Documentary scales new heights with tall tales

Out My Window, part of the Highrise project, is a 360-degree documentary telling the stories of tower-block dwellers in 13 world cities

By Rosie Lavan


SHORT STORY SYNOPSIS: Highrise is a multi-media, multi-year documentary project exploring the lives of inhabitants in tower blocks on the edges of cities around the world. The first global product of the project is Out My Window, a 360-degree interactive documentary which tells the stories of highrise dwellers in 13 cities around the world, from Toronto and Havana to Prague and Bangalore.

FORMAT: Web documentary; live presentations; art installations

PRODUCTION COMPANIES: National Film Board of Canada

STATUS: Ongoing

RELEASE DATE: October 16 2010

AWARDS: Winner of the first IDFA DocLab award for Digital Storytelling November 2010; Winner in Cross-Media Prize for School and Youth Education, BaKaForum, Switzerland, January 2011; FWA Website of the Day, January 2011; Nomination for 2010 Sheffield DocFest Innovation award

Photos are stitched together to create the distinctive collage effect


The idea for this project emerged from Highrise director Kat Cizek’s experimental documentary work for the National Film Board of Canada, Filmmaker-in-Residence. This multi-award-winning, multi-media project spanned five years and followed life in an inner-city hospital in Toronto. For Cizek, Filmmaker-in-Residence was storytelling which engaged with both the subject and the audience, and it provided a model she and the NFB – the sole funder of this project – have sought to replicate on a much larger scale with Highrise.

Cizek was keen to focus on the city of Toronto and how it is changing. Her interest tallied with those of academics at the University of Toronto and York University who are investigating the nature of urban – and specifically suburban – life across the world. The concrete highrise block was the most commonly built form of residence in the twentieth century. The Highrise project looks at the experiences of those living in them in cities around the world. Its approach is at once global and local – so while Out My Window tells stories from 13 cities across the globe, The Thousandth Tower, another strand of the project, is based in Toronto.

Out My Window is the first major, global element of Highrise. Entirely web-based, it is one of the world’s first 360-degree interactive documentaries. Cizek gathered her material – telling 49 stories in 13 cities, in 13 languages – in a unique and innovative way. Initially led by the research and findings of the academics with whom she had been working, she contacted community groups, journalists and filmmakers with highrise tales to tell all over the world. She provided them with a 25-page brief with guidance on photography and audio styles, but sent them off to explore their own highrises, directing their work remotely via email, Facebook and Skype. The result is a very beautiful and evocative interactive experience, which stitches together photographic images to create a collage effect.

Viewers literally enter the tower-block flats: the experience is “360-degree” in that, as far as the screen allows, the user is positioned within the interior of each flat as reconstructed through the photographs. Clickable objects enable users to explore the apartments, and awaken the stories of the people they find in them, told sometimes through still photos accompanied by streamed audio, and at others through film. Users follow their own interests and curiosities. As in a game, the experience of Out My Window is shaped by the user’s engagement and decisions. It is for this reason that Cizek describes the project as being defined by its medium. A number of broadcasters have expressed interest in bringing Out My Window to television. Cizek explains that while certain projects of this kind are under consideration, a major shift in the format of the material would be required – and she is not even certain that it could be translated into a linear narrative in any normal sense. One idea is to try and divide the material into a series of short 7 to 10 minute films.

At IDFA in November 2010, Cizek brought Out My Window to life in an extraordinary art installation. A team which included interactive artist Priam Givord, constructed by hand an 8 metre-wide lattice of screens onto which images from the web documentary projected, to recreate the flats for visitors to explore physically, as they do virtually online. Motion sensors responded to the activity of visitors, enabling them to pursue their curiosities and awaken stories as the website does. Cizek watched the way people interacted with the installation, and modified it accordingly. On her blog, she wrote: “It was the ultimate in user-testing. I saw how things really worked and what could be improved.”


To date there has been very little direct marketing for Out My Window. Since its launch in October 2010 the project has garnered significant interest in print and online media, which has raised its profile, and the awards it has received – including at IDFA in November 2010 and Switzerland’s BaKaForum in January 2011 – have further boosted its profile. Much interest has been spread virally – particularly through networks of architects, academics and educators, for whom the project is of especial interest.

For a project that was brought together through social networks it is appropriate that these same channels are now playing their part in promoting it: Facebook and Twitter, of course, are important forces, and it also benefited through being picked up on New York-based Boing Boing.

Information gathered so far indicates that Out My Window is performing well across Europe and in Brazil. While detailed statistics on downloads and user activity have yet to be collated and released, initial data are encouraging, suggesting that an average user spends 10 minutes on the site while a “high-end” user might spend up to 45 minutes or an hour exploring content.

While she foresaw interest among university-age young people, Cizek says she has been particularly surprised by the success of the project among younger children and teenagers, an aspect of the project’s reception underscored by its success at the BaKaForum. Within weeks of the launch she discovered a school in South Korea where a class blog has been set up, inspired by Out My Window. A tweet from a parent related that their six-year-old had spent half an hour on the site. “I think it has to do with that game-like element,” Cizek says. “Kids just get it. They hop on and explore that space in a very native way.”

Coming soon to the site is Out My Window Participate, a new feature which will enable users to upload their own content, showcasing their photos and stories of highrise living.


Highrise – Out My Window

Kat Cizek’s blog

Canada’s NFB


More NFB projects


More on Cizek’s 2002 film Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News

The Dead are Alive: Eyewitness in Rwanda – Cizek’s 1996 documentary on IMDB


Out My Window trailer

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2 Responses to “Documentary scales new heights with tall tales”

  1. [...] 2. HIGH RISE – OUT MY WINDOW “Highrise is a multi-media, multi-year documentary project exploring the lives of inhabitants in tower blocks on the edges of cities around the world. The first global product of the project is Out My Window, a 360-degree interactive documentary which tells the stories of highrise dwellers in 13 cities around the world, from Toronto and Havana to Prague and Bangalore.” (Taken from article) [...]

  2. [...] you would like a more in depth read about the project, The Pixel Report did a case study. Also if you like to check out more documentary web experiences like this one check out, Stitch [...]

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