The Story So Far

For the past five years, the National Film Board of Canada has devoted 25% of its production budget to interactive, digital projects. The work of the NFB/interactive arm has resulted in a series of beautiful, thought-provoking digital experiences that promote new ways of thinking about documentary and storytelling on the web, and beyond.

Almost two decades on from the first dotcom boom, digital technology has revolutionised our lives and our businesses. News, television, music, advertising: all these industries have had to radically adapt to the changes wrought. What appear less affected, however, are the worlds of art and culture. Sure, the way that art is shared and accessed may have changed with the onset of glossy websites and online gallery ‘experiences’, but try and name a significant piece of art created for the digital space and it’s hard to think of more than a handful of decent examples. Similarly, film and documentary remain relatively stable despite the onset of digital: the business and distribution models for these industries may have changed dramatically, but their format remains broadly the same as it’s been for decades: a two-hour-ish experience that viewers passively watch on a screen.

One organisation that is working to change this, and to embrace the possibilities of digital and interactive technology to create new ways of experiencing art and documentary is the National Film Board of Canada. Five years ago, the NFB launched NFB/interactive, an arm devoted to championing interactive storytelling. The NFB devotes 25% of its production budget to interactive works, and, with studios in both Montreal and Vancouver, has produced around 80 projects since launching NFB/interactive. The work created has been wide-ranging, including pieces exploring everything from insomnia to the Canadian petroleum industry.

NFB/interactive is something of a radical enterprise in today’s world. Publically funded, it has no commercial agenda, and is focused on using technology to explore new ways to tell stories about, and to interpret, our world. While its emphasis is on Canada, with many of the documentaries and projects it has made focusing on stories about the country, its outlook and reach is global, as Hughes Sweeney, head of French-language interactive production at NFB/interactive, explains: “We put the Canadian artists on the forefront, but since we are such an emerging and niche genre, our market is international,” he says. “Our audience for me is international, the network is international, our relationships are international. We cannot define today a market, an audience and a network on a territory basis: we are an international set up.”

The NFB has a long heritage in pioneering approaches to art and cinema, particularly in animation and documentary. The experimental documentary genre Direct Cinema was developed in part in Canada and supported by the NFB, and the organisation’s history in animation stretches back to the 1940s. The NFB also has a background in supporting technological developments, with the IMAX giant-screen technology developed at its Montreal studio.

Sweeney describes the interactive strand as a way of “rebooting” this heritage. “When we talk to the pioneers of Direct Cinema, who are around 80 years old today, they’re the ones who are checking out what we’re doing right now,” he says. “When we started the studio, they all bought themselves giant Mac screens and new computers. Because they were hijacking the technology back then to figure out how to tell stories differently, and how you express reality – so using the web, using databases, using sensors, using GPS or voice recognition technology to say something about the world we live in is totally in line with that great tradition.”

The NFB’s history was influential on the current generation of artists, producers and filmmakers in Montreal. “The NFB has played an immense role in my life as a young person getting inspired about stuff,” says Sweeney. “All the animation tradition and documentary tradition of the 50s and 60s had a profound effect on my life before, so when I saw that the institution was taking a shift [towards interactive], it was an absolute opportunity and privilege to be part of that.”

Vincent Morriset, a director and digital artist, who created the award-winning work Bla Bla with NFB/interactive, and has also made works with Arcade Fire and Google, also cites the influence of the NFB when he was growing up. “The NFB is a legendary institution,” he says. “Some of my heroes worked there…. I have always been interested in animation and experimental films. I took an animation introduction class as a teenager. In the 90s, the Phonothèque in Montreal used to lend 16mm projectors with film reels for free – we would take NFB short films that we would project on the living room wall at my father’s apartment. I was fascinated by Jodoin, Larkin, Cournoyer, McLaren, Lipsett…. I thought the films were weird and cool.”

Sweeney joined NFB/interactive at launch, and one of his first missions was to visit everyone working in the interactive and tech industries in Montreal. His proposition was unusual. “The web industry, because of the economic model, has always been a service industry,” he says. “A service for a car company or yoghurt brand or clothing brand or whatever – very rarely for cultural or art content, where they would be the author in some way…. For a lot of people, it was a very interesting anxiety factor to have all that liberty.”

As well as thinking about storytelling in a different way, Sweeney was also asking his collaborators to rethink their assumptions about the ways documentaries are presented. “The big challenge from a documentary perspective is that the model of the documentary has been so shaped by television in the past 20 years that we have almost forgotten that documentary is not necessarily 24 frames per second. Documentary is about interpreting the world in an artful way. For me it’s about how do we take that fundamental definition and how do we use modern technology to tell these stories?”

“For me it’s about how do we take that fundamental definition and how do we use modern technology to tell these stories?”

The NFB/interactive projects therefore come in many forms. A few examples offer a sense of the variety: Bla Bla, the work by Vincent Morisset, is an animated art piece that uses brightly coloured and charming graphics to explore the way humans communicate. It is beautiful, absorbing and abstract in style. By contrast, The Devil’s Toy Redux, one of the institution’s most recent projects, is more conventional in nature. Inspired by the 60s classic skateboarding film The Devil’s Toy, NFB/interactive invited 14 filmmakers around the world to create their own skateboarding films, and all are shown alongside the original on the site.

Some of the projects are focused on collaboration. For A Journal of Insomnia, insomniacs were invited to contribute their own experiences of the condition via a “webcam, keyboard and mouse confessional”. This raw material was then used in a piece which invites those suffering from sleeplessness to log-in during the night. For Bar Code, a work made in collaboration with Arte France, 100 short films were created by 30 directors in response to everyday objects (for example ‘food’ or ‘drink’), and viewers were invited to scan the barcodes on real objects to access the stories.

The NFB/interactive studios are open to approaches by creatives with ideas that they’d like to make, but they also regularly commission projects too. “It goes both ways,” explains Sweeney. “Since we’re not a funder and we don’t grant, we’re really a producer – it’s a real creative producer’s job, to find the right subjects, the right artists and put resources into these projects. So a lot of the projects that we’ve published are ideas that came from inside the studio, and once we had a basic framework of the idea, we assembled the right creative teams to express these subjects, and gave them the projects as their own. But also some ideas would come from outside.

“At the moment, it’s pretty unbalanced,” he continues. “Artists like Vincent Morriset are rare. Today, people who can think about the content and the format at the same time, and understand interactive production and what it implies in terms of creative, in terms of technology, in terms of work flow, it’s pretty rare to find in one head all these capacities. Vincent is one of them, but they’re rare. I think we’re going to see more and more of that in the younger generation – people who are at school right now in their 20s, it’s going to be something else, for sure. Now it’s really creating as a team most of the time.”

Alongside trying to subvert the way we think about genres such as documentary, NFB/interactive is also changing the way the organisation thinks about sharing work with the public. “We have our own media now,” explains Sweeney. “We don’t have to go through a festival or a TV broadcaster to reach the public, we can do it through our own channel. For me, the next big challenge is to think like a media channel and a producer at the same time, so how we build a continuous editorial conversation with an audience, ongoing from project to project.”

Sweeney is also keen on moving some of the projects away from screen-based technology. “People’s experience of media and culture is moving more and more out of sitting at a desk and looking at a screen,” he says. “Or sitting on the couch and looking at the television. They’re in movement, they’re on the sidewalk or in a subway station, so how do we use the public domain as a surface?”

One of NFB/interactive’s early experiments with this was Mégaphone, an event in Montreal last autumn where various speakers were invited to speak about issues concerning the city in the Quartier des Spectacles. As the talks took place, speech recognition software transferred the words into an animation in real time, which was displayed on screens around the square. The piece took the traditional speaker’s corner experience into the 21st century.

Another challenge for the NFB/interactive team is our capacity for concentration online. Whereas we might settle down for a two-hour stint with a traditional documentary, we are less inclined to devote long periods of time to work online. Sweeney cites that the average time spent with their projects is 8-12 minutes, which is a long time in web terms, but still means a lot of their content goes unwatched. To counter this, they are working on a project with Arte France that will focus on brevity. “We push the creators a lot to think from the point of view of the audience, to think in these terms,” he says. “That’s why Bla Bla was made to be lived inside ten minutes.

“We’re going to do an international call for ideas [with Arte], for 12 projects that need to be short, short, short,” he continues. “Because yes, there’s Vine, yes there are animated gifs, but one of the problems I want to tackle in the coming months is how do you make people live meaningful, strong interactive experiences inside, say, two minutes. How do we do that? These are super rare. I think there’s that field that we need to explore, because we do it well in literature, we do it well in the graphic novel, we do it well in music, we do it well in film. So how do we use the internet to make something happen in a very short time?”

This constant search for new ways to respond to technology, and experimentation with how tech can be made to work for us in ways that are enriching and interesting and unexpected, is what makes the work of NFB/interactive so exciting. They are not alone in this quest – Sweeney cites collaborations with interactive producers and organisations all over the world (including Arte France and Upian, which is based in Paris and Barcelona) and highlights the significant work of Google Creative Lab in this area, as well as the recent involvement of publishers such as The New York Times in the field. Yet, the lack of commercial emphasis in NFB/interactive’s work seems significant.

“When one looks at the state of today’s interactive storytelling, two countries stand out: France and Canada,” says interactive producer Margaux Missika, who works at Upian, and is collaborating with NFB/interactive on a project. “Both public systems of funding have allowed different players to explore innovation and what will probably be tomorrow’s online formats. NFB is without doubt one of the world leaders of innovation in new ways of telling stories. Each time they release a programme, we’re waiting for it.”

“I think the NFB is a pioneer in producing interactive author projects,” agrees Vincent Morisset, who is currently working on a second piece, to follow Bla Bla, with the institution. “For many reasons, the interactive medium has been driven by the commercial industry in the last 15 years. Hopefully, more entities will start to produce original stories that are not tied in with a product.

“I feel really privileged to work in this context,” he continues. “The NFB has always been an incredible laboratory – they understand the iterative and experimental process involved in innovative work. They understand that it takes time and that we don’t have all the answers at the beginning. This is really precious for us.”

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