“We’re platform agnostic” – Hugues Sweeney chats NFB Canada

In the first in a series of interviews with participants at this year’s Power to the Pixel: The Cross-Media Forum, we talk to Hugues Sweeney, head of National Film Board of Canada’s trail-blazing digital studio in Montreal.

By Melanie Goodfellow

From knitting patterns to computer games, there’s no set platform for telling stories for Hugues Sweeney, head of French language interactive media production at the National Film Board of Canada.

“We’re platform agnostic,” says Sweeney as he gives details on a quartet of projects due to go live this autumn.

The list he rattles off proves his point. Current productions range from I Love Potatoes, an animated game for tablets exploring social innovation, to two public space interactive installations in downtown Montreal examining how digital is re-defining what is personal and what is private.

I love Potatoes is about social innovation and how you can create change with small steps. We took a documentary approach. Starting with some inspiring stories of social innovators, we tried to figure out the mechanism of social innovation and how that could inform a game,” says Sweeney.

“It’s aimed at the nine to 12-year-old age group and their parents. The visuals are super cool, the music is great… there’s an indie game aura to it,” he continues. “You’re in a world where potatoes are the currency but at a certain point there’s a shortage and you have to find a way to re-establish an equilibrium.”

The two public space projects have been commissioned for the Human Futures initiative, an international collaboration between Montreal and the cities of Liverpool, Aarhus, Berlin and Vienna inviting inhabitants to re-evaluate how they see their surroundings.

The first, entitled Islands, revolves around the creation of a series of places in Montreal where people can connect to a network in a seemingly private space.

“It’s about making people understand that they’re never really in a private space when they’re connected,” says Sweeney.

For the second, Liverpool artist Sam Meech has been commissioned to create a vast machine-knitted work based on the stories told to him by people living and working in Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles neighbourhood.

A fourth project, Unknown Photographer, will preview at Power to the Pixel and the British Film Institute’s exhibition Virtual Stories, showcasing the latest in virtual reality and immersive storytelling, which runs Oct 10-18 at the BFI IMAX.

A joint production with Montreal digital production house Turbulent, the work is inspired by the memories of a World War One war photographer whose forgotten pictures were found in an abandoned house in northern Montreal.

Pioneering work
Sweeney set up the digital studio in Montreal for the NFB in 2009. Since then, alongside its English-language counterpart run by Loc Dao in Vancouver, the hub has helped its 75-year-old parent organisation segue into the digital era, putting it on the map as a trailblazer in the realm of interactive media production.

Ever since early works such as the 2011 Bar Code, exploring the notion that objects define identity through a simple interactive site and iPhone App enabling users to scan bar codes on everyday items, the Montreal digital hub has sought to the push the boundaries of documentary story-telling.

The 2013 web-documentary A Journal of Insomnia broke new ground, for example, for the way in which it involved the audiences at every stage of the work’s development and production, turning their experiences of sleeplessness into content.

“What an internet connection brings to documentary is the capacity to make people part of the presentation. In film, when you make a documentary, you frame reality with a camera and then with editing and sound but when you make a documentary  online you have a connection that goes both ways  – you can use webcams, sensors, database, whatever – how that changes the way we document the world is what interests me,” says Sweeney.

Other innovative collaborations have included Fort McMoney, which documented the environmental and social implications of the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands through an episodic video game.

More recently the studio has focused on the impact of the digital era on day-to-day life with collaborations such as In Limbo, revolving around the digital snail trails we leave on the web; The Cancer of Time, examining our growing inability to do nothing in an age of smart phones and 24-hour connectivity, and Do Not Track, tackling the issue of internet surveillance.

“How digital is changing the way we interact with each other and how it changes the world and our culture is really a preoccupation of the studio and informs the choices we make,” says Sweeney.

Power to the Pixel debut
Sweeney is attending Power to the Pixel: The Cross-Media Forum for the first time this year as speaker at The Conference and as a pitcher in The Pixel Market Finance Forum with a new project Steamers, exploring the world of professional video gaming and the online tournaments that sometimes attract tens of millions of spectators

“Once regarded as a sub-culture, it is fast becoming a mass culture,” says Sweeney. “The idea is to build a live interactive documentary and to use the video game platforms as a means to document and explore the phenomenon.

“We’re going to Power to the Pixel to find two kinds of partners: partners to co-produce the works and partners to reach out to the audiences. The participation of the audience will be part of the process as well. It’s the first time we’re going to pitch a project of our own. We’ve learned a lot from past experiences with Fort McMoney and Do Not Track.”

“The idea is that we will become “streamers” ourselves. The production and creation teams will become actors in the process and become part of the platform. We’ll start interacting with streamers and members of these communities at the same time so they will become part of its DNA as well.”

Sweeney will be sharing some of the lessons learned in a talk entitled “Prototyping with Our Audience” at The Conference.

“I’ll be focusing on the value of prototyping – how it makes sense to prototype rapidly rather than talking and doing mock-ups for months,” he said

The other big lesson for me, if you want to talk about user anticipation, it’s about bringing people in before or in the production process, not afterwards. How do you make people part of the creative voice or process, how are they part of the narrative. It’s a very tricky and interesting challenge.”

You can catch Hugues at The Conference (13 October) and The Pixel Market Finance Forum (14 Oct) by purchasing a ticket here. Pass holders also gain access to various networking drinks where you can meet over 800 international media experts.