Greetings from Utopia: Digital Storytelling Reflection + Project

It’s Thursday night. Tomorrow will be the final day of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. And I’ve created a thing. A couple of things, actually, all combined into one product. Here’s the story (pun? intended. Is that a pun?) of its creation.

One of the things I’ve loved most about the Digital Storytelling track is the structured freedom we had to create. Structured because we were given just enough guidelines to enable us to be creative, supporting the old idea that limits breed creativity. We were also given support along with our freedom. On Tuesday (I think?) we brainstormed ideas for lenses we could use to approach our digital storytelling project. Another group brought up utopia, which I was really drawn to. As I started brainstorming, my mind kept returning to how utopias are ultra-designed and always represent the vision of just a few and thereby exclude many. Additionally, one of the things I heard the leaders of DPL say is that DPL is a place to imagine the world as it might be otherwise. I’m not sure that included a false utopia, but here are my brainstorming notes:

Open notebook with brainstorming notes

The project as I initially imagined it is somewhat different from the final project. I’ve always been fascinated by past visions of the future – what did prognosticators in the past imagine life would be like in the future? As evidenced by my notes, my initial vision included such content. I also could see this taking shape as a multimodal story – text, video, audio, images. I wanted to contrast visions of the future with a present utopia that is supposed to be utopia, but is absolutely not. However, as I started to look for content, I hit a wall. I simply couldn’t find enough. I found plenty of scans of old magazines predicting the future, but I didn’t want to limit myself to that content.

I was starting to feel a little bit desperate (my internal monologue: I’ll have nothing to show for a week’s worth of work! Is it too late to switch topics? I should switch topics. I take a lot of pictures of trees – maybe there’s something I can do with them? But, utopia!). But then a word I had written in my brainstorming stood out to me: propaganda. What would a propaganda film for utopia look like? 1950s educational films, of course. I chatted with our instructor, Martha, about how to approach the project, and she recommended looking at for public domain videos.

So I did, and spent about 2 hours on Wednesday night deep in educational films on being popular, why it’s important to follow rules, the city of the future, and life in the suburbs. I downloaded several and also found some public domain music to use as the soundtrack (although YouTube flagged part of it as copyrighted. More on that later.)

On Thursday, I decided to ease into creation by designing the title slide. I used the new-to-me Adobe Spark, which I think will soon become one of my favorite creation tools, to create a vintage postcard-style collage of public domain photos of the supposed utopia. Once that was created, I began importing the films into iMovie. Deciding which bits to use was a bit challenging, especially since many of them were 20-30 minutes long. I had a structure and a rough script planned out:

open notebook with script and storyboard

Even though I normally do scripting and storyboarding electronically for instructional videos, I really liked plotting this script by hand.

Altogether, I used clips from 5 public domain films found on I recorded the audio using a portable recorder and brought it into Audacity, where I did some editing to make it sound more like an old-timey film narrator (nothing like trying to make the sound quality of my audio worse).  I brought the audio clip into iMovie and did a bit of editing to lower the volume and make it fade in and out and play a bit louder when there was no narration. Last of all, I uploaded the video to YouTube and captioned it. I was amused that YouTube flagged a portion of the audio as copyrighted. I mean, it’s a song digitized from an old phonograph record – who’s getting royalties from that? Since the only consequence was the possibility of ads, I didn’t contest it. But I know I’m right – it’s out of copyright!

Video editing is one of those things that I can get lost in – I start working and before I know it, my laptop is dying and I realize I’ve been doing it for hours. That’s the feeling I had on this project. Even though I can think of all the ways it could have been different if I just [insert something likely impossible or impractical here], I loved creating the story and imagining the possibilities inherent in digital storytelling. I hope to follow up with some thoughts on how I can incorporate what I’ve learned this week into my teaching and into my personal creative habits. But for now…greetings from Utopia.



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