Video & Filmmaking

Frames Per Second: The Interactive Projects of the National Film Board of Canada

April 9, 2015

By Matthew Ismael Ruiz

In a sense, Way to Go is a film. It has a beginning, an end, and moving images captured by a camera. But it’s also a game, where the player controls a blockheaded animated figure, deciding whether to walk, run, stop, jump, fly or investigate elements in the 360-degree live-action environment. And as part of the newest crop of interactive filmmaking on display at 2015’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s helping change the way we think about storytelling with moving pictures.

“The way we move around when we’re traveling is very different than when we move around in everyday life,” says Hugues Sweeney, the project’s executive producer. In Way to Go—which is free to play at—the speed with which players move along a path changes what they see and the music they hear. “Some things might happen that might never have happened if you walked super-fast,” Sweeney says. “The idea was creating these moments and giving this context for moments of hyper-lucidity.”

Way to Go mixes video footage shot with a DIY pole-mounted 360-degree camera rig comprised of six GoPros and hand-drawn animation, rendering graphics in your Web browser in real-time. The interactive video is the brainchild of AATOAA, a Montreal-based digital studio led by Vincent Morisset, an interactive filmmaker with video credits for musicians like Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire as well as commercial clients like Google and Red Bull. Way to Go is also funded by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), which dedicates 25 percent of its yearly allocation to interactive productions.

Sweeney has overseen all the projects produced by the NFB’s Montreal branch for the past five years. When he and Morisset spoke to PDN via Skype, they were in Park City, Utah, demoing a Virtual Reality adaptation of the project at Sundance’s New Frontier Story Lab, an incubator for interactive and VR storytelling. And while they got some attention from the tech world for demoing the interactive video on the Oculus Rift headset, Way to Go is just the latest of several innovative interactive projects from the NFB.

The NFB is government-funded, but that hasn’t kept Sweeney from green-lighting productions that investigate the actions of the government. In 2013’s Fort McMoney, David Dufresne uses first-person video to take a micro view of Fort McMurray, a boomtown that has sprung up near Alberta’s massive tar sands reserve. The extraction of tar sands oil—which is sent to refineries in the Midwest and on the Gulf of Mexico via pipeline—is a hot-button issue involving government interests, so diligent fact-checking was crucial. But making Fort McMoney would prove to be more complicated than just getting the facts straight.

Dufresne had just moved to Canada when he pitched Fort McMoney as an interactive “docu-game,” hoping to combat what Sweeney calls Canada’s “green fatigue”—public apathy towards environmental issues brought on by media saturation. Sweeney had been a fan of Dufresne and Philippe Brault’s Prison Valley, an interactive documentary that explored the prison industrial complex in Cañon City, Colorado. Not unlike Prison Valley, Fort McMoney uses a first-person perspective to let players explore the town and hear interviews with residents and business owners about how the local industry affects the town, the country and the rest of the world. The filmmakers’ goal is to stoke educated discourse without pushing easy answers.

“The proposal of Fort McMoney is really about the audience taking control of the city, and making decisions about the city as they go through it,” Sweeney says. “I think it’s easy to just say ‘oil is bad,’ to get in a very polarized discourse about the exploitation of oil. The real issue is, on the one hand, the equilibrium between the economy and the environment. But to me the most interesting thing is how we behave as individuals.”

How the audience behaves and the decisions they make while playing Fort McMoney determine the outcome of the game. Individual players are in control, but only partly; the control is collective. While the interface is single-player, the experience is anything but. If you decide to turn Fort McMurray into a ghost town, but the rest of the audience wants to make it the Las Vegas of the north, the neon lights are inevitable.

“This is a collective game, because you cannot change the world alone or a city alone, you need other people to do it,” Dufresne explains. “That’s the reason why on Prison Valley or in Fort McMoney, you can always see how many players are playing the game at the same time.”

Dufresne got to watch the collective discourse play out in real-time, thanks to a partnership with the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, which assigned two journalists to play the game and featured the project on the front page of its website.

“They talked to the leaders of government [for the paper] each Sunday,” says Dufresne, “like, ‘What’s going on in Fort McMoney? If what happened in Fort McMoney was reality, what could it be?’ You know, The Globe and Mail is more conservative than progressive, and it was very interesting because they posted a lot of investigation about the tar sands in parallel with the game.”

Now, with legislation looming concerning the proposed Keystone XL pipeline—which would increase the flow of oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in the U.S.—the global influence of Fort McMurray is even more prominent.

Fort McMoney is reality-based, while Way to Go lives in the realm of the senses. Both projects have creative teams that come from the film industry, but Dufresne also found inspiration in video games, which have exploded into a multi-billion-dollar business.

“The video game industry changed the narrative 20 years ago,” says Dufresne, whose next interactive project will be on FIFA, the international governing body of soccer. “It’s very interesting, as a filmmaker, to see how the video game industry tells its stories. So we can borrow, we can take some aspects from the video game industry. It’s not an obligation to make a game. But you can use one or two ideas.”

With Way to Go, Morisset says he wants “someone that’s five years old to dig it, but also I want my mom to be able to press the button and see how it works, but I also want my geek friends to be like ‘Oh, this is amazing!’” It’s the same diverse demographic that the video game industry now serves.

When Dufresne spoke with PDN via Skype, he was looking out his window at Ubisoft, one of Montreal’s largest game studios. He imagines interactive filmmakers someday providing research and development for the multi-billion-dollar video games industry; if that happens, Dufresne thinks there could be more money for the filmmakers working in tandem with gamers.

“We are on the same bridge, maybe one of these days we meet,” says Dufresne. “I think it could be very interesting. Because if we can get the skills, the money, the budget from the game industry, that could be very, very interesting for the documentary.”

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