Building Films For the iPad: The National Film Board’s New Tablet-Focused Projects

The National Film Board of Canada is attempting to combine gaming and cinema with a new line of iPad apps.

What happens when a major film producer decides to create original entertainment for tablets? Canada’s National Film Board (NFB) is experimenting with a series of new tablet-centric projects that merge gaming, journalism, and cinema. The applications come in iOS, Android, and web-Flash flavors and are intentionally created to mash up movies and computer games once and for all. The National Film Board is a publicly funded film producer and distributor known for its legendary animation work and, lately, for becoming a pioneer of new, interactive forms of storytelling.


The NFB gave journalists and film industry figures a sneak peek at some of the film board’s upcoming projects at this year’s Tribeca Film Institute Interactive Day. At the event, the NFB presented a series of new projects designed primarily with tablets in mind.

Loc Dao, an executive producer at the NFB, told Co.Create that the idea of creating documentaries for tablets came from the organization’s decision six years ago to primarily create digital content. Government Film Commissioner Tom Perlmutter created a digital section of the NFB, NFB/Interactive, which works on interactive documentaries. The idea behind it is to prepare for a long-term shift among computer users from primarily using laptops and desktops to primarily working on tablets. Because the NFB is shielded somewhat from market forces, it’s able to get started early creating native documentary and film forms designed for tablets. Dao added that “The first documentary that is technically available on tablet is The Test Tube with David Suzuki, but the first project that we created for tablets first is the upcoming The Last Hunt.”

The Last Hunt, to be released in summer for the iPad, tells the story of an elderly man’s last hunting trip in rural Quebec. The app, designed to make the most of the landscape photo mode on iPads with retina displays, uses the hunting trip to tell stories from the grandfather’s life. A web version is online already. Compared to The Last Hunt, The Test Tube is much more experimental. In the tablet product, a lecture by environmentalist David Suzuki is mashed up with a real-time data stream of Twitter messages keyed to the lecture’s content.

Another new project, Circa 1948, is an immersive skycam view of Vancouver’s neighborhood and much of the rest of the city in the years following World War II. The app, which shares many aesthetic similarities with the new Sim City, lets users zoom in on houses or blocks, follow the individual stories of residents, and connect the threads linking different storylines togther. Artist Stan Douglas created the app as a way of translating his installation work to a tablet setting and to take advantage of touch and zoom capabilities that traditional films or visual art just don’t have. It is one of the first times that Douglas, a prominent installation artist, worked in code.

In Circa 1948, users navigate a non-linear film noir story set in postwar Vancouver. The “script” integrates racial tension between Vancouver’s white, black, and Asian communities, class tensions between well-off and poor neighborhoods, and government corruption. The app is designed as an augmented reality project that’s half game and half film.

Creating tablet-specific documentaries creates special design and UI challenges, Dao says. The NFB’s tablet documentaries use an interface that combines touch and gyroscope sensors; in comparison to desktop multimedia projects which use Flash or Adobe Air, tablet and mobile documentaries are designed by the organization to integrate body motion into the film experience.


Another NFB production, Bear 71, is an interactive app based around thousands of photos of a Canadian grizzly bear. Wildlife authorities tagged the bear, known as Bear 71, and then photographed it and dozens of neighbors between 2001 and 2009 using motion-triggered trail cameras. Filmmaker Leanne Allison assembled thousands of geotagged wildlife photos into the finished app. The app follows both the animals and the effects of a nearby train line. In the 2012 documentary, Allison tells the story of Bear 71’s life from the bear’s point of view. Bear 71 also combined a live installation project where the creators and musicians performed the project in front of an audience.

Correction: The Last Hunt will be released for tablets in summer 2013.