Clouds over Cuba: A digital documentary retelling history
Advertising legends The Martin Agency joined forces with interactive storytellers Tool to relive the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis via hours of archive footage, new interviews and smartphone technology
Project: Clouds Over Cuba | Web: www.cloudsovercuba.com
Agency: The Martin Agency, Tool of North America
Web: martinagency.com, toolofna.com
Duration: concept and groundwork: 8 months
Production: 4 months
People involved: A core team of 5
Total Man Hours: Approx 2,000
Project Budget: N/A
History is littered with disputes leading to all-out war, but none would have had such serious consequences as those if The Cuban Missile Crisis had developed into an armed conflict. It is the only moment in history where the world has been on the brink of a full-scale nuclear war.
The task of bringing to life this sombre, but fascinating, moment from October 1962 was passed to two agencies; The Martin Agency and Tool of North America. Their goal was to create an interactive documentary in honour of the crisis’s 50th anniversary and its successful resolution.
To bring the project to life, Clouds Over Cuba viewers get to browse nearly 200 archival photos, videos, documents and audio recordings. These are automatically added to a digital dossier for review at any time. The content embraces expert interviews including Sheldon M Stern, former historian at the JFK Presidential Library and Sergei Khrushchev, son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Topics such as the fear of communism, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the secret ExComm recordings are all explored in detail from multiple perspectives and add to the ambience.
A fascinating and intriguing question raised by the interactive documentary is the ‘what if’ scenario. The project looks at an alternate 2012 in which the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into nuclear war 50 years earlier. This intertwining tale features four fictional characters who each remember the horrors of nuclear war in their own way.
The finished project is a fascinating insight into real history, but how did the project unfold? Brian Williams, a creator at The Martin Agency, reveals how it got started: “The JFK Presidential Library has been a client of The Martin Agency for 17 years. Historically we created primarily local and national print advertising, but in recent years we’ve focused on bringing history to life using technology, beginning with 2009’s We Choose The Moon, and followed by Our JFK Speech in 2010 and One Small Tweet earlier this year.“We are very lucky to have enthusiastic and supportive clients at the JFK Library, and they generally support whatever we propose as long as we strive to be educational, inspiring and presidential. In October of 2011 we began talking about the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis coming up the following year.
“With no preconceived notions of what we ultimately might want to make, early discussions were extremely loose and centred around research. There’s a desire to be creative with technology and innovate, of course, but we’ve found that with this subject matter the inspiration inevitably springs from history, so we try to let history drive the execution and design decisions as best we can.”
The background for Clouds Over Cuba was obviously already in place, but both The Martin Agency and Tool had to take the facts and evolve them into a workable concept to go to the design stage. Williams, along with Ben Tricklebank, interactive director at Tool, offer their thoughts from their own perspective.
Williams: “The most striking thing we observed in our research is the great number of moments throughout that could have spiralled into nuclear war if one small thing had played out differently. We felt that showing how this horrifying possibility could have affected our world today would help bring Kennedy’s extraordinary leadership during this tense time into sharp relief.
“We were interested in working with Ben Tricklebank again after our wonderful experience on We Choose The Moon, so we sent our initial ideas over to him at Tool. The deck included numerous interactive and design ideas, but our main desire was to tell the story of the crisis and show the audience how 2012 might look if war had been the result. Once we engaged Tool, absolutely every aspect of the production was up for discussion, but a few things got the most attention. What form should the main story take? Ben suggested that it be film-based and linear as opposed to game-like, and this wound up allowing us to ‘have it both ways’ — show the viewer a straightforward story in a familiar format while also allowing them to dig deeper into the details seamlessly. How should we best make use of the experts we assembled to assist us? Sheldon, Tim and Eric had all been graciously jumping in to correct our historical inaccuracies and offer suggestions for some time before it ever occurred to us to put them in front of camera. Thankfully they agreed, and their contributions are without question my favourite pieces of content. And finally, in what way should we allow the user to access all this supplemental material? Utilising the seed of an idea from our original deck, we demarcated the video scrubber bar with dates, and populated all the deeper content along the timeline in proper context. This enabled us to dump 200 archival images, videos, documents and audio files, as well as 40 additional minutes of expert interviews into users’ laps without causing confusion or leaving them overwhelmed.”
Tricklebank: “The initial concept for the project came from the Martin Agency. I worked with the same team a few years ago to create a site called ‘We Choose The Moon’, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. “Brian, Wade and Joe came up with the idea to create an interactive project that would mark another key moment in JFK’s legacy, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Dustin and I travelled to Richmond in late April to brainstorm with the team and carve out our initial approach. From that working session we came away with the idea to explore an interactive documentary that would allow people to relive the events of October 1962 and also explore a number of ‘what if’ scenarios.
“From there I created a treatment and started to map out an initial timeline for the story. I wanted this to differ from other Missile Crisis documentaries and go back further in time to set up some context for how the crisis came about and not just focus on the 13 days in October.
“Once the project was greenlit, it was all about the research. Matt and I had some pretty strong ideas about where to take things visually. We wanted [to] let the documentary be prominent with all the layers of interaction made available as the user moves their mouse. This would allow for a very traditional passive experience, while allowing for detailed information to be revealed as the viewer progresses through the story.
“The majority of the site is based around a 30 minute documentary cut together from archive material, I really wanted the design to complement this look but not feel overstyled or dated. This was explored through mood-boards and reference material and then combined with detailed UX schematics before going into design.”
A KEY MOMENT IN HISTORY
We asked Joe Alexander Chief creative officer what did he learn from getting so close to the facts?
“I had a superficial knowledge of the crisis before beginning the project – I knew that it was the moment in history where we came the closest to nuclear war, and I was familiar with the commonly held (but false, as it turns out) notion that the secret group of advisors assembled by JFK were responsible for steering us away from worldwide destruction. Most intriguing to me were the secret ExComm recordings, discussing the Soviet perspective with Sergei Khrushchev, and the challenge of organising all our assets and ideas into a cohesive whole.”
Clouds Over Cuba is distinctive, stylish and retro, yet still has a contemporary web presence. The styling and design adds to the ambience of the project and helps immerse the reader in the subject matter. The content and timelines played a big part in the visuals as Matt Gase, senior art director at Tool explains. “The initial mood for the look and feel of the experience was set in the trailer created by Ben, which set the stage for primarily black and white photography/video. Following the trailer, a mood board was then created by Ben, which included typography, photography and colour references.
“Once this initial feel had been established by the trailer and mood board, I was brought onto the project to start the designs of the final interface, along with a team of two production designers and Justin Young for motion graphics. For an interactive video project, it’s important the design complements the video content. As the video content was in post-production, I reviewed the edit and colour correction to help inform the design of the interface.
“Ben and I latched onto several of the design elements in the mood board: the older film titles and typography which loosely inspired the look of the landing page and titles, vintage audio equipment and several images taken by U-2 aircraft which included the typeface Futura – which was brought in as a secondary typeface. The newsprint/paper texture was something we tried out and liked on the timeline, which we quickly realised would become one of the driving tools of the site.
“Once the design of the landing page, timeline and dossier was established, the maps were created by the production designers, then animated by Justin and edited into the expert interviews.”
The spectre of all-out nuclear war was a very real possibility as the US, Cuba and the Soviet Union were involved in a 13-day standoff in October 1962. Clouds Over Cuba creates an alternate present day if the Cuban Missile Crisis had turn into reality.
Typically, a site reveals its age the longer it retains its original design and concept. This is not the case with Clouds Over Cuba. The subject matter is set in history and is not going to change. Williams explains the connection the agency has with the live site and the vision they have for it for generations. “The site is a self-contained experience that doesn’t require updating or maintenance, so barring any unforeseen issues it is now completely out of our hands and free to take on a life of its own.
“We would like to make it easier for educators to incorporate the experience into lesson plans if they are interested, which may involve creating some additional material to frame the content and stimulate discussion. And we would love to get the project on air, so we’re thinking about ways to retain the interactivity in a broadcast setting. Much of the interactivity on the site is designed to consolidate what is commonly thought of as a second screen experience onto one screen anyway, which makes the broadcast possibilities very interesting.”
Promotion is a key part of the launch process, but can eat into a project budget. A lack of funding presents a challenge as Joe Alexander, chief creative officer at The Martin Agency, explains. “Like many non-profits, we rely heavily on earned media to generate attention for our JFK Library projects since there is no paid media. For Clouds Over Cuba we were lucky to attract some attention prior to launch, including features on Huffington Post, Fast Company, CNN and Creativity. AOL was very generous to donate display media space, and posting on Facebook and tweeting continues to be a major source of site traffic. The response on Twitter has been very positive, with comments coming from a great variety of disciplines: interactivity, design, history, presidential policy, military history, Cold War politics, alternate history and filmmaking. And according to the analytics, we’ve had visitors from 160 countries and counting, and they are spending a [long] time with the site, about 12 minutes on average… The JFK Library considers the site to be an interactive extension of their physical museum, a way for people who are unable to visit [it] to learn about the legacy of JFK and the impact his life continues to have on ours. They are very happy with the finished project.”