As technology explodes, A Total Disruption is there to record it
Inside a small TV studio in Los Angeles, Ondi Timoner is absorbed again in the making of documentaries. She’s on the phone discussing editing options for one project, then planning for the fundraising event of another. Standing nearby is director Patrick Creadon, her guest this afternoon on “B.Y.O.D.” (for “Bring Your Own Documentary”), Timoner’s weekly online chat show for TheLip.tv.
They have much to talk about. Timoner, 41, twice won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary feature at Sundance: for her explosive 2004 rock doc “Dig!” and 2009’s Internet privacy drama “We Live in Public.” Creadon is the director of 2006’s well received “Wordplay” about the New York Times crossword puzzle and the just-released “If You Build It,” which follows the efforts of South Carolina teens to renew their rural community through forward-looking design.
“We’re all in our own spaceships,” says Timoner of her community of documentarians, who seemingly escape their editing bays and shooting schedules only long enough to meet at film festivals. “We don’t get a chance to see each other. We’re trying to tell these behemoth tales, and trying to slim down thousands of hours of footage into a feature-length experience.”
Timoner’s current behemoth is A Total Disruption, a study of the ongoing collision of exploding technology, entrepreneurship and creativity that she says is changing society at warp speed, but it’s a subject she’s found too vast to fit into a traditional documentary format. “Trying to document the Internet revolution is like giving birth to an octopus,” she tells Creadon in a voice typically insistent.
Her response is an online platform — Atotaldisruption.com — where her stories on the successes and near-misses of tech start-ups are unfolding in short chapters in hi-def video that contribute to a larger narrative. The stories are divided into series with self-explanatory titles such as “Startup Life,” “Chief Executive Artist” and “Co.lab.erate.”
Just a day before the “B.Y.O.D.” taping, Timoner sat down with Atari founder Nolan Bushnell to discuss gaming, education and a young former employee named Steve Jobs. Other short films explore the rise and massive impact of the social news site Reddit, music-sharing portal SoundCloud and the photo-sharing network Instagram. Later this month, the ATD website premieres an episode on the social writing and reading platform Wattpad, which has generated more than 30 million stories and 1 billion reads, according to Timoner.
“Across every vertical we are filming: a total disruption of education, the disruption of government, the disruption of love, the disruption of entertainment, the disruption of health,” says Timoner, who grew up in Miami but now lives with her son in Pasadena. “It goes on and on.”
While Timoner’s alarming “We Live in Public” examined the darker implications for privacy in our increasingly online age through the cautionary tale of dot-com millionaire Josh Harris, she has chosen so far to focus A Total Disruption on stories designed to stoke excitement and innovation. The ultimate goal for ATD, she says, is the creation of a fully searchable database of her thousands of hours of profiles and interview footage — “the last three years of the top wizards of tech and entrepreneurship.”
Her presence has been felt. “There seemed to be a need. Not a lot of people had done her kind of storytelling around technology,” says Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who met the filmmaker when she profiled the company and has since become an active advisor on the project. He says Timoner’s timing couldn’t have been better. “I have seen so many examples just in the last 10 years of people who are able to do things they literally could not have done 10 years ago to reach their maximum potential for awesome.”
Timoner’s entree into this world came through a 2011 invitation to document a Los Angeles start-up called SendLove. She soon found herself at the International Startup Festival in Montreal, where she witnessed an extraordinary coalescing of tech, investment and an eager generation of young risk-takers.
At a December fundraising event for ATD at the Echoplex nightclub, she gathered a lineup of entertainment that included musician Amanda Palmer, street artist Shepard Fairey (spinning as DJ Diabetic) and Reddit’s Ohanian, who spoke of the tech movement and did a comical impression of Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises.” The night was originally a reward for top donors to the A Total Disruption Kickstarter drive, which raised $144,000 last year, but was opened up to fans.
Top billing went to Palmer, an independent musical force who made waves for her creative use of social media in raising more than $1 million for an album and art project, and later for gathering musicians in different cities to perform with her as volunteers. Palmer drew praise for directly engaging her audience, while some critics called it exploitation. That conversation continues in an ATD short about the charismatic singer-songwriter that likely will be expanded to feature length, says Timoner.
“Ondi is a force of something,” Palmer says backstage, near the end of a concert tour of 35 parties for Kickstarter supporters who each pledged $5,000 around the world. “She has clearly got her finger on the pulse of the most interesting people doing the most interesting things. Her brain goes fast. I am simultaneously attracted to and intimidated by people like that. We collided at a particular moment in the zeitgeist, and it made sense for us to team up.”
With no set deadline for the completion of A Total Disruption, the documentary work continues indefinitely, which Timoner says is to its benefit. She credits the seven years spent on “Dig!” and the 10 years on “We Live in Public” for the depth that created her most successful films. “With a longer gestation period, you’re going to have a better film if you’re a documentary filmmaker,” she says. “Time provides the greatest narrative if you’re shooting something real.”
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