Gas Station

It’s 3am in Sterling, CO and the Eagle Travel Stop gas station is packed. Outside temperature is hovering around zero, maybe just under it.

Windshield 2

Windshields are frozen. The cars sit idling outside while the workers are inside filling up their thermos and grabbing gut bomb burritos. Like other wage laborers doing infrastructure everywhere across the nation, the 9001 gang are at the gas station getting their breakfast many hours before the rest of the community wakes up.

Gas Camera

Did you know how many biscuits and gravy they pump out at that hour of the night? Before this shoot, I had never seen a gallon of milk sitting on the counter. This the second one of the morning says the service clerk, who could not keep up with the refills.

Gas milk

What I noticed about gas station coffee is it is crucial. More than water. More than a candy bar. For most, it is the least expensive and fastest option for liquid. And it boosts the body with much needed caffeine on the worst of the swing shifts.

We grab some great shots of the early morning rush and head for the jobsite. We jump in the car with the new hire. He is young in the game and doesn’t drink coffee. But he knows enough to buy all his food here before he’s on the jobsite.

Gas RJ

Nothing is open at this hour. Gas station coffee is pumping through all our veins. No doughnut shops, $5 cup of Starbucks, or barista to write names on holiday cups.  It’s the American gas stations that are fueling workers’ bodies.


Crafting the i-doc

 Metal Road is ultimately a multiplatform documentary project that explores the dynamics of Native American labor on the American railroads through the lens of Navajo trackmen and women in a world linked by social, economic, and cultural ties.   That is, Metal Road is at once a documentary film project scheduled for public television broadcast beginning in September 2017, an online and social media archive and community hub, and a springboard for both historical scholarship on the role of Native American labor and media scholarship on digital humanities and multimedia outreach.

Photo from the Fledgling Fund. Interactive documentary strategies presented at IDFA 2015.

This phase of Metal Road builds upon our work to-date documenting oral histories of Navajo railroad workers, allowing us to bring the film to broadcast, as well as develop and launch the i-doc.  Interactive multiplatform documentaries, or i-docs, offer a framework for presentation and user engagement in digital humanities scholarship. This project, based upon our television documentary of an unheralded American subculture, uses multiplatform strategies to reveal a hidden history.  If the typical analog documentary is a linear story with a pre-ordained beginning, middle, and end, the multimedia documentary allows the user to “play” the story, navigating between ideas, people, and things in a non-linear matter. The order of the elements is less important than the stories that are being told.

The multi-platform strategy also allows for increased outreach to multiple potential audiences. The world of public broadcasting in the US is changing rapidly, and the structures and institutions of public TV are adjusting to the realities of multiplatform “edutainment” and storytelling.  It is increasingly difficult to separate a broadcast program from its online or social media presence, especially as rising numbers of viewers get their content in a variety of mediums and platforms unconstrained by traditional televisual culture and practices.

A screenshot of the Bear 71 interactive documentary.

So with this in mind, we are in the process of developing our structure, story, and approach for the Metal Road i-doc.  It’s been fun, yet also quite challenging.  We have been strongly influenced by interactive documentary projects such as Bear 71, Out My Window/Highrise, and Prison Valley. These projects allow the viewer to explore the story with a good deal of autonomy. The projects include such thing as exploratory mapping elements (Bear 71).

We could not have done any of this without our amazing media interns, Ashley Ben-Porat and Lee Lux, as well as the support of Arizona Humanities and The Miami University Humanities Center, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Thank you for believing in our project!

Turning film into an interactive experience

As we started this project, we were looking for answers to questions we did not know how to ask yet. Taking an existing film and turning it into an interactive experience that is both accessible and yet intriguing. Interaction between user and the content is in the foreground of taking film as a medium and creating immersion, combining multi-media content into one complete package that is engaging, educating and entertaining. Slowly, we are building up to ask the right questions. What is interesting as additional content outside of the frame of the PBS broadcasted version of the film to an audience? How does choice affect the story telling and the overall atmosphere of the experience? Who, when, where and why are certain key moments important? The result is a prototype that looks like a giant spiderweb, interconnecting stories, background and characters that make “Metal Road” the engaging narrative it is.

iDoc Concept Teaser
We are very excited to move into the next stage and start decorating our spiderweb with visually endearing, multi-media content and get one step closer to create a platform that brings the engaging story of the Navajo railroad workers to the computer, tablet and smartphone screens across the globe.