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webpick of the week

A Short History of the Highrise

Editorial, Consumer

A Short History of the Highrise is a web-based interactive documentary in the form of a non-fiction storybook. In this genre-bending project, produced by the National Film Board of Canada and the New York Times, archival photography is animated, and the narration is recited in rhymes. The user experience is a mix of childlike charm and grown-up journalism, and feels like a cross between watching a film, interacting with a website and playing a video game. Audio plays a large role in creating the uniquely immersive experience, with crossfades between the narration of the video and the ambient audio of the interactive elements following swipe navigation of the site. The documentary expands “like a visual accordion,” says writer/director Katerina Cizek. At any moment, the viewer can dig deeper into the main themes of the documentary through archival materials, text and interactive elements Cizek calls “microgames.”

Technologically speaking, the site’s developers had to walk a fine line between high-performance complexity and broad accessibility. Creating an experience that was consistent across a range of different browsers and devices was a challenge, and tablets presented the additional hurdle of ensuring smooth performance without crashing mobile browsers. “Early on, we decided that non-modern browsers would not receive the full experience,” says Jacqueline Myint, New York Times interactive art director and developer. Lower-tech users are not completely left in the dust—they can access a pared-down version of the documentary. The response from the public, according to Cizek, has been “huge, and great.”