Research stay at Harvard Metalab. NFB/Highrise, Ryerson and York University (III)


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The last week before I come back I moved to Toronto, the other mandatory visit besides New York. I was there for two very active days. The first day I visited the National Film Board (NFB), where I could talk with and conduct an in-depth interview with Gerry Flahive and Katerina Cizek (see Mandy Rose interview with Kat Cizek), the two heads of the Highrise project. Canada’s public film producer and distributor, the National Film Board of Canada creates social-issue documentaries, auteur animation, alternative drama and digital content that provide the world with a unique Canadian perspective. The NFB is expanding the vocabulary of 21st-century cinema and breaking new ground in form and content through community filmmaking projects, cross-platform media, programs for emerging filmmakers, stereoscopic animation – and more. It works in collaboration with creative filmmakers, digital media creators and co-producers in every region of Canada, with Aboriginal and culturally diverse communities, as well as partners around the world. Since the NFB’s founding in 1939, it has created over 13,000 productions and won over 5,000 awards, including 12 Oscars and more than 90 Genies. The NFB’s new website features almost 2,000 productions online, and its iPhone and iPad apps are among the most popular and talked about downloads. Visit today and start watching.

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Figure 1. Highrise Project logo

HIGHRISE explores vertical living in the global suburbs. It’s multi-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment at the National Film Board of Canada, directed by Katerina Cizek, produced by Gerry Flahive. Over the years, HIGHRISE will generate many projects, including mixed media, interactive documentaries, mobile productions, live presentations, installations and films. Collectively, the projects will both shape and realize the HIGHRISE vision: to see how the documentary process can drive and participate in social innovation rather than just to document it; and to help re-invent what it means to be an urban species in the 21st century.

Getting inside the NFB is like arriving at the Mecca of interactive documentary production: an almost mystical experience! Then, as the temperature was around a lovely 20ºC (the other real and strange experience in the month of January in Toronto, because we should have be at -5 or -10), I walked around downtown and went to dinner with my friend, a teacher at Ryerson University and Docshift organizer, Richard Lachman 1. docSHIFT: Real Stories to Multiple Platforms facilitates new creative partnerships and helps develop innovative interactive documentary projects. docSHIFT is made possible with the support of the Ontario Media Development Corporation is presented in partnership with Ryerson University, Hot Docs, CFC Media Lab and the National Film Board.

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Figure 2. Ryerson University logo

He introduced me to Cindy Poremba 2, a young PhD professor, expert on the meeting point between documentaries and games. The next day, returning to the reality of -10 degrees and snow in the morning (January 31), I interviewed Dr. Poremba in the morning and then went to York University, where my research stay had begun a year before, to close the circle and talk and interview my friend Prof. Dr. Brenda Longfellow 10. She is working on a very interesting project, which she presented at our 2012 i-docs Conference, Offshore interactive.
OFFSHORE is a web documentary created by Brenda Longfellow, Glenn Richards and Helios Design Labs that explores the dark waters of the global offshore oil industry in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. They developed a site intro that acts as a short prologue to the experience. The site itself is the 3D virtual world of an imagined oil rig that provides a menacing backdrop for the story to unfold. This preview is very much a work progress and will evolve as the site gets built out.

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 Brenda invited me to a lecture given by Kat Cizek and Gerry Flahive in the Degree of Theatre, Film and Television (Faculty of Fine Arts) at the University of York. It was amazing to be a student again instead of teacher…and being taught by Brenda, Kat and Gerry!

In the evening I returned to Boston, where I spent two days at MIT Open Doc Lab and at Harvard Metalab, and the last day attending a presentation of projects from a course called NuVu Studio, in which bright high school students from Cambridge created technological devices and interfaces (14-year old boys programming like professionals… you have to see it to believe it, but this is Cambridge).

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Figure 6. Nuvu Studio logo

NuVu is a full-time magnet innovation center for middle and high school students and a professional development program for teachers and educators. NuVu’s pedagogy is based on the architectural studio model and geared around multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects. Established in the Fall of 2010 in Cambridge, MA, NuVu provides students the opportunity to work collaboratively with experts, PhDs and alumni from MIT and Harvard as well as working professionals, to solve real-world problems in an intensive and fun studio environment. For teachers and educators, NuVu provides training on how to bring innovative practices to students’ learning using project-based methods. NuVu nurtures creative problem solving, team collaboration across networks, communication and presentation skills, systems thinking, adaptability, risk-taking and imagination, all critical for student success.

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Figure 7. Nuvu student presentation

In short, a well spent trip that among other things allowed me to conduct a research stay at the world’s most prestigious university, contact the MIT Open Documentary Lab, travel around the country and return to New York (2000) and Toronto (2011), locate myself in Boston, improve my English, progress in my projects and collaborate with others. I also recorded eight key interviews for my future project that I will introduce to you shortly. I cannot ask for more!


Arnau Gifreu Castells (PhD)

Researcher, lecturer and producer




Richard Lachman is an Assistant Professor, Digital Media in the School of Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson University. The Gemini-award winning producer is also a creative and technical consultant for new media projects, primarily focused on entertainment and transmedia media properties. He is a computer-science graduate form MIT, holds a masters degree from the MIT Media Lab’s “Interactive Cinema” group, and is completing a doctorate in Computer Science at UNE in Australia. His professional projects have included partners such as Discovery Channel Canada, CTV, CityTV, and the Banff Centre for the Arts, and his works in the computer games industry have shipped millions of copies and been featured in the New York Times, USA Today and Time Magazine, as well as being part of an exhibition at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Richard’s research interests include convergent media, interactive documentary, and new forms of storytelling. He teaches classes in digital media, interactive art, animation, digital documentary, virtual environments, and digital culture.

Cindy Poremba is a digital media researcher, artist and curator, exploring the intersection of documentary, videogames and interactive art. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow, researching infrastructure for documentary videogames, in the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University. Cindy recently completed a PhD in interdisciplinary Humanities at Concordia University in Montreal where she worked in association with the Centre for Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) . She holds an MASc in Interactive Arts from Simon Fraser University, as well as a BA from the University of Waterloo in Rhetoric & Professional Writing. Cindy is a former faculty member in Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), who has presented internationally at both conferences and invited lectures, and has published work in journals such as Eludamos and Games & Culture. She has also organized non-traditional exhibitions as an independent curator, including Joue le jeu/Play Along, a 5000 m2 exhibition of ground-breaking videogames in Paris, FR, and Canada.

Brenda Longfellow is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and film theorist. Her productions includeOur Marilyn (1987), an experimental documentary on Canadian swimmer Marilyn Bell; the feature-length drama Gerda (1992), on the life and times of Gerda Munsinger; A Balkan Journey/Fragments From The Other Side of War (1996); the Genie Award-winning documentary Shadow Maker: Gwendolyn MacEwen, Poet (1998); and Tina in Mexico (2002), a feature documentary on the silent film star and avant-garde photographer Tina Modotti, which won Best Arts Program at the Yorkton Film Festival, Bronze at the Columbus Film Festival, and a Golden Rose at the Montreux Television Festival.
Professor Longfellow’s most recent production, Weather Report (2008), is a feature-length television documentary that explores the effects of climate change on communities around the world. She is currently working on a series of musical shorts exploring the complex weave of delusion, dream and willful complicity that informs the evolution of the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta.Dr. Longfellow has published numerous articles on feminist film theory and Canadian cinema inCineTracts, Screen, CineAction and the Journal of Canadian Film Studies. She is a co-editor of the recent anthology Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women Filmmakers.