this very well, because we’re talking about not just the crisis but the build-up of tensions during the Cold War. We’ve replaced the scrub bar with a timeline where the playhead is showing the relation to the year or the month or the day as opposed to just the time left in the video. It’s a little bit of an experiment, because you’re playing with things you aren’t 100 percent sure are going to work, but you’re just trying to find the best way to present them.
JM: Because of all that material, and the fact that Clouds Over Cuba is online, there are a lot of rabbit holes a person can go down; viewers could easily open up a new window and head off on a tangent, never getting back to the film. How did you try to solve for that?
BT: Within the site we try to structure it in a way that always pushes you back to that main timeline to continue viewing, and we tried to put as much on the site itself to address people leaving to go research other things. Also, we tried to place content equally spaced out so you’re not getting hit with everything at once; you have to get to a certain portion of the story before you can branch off and view the dossier of materials. People can collect materials and come back to them later to browse at leisure. It doesn’t have to interrupt the viewing of the documentary. But it’s definitely a challenge with a project like this; you’re always fighting against people getting distracted.
JM: The tools you’re using to create this type of work, like online motion graphics, are things a lot of students and filmmakers don’t know; should they start learning? Is this sort of interactive documentary the future?
BT: I think it’s really good for people to learn what those tools are capable of and how you might incorporate them into a story. The Internet is only going to get better. Bandwidth speeds are only going to increase. The way people consume content has already shifted a lot and it’s going to continue to shift. That doesn’t mean someone sitting in front of a ninety-minute film and just watching is never going to happen again. People love to sit back and watch things, there will always be that desire. But I think there’s an opportunity within conventional filmmaking to pull certain subjects out and allow people to engage the content in a way that we haven’t seen before. I think it’s going to open up another area within filmmaking that has yet to evolve.
JM: What about the fact that there isn’t a lot of attention from film festivals on this format of filmmaking?
BT: I think festivals should start opening the door to this kind of content, and that goes for awards as well. Until there’s an acceptance of this into the flock of all this other great content, people aren’t going to invest into pushing the format forward. It will happen eventually, but it’s going to take some time because it doesn’t fit into that conventional box—it’s online, it isn’t this one piece that can be given to people to watch. It’s out there in this sort of ether in all these pieces. People just need to wrap their heads around how to categorize that.
JM: Any advice to students working on documentary studies?
BT: Advice is a hard thing, there are different routes to get to doing this kind of stuff. But I will say for people studying documentary filmmaking that it’s important to think about different ways to engage the audience that are appropriate to the subject, and about how you make the subject you are trying to explore and the message you are trying to push as powerful as possible. The idea to present the destroyed Capitol building as the opening image for the [Clouds of Cuba] site was purely one of trying to pique people’s curiosity. When you capture people’s interest and imagination, then you start to draw them in.