It’s the HIGHRISE summer of transformation –  in virtual as well as in physical space. This month, as the HIGHRISE team toils away on computers building our new HTML5 documentary set in a virtual landscape, on the physical HIGHRISE site, there’s also some “real” building going on: new outdoor play-spaces for families and children.

Our HTML5 documentary, One Millionth Tower (formerly known as the 2000th Tower), re-imagines a dilapidated HIGHRISE neighbourhood in a Toronto suburb. But the story and space could be almost anywhere, as global modernist highrise buildings, the most commonly built form of the last century, are aging and falling into disrepair, all over the planet. it’s a hyper-local story with global relevance. (maybe its hyper-glocal?)

In our story, HIGHRISE residents join forces with architects to envision a more human-friendly environment around their vertical homes. Then the magic of animation and cutting edge open-source technology, brings their drawings to life in a virtual 3D space on the web.

Meanwhile, on the ground, at the site of the real HIGHRISE, on which our 3d virtual space is modeled, lots is in the works physically too. It’s all fueled by the momentum of our two current projects there (One Millionth Tower and the recent Digital Citizenship Survey) but mostly by the force of incredibly committed residents, E.R.A. architects, the United Way, the City of Toronto (both Tower Renewal and Children’s Services) as well as the property manager.

Last weekend, all parties got together to construct 6 picnic tables for the site. it’s a small, low-cost but important first step towards transforming the outdoor space around the buildings.

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Architects from ERA join forces with residents to build picnic tables.

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Recently moved in resident Salam Younan, 47, was coming home from a night shift at a local furniture factory, when he saw all the picnic table commotion. He pitched in and stayed most of the day to contribute his carpentry skills. Trained as plumber back home in Iraq, Salam has been living in the building only 2 months, but said “I will do anything to help all the people who live here.” A growing community of Iraqi Christians is moving into the buildings, many are U.N. sponsored refugees.

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Faith, long-time resident and One Millionth Tower collaborator, face-paints during picnic table event.

The mood was jubilant for another reason. The residents have just been granted a brand new playground from the American non-profit, KaBoom. The new playground will be built in a day (August 18th) by hundreds of volunteers from across the city, as well as a team of residents.

KaBoom’s mission, according to their website, is to address “The Play Deficit. Our children are playing less than any previous generation, and this lack of play is causing them profound physical, intellectual, social, and emotional harm. The Play Deficit is an important problem, and it is imperative that we solve it to ensure our children have long, healthy, and happy lives.”

“It’s a gift that’s fallen from the sky,”said Eleanor, a long time resident and social animator at the United Way’s ANC community engagement office, located in the building.

But the residents have been working hard towards this moment. In the last months, they’ve  been mobilizing around the need for a playground. The old playground equipment, nearly 40 years old, was rusting and dangerous.


One of two old playground sites at the highrise.

Two months ago, in an historic meeting between residents and the property manager, everyone agreed to take down the old equipment, and to move towards realizing some of the ideas presented in One Millionth Tower, starting with play-space.

Around that time, we were also conducting the HIGHRISE Digital Citizenship Survey, which revealed astounding statistics about the demographics of the 2 buildings. We discovered that over 50% of the people at the two highrises are under the age of 20. And that 25% are under 10 years of age.

The numbers were telling us what all the residents already knew: hundreds and hundreds of kids with nowhere to play.

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Kids shelter from the heatwave, under a makeshift clubhouse, above the highrise parking lot.

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If all goes well, virtual and physical interventions, all powered by imagination, will change the space in the coming months and years, and perhaps inspire other cities to do the same with their highrises, the most commonly built architectural form in the last century.

One Millionth Tower, an HTML5 documentary set in a virtual landscape, will be launched in the Fall.


image credits:
illustration from One Millionth Tower, by Lillian Chan, Howie Shia and Kelly

picnic table build photo, courtesy United Way

Salam builds a table, by Kat Cizek

Faith facepaints, by Kat Cizek
Old Playground, by Jamie Hogge
Makeshift Clubhouse, by Kat Cizek

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In a new summer issue, Harvard’s Nieman Reports features my essay about my personal experiences with community and journalism. I trace my views on community-based story-telling from my early days in journalism and independent documentary film-making to my current work  with HIGHRISE and Filmmaker-in-Residence at the National Film Board of Canada. Here’s an excerpt:


When Community and Journalism Converge

‘… I am bypassing the predictable, often sensational headlines to explore the profound ways that digital storytelling can be a force for political mediation.’

By Katerina Cizek

I encountered journalism on the day I came to understand the word “community.”

It was my first assignment as a student photojournalist and I was behind the barricades in Quebec at what became known as the Oka Crisis. It was the summer of 1990, and the news media were watching the military showdown between the Canadian armed forces and a Mohawk community.

The confrontation involved plans to expand a municipal golf course onto an ancient Mohawk burial ground. This standoff, which some consider Canada’s Wounded Knee, lasted two and a half months. When it was over, so much had changed, including the political balance between First Nations and the federal government.

As the day turned to dusk, it was clear that I would remain at the standoff through the night. A few members of the Mohawk Warrior Society had pulled up plastic lawn chairs around a rabbit-eared television directly behind the barricade of overturned police vehicles and large branches. They were watching the evening news. They invited me to join them, and when I did I saw that Alanis Obomsawin, a First Nations Abenaki documentary filmmaker, was there to document this crisis through her own eyes for the National Film Board of Canada.

One hundred meters down the road and behind the barricades, military guns were aimed in the community’s direction and ready to be fired. Army helicopters buzzed above. Like the military, the Warriors had weapons. But there were unarmed women and children present as well.

As I watched TV with the Warriors, I came to realize how divergent the mainstream representation of this armed conflict was from what I was witnessing. That evening I heard about unresolved land claims and the abuse of power through the centuries as non-Natives encroached on First Nations lands. There were among the mainstream media some well-established members who expressed views about this mistreatment—a view I shared. Later, they were accused of Stockholm syndrome.

read the rest here.

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So much of life in the global highrise is hidden from public view, behind concrete walls. Even more invisible are the virtual/internet lives of highrise residents. So what is digital connectivity like in the global highrise?

Last Friday, a United Nations Report declared access to the internet a human right.

Only a few days earlier, Statistics Canada revealed that “Overall, about 80 per cent of all Canadian households had Internet access in 2010… Almost all the homes with total incomes above $87,000 were connected, while just 54 per cent of households with incomes under $30,000 had access,” according to The Canadian Press (good coverage at too).

That’s quite the Digital Divide. The stats also reveal a discrepancy between urban and rural. But our question is: how does this play out in the suburb highrise?  What is the relationship between virtual social networks and the geography of suburbs? What does this mean for the future of a (sub)urban planet? These are questions I have been fascinated with since beginning  HIGHRISE, and we are starting to get some early answers this week, as we begin production on our HIGHRISE Digital Citizenship Project. It’s a unique collaboration between our HIGHRISE team, residents in a Toronto Highrise, and a team of academic researchers, led by Prof. Deborah Cowen and Emily Paradis PhD, and connected to the Global Suburbanism MCRI project at York University.

This week, we are working with 14 highrise residents as Peer Researchers, who are going door-to-door with our survey in their highrise building, interviewing their neighbours about digital technologies, their use, access and effects. From the results and discussions that arise with the residents, we hope to gain some baseline knowledge about the state of “digital citizenship” in one building. We hope to build on this data, possibly by doing comparative studies elsewhere in the world, and by going deeper with interviews, focus groups and documentary methods within the building itself. After the first survey session earlier this week, one peer researcher told me she’s been working as a community engagement officer in this building (that she live in) for a while now, but the survey was the first time she got to go into people’s homes to really see residents in their own space.

She said, “We sat down and talked with this lady in her kitchen as she chopped potatoes with a huge knife, the knife was really flying around! And we learned about how she accesses *that other world* – the one on the internet. It’s a huge learning experience for me, and its going to connect residents in this building.”

What’s most cool about the project is the energy that’s bubbling up both on the ground with the peer researchers and residents, and at the high-level academic conceptual level ,with what Deb as Principal Investigator is doing, and how the two are informing each other as we go along.

As Deb says in her early writings about the project: “It is now well established that digital technologies are deeply engrained at a global scale, and furthermore, that these technologies are a crucial part of the logistics of globalization. By reshaping economic, social and cultural forms and flows, digital technologies implicate even those who do not have access to the tools or infrastructure for direct connection. Digital technologies have reshaped collective life, transforming how, where, and when we produce, communicate, learn, re/create, and consume. Digital technologies create virtual and actual communities, they keep people connected across vast distances, they make ideas and information flow far and wide. Yet, they also ‘flexibilize’ working conditions, for instance, extending the working day well into personal time and space, they centralize the dissemination of information, enhance state and corporate surveillance capacities, privatize infrastructure and even citizenship. These technologies can speed things up and open new worlds, and they can cut people off and keep people out. In other words, the impacts of digital technologies are profound and they reshape everyday life in complex, ambiguous, and sometimes, contradictory ways.

This project posits that everyday life in suburban tower communities is shaped by digital technologies in distinct ways that warrant attention. The ‘global suburb’ is an underexplored urban condition in academic research, yet as the Global Suburbanism Major Collaborative Research Initiative[1] might suggest, it may well be the dominant experience and condition of the ‘global city’. An emphasis on what we term the ‘global suburb’ highlights not simply a particular space within the global city, but as we explore in more detail through this research, a set of processes and experiences of social polarization and segregation on the one hand, and on the other hand, particular forms of physical and virtual connection and circulation. Drawing on recent work on the ‘in-between city’ (Keil et al 2011), we suggest that the social geographies and spatial forms particular to these ‘global suburbs’ are paradigmatic in an era of global mobility and precarity. The complex dynamics of fixity and flow that characterize these spaces furthermore trouble any simple notion of citizenship and add nuance to the study of digital citizenship.”

[1] A 7-year international research project funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and led by principal investigator Roger Keil at York University.

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Hadi, a Peer Researcher, going from door to door.

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Priti, Peer Researcher (you may recognize her from The Thousandth Tower, watch for her in our upcoming One Millionth Tower and Faith, Ob and Donna have all continued with us too!)

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Last night, kids take a break for some bouncing on the balcony.

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Cheryl and Nahatil, Peer Researchers, conduct survey in the hallway.

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Kristyna (L) Research Field Coordinator, gets data from Nasra and Rita, Peer Researchers.

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Jordana, Research Coordinator, shows off our 15 languages sheet – represent the plethora of languages that our team members speak. We show this sheet to residents, (it includes the name in english and in the language itself) so people can identify the language of their choice.

photos by Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam

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Very happy to finally announce the release of our short documentary about the making of the Out My Window StorySpace Installation, that we premiered in Amsterdam last fall. This video, edited by Heather Frise, shows the process of creation and launch, of our transformation of the web-documentary into a physical art installation, co-produced with Canadian Film Centre (Ana Serrano), with interactivve artist Priam Givord.

You can read more about the installation here

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It’s been a busy week at HIGHRISE, with two exciting public projections.

In Montreal, to a packed audience at the gorgeous L’Astral theatre, I had the honour of  “performing” HIGHRISE/Out My Window accompanied by 3 musicians, playing a live, improvised score. Sam Shalabi on oud, electronic guitar and electronics, Alexandre St-Onge on electric bass, upright bass and electrionics, and Will Eizlini on tabala and electronics. A magical evening, all part of the DNA Symposium at Concordia University, which was a heady mix of academics and practitioners, all discussing the intersection of Database, Narrative and Archives in the context of computer-generated story-telling. Thanks to the DNA team, and esp professors Monika Kin Gagnon and Matt Soar for creating this space for us.

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Meanwhile, in Toronto…


…My colleagues represented HIGHRISE at the awesome annual Toronto the Good Party (put on by our partners and friends ERA Architects, Spacing Magazine and others). Technical Director Branden Bratuhin, Associate Producer Sarah Arruda, and Project Coordinator Paramita Nath talked all things HIGHRISE with good torontonians. They also gave a sneak peak (projected on the hallowed halls of Hart House) of our new project, One Millionth Tower, which we are describing for now, as a spacial film/web experience, built in HTML5 by Helios, popcorn provided by Mozilla Foundation.

We will be releasing a video documentary of the Montreal performance, and we’ll be telling you more about One Millionth Tower soon, so watch this space in coming weeks.

photo credits:

Montreal performance by David Dufresne,
Out My Window out DNA’s window, courtesy of DNA Symposium
Toronto the Good Party, by Paramita Nath

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MORE WINS: ONE WORLD, FITC and education


HIGHRISE/Out My Window has been honoured with more awards, in very diverse worlds.

Last night, Senior Producer Gerry Flahive was in London U.K. where he accepted our prize in the New Media category at the One World Media Awards. This amazing organization, created by BBC World Services Trust, “recognizes the media’s contribution to international development, human rights, education, mobilising a global community that shares our values.”

The jury citation from One World: “HIGHRISE/OUT MY WINDOW was the richest and most innovative entry in terms of its use of multimedia and the possibility of new media. With so much emphasis in development on the rural poor it was refreshing to see the emphasis here on urbanisation. The views of people living in developing country cities were at centre stage. It was an engaging and compelling work.”

At FITC -Toronto, an award celebrating Flash and other technologies, we won the Best Audio in Flash. Grats to our incredible sound designer, Janine White, and the whole team at Imaginarius: Vincent Marcone, Natalie MacNeil as well as the programmer Bobby Richter.

In the education universe, we have picked up an Award of Merit from the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education. Congrats especially to our eduction team, Tey Cottingham and Kathy Sperberg.

ReelScreen covers the One World win here.

Congrats to the team, and congrats to all the residents living in the global highrise of Out My Window.

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As the last of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green highrises comes down this month, we catch up with David Schalliol, the photographer and interviewer who brought us the moving story from Chicago for HIGHRISE/Out My Window.

“The Chicago portion of HIGHRISE/Out My Window tells the story of Donna and Brittany, a mother and daughter who are wrestling with an uncertain future in Cabrini Green, the city’s last highrise family public housing development. When interviewed at the end of 2009, their only certainty was their building was to be demolished sometime soon. They were going to have to find another place to live after a lifetime in the community. They were issued emergency eviction notices in May 2010 and moved to a housing development on the South Side less than a month later. Their old building, the second-to-last remaining high-rise, was already undergoing demolition preparation work.

Watching Cabrini Green Demolition in Progress

Now the demolition of the last Cabrini-Green high-rise is currently under way. More media attention than usual has been trained on the neighborhood, and for the first time in decades, the stories are less about crime and more about community. There is some recognition that what is happening in this near North Side neighborhood is significant, at least for community members.

When former residents turned out to say farewell to the last building on the eve of the demolition, video cameras were rolling, and TheBrigade Stamps performance was cut in with footage of people saying goodbye to their former neighborhood. The last high-rise would soon be gone.

One surprising story has been about Project Cabrini Green, an art installation that arose out of a collaboration with Chicago artists, arts organizations and Cabrini-Green youth. The project installed 134 blinking lights in the building that represent poems written by area children. Every night, the lights blink in conversation as the building is slowly erased by the demolition team.

Despite the increased media attention, at least one significant element of the demolition has been underappreciated. Many of the Chicago Housing Authority’s developments have been located in high-visibility locations. They’ve loomed over highways, hugged sports arenas, and in the case of Cabrini Green, been a short walk from the Magnificent Mile and the Gold Coast, the city’s most fashionable shopping and residential districts.

Cabrini Green and the Magnificent Mile

With each daily commute, trip to the store or opportunity to cheer on the city’s athletic heros, the highrises of the Chicago Housing Authority were a physical reminder of the stark inequalities in one of the United States’ most segregated cities.

As Close as They Get

CHA residents are much less visible now. For the few who will live in new mixed-income developments, which place CHA residents side-by-side with those paying market-rates or receiving more limited subsidies, integrated poverty will become a new fact of life. But for now, many Cabrini-Green residents are moving into communities that are located farther from the city’s centers of power and into communities with residents who share many of the residents’ demographic characteristics.

Moving Out of Cabrini Green

When the last Cabrini highrise is demolished, there is a real possibility that they will be out of sight and out of mind, forgotten by those who will likely never live in subsidized housing. Community groups and politicians will continue to wrestle with issues of public housing, but many Chicagoans won’t be reminded by the high-rises any longer.

Far from the Magnificent Mile, Donna’s family is now settled in their new home. Like so many of the remaining CHA buildings, it is a lowrise.”

Cleaning Wentworth Gardens

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Award nominations: WEBBY and more


It’s award season, and the nominations have been coming in!

The awards are very diverse, attesting to the innovation on all fronts of Out My Window.

We are up for Best Use of Photography at the Webbys. Please consider voting for us in the People’s Choice awards. Our fellow nominees are National Geographic, Life, BBC and The Tiziano Project.

Meanwhile, at FITC, we are nominated for best use of sound. There’s also a People’s Choice there, please consider supporting us there too.

At the Banff Interactive Rockies, we are nominated along with 3 other NFB projects for best online program –non-fiction.

In the UK, we are also nominated for a One World Media Award, which recognizes the media’s contribution to international development, human rights and education.

Congrats to the whole team on these remarkable acknowledgments!

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Yesterday, Japan upgraded its ranking of Fukushima Power Plant to the highest level of nuclear disaster – that of Chernobyl, a power plant in the Ukraine that exploded 25 years ago this month. In commemoration, our photo of the week is this haunting image out an abandoned highrise window near Chernobyl, in Pripyat, by Łucja Dorota Stomma. We talked with Łucja as part of our occasional HIGHRISE series which features the photographers behind the photos — and the windows.

Pripyat was a Soviet highrise community built to house the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s employees. The whole community was evacuated within 2 days of the initial explosion on April 26, 1986, and it’s now a ghost town, a stark symbol of central planning gone horrifyingly wrong. The empty city has been featured in at least 3 video games, and tour operators began bringing in tourists a few years ago. Our HIGHRISE “participate” photographer of the week, Łucja Dorota Stomma, went into Pripyat as a tourist herself, a few months ago and took these pictures. HIGHRISE project coordinator Paramita Nath asked her for the story behind the images over email last night:

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“It was my first visit to Pripyat, first time in Ukraine. (I live in Warsaw, Poland, about 900 km to the west of Chernobyl). Pripyat was founded in 1970, was home to plant’s employees and their families, at the time it was a developing modern town – the main idea behind the urban layout was the so-called triangular principle and this triangular plan in Pripyat was a novelty which won many awards for Soviet architects. People led good and happy lives in the town (there was a continuous supply of good variety of food, different than in the rest of USSR). Thirty six hours after the explosion of the Czernobyl’s reactor 1,200 buses evacuated the entire population and this prosperous town was made empty. It’s worth noticing  that the town, in fact, was nothing more than a 50-thousand people city with huge blocks of flats, quite a lot of open spaces, a symmetrical plan, horizon visible from many places. What really draws attention now is trees and bushes everywhere – nature takes over.”

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“Of course, there are quite a lot of toys left and other belongings, e.g. little shoes (but mainly toys, books and notebooks) – it makes one feel really strange, uncomfortable. You keep thinking – what was this girl or boy like who left it? How was he feeling on the day of evacuation? Did he know he won’t get his bear or car back? And that he will never come back? Yes, children will never play there again. Sometimes looking at a notebook or a toy you can read the date, it’s explicitly there, you can really see that time stopped for Pripyat.”

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“There are also many stories that you may get to know while being there (from the people in Czernobyl). For instance, it is said that after the explosion at the reactor, inhabitants gathered on so called railway bridge just outside the town to get better view of the reactor. Nobody thought about the possibility of danger, especially as officials were telling that radiation level was minimal and there was no problem. What they saw was a beautiful rainbow coming from burning graphite nuclear core. The view was beautiful but fatal to them – they all must have died – they were exposed to so many roentgens (a fatal dose).”

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“I was six years old when the accident in Chernobyl took place – I don’t remember any details about the situation at the time. I think after 1989 in Poland (the first free democratic elections since Second World War) nobody tried to make it a secret so I just grew up hearing, from time to time, something about Chernobyl. In other words, I feel I’ve always been aware of the facts.”

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“Now, I work for an international bank, I am an analyst, in my job I need to combine  knowledge from the fields of statistics, econometrics, programming, and finance. It’s not a repetitive job generally and brings satisfaction, particularly if it leaves me time for my hobbies – photography, among others. I am an amateur photographer. I must say that only recently I started thinking about photography more seriously and deeply. I’ve read quite a lot of classics: Susan Sontag, John Berger, Roland Barthes, and some Polish authors, as well.  I think I’m getting closer to understanding what’s a good photo, where its value lies, what it makes me feel like…”

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“When looking out this window, you see emptiness of this ghost town, the horizon and nothing out there, and a lot of green – nature taking over, from the roof of a block of flats out there the bushes and trees. It looks more like a forest with some strange buildings in the middle of it. I think that in 10 years time, no people will be allowed in this vanishing town (because of the collapsing buildings) and after some time, only our memories and photographs will remain.

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The NFB’s Tom Perlmutter, Christina Rogers and Joel Pomerleau accept the Emmy in Cannes, France.

HIGHRISE/Out My Window has been honoured with an International Digital Emmy Award for Non-Fiction. Here are some of our team’s reactions, that I’ve been collecting from all over the world:

“We are thrilled with this prestigious recognition for a work entirely conceived for digital platforms. It is part of our ongoing commitment to explore and determine the art form par excellence of the 21st century,” said Tom Perlmutter, Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the National Film Board of Canada.

“To be honoured with such a prestigious award for our efforts in pushing the boundaries of documentary storytelling, reminds us of the decades of innovation by our predecessors at the NFB, where creativity, social impact and the incorporation of new technology have always been at the forefront of what we do,” said NFB senior producer Gerry Flahive.

“It’s so great!” said Heather Frise (Editor, Story Assignment Editor, HIGHRISE Creative Associate) “Hopefully, because of the award, more people are drawn to the work, and we will have a broader reach and impact with the stories and the issues.”

“As for Chicago, the award comes at a time when the last highrise in the Cabrini-Green public housing project is being demolished,” said David Schalliol (Chicago story and photos).  “The event is a symbolic end to a major U.S. housing policy, but it’s also the end of a community. Highrise/Out My Window provides an opportunity for the world to engage how residents experienced the end of that era, and the Digital Emmy reminds us of the value of thinking about global events as anchored in daily life.”

This experience has really clarified for me what is possible to achieve when a team working collaboratively is led with a strong vision filled with trust, support and generosity,” said Paramita Nath (Bangalore story and photos, Illustrator, Participate Project Coordinator). “I feel lucky to have been part of this team and this process.”

I’ve always thought of Out My Window as an online installation piece which focuses on bringing together the stories of very different people from very different parts of the world,”  said Vincent Marcone (Chief Artist at Imaginarius, responsible for the interactive architecture and design). “We tried to create an artful way of portraying these tales in the design and specifically the 360-degree navigation of the site.”

“I’m very proud…” said Theodore Kaye (Taiwan story and photos), “I look forward to seeing and partaking in further redefinitions of the ‘web documentary’ and other new media. As internet connectivity trickles down to more countries, such media evolution is bound to take on fascinating forms and functions.”

“I think Out My Window opened a window on many minds,” said Cigdem Turkoglu (Istanbul research and story). “I also shared it with the participants of our part here in Istanbul, they were also very pleased with the news and shared it with their neighbours on the street.”

It’s projects like OMW that are the reason I got into multimedia in the first place!” said Brent Foster (Istanbul photos).

“Bring on the digital Oscars!” said Martin Potter (Phnom Penh story and photos).

“My family posted [the news of the Emmy] all over their facebook! They sent out a huge email to all our friends. My whole family is thrilled!” said Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam (Research, Editor, Sound Research and HIGHRISE Community Media Production Coordinator).

It’s the project’s music curator and supervisor, Helen Spitzer, who probably said it most simply of all: “We’re all doing cartwheels!”

Last, but not least, the NFB Executive Producer Silva Basmajian said: “I am honoured to be part of an organization (NFB) and  team that has reinvented documentary storytelling through the production of original digital content.  Out My Window is a global community with stories  that resonate with all those who enter this virtual Highrise.”

Set in 13 cities around the world, HIGHRISE/Out My Window combines interactive 360° photography, video, text and music in 49 vignettes, chronicling life inside the most common urban structure of the age: the high-rise apartment block.

Some nice media coverage of the award:, realscreen, VarietyCTV News, and Macleans.

Here’s the Emmy nomination trailer:

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