National Film Board creates “YouTube” for Canadian films

In a freebie double-bonanza Canadians now have access to a considerable chunk of the National Film Board’s (NFB) library via an online streaming site that makes use of an open source Flash-based video player.

The NFB is marking 70 years as a Canadian institution with an online “Screening Room” that provides free video streaming of more than 700 films. The new Web site at NFB.ca went live yesterday. Not only are the videos free, but so is the video player used to showcase them – one similar to YouTube’s player both in looks and in function.

“The digital revolution offers the NFB a new chance to deliver on its old promise,” says Tom Perlmutter, Canada’s film commissioner and chairperson of the NFB. “This is the virtual church basement where Canadians can get together to share their points of view.”

Canada’s public film producer is showcasing 650 documentaries, 167 animated films, 52 feature films (15 of them feature-length) and seven experimental films on the site. The films represent nearly a century of Canadian film production and represent many award-winning films, including the 2004 Oscar-winning short film Ryan.

NFB’s online video library includes many long-time favourites, such as the Log Drivers’ Waltz.

From Bill Mason paddling his legendary red canoe through the backcountry of Ontario’s wilderness so he might paint more life-like moose, to the animated favourite Log Driver’s Waltz, and the obscure 1964 experimental film 21-87 that’s widely credited as inspiring George Lucas to create “The Force” in his Star Wars blockbusters.

It’s a video tapestry that Perlmutter describes as “uniquely Canadian.”

“I can’t think of a better gift to Canadians on our 70th anniversary,” he says. “The video quality is unparalleled.”

Previously, Canadians interested in viewing NFB movies had to make a trip to a nearby city that hosted screening booths for the films. Many of the older titles were printed on 16 mm film.

Offering those films on the Web was a smart move, says Charlie Keil, director of cinema studies institute, at the University of Toronto. It will help get NFB movies to Canadians in far-flung locations, and foster an overall increase in audience and viewership.

“It’s almost a necessary move in this particular technological climate,” he says. “If the NFB wants to make its work accessible to a younger generation, this is the best way to do it.”

Montreal-based Turbulent Media Inc. developed the video player for the NFB’s new site, dubbed Pyro. The company has created video players for several other Web sites in the past, such as a site for the French-language interview show Contact TV and comedy festival Just for Laughs.

This time, they had to meet a unique NFB requirement: to close the deal, they had to release the code for their video player to the open source community. The company did so yesterday, releasing the code via their blog.

“We hesitated to release our technology at first,” says Marc Beaudet, president of Turbulent. “But we thought it was a good idea in the end – they give away their content, we give away our code.”

The video quality is close to a standard-definition TV experience, he adds. “You don’t see pixels, and you receive nice sound too.”

The NFB had some unique requirements for Turbulent to meet in creating in the video player. It had to be coded with Action Script 3, an object-oriented language that would allow for the user to switch quality settings without needing to restart the video. It also supports up to five audio tracks, allows the user to jump around on the timeline, and supports features that allow for both vision- and hearing-impaired users to enjoy the video.

Films on the site can be viewed with Closed Captioning and Described Video.

“We’re working hard to develop an accessible player and at the early stage of addressing disabilities,” says Joël Pomerleau, director of online production at NFB. “Our goal is to work with the communities and make sure we deliver a site that works for them.”

Despite the Web site offering free video to consumers, the NFB hopes the effort will boost its revenue.

“It’ll create an awareness of the film board in a much broader way that we’ve ever had before,” Perlmutter says.

Users also have a direct link to buy films from an online store from each video they watch. The films are available for purchase on DVD now, and via download in the future. There’s also a fee for educational institutions that want to tap into the film library.

Likewise, Turbulent is hoping that their open source release will promote greater awareness of what it has to offer clients. The company has released its intellectual property in the past and the results have been good.

“A great way to get people to use your technology, when you’re a small company like ours, is to give it away for free,” Beaudet says.

The NFB plans to continue to develop its site and grow the content available there. Not all new releases will be made available on the site, but at least trailers for the films will be, says Deborah Drisdell, director of digital production for the NFB.

The NFB also plans to add 100 more titles over the next six months and then 10 films a month after that. Plans for the site to be compatible with mobile devices – such as the iPhone – are also in the works.

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