Video & Filmmaking

Frames Per Second: Jongsma + O’Neill Finding Success with Immersive Storytelling

November 5, 2015

By Josh Root

What do you do when your documentary project has grown from a single concept to a sprawling, complex narrative with multiple points of view? For Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill, the award-winning filmmaking team, technology is the answer. Through collaborations with programmers and other experts, they’ve produced projects in which multiple stories coexist and give viewers a choice of which narratives they follow. The duo have also expanded the audience for their work by creating innovative, Web-based presentations.

They are currently in production on The Ark, a documentary they conceived to be displayed on virtual reality platforms such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. It will give viewers the experience of following the parallel stories of scientists in San Diego and park rangers in Kenya who are trying to save the world’s last northern white rhinoceroses. This year, their proposal for the project won the first Visionary Award from the Tim Hetherington Trust, named for the late photojournalist and filmmaker who created innovative video presentations from the work he made in conflict zones. Also this year, Jongsma and O’Neill were nominated for a 2015 News & Documentary Emmy for their most ambitious project to date, the interactive documentary Empire, a look at the legacy of Dutch colonialism.

They have continually evolved their documentary storytelling methods since Jongsma, a photographer, and O’Neill, a former copywriter, began combining their talents. “I have always flirted with video, but I never knew how to merge the power of still photography with the documentary form until I started working with Kel,” Jongsma says. “Video and photography always felt constricted, because I wanted to bend the frame somehow. Now we’re doing a live-action VR project and it’s blowing my mind.”

Their company, Jongsma + O’Neill, has produced branded content and videos for such clients as Red Bull Media Group, Siemens and Vice. The process of creating their own interactive, multilayered projects begins, O’Neill says, with the question: How should the story be told? “There’s no reason to make a project interactive unless the interactivity in some way arises from, and reinforces, the themes of the story,” he says. Jongsma agrees, noting, “We chose this type of ‘fractured narrative’ because, early on in the production of Empire, we realized that we wanted to highlight the multiple perspectives and multiple layers of the subject matter.”

They began working on Empire in 2010. After giving away most of their possessions and putting the rest in storage, Jongsma and O’Neill traveled to ten countries over the next three years, chasing stories of the impact of the world’s first multinational corporations: the Dutch East and West India Companies.

They met white-supremacist farmers in South Africa, gold miners in Suriname and Freemasons in Ghana. Initially, their plan was to make a more traditional documentary film. But as they got further into the project, they realized that the multiple stories and perspectives would be better served with a less linear storyline. “There’s a huge amount of diversity in Empire, not just in terms of the ethnicity of the subjects, but in terms of beliefs and lifestyles,” explains O’Neill, “Despite their differences, all of these people and communities share space on the same planet, and are shaped by a shared historical past. So at a certain point, we started looking at organizational systems that could respectfully bring together all of these contradictory, co-existing perspectives into a shared space.” The result was a documentary in four chapters, shown on split screens to display connected but independent stories.

Initially, Jongsma and O’Neill displayed Empire at film festivals and art shows as an installation, with multiple screens showing the stories simultaneously. While successful, they quickly realized that to reach more people, they would need to step out of what O’Neill calls “the art/film echo chamber.” They felt that a Web-based presentation would be the best way to make the project more accessible without compromising the multi-screen format.

In 2013, Jongsma and O’Neill were chosen to be part of’s POV Hackathon, a two-day event where filmmakers team up with designers and developers to create interactive, Web-based stories. “At the POV Hackathon, we had two days to execute. There was no leeway,” O’Neill explains. At some hackathons, creators are only required to produce wire-frame prototypes for future projects. But O’Neill says that Adnaan Wasey, the head of POV Digital, insists participants produce something that can be posted online the day after the event. “It’s a fantastic challenge.” O’Neill says. “Hackathons are a perfect opportunity for photographers who want to dip their toes into interactive filmmaking.”

By the end of the POV Hackathon, they had a Web-based version of the first chapter of Empire. They used two screens to simultaneously tell two different stories, but with a single soundtrack tying the two together. While in the gallery installation, viewers could turn their heads from one story to another, the web-based version uses JavaScript to allow the viewer to flip between videos. Empire: Cradle, was the winning project at POV Hackathon.

Jongsma and O’Neill went on to create online versions of each of the remaining three chapters of Empire, each using slightly different designs to display parallel stories. The Empire: Periphery chapter, for example, features videos of two men on opposite sides of the world: One in Australia who may be descended from shipwrecked Dutch sailors believed to have fathered children with indigenous people; and one in California, who is living in a community of Dutch-Indonesians. The two videos are stacked on top of one another, with the bottom video playing upside-down. While the top video’s audio can be heard clearly, the bottom video’s audio is faint. Using the computer cursor, the viewer can spin the videos around, but the video on the bottom of the screen and its faint audio are an ever-present, constant temptation.

Once Jongsma and O’Neill decide to add interactive elements to a project, their planning and production proceeds as they do on any other documentary. “We take pictures to find the best angles on the spaces where we’re shooting, and take a lot of notes,” Jongsma says. “From there, we storyboard and figure out how to enhance the story structurally and technically.” Rather than shaping a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, they are looking for parts that work together, creating complements and contrasts. She says, “It’s like you’re building the story not just horizontally but also vertically.”

The next challenge is to take the pieces and fit them all together while bearing in mind what they want the viewer to do. In an interview for after their Hackathon win, Jongsma said, “The word ‘interactive’ in the context of online media shouldn’t just mean that you can press a button on a screen.” She explains that it’s not just about giving the viewer a path to follow, but thinking about how viewers might relate to a wealth of sometimes-complex information packed into the project. They ask themselves: “Do we want the viewer to be able to connect the dots him/herself? What level of participation makes sense?,” she explains, adding, “We try to make technology work for us, not the other way around.”

To use the best technology available, they’ve relied on collaboration. O’Neill notes, “When we started making Empire, I knew nothing about coding. Now I know very little about coding. That’s what we call progress.” They’ve turned to programmers with knowledge of programming languages such as JavaScript, Ruby, or C++, and collaborators familiar with programs and graphics engines such as Unreal Engine 4, Unity and Kolor AVP. These collaborations have been fruitful as well as encouraging, Jongsma says. “It’s thrilling to see your ideas take hold on the people you are collaborating with. It’s a snowball effect: You expand on each other’s creativity.”

Like Empire, The Ark will tell stories of people on different sides of the globe. It presents the perspectives of two groups, both involved in trying to save the last four northern white rhinos alive. “In San Diego, there’s a group of research scientists using stem cell technology to ‘genetically rescue’ the rhinos; and then, in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, there’s a team of rangers who guard the last herd of rhinos from poachers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” O’Neill explains. “There’s something beautiful about the juxtaposition of these two stories: Conservation by laboratory and gun.” He and Jongsma are currently raising funds to complete the project.

Looking beyond The Ark, Jongsma and O’Neill have recently announced a new project, EXIT, an interactive documentary for smartphones made in collaboration with PBS’s POV and Submarine Channel. “EXIT is a project about conquering your fear of the apocalypse. Can you think of a more apocalyptic platform than the smartphone, destroyer of relationships, wrecker of thumbs?” says O’Neill.

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