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Though Canada’s National Film Board has invested in interactive projects for well over a decade, 2020 has proven to be a banner year for the publicly funded organization, as four of their VR productions made waves across the international festival circuit.

This past January, director Randall Okita’s “The Book of Distance” premiered at Sundance, kicking off a yearlong festival tour that took the immersive doc from Tribeca to Bucheon to Venice.

On the Lido, Okita’s critically acclaimed doc was joined by two other NFB co-productions, Pietro Gagliano’s “Agence” (co-produced by Transitional Forms) and Michelle and Uri Kranot’s “The Hangman at Home” (co-produced by Late Love Production, Floréal Films, Miyu Productions). A Canadian-Danish-French co-production, “The Hangman at Home” would go on to win the festival’s grand jury prize.

Rounding out the list is the animated project “The Orchid and the Bee,” which made its premiere at the Annecy International Animation Festival in June.

Now playing at NewImages Festival in Paris ahead of additional festival dates in Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal, “The Book of Distance” represents a new milestone for the NFB’s Toronto-based creative non-fiction XR lab, which began to experiment with storytelling soon after the Oculus DK1 headset was made available to developers in 2014.

Two years later, the NFB lab invited four multidisciplinary directors to come experiment with the new technology. “We decided to invite four artists with whom we had worked with before, but who had never made a VR project,” explains NFB Ontario XR producer David Oppenheim.

“Rather than focus on the gee whiz of the technology, we wanted to bring them in and ask what hypotheses they had about this form, specifically about what it could do differently than a linear medium. We set those artists loose over the summer of 2016 and let them play around, and we then brought in developers and designers to work with us to further develop that work.”

One of those four artists was Okita, who looked to emphasize physicality, movement and audience agency as he developed a personal VR project that told the story of Canada’s Japanese internment through the point-of-view of his own grandfather.

“One of the things that Randall wanted to address is the silencing of a community, and the reverberations that play out when you do that,” says Oppenheim, who sees in this film a potential breakout hit.

“There is an ease of which people can settle into this experience because of the simple but meaningful interactions that make up the project,” he explains. “The fact that he spent a lot of time on choreography, on moving the audience simply around the space, really has shown us that it works for those who have never experienced VR.”

Following their project’s Canadian festival tour, the NFB will make “The Book of Distance” available free of charge on distribution platforms Steam, Oculus, and Viveport later this year, while releasing it in galleries and exhibition spaces in 2021.

“As a public producer, it is important for us to make this an accessible experience,” says Oppenheim. “With VR, we’re still looking for new and creative ways to reach audiences, because it doesn’t have the same built-in distribution pathways that film has. We want to reach audiences. We don’t make art for art’s own sake; we want people to see it.”

Going forward, the NFB will continue investing in and experimenting with form throughout its many branches and arms. “The film board is a strange beast,” Oppenheim remarks. “It’s a series of public production studios across a massive country with a small population, and its remit is to tell stories and experiment with new technologies in the service of storytelling.”

“At this point many of our studios – some more than others – are working across forms to one degree or another,” he continues, pointing towards upcoming projects like the VR/live theater piece “Draw Me Close,” the animated film “The Orchid and the Bee” and an ambitious new collaboration with Parks Canada that will address themes of aboriginal reconciliation through XR storytelling.

“Many of our studios, in one way or another, are creating VR,” he notes. “We firmly believe in it, and are dedicated to it as an art-form.”