History and Technology are Rapidly Converging, Says Documentarian Eric Stange


Ms. O'Neill is an HNN intern.

Eric Stange is the executive producer and founder of Spy Pond Productions, an award-winning independent documentary film producer, and a director and writer who specializes in history and science subjects.  His work has been broadcast on PBS, The Discovery Channel, and the BBC.  Before becoming a filmmaker, he wrote about art and culture for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic Monthly and other publications.  Eric has been the recipient of a Harvard University Charles Warren Fellowship in American History.  He’s on the board of Common-Place, a web site devoted to early American history, and writes a column about media and history for American Heritage magazine.

What made you gravitate towards historical documentaries?  Do you find that your documentaries have become an effective way to reach audiences that are not typically found to be actively engaged in studying history?

I studied history in college and thought of going to graduate school, but ended up in newspaper journalism instead.  Little by little, I became exposed to documentary filmmaking, mostly by writing about filmmakers for the newspaper I worked for.  I finally decided to try to raise money to make my first historical doc, Children of the Left, about children of American communists.  It ended up taking about four years to complete, but it finally got done.  And I was hooked.

Your article in American Heritage entitled “The Portable Past” gives great insight into the ways in which history can integrate itself into the new technological culture.  Do you feel that creations like the iPhone Historic Earth Application can reach a variety of target audiences, be effective in relating history, and draw more interest to the study of history?

Yes, absolutely.  I think one of the problems many people have with history (and therefore why they find it “boring”) is that they can’t visualize it.  They can’t literally – in their mind’s eye – see or feel what life was like in the past.  I think if you ask historians what got them interested in history (or anyone who’s interested), you’ll often hear about a particular book, or teacher, that somehow was able to bring a picture of past events to life for someone.  So anything that can help people visualize the times and places we can only read about helps make it real.  Projects like Historic Earth or anything else that helps make the past more palpable and visual are helpful.

Of course, pictures, images, maps, etc. are all great, but there also needs to be real information, real evidence about the past as well.  And it always helps if that information is framed in some sort of narrative because many of us crave stories as well – it’s our fellow human beings who intrigue us most of all.

So, I think the great challenge for these new technologies is to figure out how to bring serious, satisfying narrative into the mix, so the devices aren’t just sophisticated and complicated pictures viewers but actually become a way to present information on multiple levels.

In this article, you mention your involvement in transforming in your documentary, “Murder at Harvard” into a historical “terra-tive”, which is a visual narrative for mobile devices.  What were the basic methods used to generate this guided walking tour which showed Beacon Hill as it had been in 1849?  What is your favorite part of this historical terra-tive you helped to create?

Turning “Murder At Harvard” the documentary into “Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill” the iPhone app was a difficult challenge.  We got funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Start-ups Fund because they’re interested in using new media in the humanities.  But we couldn’t just adapt the film a small screen.

The first major task was to find a route through today’s Beacon Hill neighborhood that would provide visual evidence to connect people today to this 160-year-old story.  The route had to be walkable in an hour or so, and fun, and interesting.  What we found is that the walking route didn’t exactly match our story, so there was a lot of script work involved in creating a new narrative flow that still used the Parkman murder as its spine, but that took different diversions and digressions in order to accommodate the actual geography we were working with.

Then we had to create new visual imagery to match our new story.  The original film provides a lot of the information, interviews, and a certain amount of imagery, but at least half is newly created for the tour.

My favorite part?  Our goal was to strip away the rooftops, walls and pavements of Beacon Hill and give walkers a sense that fascinating, important historical events lie just beneath the surface – if you know where to look.  People have told us they now understand connections become the geography of the area and the cultural history, and between the architecture and the social and political climate of 1850s Boston, that they never realized before.  All because of a 45-minute walk.  We want people to take the tour and afterwards never see the streets and buildings the same way again.  I think we achieved that.

Do you believe that these new innovations of historians, curators, and computer engineers, or those called “hist-in-eers,” have the potential to be implemented in the academic system so that students can become more enthusiastically engaged in the realm of history?

I hope so.  Some colleges and universities are developing programs in “public history” – a much more hands-on approach to teaching history and to plying it as a trade – and to making history easily accessible to the public.  The “hist-in-eers” idea (NOT my term by the way – I think the guy I wrote about in NY made it up) very much fits into that mold.  There will always be a need for academic historians.  But in our age of a constant multimedia information barrage, I think it’s crucial that the profession reaches out as much as possible to the general public and tries to carve out a generous current for itself in the massive river of information on TV, the Internet, and now mobile devices.

I’m writing an article right now for American Heritage about the new generation of computer and virtual-world games that deal with history.  There aren’t very many, compared with science and math (if you don’t count the straight-ahead war games).  But there are some really interesting things happening – alternate reality games (ARGs) that blend fiction with the real world (some of which have historical themes), Second Life sites, including one called Virtual Harlem.  But there should be more history games and computer-based projects than there are.

What do you see to be the obstacles that are impeding the successful union of history and technology?  What do you think can be done to better help merge these two concepts?

I’m not sure what the problems are.  The game designers I talk to suggest that there’s not a great market for history games (except war).  The federal education standards have promoted a lot of new game design in STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) – but I think history education has been over-looked in that whole “No Child Left Behind” framework (maybe for the better).  So there’s not an incentive there.

More financial support from universities and the government would of course help.  But I think the main thing is to prove that history can be fun.  I still hear so many high school age kids complain that history is boring – and that’s a shame.  I think it’s boring to lots of kids because they can’t see any way to connect it to their own lives…

So we hope that projects like creating video tours of your own neighborhood’s history might help.

As an individual interested in history, what do you see as the benefit of working on historical documentaries and new technologies over working for an academic institution?   What advice or possible alternatives would you suggest to students who are tentative about pursuing graduate school but who have an affinity for history?

Look at public history programs that combine academic history with museum work, media presentations, and interpretive work.

It’s interesting to me that re-enactors (Civil War, American Rev, etc.) are often very well informed, and on a few occasions have actually discovered important archival or material culture evidence that academic historians had not found.

The TV show The History Detectives on PBS is popular among viewers – but has never been able to get the kind of financial support from corporate underwriters that it could really use.  That says something.

What are you currently working to produce through Spy Pond Productions, and what prompted you to choose this topic?  How do you usually end up deciding the subjects of your documentaries? 

Two broadcasts in the next few weeks:

I’ve got a film on the PBS series Secrets of the Dead Wednesday, May 5, at 8 PM called “Japanese Super Sub” about a long-forgotten World War II giant submarine that was also an aircraft carrier.  It’s a fascinating part of WWII history that few people know.

On June 28, at 10 PM, PBS will broadcast The Wall – A World Divided, a film about the history of the Berlin Wall, and how it ended up coming down.

I’m in production on a sequel to that film called The Wall – A World United about the delicate diplomacy in the ten months after the Berlin Wall came down that led to German unification and eventually the end of the Soviet Union.

Topics come to me all different ways.  Often people call with an idea, and often I have the idea and try to raise money for it.  These days it usually takes more than a year to raise any money, so there are many ideas being developed at any one time in hopes that one will get funded.  I’ve involved in a project about Edger Allen Poe, one about Harriet Tubman and a couple of others all hoping to get funded soon.

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