This interview is part of an exclusive series Paper.li is doing with the CulturaDigital.Br festival in Rio. Paper.li is CulturaDigital.Br’s media partner and is bringing our community a taste of the keynote speakers’ talks ahead of the event.

Hugues Sweeney is at the National Film Board of Canada helping artists “do what others will never do”. He tells Paper.li about the exciting — and scary — future of digital storytelling.

The NFB — a public initiative — is a world leader on digital platforms. How did it come about?

The NFB has always been a hotbed of innovation – the invention of cinéma vérité and IMAX, 3D and animation techniques. At a time when new platforms are emerging, new tools of creation and broadcasting are becoming accessible and all media is being challenged by fragmentation and mutation, NFB had to embrace change.

Throughout our 70 years of production, we’ve been trying to hijack and twist technology to tell new stories – to discover new ways of storytelling. It’s not just about content – it’s about form taking the shape of content.

How successful is it?

Hundreds of thousands of people come to our website — but the most exciting aspect is that half of that traffic is generated by interactive projects. People come to view linear documentaries and animation films but they are more and more attracted by digital storytelling.

Our award-winning projects quickly gained international recognition through the Webbies, the FWA, Communications Arts magazine, IDFA documentary festival, etc. Our producers and artists are invited to talk and share at the most important international events in the field.

What’s behind the success?

Our mission is to produce what the others will never do. And the industry doesn’t take a lot of risk. But I would say that, above all, creativity is the asset that the institution invests in. Excellence is always the aim. Also, we have the luxury of time — production cycles go from 6 to 24 months.

Take us on a quick tour of NFB.ca. What will we find there?

From the 14,000 titles that we produced over more than 70 years, you can view 2,000 documentary and animation films. You can also experience more than 30 interactive pieces — interactive animation, photo-based non-linear narratives, data visualization, etc. NFB.ca is also an iPhone and iPad experience.

What’s the link between film and society?

It’s the people — and the way they relate to the stories and the characters. We tell stories from a creator’s point of view — it’s, let’s say, a humanist approach. We seek ways to approach issues exploring the way we are, the way we live with each other. Film and digital art touch the heart and reach the soul.

How does NFB connect viewers with the films?

Through all the new platforms available today: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo… And, of course, classic marketing and communications. But I think we’ve found new audiences through form and technology: a lot of people discovered us because of how we design our stuff and the way we manipulate technology in an artistic manner.

You’re also bringing contemporary film together with collective memory…

Yes, because technology is making everything more accessible: we’ve put so many films online that were on shelves for decades and they’ve found a new public. The creation of NFB.ca also means we can remix and mash up those images that occupy such an important part of our collective memory. Take 100 Mots Pour la Folie for instance: we used video-tagging to create a personalized experience based on 300 clips pulled from the NFB archives and the words the user enters on the screen.

Could you choose one interactive project that you find particularly outstanding and relevant?

We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris. Probably the most important web project up to now. It’s pure web-story telling. It uses the Internet as the main asset to tell its story: the emotional landscape of the Internet. It collects thoughts and stories non-stop through blogs, and frames them in way never seen before.

What do you find most exciting about the future of film-making?

The paradigm of creation, production and distribution is in deep mutation. I think that’s exciting because we don’t know what’s going to happen, we have to unlearn! Every project is a new world of possibilities in itself. Blank page. We have to reinvent the medium – very small steps at a time…

I’m also very interested to see the projects escape the screens and reinvest in public spaces – bring the virtual back into the real world.

Can anyone make film?

No! Well, yes – it’s never been that accessible before…
But making good stuff? No. Only a few stand out. That’s scary and tough and exciting.

Catch the live stream when Hugues talks at CulturaDigital.Br on Sunday December 4th at 11.00 Rio time (UTC/GMT-2hrs). 

Photo credits: Geneviève Levasseur/NFB by permission of CulturaDigital.Br (main photo); Jonathan Harris by pmo (Flickr).

Liz Wilson
Liz Wilson writes copy in the Marketing Communications team at Orange Switzerland and used to edit this blog. She likes talking about content, copywriting and social media on her personal blog.

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