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Frontline makes the documentary interactive with 'David Coleman Headley's Web of Betrayal'

David Coleman Headley's Web of Betrayal screencap

From stories on voter targeting to car design, the PBS program Frontline has been actively exploring innovative ways to bring its content to online audiences. Its latest project, David Coleman Headley's Web of Betrayal, is an interactive documentary exploring the life of the Pakistani-American that helped lay the groundwork for a deadly 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India.

A companion piece to last year's A Perfect Terrorist, the web documentary is built around the network of people and events that defined Headley's life. Director Tom Jennings narrates the program directly to the camera, drawing circles — whiteboard-style — for important people or events. Those circles then become clickable elements within the video, allowing the viewer to dive deeper into the story to learn more about Headley's associates and how he came to take part in the Mumbai attack. "I've been really trying hard for a long time at Frontline to expand storytelling into a different medium," Jennings told us. "I am so interested in reaching out to people that are not necessarily inclined to sit down for an hour and watch a film all the way through, and do it in such a way where they get the full story that we're telling."

"We need to embrace those changes and not run from them."

The project itself came about as part of a summit that Frontline held in the spring to encourage digital exploration. Jennings connected with the interactive agency Secret Location, and mocked up an early version of the project; the original concept resembled a radio show with the visual elements laying out Headley's network. The team then worked further to develop the video-centric version launching today.

Funding to create "experiments"

According to Andrew Golis, Senior Editor and Director of Digital Media for Frontline, the project is the result of being allowed to experiment in a medium that's still defining itself. "The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was generous enough to give us a little pot of money to basically create things that we knew were experiments," he says. It's part of a long-term strategy Frontline is pursuing, staying ahead of the curve by exploring the opportunities afforded by a constantly-evolving set of digital tools. "I think like anyone we just understand that all of this stuff is going to keep changing," says Golis. "We need to embrace those changes and not run from them."

Made possible by Mozilla

One of those new tools that made Web of Betrayal possible was Mozilla's Popcorn media toolkit. The software allows designers and filmmakers to create video that incorporates web content, even pulling from sources in real-time upon playback. After the footage for Betrayal had been shot and the assets collected, Secret Location used Popcorn to put the project together in just three weeks. Company founder James Milward says the goal was to create "a fluid website that was basically scaleable between a desktop and a tablet." Popcorn uses HTML5 video, so no clunky plugins are required, but processor requirements made tablets the minimum target for the project (Chrome is the recommended browser for viewing the presentation).

While interactive web video isn't a new concept unto itself, there's a polish and elegance to Web of Betrayal that works particularly well. Jennings says the documentary format could be particularly suited to the format, noting that "It does let you go and stop and take a moment to grasp what is a fairly complicated story." He also echoes Golis' comments that projects like Betrayal are part of a much larger evolution, one that has the potential to not just engage audiences in new ways, but also encourage them to become active participants in discovering new information themselves.

"This is also creating a totally new audience for documentary, and it's redefining what documentary is," Jennings says. "Because truly, that six-minute interactive piece tells the whole story that the film [A Perfect Terrorist] does. I want people to watch the film, and I want them to be interested enough to go back and explore the documents. And this is an interface that we think is a way to help them to get to the documents and the videos and do their own exploration."

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