Trine Laier and Lise Saxtrup by Pamela Cohn

Documentarian Trine Laier and producer Lise Saxtrup talk about turning family history into a whole new medium.


There is no shortage of documentary films that deal with a filmmaker’s family secrets and the decision to expose them. Danish animator and filmmaker, Trine Laier, is no different and has an exceedingly interesting story to tell. However, in investigating the intense confidentiality and secrecy behind her mother’s and father’s work for the Danish Intelligence during the Cold War, Laier has decided to wade into the brave new world of cross-media to tell their story in the format of a game application with dossiers and documents, animation and voiceover. The content will be distributed to users via personal tablets and the web.

Laier’s mother and father were clandestine operatives of the secret service arm of the Danish Army, fighting the “Red Menace” by taking on double identities and keeping their real identities hidden—even from their own daughter. Trine was 39 years old before she stumbled upon the truth, and decided to start her own counter-espionage project by searching for the hidden truth in her family’s history.

In addition to the interactive story of personal intrigue and family secrets that plays like a good old-fashioned soap opera, a companion supplementary application filled with historical research about the Cold War, with interviews of various participants, including Trine’s father, will also be created as part of the game’s platform. The project is supported by funding from the Danish government and by The Danish Film Institute to develop a script along with further development of the prototype, examining game mechanics and controls whilst staying loyal to the authentic narrative. The prototype is Trine’s critically acclaimed graduation project from the Danish Film School.

Made with producer Lise Saxtrup of Klassefilm, who has an extensive background in traditional documentary production, and a software composer who has never made a documentary project before, Cosmic Top Secret Experience was one of the projects to participate in the pilot year of Scandinavian World of Innovative Media, known as SWIM— a trans-media development workshop launched at last year’s CPH:DOX. CTSE is one of the initiative’s “guinea pigs” and Saxtrup and Laier pitched the project at the cross-media forum at this year’s festival, as well as pitching it at the roundtable pitches at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Europe’s largest documentary pitch forum.

I met Saxtrup and Laier at the recent edition of DOK Leipzig in Germany at the beginning of November. They were participants in a panel discussion I hosted there, one of the Animadoc Case Studies talks called “Refresh Your Mind.” Intrigued by the project and impressed with their presentation, I took them to lunch to talk more about the challenges of producing a project in this wide-open new field.

Trine Laier In this project, what’s most important for me is that I want to talk a lot about what we inherit from previous generations. For me, it’s about becoming conscious of that and deciding what you want to acknowledge as part of that inheritance, both the good and the bad. We all experience that and that’s one of the subtexts of this exploration. Of course we learn they were not perfect, but in exploring my parents’ own stories, I came to realize the good things I received from them. It’s a chance to reflect on the problems inherent in their generation and how they handled it and how we can assess all this in a positive way, a humorous way, even.

Lise Saxtrup In Denmark now, there is a really skilled young poet. He just published a book comparing his parents’ generation to his own and it’s a really angry book. He’s working out what he needs to work out and it’s a different way, a completely opposite way of encountering the previous generation than Trine’s approach. But this inter-generational conversation is so important.

Pamela Cohn Now I really understand much more about what’s at stake in the story you want to tell and this very fragile and thoughtful way in which you want to encounter your parents and their story. This platform, with its elastic and malleable ways to storytell does remain somewhat linear in terms of narrative. In its whimsical style, it also presents a really fun way to encounter some pretty serious—and timely—stuff.

TL Yes, the trick is to find the right way to do it and traverse this territory between the mechanical aspects of the platform and the very personal aspects of the story. And to another point, you know, the player herself actually possesses this strange kind of power. This is important in gaming, that the player feels like she is in control or in on something that the characters of the game are not. The player knows more than I do at any given moment as I’m going through this search for information. The player knows this information before I have a chance to discover it. Or the player is watching me, perhaps, choose a “wrong” direction in which to move, and knows that it might be better for me to go another way.

The big challenge right now as we’re going into more intricate programming is to find the right “tone” for it all. My own way of drawing is very childish, the way a child might draw things. This is my style.

PC I’m not a gamer nor do I know a lot about that world, but much of what I’ve seen in the most popular games is that the characters are illustrated as to appear über-real. The psychological choices that might be made with an icon that is very real looking, versus one that is more like a cartoon, would make a big difference. We’re now expressing ourselves so much more visually through photos, self-portraits, emoticons, and other animated representations of ourselves, and others.

LS In a strange way, communication between people might be looked at as something that is becoming more sophisticated even though it is stenographic or abbreviated in some way.

PC Did you ever conceive or think about what this would be like as a live action, more traditional doc?

TL Not really, but I have been asked several times why I’m not doing a more straightforward documentary on my parents.

LS This brings up something that I think about a lot as a producer and that’s about other platforms of distribution such as broadcast opportunities for a documentary of some sort based on this material. But it’s so overwhelming to think about at the moment when we’re trying to figure out the logistics of the gaming platform, which is very technical and very new and takes a lot of experimentation. It’s also a whole other funding strategy to think about. I recently had a meeting with a commissioning editor and the thinking is not to really make projects anymore such as these web series like Prison Valley for ARTE, for example, something without a broadcast component. If they do get financially involved in web production, then they want opportunities for broadcast, too, and the content just may not be suitable or very difficult to adapt. As a producer, I have to think about these things and the integrity of the project.

PC So as a producer, you would have to work at funding both entities in some way? That would be complicated and quite labor-intensive, I would imagine.

LS Yes.

PC How do you do that? Do you split production duties between a web producer and a TV producer? Not to mention the complications for the filmmaker, as well, having to adjust content for different mediums.

LS Well, at the moment, this platform we’re developing is the priority. The film would be secondary. There could be a film. But we would use it as a communication of the project conceived as the Cosmic Top Secret game. I mean, okay, if someone came with a huge chunk of money and said, “We’d like a film,” then we would be thinking about that. [laughter] Of course, then we could put together a production in some viable way. But right now, we are all about the very short form—one to two minute scenarios specifically for consumption on the web and a way that a player can engage in small chunks and come back and play again and again. This is how this investment works. The other would just be a huge challenge right now.

TL I really don’t want to make a film right now. It would have to be treated in a completely different way and involve a lot of intricate camera work to figure out how to get the same tone and feel I want.

PC Well, this is, I think, one of the hugest quandaries of making cross-media right now and how people are interpreting it. Currently, it seems like it might just serve as an adjunct to a more traditional film or even web series and that seems to defeat the whole purpose of trying to make something that’s specific to a particular medium, such as a game. The game part still seems to be considered ancillary or a byproduct of a feature film.

LS The thing is nobody does really know what this is supposed to look like and where the money is supposed to come from. In Denmark, we are being supported for this project by public funds to figure out how to create and distribute these applications while people are catching up and trying to figure out how this works in terms of audience engagement and all that.

TL Not only that, but how can I really do a documentary and a game when the approaches and the workflows are so different? In documentary, you may have an initial treatment or idea but you are following something that is being formed as you go. Conversely, in the gaming world, everything is designed and constructed from A-Z very carefully. You need to take care of everything. Not to mention that this love story and all the nuances involved in these relationships really would not be possible to capture in a traditional documentary, I don’t think. If we go through this the way we imagine that we can, then it can resonate in so many other cultures, including a North American one, about family secrets and the ways these relationships develop generationally, all the important personal things that I want to explore through the characters of my parents. This is what makes the story universal for me.

For me it is all about the expositional storytelling of their lives and their experiences. This has always been, and will remain, the priority. Because the player can see for himself what he wants to see in the story, in terms of what he might want to know about what it was like for my parents to be intelligence officers for their government. The player can end up in weird situations also, depending on where he wants to go, in which direction he wants to take the story, or falling into some kind of glitch. In a game, there is this feeling that you’re on your own, you are working under the auspices of your own agency, your own decisions and directions.

LS This is the exciting part about doing a project like this: because the definition of the results you desire are quite clear. And then there is the work of figuring out how to get there, how to make it so that those intentions can be realized. This is really the joy and the excitement of the work for me.

PC You also have the support and framework of SWIM and the whole developing cross-media platform frontier and those people working in that realm who are beside you, interested in helping you figure all this out. You have the luxury of this “lab” where you can experiment and learn and be as lost as you want to be.

LS Yes, exactly, and luxury is the right word. The space to talk and share and experiment and ask questions is invaluable. More importantly is instilling the sense of play it takes in creating something like this. It’s the opposite of any results-driven endeavor and it’s totally refreshing. It’s necessary to keep pushing forward into these new frontiers where everybody is waiting for the path, for the way to go. And we’re helping to figure that out with our designers and software writers and all that. It’s great fun, really, and truly collaborative.

We’ve learned this the most from working with our software guy who’s also a film buff. In working so closely together and having the opportunity to bring him into this creative lab-like setting, this is where we see the real collaboration and the real learning begin for ourselves and also for him. Because it’s just been tremendous to see how he’s blossomed as a result of being able to be part of this creative process. It makes what we’re doing and what he’s doing coalesce into something really fantastic and powerful. It’s like we’re all now in the same slipstream and not working separately in our little corner and him in his little corner writing code and not having any emotional attachment or investment in the material. All of that has changed as we’ve worked together to really great affect, for all of us, but more importantly, for the project. We’re now speaking a similar language.

TL Before this kind of collaboration, he would just come in and listen to us for a while, take notes, and then go back into his world and write the correct code for it all, not having any kind of profound connection to the story or the characters. With him included as a team member in this workshop, we are working as a true collaborative team and it’s really great. It serves the project so much better than before.

LS It also gives structure to what we’re doing, providing a construct with goal dates and expectations that you will have some sort of deliverable at certain points. And also how to target audience and learn all those things that we really don’t know anything about, strategies to help get the project launched and noticed.

TL It’s really opened my eyes to who would potentially be interested in playing my game and learning about these characters and moving into this world I’m creating.

Pamela Cohn is a filmmaker, curator and freelance arts journalist currently based in Germany and Kosovo.

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