Ahead of this week’s Power To The Pixel Conference and Market in London, Screen looks at how Canada’s transmedia work is the envy of other nations.

While much of the world is still argues about what “transmedia” exactly means, some countries have been producing it in quantity for some time. One of the leaders among these is Canada. Since the 1990s, Canada’s government funding bodies have aggressively supported and promoted innovation in digital media, and the country is now the home of some of the top transmedia producers in the world.

As a result, Canadian speakers will feature prominently in London’s Power To The Pixel conference, running October 16-19.
One of Power To The Pixel’s guest speakers will be Loc Dao [pictured], the head of digital content and strategy at the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio. Dao has won dozens of awards for his digital media work, which include Bear 71, Gods Lake, Waterlife and The Test Tube With David Suzuki.

“We do get great feedback about our work here,” Dao says. “I hear people asking a lot if they can be Canadians and come work with us. We do think of ourselves as being somewhere in between the European and the American industry. We’re kind of a unique hybrid that you can’t really compare to either one. We’re very lucky in having this institution, the National Film Board of Canada, with our mandate and ability to produce these unique works.”

The NFB has had a history of innovation in Canada, from the early days of filmmaking, to cinema verite, and animation. Five years ago the NFB got a new Government Film Commissioner, Tom Perlmutter. Under Perlmutter’s guidance, the NFB has gone from a primarily broadcast and theatrical-based organisation, with an emphasis on film festivals and traditional formats, to pushing ahead a interactive revolution, aggressively digitising already existing content to make it available online, creating apps and producing content for all varieties of platforms.

“About a year into his first term,” says Dao, “Tom kick-started our unit, the NFB Digital Studio. We operate out of Vancouver and we have our French-language partners in Montreal. We were enabled by Tom to create original digital content and it allowed us a unique approach. Instead of coming at it from being a traditional content creator who wants to do something online as well, we could focus on just creating original content for any new digital platform. That doesn’t preclude creating linear works for the screen, but we focus on non-linear, interactive works. Although we are working right now on some things that bring everything together, which are true cross media projects.”

Andra Sheffer is Executive Director of Canada’s Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund, set up in 1997 specifically with the then-niche mandate to fund interactive digital media based on Canadian TV programming. The Bell Fund offers a variety of grants and funding, for story development, production, legacy development, performance acceleration and professional development, and since its inception has funded over 1000 projects and disbursed over $120 million.

Enthusiasm for transmedia has exploded in the past few years, but for Sheffer and the Bell Fund this is nothing new: “Certainly the buzzword ‘transmedia’ has taken off, but we’ve been doing it for along time. When we do television and web content linking up, we’re already doing transmedia. A lot of the stuff we fund now is TV and web but then there’s also an app. Or sometimes there’s an e-book or a live event or a web series based on the original programming. We’ve been doing transmedia for 15 years, but suddenly it’s got a name. I think the name ‘transmedia’ can be mislead people into thinking that we’re doing something new and radical, but we’ve been doing it for decades. We’re just using the digital medium more than we had originally.”

Another speaker at Power To The Pixel will be Pierre-Mathieu Fortin, Head of Creation, Online Content, at Radio Canada, the French-language services of the CBC. Fortin has collaborated with Peter Greenaway and Robert Lepage and sees French-speaking Canada as well placed for transmedia innovation. “It is a very healthy medium right now and it is becoming very interesting. The French and English speaking parts of Canada do not have the same issues to deal with. For English-language Canada, the challenge is having to compete with all the English content, either from America or from the UK, whereas in French-speaking Canada, the star system has been built, everyone knows everyone, and it’s a bit of a Fantasy Island.”

Fortin continues: “There is a kind of bulimia for content now. People really want it. And the more you give them, the more they will come and see it. When you’re part of a smaller community, like we are here, we’re not faced with the immensity of the English speaking audience, so we are always having to weigh the content - how much are you going to invest, and how many people are you going to get in at the other end? But not having to please so many people, we are able to do quirkier things. So we build more and more content, to keep people connected to our channels, to our brands and to the shows that we are producing.”

Fortin notes how traditional workflows have been shattered by the digital world, presenting new challenges and new opportunities: “Previously, we have been used to writing a TV show, producing it, getting it out there, then waiting for feedback from the critics or the audience numbers, then we could see if we could do the next one. There wasn’t that much reaction to what you were putting out there. Now, in 2012, you can have a huge Hollywood blockbuster that can tank in 24 hours based solely on the online reaction. The way people are accessing content is ever-changing, and you have to keep them engaged.”

“We’re all dealing with audiences that have ADD, but we’re trying to keep them inside our brand. This is basically what transmedia is about.”