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(Yonhap Feature) North Korean documentary tries transmedia trends
By Kyle Burton
Contributing writer
TORONTO, March 20 (Yonhap) -- When Toronto filmmaker Ann Shin screened her riveting documentary "The Defector: Escape from North Korea" last November, she received acclaim for crossing a border that few filmmakers dare to go -- the technological border, that is.

   Shin and her small crew of a camera operator and sound technician followed an agent called "Dragon" from the North Korea-China border all the way to Bangkok with refugees who had high hopes for a better life in South Korea. In an entirely new approach, Shin adopted new, innovative technology to compliment her documentary project, like 360 degree animations and an interactive web site as well as a Facebook app.

Ann Shin at the Amsterday International Documentary Festival Amsterdam where her film premiered in November 2012. (All photos courtesy of Kyle Burton)

In the Defector Interactive (, launched on Feb. 15, users can take a 10-minute haunting interactive journey through the eyes of a woman desperately attempting to escape North Korea.

   "We promise you have never seen anything like this before," said Shin. "There are 360 degree environments, hotspots with video, stills and audio and decision-making points."

   Shin's no-holds-barred film premiered at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival in November 2012 to two sold-out screenings and is currently touring the film festival circuit around the world.

   The production team conducted in-depth research in the development phase, working with humanitarian organizations and church groups as well as defectors and their brokers. "A lot of organizations did not feel comfortable with us filming in China because of the risks involved," said Shin.

   "Dragon" was the main broker who connected Shin to escapees. "He told us that he talked to some North Koreans who wanted to escape through China and they gave their consent to be filmed because they wanted to tell their story."

   It was a different situation for the film crew. "When we arrived in China, we realized that none of the defectors knew that we were going to film them. It was a shocker for us because we flew over there ready to film undercover."

   The North Korean refugees slowly came around after Shin explained that their identities would be concealed with a post-production blur effect. "Traveling with them was actually quite a moving experience because the trust built over the period of weeks that we filmed together," Shin said. "And so in the end, they were really open and honest with me about sharing their stories."

   Shin was at first skeptical about filming undercover in China because of reports about journalists who were caught doing the same thing. Shin had frequent discussions with her crew about staying on the journey. "At every leg of the trip there were obstacles that we hadn't anticipated," said Shin. "With the risks involved with undercover filming, it's hard to completely satisfy the filmmaker's stylistic aim with a film like this, so you compromise. But it's the first time in a long time that I've felt so passionate about and committed to a project."

   Not having room for much equipment, Shin and her team used something called a chroma green screen system, which folds up like a blanket and is very portable. Green screens tend to require a significant amount of lights to illuminate properly in order to achieve a quality keying effect. "When you open it up, you just put a green ring around the camera and you don't need any extra lights. The canvas is actually metallic and it picks up the green from the green ring on the camera," Shin explained.

A screenshot from the documentary's interactive web site

Having to minimize equipment, the staff used what is called "chroma green screen system" that folds and is very portable.

They also worked with digital SLR cameras because of their portability. "People don't suspect you're filming anything when they are slung around your neck, hanging at chest level," she said.

   Utilizing animation software like Adobe After Effects and Nuke, Shin developed a compositing effect for the interactive web site that demonstrates 360 degree interactive views of environments like a North Korean prison camp, a safe house in China and a situation where the defectors are caught by state police.

   "We did a lot of point-of-view filming as well as compositing," said Shin, who used combined film stills with motions and graphics to achieve the desired effect. "Everything is basically real textures, real photos and real people, but it's composited into a point-of-view journey for the user who is watching the film."

   The process was complicated, requiring coordination with everyone involved with the production including the director of photography, web designers and app programmers, having to film for not just the film itself but also for the transmedia elements, said Shin. "There were several shot lists that we had to satisfy."

   Executing a transmedia project of this scale required significant financial support. Shin received funding from various sources including TVO, The Canadian Media Production Association, Bell Fund, Telefilm Canada, Shaw Media and the Canadian Media Fund.

   Shin also set up an online crowd source funding account to raise money for her film. "We developed a Kickstarter campaign and surpassed our CAD$20,000 goal in under two months," said Shin, but not without extraneous efforts in having the whole social network in place, having to reach out to bloggers and doing a lot of PR work online. "However, in this day and age it's necessary to do that for your creative projects. And it's worth it in the end."

   The Defector Interactive will be presented at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival (March 21-24), Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (March 15-24) and the Documentary Edge Festival (April 11-21).