Dana Dansereau is an interactive producer of the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio, based in Vancouver. We met at the Annecy Film Festival where GYMNASIA (produced with Felix & Paul Studios) was part of the VR Competition. And that’s how you end up with a headset in a café under the sunny weather of France’s beautiful countryside...
How did GYMNASIA started
Clyde Henry (Productions) is actually a duo of two great artists, Maciek Szczerbowski and Chris Lavis, who are from Montreal. They had a project which was looking for a digital studio, and they talked with one of the producers (from the NFB) whose works in the French documentary program, and she sent them to me. As, obviously, I was a fan of their work. So we had a Skype call, and basically 2 weeks later I was on a plane flying out to Montreal for our first meeting. Everything went very fast, we talked about ideas throughout the day and shaped the ideas very quickly. And then it was development time, quite a long journey: this project actually took 4 years from start to finish! It's strange to think back to the start, I feel that I’ve been working with these guys for so long now.
If you want to go into their works, MADAME TUTLI-PUTLI (2007) is just unreal, and that’s how good it is - it more than deserved its Oscar nomination. You should also see HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! (2010). COCHEMARE (2013) is a wonderfully crazy stereoscopic 3D film they did with the help of the PHI center in Montreal. It embraces three dimensions in a way that's very rarely seen. It's quite a disturbing dream, inspired by the fact that people in outer space often have weird dreams. When I saw what they could do in 3-D, i knew we could do something amazing together for a VR headset. At one point we were talking about doing it full scale: finding an old gym, really decayed one, with some set decoration and shooting the whole thing at one hundred percent. But that became a nightmare, it was impossible to find. We ended up creating the set one-third of its actual size, which is closer to the traditional size used in stop motion animation.
Even that way, it was not that easy to figure everything out both technically and creatively. They had to create a puppet that was the equivalent of a 4-foot tall boy. Then it came time to do some test shoots with the Clyde Henry stereo rig. I received photos I thought were excellent preliminary images. But it highlighted the complexity of what we wanted to pull off. Quickly we saw the need for a partner. Someone that could help us with the creative and the technical. Everything was lacking, from creative to stitching to camera technology. And of course serendipity stepped in, when Maciek and Chris ran into a Felix & Paul employee into the bar - because why not! - and that’s how they got into it. They were in the middle of shooting ISLE OF DOGS: BEHIND THE SCENES (link) with Wes Anderson. They were already mid production inventing technique for turning stop-motion into VR. Very fortunate.
After initial discussion with Stephane (CEO at Felix and Paul Studios) and the eponymous Felix & Paul, their whole team jumped on board. Nearly immediately, we launched some tests, with stellar results: there's no compression in 360 photography! It seemed like heaven visually, even if the final result can’t be quite that good, due to video compression. We identified what will be CGI or stop-motion, and that’s how we started.
I acted as a creative producer, someone who understands what the user experience and narrative should be - keeping an eye on the overall concept. And, of course, I helped to get the money and everything else, but my favourite job is to help the guys through their creative vision. Which was the easiest thing here. Normally a creative producer has to twist and change many aspects of a project, really get in there if you know what I mean, to get the best output. Here I only had little comments to add, as the team knew exactly how to do it. These guys are pros.
We only had few technical and creative outstanding technical challenges on GYMNASIA - specifically I’m thinking about the motion camera rig necessary for the first scene. Most people watching the experience don't even know the camera is moving. It's so subtle. Felix & Paul had to build a custom camera rig to create this ultrasmooth animated stereo 360 camera move. Watch the first scene you’ll see shadows of cloud formations depicting the passage of time. The cloud shadows tumble beautifully along the wall of the gymnasium. Technically this was accomplished using a computer controlled motion camera rig tied to rotating 4 foot wide multi-layer light fixture which created the clouds that created the shadows and light that shone through the “exterior” windows onto the interior of the set. The funny thing was that the camera itself was just a Canon DSLR with a Nikon lens. Just one single camera. But the team spent 4 months working on that. Culminating in nine days straight, of a locked off set, capturing this one animation sequence.
NFB in Vancouver and curating stories
We’re a small team of producers, an executive producer, project managers, coordinators and operations team, working on projects like our recent CSA award winning VR piece BIIDAABAN: FIRST LIGHT. The digital studio doesn't do just VR, but anything digital related to new media and social media. We do a thing we call SMSes: social media stories. We recently won a Webby for one called OK GOOGLE (link). Ha ha, every time I say its title, my phone wakes up! It's the true story of this father who finds his 5-year old son has been talking to Google for the last year, and that google has a record of all their conversations. It's just this little 2 and a half minute poignant piece of media that really gets you thinking. I’d say in general that's what the studio strives to do. Get you thinking.
That’s one side of the spectrum, the other one is the immersive work we've been doing. There's actually one coming out, a web long form story for the mobile phone. Reading and listening experience around 40 minutes. It’s very tactile. On the other side country the NFB french digital studio did a piece recently called CLIT.MOI (link), about the orgasm gap between men and women, which I think is super smart -- already available online.
At NFB it’s expected that our producers are actively creating projects. We don't just support, we are always in there being creative, technical and logistical. We pride ourselves in making projects significantly better, and to challenge ourselves to go beyond what we’ve already done. Of course you want to work with great storytellers, such as Clyde Henry and Felix & Paul. The creative excellence that the story needs is our main goal, we’re always looking for the one thing that makes the difference. One of my favorite pieces that the Studio has ever done is actually from before I started at the NFB, a piece called WELCOME TO PINE POINT (link). It's a story about a northern Alberta town that has been wiped off the map. And it’s amazing. Its a great story that takes you to emotional places you would expect from an interactive website. BEAR 71 VR (link) is also great! Sometimes the studios work is all about innovation, sometimes all about art, but it’s mostly narrative that guides us.
Where is the audience?
I still think there is a massive missed opportunity for every studio in the interactive documentary / narrative storytelling industry. Our work is too fragmented. ARTE has a web presence. SBS as well. We have. We all have apps randomly scattered in various stores and videos on the main social media platforms. There is no cohesive energy to bring everything together.
VR projects like ours are hard to find. Because of this we obsess about the audience even in the pitch phase. How to identify the audience, how will the project work for this audience. In the case of BIIDAABAN: FIRST LIGHT, we immediately knew we wanted to take it to the exact spot, in Toronto depicted in the piece. We spoke to the city, brought them on as a partner and after 8 months of planning we got to show it in Nathan Phillips square for free to over 2200 people. It’s a deliberate fusion of the physical and virtual place of the story, to create an elevated experience.