How do you map the life of a city? A Web documentary from writer Olivier Lambert and photojournalist Thomas Salva, “Brèves de Trottoirs,” (literal translation: “Sidewalk Shorts”) aims to find out. Their videos of Parisians with interesting backstories has appeared online and on television, and is in the process of becoming a full-length documentary film. (Even in French, the visuals provide a tremendous sense of the people and the city, but for a partially English-language version of the material, click on the British flag at the top of the home page.) The following are excerpts from e-mail exchanges with Salva and Lambert, slightly edited for clarity, in which they discuss their favorite characters, The New York Times’ “One in 8 Million” project and creating for the Web.
It looks as if your project got started in 2009. What inspired it, and what has happened with it so far?
When we met in July 2009, we didn’t know each other, but we already shared the same views about our job: Journalism is in bad shape, it is difficult to find regular freelance work, and working for mainstream media is both unchallenging and boring. So we created a project to do what we like to do: meeting people, portraying people, telling stories, all that implying the humanist view we had in common.
And there we were in September 2009, creating a website to give our pieces of work an audience. We knew we wanted to make films mixing still and animated pictures, and sound. The name “Brèves de Trottoirs” was inspired by a book “Brèves de comptoirs,” which compiles quotes heard in bars.
Luckily, when we launched the website in December 2009, people interested in new media and Web documentaries liked our work and spread the word. We had a few articles (Le Monde, La Croix, 20 Minutes), the video-sharing website Dailymotion made our first feature about Papy Dance their home page video, and “Brèves de Trottoirs” became kind of famous.
We continued working on the project. We got a grant from the CNC (a French publicly-owned establishment, which notably provides economic support of cinema, audiovisual and multimedia arts) in late January. We met the multimedia production company Darjeeling in April, and decided to continue the project by launching a new platform in September 2010. In May, we met the Parisian branch of the national television channel France 3 and they agreed to co-produce “Brèves de Trottoirs.”
Monday, Oct. 4, 2010, we launched the new platform, which offers one new episode per week for 18 weeks. Short edits of our features will soon be broadcast on the French television channel France 3 Paris Île-de-France, and we’re planning to make a documentary in 2011.
So in brief, our small homemade project became kind of big and is now professional at least in terms of production.
Are you familiar with The New York Times’ “One in 8 Million” project? How do you see this as similar or different?
As we have been interested in new media for a long time, we do know the “One in 8 Million” project, but when we elaborated “Brèves de Trottoirs” we didn’t try to make a French version of it. People often ask how much we took from that project to build ours.
It’s true we share the same aim: telling stories of characters in a big city, but there is no comparison between two young French journalists and The New York Times. So that is the first difference. We didn’t and we still don’t have a hundredth of their experience, their technical means, their audience, their money, etc.
Also, we decided to build a trip in our website. That’s why the map plays a central role in our narration: You are randomly clicking on a pin, here more than there, sometimes the contrary. These are the fortunes of life.
In addition, our stories are longer (six to eight minutes), “One in 8 Million” doesn’t use video, and its pics are always black and white.
So of course “Brèves de Trottoirs” has similarities with “One in 8 Million,” and we are clearly impressed by the quality of this project. We would have loved to do it, but we tried to create something different, something unique in terms of atmosphere. That’s why color and style are so important to us. It’s an old Paris we wanted to build, a entire universe where people feel comfortable, and this is maybe the only thing we regret about The New York Times’ project: It doesn’t give that about the Big Apple.
I see that you’re in partnership with a French television station, and it looks like you’re heading into other platforms as well. Can you talk about the future of the project and where you hope it will end up?
We feel very lucky to have this partnership with France 3 Île-de-France. It gives a wider audience to “Brèves de Trottoirs” and it allows us to think we’ve succeeded at making this small homemade project something interesting and appealing for television stations.
Since the launch of the new web platform Oct. 4, every week a new character will be online (19 new characters until January). Then we will consider this is the end of the (first season of) “Brèves de Trottoirs.” A television documentary will follow in February or March in order to create a longer feature about the topics we are exploring in our project: how to live in a modern megalopolis? Why choose a different life? We are also preparing a book that compiles pictures and short texts, and a multimedia exhibition. All that is planned for spring 2011.
Talking about a second season of “Brèves de Trottoirs” is too soon and probably not a plan for us at the moment. We surely want to continue working together in this “webdocumentaire” way, but we would like to focus on different topics. Why not cover an electoral campaign or a sports event, for example?
An element of surprise seems to be an important part of most of the stories you tell. Can you talk about your approach to storytelling?
Storytelling plays a key role in our project. Both of us are storytellers, whether using pictures, words or sounds. The interview is the base of our story. We’re editing an audio outline that is clearly the backbone of the film.
At a minimum, we have 45 minutes of interview, sometimes up to 2 hours. Building the story, we try to present the character as he appears in the street, but there is always “something else.” This is the element of surprise that gives depth to the character. We try to confront the public vision of a character and his true reason to be in the street: Elie, Papy Dance, is dancing in the street because he lost his wife; Patrick is homeless but he plays in the stock exchange.
We also try to play with images to build our storytelling. We often confront what is being said with what is being seen. All that creates a story, our aim is that at the end of the film you know not the entire life of the character but almost all of it. We also try to be minimally intrusive, for it’s not our story we are telling.
Who is your favorite character thus far?
Salva: Patrick the hobo is the one I like the most. I think the film is our worst in terms of quality, as it was the first we made, and we were trying many different things. However, Patrick’s life is so interesting: He is homeless, but he rejects social concerns. He plays with his money in the stock exchange. He wants to do it all by himself. He stands up for his voting rights. He has a lot to say and we spent a lot of time with him. I’m glad he gave us so much of himself. It was really fulfilling.
Lambert: In terms of result, I think the film about François is one of our best. We have made something really good, and the character is amazing. He is a marionettes master who rides 60 kilometers a day on his bike to put on his show. François is very shy, but he gave us a lot, and he moves me a lot. Elie, Papy Dance, is also an amazing character to me. His story is so hard but also full of hopes.
What advice would you give to those who have trained and worked in traditional formats if they are considering beginning a massive, multi-platform project?
Salva: To reconsider their project maybe!? Web documentary is something so unclear; everyone wants to do something. Interactivity was the big thing at first but now it has many different shapes. “Brèves de Trottoirs” is linear. You can’t create your own storytelling. That’s what we like to do. For that reason, our storytelling is not different from a traditional documentary. But a true multi-platform project lets you do anything, create anything. We have decided to put together audio, video and still pictures, but we could have thought video, graphic design and 3D, everything is possible. The Internet is great for that, everything is reachable, you just have to know a few things to create a website. That’s what we did when we built “Brèves de Trottoirs.”
Lambert: Telling stories is our job. Whether you have trained in traditional or new formats, the first thing is to find a good story. Then to me you just have to adapt yourself to a new medium: what can I add to my feature to make it better if it’s on the Internet ? To my mind digital era journalists/authors/photographers/… have an interesting period to explore ways to tell stories, and they should work together to make their project happen! But traditions stay, and even in 3D first thing to do is being in the field to collect facts, quotes, the atmosphere…
Are there any particular challenges have you faced in getting video for the project?
Salva: Photography and video are very close, but it’s not the same grammar. Even though I was able to find some similarities, to build a frame for example, I was disoriented by the animated language. Using a DSLR like the Canon 5D Mark II was a good thing to start making videos, but it was also difficult, as I didn’t know how to handle this camera. As our films are very intimate, I can’t carry my full equipment, so I stay very light with a steady-cam which allows me to switch modes quickly. It’s both positive and negative: to focalize or to stabilize are difficult. But I’m glad to have a photographer’s approach with a short depth of field or an eye for details.
Can you talk a little about how you approach when to use still photographs versus video?
Salva: To take a picture or videotape a scene is a key question. I use video to create a link between still images. I focus on “instantanés” which fix you in a moment, in the present. When I feel a moment is deep, a picture is better because it stays, you can take a break and explore it.
A video is 25 frames per second, life is there and you can’t stop it! I keep video for interviews and moving scenes, whereas I like taking pictures of places, close-ups of details for it gives all the dimension of a character.
Switching from the photograph mode to the video mode is compulsory. Canon 5D Mark II offers a way to take pictures while videotaping. To me it’s just crazy! The photographer doesn’t see things with the same distance a cameraman does. You have to choose what to do. How can I enrich my photographs with a video? This is what I like and what is interesting to me in this work.
Can you talk about writing for a web-focused format and how it is the same or different than your prior writing experiences?
Lambert: The Internet is the land of free. You’re free to write 20 pages, add 100 links and references, take 1000 pictures. To me writing on the web must be short and trenchant. You only have a few lines, sometimes just a few words to catch the interest of an Internet user. They often don’t have time and don’t want to scroll down a page to read something. So I propose short texts to illustrate every single character. There is also a bonus section where visitors can find more details. This offers two levels of reading: I’m in a hurry I want the all thing as quickly as possible vs. I want to take my time and explore the website.
I think media in the Internet have not yet started to think about that. In France it fills me with despair to see long articles on a website. I think again it is a question journalists must ask themselves : how can I make my work evolve to put it here more than there without losing what I want to say?