Write Design Multimedia

Monday, March 20, 2006

'The Flight of Ducks' by Lara

Archived on Internet 'shelves' is the extraordinary online documentary The Flight of Ducks, a site chronicling three journeys into central Australia. The first journey details a 1933 camel trek undertaken by John Pockley, the father of site author, Simon Pockley. The second is the father's return to central Australia as a much older man, and the third a journey the author undertook with his children retracing his father's footsteps. The Flight of Ducks is also a journey across a database, and an exploration of original documents using digital technology.

Online interpretations of actual events using facts and original documentation are a natural, digital progression from traditional medium documentaries. The most commonly recognised traditional form is the film documentary, where moving pictures, narration, archival footage, interviews, photographs and shots of original textual documents (such as newspapers) are combined to create a subjective narrative of an event, person, phenomena etc. In online documentaries, parallel and interwoven narratives can be presented using the same or similar factual evidence as in film documentaries – photographs, newspaper articles, academic papers, and audio and video clips – but this evidence can be utilised and presented in different ways. For instance, an original newspaper article can be clearly viewed online and a user, not constrained by time or visual limitations, can choose to read the article in full (see below); and photographs can be animated to aid a story. For example, in The Flight of Ducks a photograph of a footprint in the sand illustrating the impermanence of events and memory disappears into nothingness.

Although the structure of an online documentary is created and limited by the site author, within the structure's boundaries the user has the flexibility to follow different narrative trails, and to approach the content of the site from differing angles. Simon Pockley has presented the narrative text of his father's journeys in at least two ways: as unpretentious, but tastefully designed web pages with hyperlinks directing the user to original documents (including scans of the pages of his father's journals and photographs) or as laid-out book chapters suitable for printing (which include photographs embedded in text and photo captions, see below). Simon also employs different forms of text such as transcribed journal entries, academic papers, emails, and media questions. He opens one story thread with a sonnet, cleverly placing himself within the story and establishing another link to his father, who is revealed elsewhere as a poetry aficionado.

The information within the site can be accessed from numerous directions: via the database index, by following threads joined by hyperlinks, and by clicking icons including a donkey linked to the overland trek narrative, a camera for photographs, and a duck to gain a bird's-eye view of site content.

Demonstrating an organic nature, The Flight of Ducks allows users to actively participate in the evolution of the site. Emails sent to Pockley are posted to the site with his responses, and media questions are also posted, giving a sense of transparency and inclusion. Pockley also addresses criticisms of the site and attempts to find solutions, as demonstrated by warnings he has implemented to denote sensitive cultural issues. According to Pockley, "Like the stories of journeys in oral epic poetry, [The Flight of Ducks] has evolved into a proliferating organism, shaped by its participants, [and] by a continuous refinement of the poetics of the medium".

At more than a 1000 pages, The Flight of Ducks is a substantial online documentary, not easily digested in a single sitting. It creates a participatory environment that supplements the users' physical interaction with perceptual interaction. It follows multiple narratives and themes, and archives digital images of original source material making it accessible to a wide audience. As aptly summarised by Simon Pockley: "It is no longer just about past and present expeditions into Central Australia. It has evolved into a journey into the use of a new medium for which we have yet to develop a descriptive language. It is part history, part novel, part data-base, part postcard, part diary, part museum, part pilot, part poem, part conversation, part shed".


Kendall, Robert The Hypertexts of Yesteryear (Accessed 1 March, 2006)

Leary, Pippa & Long, Benjamin "The Hype on Hyper Text” 21C, Volume 3, 1996

McGann, Jerome The Rationale of HyperText (Accessed 13 March, 2006)

Pockley, Simon The Flight of Ducks (Accessed 20 March, 2006)

Seigl, David Severe Tire Damage on the Information Superhighway (Accessed 20 March, 2006)


  • Well considered and interesting review of 'Flight' -- You obviously delved into the work thoroughly and in-depth.

    Do you think that it is a 'documentary' or that we need a new word to describe these kind of hybrid and multiple media works?

    By Blogger Administration, at 1:15 pm  

  • What struck me about this site was Simon's very upfront statement on the home page: "I try to answer your emails in 24 hours" - it leaps out at you immediately establishing an expectation of a very interactive, accessible site. What's more it appears to deliver on this expectation via the forums. The users are an important part of the documentary's evolution. Talk about global community.

    By Blogger Lynda Morgan, at 5:01 pm  

  • Shiralee, I think 'online documentary' is a good way to describe Simon's FOD. For two reasons: Firstly, the etymology of the word documentary, derives from document, which derives from the Latin 'documentum' (ie document). I'm moving in circles here, but my point is that 'documents' are the key to the orginal use of the word (I think it was coined by Bentham in the 18th century). The narrative of Simon's site is supported by many different types of document. There are documents everywhere! It's a virtual document plague. (It's a silly argument, I know.) Secondly, the notion of what is considered to be a 'film documentary' has expanded and changed many times in the past 70 years, and will continue to do so. When I think 'documentary' what usually springs to mind is gruesome footage from the BBC World at War series. Obviously that kind of documentary is a world away from Super Size Me and Bowling for Columbine. I think viewers' interpretations of what constitutes a film documentary will continue to broaden, and to be influenced by changes in technology, and societal changes in outlook etc. Hence, if traditional documentaries are still evolving, it should be expected that online documentaries (with their traditional documentary capabilities plus other capabilities, such as, viewer interaction) will be pushing boundaries and creating some really exciting and different ways of interpreting the notion of 'documentary'.

    By Blogger Lara, at 11:28 pm  

  • very good points lara -- part of what i had in mind was the differences between traditional docos -- which World at War and Supersize Me, despite their differences. are both examples of -- and online docos. The chief of these being one that you allude to -- the guiding narrative or rhetorical 'voice' that presents an always subjective take on the subject matter (although this is often presented as 'objective' as in WaW). Trad docos are always attempts, no matter how subtle, to pursuade the viewer of their point of view -- the 'documentary' element being that the argument is based on verifiable or documented elements, that are introduced in an order and manner which is most supportive of the writer or director's thesis. Online docos can seldom control the viewer/user experience to the same degree making the experience qualitively different -- one often of exploration and 'putting the bits together'. Online doco users v. seldom actually see all the parts of an online doco -- often they're huge databases of information of various kinds as you've pointed out. This means that the user's experience is always partial and idiosyncratic and, of course, introduces whole new challenges to the writer/developer of online docos that we are only beginning to find solutions for.

    By Blogger Administration, at 4:36 pm  

  • this site is such an excellent example of the possibilities of online documentary.

    By Blogger Erin, at 5:26 pm  

  • Am looking forward to exploring this site. The potential for interactivity is a massive leap forward for documentary filmmakers - their craft has been so often criticised (usually rightfully so!) for its pretence to objectivity with thinly veiled prejudices and assumptions and motives all of their own....allowing the audience a voice that is actually published and responded to not only changes that problem of politics and who's doing the framing, but also challenges the filmmaker to keep honest and real about the responsibilities of what it is they're doing - and being held directly accountable and answerable for what they're putting out there. Very exciting.....anthropologists with all their own post-colonial self-consciousness would also love it.

    By Blogger suzi taylor, at 11:50 am  

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