On the night of September 12th, Toronto’s McCaul St was egregiously quiet. Within the walls of OCADU, however, Interactive Ontario’s  IN|2010  was enjoying a strong beginning. The room, sparsely lit and ultimately subdued in atmosphere, was party to a broad assortment of digital media pioneers. The occasion was particularly blessed with its concurrence to the opening of START . Ian Kelso, the President and CEO of Interactive Ontario, described the evening best in his greeting to the crowd.
“This is a preview—it actually doesn’t start until tomorrow, but thank you for bringing us into your space.” The thanks was better expressed by the round of applause. “These shows, called Start, the goal of the program itself is to promote art games created in Toronto, and some beyond, and to let you play, and decide for yourself, what is art in the creation of video games? So I really encourage you to play and develop all the games that are here. There’s some really, really fabulous games. So you won’t be disappointed.”
And no one was. The mood was congenial, and while the crowd wasn’t made unruly by the games at hand, no terminal remained untouched. Spooky Squid’s Night of the Cephalopods was a featured guest, and I can happily attest to its continued popularity. Mr. Sternberg wasn’t at hand to speak again for his title, but the Hand Eye Society was well-represented in products if not people. Silent Skies, of Toronto’s SpyeArt had the advantageous position of being between the bar and the door; foot traffic was constant, and the game’s simplicity in both aesthetics and controls gave it grace. Once again Night of the Cephalopods suffered from poor acoustics; the Lovecraftian narration might have been missed if not for the presence of those already in the know.
The walls may have been festooned with projections, but the largest of these displays belonged to Shawn McGrath’s DYAD Games, which premiered at the event. A futuristic racing game with hook and pull elements, it shares visual elements with Audiosurf; that is a complimentary statement. After a tutorial from Shawn McGrath’s wife, he appeared himself to talk me through my attempts at further levels. It will be released between ten and thirteen months from now, but the specifics of its launch remain unknown.
“It’ll be on something that makes sense at the time. There’s no formal…whatever makes sense. Right now, it would be PS3. I don’t know where other platforms are going to be in ten months, so I don’t know.”
Over the course of our conversation, his artistic integrity becomes obvious, as does his fondness for START.
“What this OCAD thing really is is a way to expose students to artistic games, and that’s awesome…The Hand Eye Society is something I’m proud of. Everything with the Hand Eye Society  is more or less great. START was organized partially by Emma Westecott and Benjamin Rivers,” He paused to indicate Benjamin Rivers behind him, “And Benjamin is a very active member of the Hand Eye Society, and the games here are …from members by the Hand Eye, so in terms of Toronto, Hand Eye is…awesome. There are some people who are not in Toronto, but by all means, most are.”
Toronto had, and has, more than enough professionals in the field of digital media to ensure a fantastic conference. Upon my attendance at the cocktail hour Monday night, the mood was convivial, and all reports of the panels that day were favourable. Tuesday morning I arrived at the Carlu to see some panels for myself, and the atmosphere of the two nights prior remained intact. The first panel in the Concert Hall that morning, “The Anatomy of Branded Entertainment”, opened with an advocation of informality by the moderator, Chris Avadsun, and it paid off. The three guests each followed the mandate, to varying degrees. Branded entertainment, as a concept, depends on approachability. John Hall of Gone in 30 Entertainment, opened the floor.
“My company was started about six years ago as a response to what I saw, a need to form an alternative to traditional advertising. The reason this is called ‘touch-point marketing’, that I found when we were making <La Collection>, is that this isn’t just about television. It’s just where the process starts. …It really is predicated by this statement, that people are leaders, consumers, decision-makers, wearing a thousand different hats in the same day. We looked at a lot of different numbers, in this bourgeoning field, but we like to go with the twenty-six billion dollar figure, and most of it is from the big media of infomercials and product placements. Not to be snippy about it, but, again, the philosophy of our company is to provide our viewers with primetime entertainment, who want to watch our show, and we actually compete with those primetime shows. If art is at one end of the spectrum, and product placement at the other, there’s the whole middle range that really hasn’t been cultivated, and that’s where we’ve positioned ourselves.”
Gone in 30 Entertainment has grand ambitions, and it has made significant headway in making them reality. The success of <La Collection> isn’t debatable, and he is right; the viewer is now in control of their experience. <La Collection> succeeded through its ability to transcend media into reality through its clothes and the promotion thereof. ‘Interactive media’ was a buzzphrase five years ago; now it’s just the truth. <La Collection> is going into its second season this fall. Gone in 30’s new objective will be to demonstrate that lightening can strike twice. It’s a unique challenge that they’re clearly up to. But each panelist brought something unique to the table; Andrea Gagliardi, the second of the three, represented CityTv’s ‘Shorts in the City’ as the manager of Rogers Digital Media.
“Essentially in May of this year, we launched a multi-screen, multi-plaftorm, web-exclusive program. It included seventeen titles, five hundred episodes, and over thirty hours of program. We…licensed content from many partners, and we launched an iPad application–we were the first video iPad application–and we’re available on iTunes. …The reason for the launch of this program? As of May and June, our programming becomes rather slight… So we could continue to distribute video content throughout the summer months, we wanted to keep eyeballs on our sites consuming video.”
After a short display of the videos, the final panelist took the stage. Rob Tait, of Fresh Baked Entertainment, spoke from a place of experience with both internet and television branded programming.
“Technology has untethered media from format. In doing that, technology is giving control to them. They now choose when to watch video programming–just that, it used to be called television programming…You have to add something that publishes content. And a really good way to make sure that the content that you’re going to publish is going to get seen is telling stories.”
Storytelling would be the theme of the day. The Q&A session was a casual discussion of authenticity and subtlety in their work; upon its conclusion, I crossed the hall the Round Room to hear three very different people discuss their similar subject. “Transmedia Storytelling” featured three professionals using cross-media distribution for artistic and humanitarian purposes.
Katerina Cizek, Andrea Nemtin, and Christopher Bolton shared the panel and their projects with the crowd; Cizek and Nemtin both brought cross-media documentaries to the floor. Cizek’s interactive story archive High Rise focuses on the building communities around the world in suburban tower residences. To its credit, it does so with innovative use of OneTouch software and a true fondness for its subjects; the 360 degree music videos demonstrated were a strong touch, and High Rise’s welcome of further cities and stories ensures that it will continue to be a site to watch.
PTV Productions’ Andrea Nemtin represented ‘Inside Disaster’, a harrowing look into the world of the Haitian earthquake. The decision to work with such subject matter came naturally, if not necessarily easily.
“Coming from a documentary background, it is a natural progression for us. We’ve been doing a project called ‘Inside Disaster’ following the Red Cross through a natural disaster. We didn’t know what disaster it would be, and it turned out to be the earthquake in Haiti. So when news broke, within 48 hours we had hit the ground, following the first team. We had always planned it to be an interactive and a documentary, so we have a feature length documentary, three one-hours for television, and two interactive websites. When we thought about the website for this, we realized one of the conflicts of a documentary is the timeline. So what we did, for our first phase, we were able to do it in six or eight hours, we had done a lot of background work, and we sent a producer with the camera team to make updates for the site, every day, depending on the situation was, of what was seen on the ground. This allowed us to capture what Google called the volcanic spike in traffic that wanted to know what was going on in Haiti at the time. We got a French-Haitian woman in Montreal to start blogging for us, to maintain interest. The website has three different sections: there’s traditional things, bios, when there’re screenings….the second, because we’re working in the aid area, we thought there was a way to bridge the gap between the aid community, which can be very academic, and the general community. So there is a large amount of resources for people who are interested in getting involved, and Haitian background..As a producer, you get to learn such amazing things about a project. The third section is the most transmedia. It’s what we call ‘Not a Game’, and it’s here to deepen the film. And you can choose to roleplay a journalist, an aid worker, and a survivor. We had to combine both footage from the film and then go back and produce it. The footage is a little bit disturbing, so I just want to warn you.”
She was right; it was. The footage was powerful; if transmedia storytelling could be used for more noble purposes, they’re hard to imagine. Regrettably, the room’s combination of shadow and spotlight worked against displaying the video to best advantage.
The final panelist, Christopher Bolton, stressed their use of conversational technology in their transmedia focus. “We have all of our content and projects, through the network, and brands take a gander at it, and if they like what they see, we sign on, and we see about integration. This project is now called ‘In Search of…’–working title–and the reason for that is it was born of a concept called ‘Rent-a-Goalie’ for Showcase, and I was trying to figure out how to go outside of the project, and even as I was developing this project, which is a 13×30 comedy series on the hunt for Gordon Lightfoot…We (Bolton and agencies) had a lot of conversations, and the conversations were not meshing. So I thought, ‘We’re going to not deal with this, and we’re going to deal with networks of the future, with people on the ground’. So there’s a soundtrack album, the guest-stars in the comedy series are popular in the Canadian music scene, and cover a Gordon Lightfoot tune…”
His presentation was accompanied by a web-chart of post-its on the screen–showing the connections between the graphic novel, the TV show, and the third party projects. It was a strong note to end on–the media of the twenty-first century has grown too fractured to ignore any medium at all.
His presentation served as a powerful reminder of the need for this convention; the branded entertainers need stories to tell, and the storytellers need finances to tell these tales. Interactive Ontario put on a strong conference, and it was obvious that every panelist was happy to be there. I was, too. IN Exchange will be on its sixth iteration next year; I look forward to being there.