The Northern Lights Documentary Project Debuts (sort of) at Filmhouse. By Film, Exhibition & Curation student: Daniel Thornton (Submitted Nov 2012)
On October 24th in 2012, the Edinburgh Filmhouse hosted a special event previewing the upcoming release of the crowdsourced Northern Lights documentary. The event was featured as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Joining creative director Nick Higgins in attendance were, producers, participants and community media activists attached to the project. Attendees were treated to a preview of the recently completed film’s opening and a few choice submissions. One particularly dramatic submission which made the final cut of the film called Listen was shown along with an emotional appearance from it’s creator Susan Tarkenter.
Northern Lights is an innovative documentary project which attempts to illustrate a user-generated portrait of contemporary Scotland. At the outset of the project earlier in the year, the producers set up a website, Facebook page, Twitter account and put out a call to people all over Scotland to submit short videos documenting what their Scotland looks like. Higgins narrowed the call to ask participants to answer one (or more) of three questions: What can you see? What do you wish you had seen? What would you like to see? The submission window was open from late March 2012 until the end of June. By the time that the window closed the project had received an impressive 300 hours of footage from 1500 submissions.
Editing the project down turned out to be the biggest challenge for Higgin’s and the post-production team, but within six months the film had been trimmed down to a suitable feature length with a final tally of 120 co-directors being credited. Higgins had just completed the final edit the week of the Filmhouse event and was eager to get the final touches on the sound and color correction for an anticipated release before the turn of the new year.
By now most of us have heard of the term “crowdsourced” and we probably associate it with the fundraising initiatives hosted by sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo . Crowdsourcing for film and video projects is quickly growing as a primary development tool for independent media producers. Yet, while not unprecedented, crowdsourcing content for a major film project is still relatively rare and that is what makes the Norther Lights project particularly intriguing. Their business model is even more inverted given that the project project’s production costs are being covered by the “Year of Creative Scotland” arts campaign and not by private capital. The production will even be doling out £10,000 in prizes to standout contributions to both the film and the project as a whole.
Most film projects begin their distribution strategies after the production has begun. With it’s grass-roots crowdsourcing strategy, the Northern Lights team were already building a network of potential invested audience members simultaneously while they were creating the content. To augment the submission process the team also hosted 50 special short video workshops across Scotland.
While the final film isn’t likely to be overtly nationalist or even particularly political Higgins has previously stated in an interview with the Skinny that “With digital technology, people have the opportunity to share films about themselves that will have the power to change the way people think. And this is away from their representation on mainstream media, and politicians representing their interests. It’s digital democratisation.”
Lofty goals to be sure. Crowdsourcing (on both ends of a project) is still a relatively new phenomenon. But so far the strategy is proving to be a significant investment redistribution tool for small contributors/investors–Kickstarter claims that it has raised over 325 million dollars measured against a less than 50 percent success rate for proposed projects.
As a content development tool, the proof will be in the film itself. From what we were shown (the opening sequence and some of the individual submissions–less than 15 minutes of the final film) it looks promising. Audiences will ultimately have to judge for themselves once the film hits Scottish screens. Yet the project has proved that alternative approaches to content development through community engagement is a viable community building strategy and possibly a creative innovation.