“A Short History of the Highrise”: Digital Storytelling Elements

A Short History of the Highrise is an interactive web documentary comprised of four short films about the evolution of highrise buildings. It is one of five documentaries directed by Katerina Cizek within a multimedia project that spanned from 2009 to 2015.

For this portion of the project, The New York Times Op-Docs department partnered with the National Film Board of Canada to produce the documentary. Its first three mini films–Mud, Concrete, and Glass–used photos from the Times‘s archives and featured different narrators telling the story in the form of poetry that rhymes. The fourth film, Home, drew on user-submitted images set to the song “Lighthouse” by Patrick Watson.


This web documentary has its own navigation system built in to guide the viewer through the piece. Loading it for the first time will result in this pop-up opening, giving directions (in the form of poetry) on how clicking down opens extra content and clicking up resumes the film.


Written (and spoken) directions on how to navigate the project

The title page for the first short film directs the viewer to “Click and drag between parts.”


Title page for Mud shows that the viewer can move back and forth between the films

At the beginning of Mud, the viewer is shown where to click down to “explore interactive features.”


An arrow points to a button that opens extra content

The “Explore Park” button appears above as the film is playing the “Park” chapter, visible on the horizontal timeline. Clicking any of the chapter sections along the horizontal timeline lets you jump directly to the next chapter and its interactive content.

Selecting “Explore Park” reveals vertical panels underneath the film, where you can flip through photo slideshows while listening to audio or interact with animated graphics and micro-games.


A closer look at chapters on the horizontal timeline

The timeline is especially helpful if you want to watch the entire documentary first and then easily get back to each chapter to delve into its extra content.


Interactive content within “Explore Park.” Buttons take the viewer back to the film

Throughout the documentary, breaks are incorporated to guide the viewer chronologically through the history. This works nicely to organize the content, since the film examines 2,500 years of vertical living.


The documentary features an internal timeline

At the end of the last short film, Home, viewers are invited to explore all of its user-generated content and submit their own images.


Screen leading viewers to a fifth part of the project with user-generated content

The “Your Stories of Life in High-Rises” section utilizes side menus to allow users to view photos from a certain region or with a specific theme.


Front page of “Your Stories of Life in High-Rises,” a collection of photo galleries comprised of user-submitted images

Media Elements

After watching all four of the short films in this documentary, I felt like I had been watching actual film footage. A closer look revealed that much of what I perceived as footage was really a still photo with animated graphics added to it.


Each of these lanterns sways back and forth within the still photo


The addition of moving smoke or fog brought many stills like this one to life

Another technique the director used to make a photo look like video involved zooming out on the photo to resemble the panning of a video camera.

In addition to these more subtle methods of illusion, the project made frequent use of animated graphics, interactive content, and micro-games.



This interactive image of Babel tower crumbles to the ground with just a few clicks.


Babel tower rises and falls as you drag the white hand icon


Dragging the hand to pull the elevator down causes an animated horse to gallop across the screen.


Pull it down even further to learn more


A micro-game challenges you to build 15 condos in Vancouver by clicking on glowing flashes of light as they appear.


Notice the flash of light along the top of the mountain range


In this interactive you drag pieces of furniture into the micro apartment unit to see how difficult it can be to work with limited living space.


Here you drag the “East” and “West” tabs to see more of Moscow or London. This split view is often used in maps that let you compare changes in topography side by side.


As if you were rewinding and fast-forwarding through footage, this interactive lets you tear  down the building and then watch the demolition in reverse. Just drag the hand icon along the left slider.

Photos in the “explore more” sections can be flipped over to reveal additional information. Some are postcards with stamped dates and descriptions on the back. Other images feature the name of the photographer or artist, descriptions of the subjects, and the names of museums the works appear in.


Many of the photo slideshows are accompanied by audio interviews. Recordings start automatically and play continuously as you flip through the photos.


Photo in the “Explore Demolition” slideshow, accompanied by an audio interview with Miles Glendinning.

Here are some user-submitted photos from the “Pets” and “Storms” categories:

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