This post is by Gerry Flahive, NFB Senior Producer of HIGHRISE.

Documentaries emerge from the strangest places these days.

In March 2012, I was presenting our HIGHRISE project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You might wonder why an esteemed educational institution like M.I.T. – one that has a nuclear reactor on its premises – would be interested in what the National Film Board of Canada is doing to advance documentary storytelling. My presentation was in the context of a conference, The New Arts of Documentary, presented by the MIT Open Documentary Lab which “brings technologists, storytellers, and scholars together to advance the new arts of documentary”.

It was there that I was approached by Jason Spingarn-Koff Series Producer and Curator of Op-Docs, the Times’ innovative home for short-form documentaries – presented in the context of the Op-Docs section, so a place very passionate about docs with a point of view.

Jason proposed that we create a short HIGHRISE film for Op-Docs, perhaps focused on New York City, a city synonymous with the skyscraper (though that term largely applies to non-residential towers, not the vertical homes that our project has used as our storytelling prism since we started the project in 2009).

When we later met in Toronto during Hot Docs, Jason kindly offered to open up the Times’ extraordinary photography archive – the ‘morgue’ to Kat. Imagine – about six million undigitized photos, the history of pretty much everything – as the starting point for a single short film. We certainly jumped at the chance, as telling the story of the history of the highrise apartment building, the often misunderstood home to billions, is at the heart of what our HIGHRISE project is about. Architecture, urban planning, public housing, speculative development, condominiums, even the Tower of Babel, could all be part of an epic tale.

Once Kat, with the guidance of NYT photo archivist Jeff Roth, got inside this historical trove, its often unseen riches it inspired her greatly: “Facing 2,500 years of history of a neglected (and often reviled) vernacular architecture was a daunting task. I read a lot, wrote a lot, and sifted through thousands of photographs. I only found my way when I began putting the pieces of the puzzle together within the frame of an interactive pop-up storybook – with animation, rhyming couplets and simple touch elements. Then the narrative structure and a story told in under 15 minutes – fell into place.” The poetically moving and filmically efficient narration was creatively performed for two of the films by Canadian musical artists Feist and Cold Specks.

A multi-phase project

From there discussions continued – this should be three films, not one, and the interactive potential of the epic tale was huge. Many of photos themselves were marked with decades of grease pencil marks, notations, glued clippings from the Times documenting their use, and the actual wear and tear of the physical process of putting out one of the world’s great daily newspapers, for decades assembled and printed on the same premises. Kat wanted to keep that sense of historical texture, respecting the visual storytelling that preceded our work.

(In fact, documentary through still photography, not motion pictures, was also deeply rooted in the NFB’s own history, wonderfully told in the new book THE OFFICIAL PICTURE, about the NFB Still Photography Division, which operated as a production unit from 1941-1971.)

Through the research and scripting, animation was another storytelling tool Kat put forward. We approached our long-time HIGHRISE collaborators, Toronto’s Helios Design Lab to work with Kat to add sometimes surprising, sometimes subtle movement to long-frozen images, from the legendary Dakota luxury apartment in Manhattan to King Louis XV’s 18th century elevator to the highrise in the Bronx where hip-hop was born, thereby adding delight, action and a constant sense of the relentless building upwards that characterized the immense and complicated history of the highrise.

The collaboration began simultaneously with the Times’ esteemed interactive designer, Jacky Myint, whose previous work includes their very influential Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a multi-media project that nabbed a Pulitzer, a Peabody and a Webby.

Look up, way up

It’s often a curse of linear documentary films that they sometimes attempt to cram too much information in – to the disdain of the viewer – or leave lots of wonderful information out – to the distress of directors and editors who’ve run out of screen time.

But with this project we had a chance to square that circle. How could interactivity expand on the incredibly rich historical stories the films tell? And how could it mesh fluidly with the films? Kat and Jacky devised several dozen chapters, accessible along the way on the film’s timeline, allowing users to, variously, flip over and examine the backs of the ‘morgue’ photos, dig deeper into the history of each story, hear from scholars, and even play micro-games – like trying to fit the furniture into a simulation of a very real and very, very tiny apartment, the kind that hundreds of millions of future highrise dwellers will find themselves in.

We’ve always approached our work on HIGHRISE as being open and collaborative – using the highrise apartment building as our ‘storytelling prism’ to explore real lives. And so when the Times also suggested we invite their readers all over the world to send in their photos and stories of lives lived with a highrise view, we jumped at the chance to make a fourth film – and thousands of photos, from Vancouver to Dublin, and from Dubai to Mississauga, were submitted, and with selections from those, the poetic short documentary ‘HOME’ was woven by Kat to Patrick Watson’s evocative song ‘Lighthouse’.

Once our project went live in early October, following the world premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival, the twitterverse responded with thousands of comments (@kartemquin: “a giant leap for interactive documentary”) – wonderfully, and in many languages.

That’s the funny thing about highrises – they are pretty much everywhere in the world and yet we don’t notice them. Take a look around – and up.


Also check out the study guides for A SHORT HISTORY OF THE HIGHRISE from the NFB and NYT Learning Network.

Premiere at New York Film Festival

Our HIGHRISE collaboration with The New York Times Op-Docs Department is set to have it’s world premiere at the 51st annual New York Film Festival on September 30, 2013, as part of the Convergence Programme, which explores the intersections of technology and storytelling.

“A Short History of the Highrise” is an interactive documentary that explores the 2,500-year global history of vertical living and issues of social equality in an increasingly urbanized world. The centerpiece of the project is four short films. The first three (“Mud,” “Concrete” and “Glass”) draw on The New York Times’s extraordinary visual archives, a repository of millions of photographs that have largely been unseen in decades. Each film is intended to evoke a chapter in a storybook, with rhyming narration and photographs brought to life with intricate animation. The fourth chapter (“Home”) is comprised of images submitted by the public.

The interactive experience incorporates the films and, like a visual accordion, allows viewers to dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and microgames. On tablets, viewers can navigate the story extras and special features within the films using touch commands like swipe, pinch, pull and tap.  On desktop and laptop computers, users can mouse over features and click to navigate.  Smartphone users can view the four films via the New York Times Mobile Web site.

“We are greatly honored to premiere at the New York Film Festival’s showcase for cinematic innovation,” said Jason Spingarn-Koff, New York Times commissioning editor for Opinion video.  “In Op-Docs, we celebrate unique voices and creative storytelling approaches, and now we’re bringing opinion journalism to the interactive documentary form.”

“Cinema and interactivity are influencing each other more and more,” said NFB senior producer Gerry Flahive.  “In our HIGHRISE project, we’ve always been platform-agnostic, embracing the potential of both.  This collaboration with Op-Docs has given the NFB and The New York Times a chance to further advance online documentary storytelling.”

Jacqueline Myint, the project’s designer and developer at the Times (and of Snowfall fame) told Mashable “With this project, we definitely took an approach of trying to do tablet first.”

Meanwhile, The Creators’ Project sez: “A world with a recent penchant for urban living wouldn’t be possible without the highrise. This towering structure is as much a practical way to house the most people per square foot as it is a symbolic testament to our sky-high ambitions. In collaboration with the New York Times, National Film Board of Canada’s ongoing and thrilling project HIGHRISE has produced a documentary series that investigates our 2,500-year love affair with living vertically.”

A Short History of the Highrise will launch online in October at the New York Times website.

To see a trailer of the project, visit


Today at SXSW, HIGHRISE is proud to announce a new collaborative project with The New York Times. It’s an interactive documentary series, called A SHORT HISTORY OF THE HIGHRISE.

It all began last year, when HIGHRISE was approached by Jason Spingarn-Koff, the commissioning editor of the NYT Op-Docs section, a remarkable new forum at the paper for short, opinionated point-of-view documentaries.

Jason’s idea was that we might do to something about highrises in the city of highrises – New York City. Meanwhile, we at HIGHRISE had always wanted to do a “short history of the highrise” around the world. So when Jason offered to open up the NYT undigitized photo archives (a collection of 5-6 million photographs) to us, Gerry, the HIGHRISE Senior Producer, and I were really intrigued by this incredible opportunity for deep collaboration.

I spent a week in the archives, affectionately known as “The Morgue.” It’s 3 floors underground below Times Square — no cell phone connection, no internet down there, time warp to circa 1995  — with the formidable archivist Jeff Roth. Jeff pulled thousands of photographs for me in file folders organized by, um, building names. Many of these stunning images, portraying the triumphalist rise of the city in the 20th century, have not been seen for decades.

I pulled over 500 photographs, and over the next several months, began assembling a series of (very) short films, spanning 2,000 years of human high-rise history. We are supplementing the collection with additional visual research by the crackerjack team of Elizabeth Klinck and Jivan Nagra.

Above, the “Morgue” and my library cart of file folders of photos.

And, we are thrilled to have the ace team at Helios Design Lab as our animators on this project.

There’s a whole other aspect to this: The New York Times social media department is putting out a call for submissions from the paper’s readers, who can submit their own photos depicting their lives and experiences in and around high-rises from around the world. From these images, we’ll create the final chapter of our whirlwind tour of the highrise history. Upload your photos here

Last but certainly not least, we are also working with the New York Times interactive team to build the whole thing as an interactive cinema experience. Extremely exciting.

Check out The NYT press release.

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE HIGHRISE will premiere later this spring at and subsequently at and distributed internationally across many platforms. Watch for news here.

Check out some of the press coverage of our announcement: BBC Click, a mention in The Globe and Mail,, Playback, Chinokino, and idocs.