Behind the scenes of NFB’s One Millionth Tower

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I am thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview with Kat Cizek, Emmy award winner and director of Highrise, an innovative project by National Film Board of Canada on urbanization and highrise architecture around the world. Last year I featured an earlier project in the series, Out My Window. They recently released their latest project One Millionth Tower, which is an immersive 3D virtual documentary built with HTML5, webGL, open-source Javascript libraries and numerous APIs. You can either watch the 7-minute documentary is a passive, sit-back fashion or as an interactive 3D experience. For users with dated computer technology, there is also a simple HTML version. Hopefully you can experience the “super-techie version” (as Kat says!).

Q. How did this story come about?

A. One Millionth Tower is the latest installment of a larger project called HIGHRISE at the National Film Board of Canada. We are exploring the human experience of vertical in the global suburbs. Our last project was a very global one, we told the stories of 13 apartments from 13 very different cities set in one “virtual highrise.” That project was called Out My Window, and it won an Emmy, among other international prizes.

For One Millionth Tower, we wanted to start very “hyper-local,” so we returned to a group of highrise residents in suburban Toronto, with whom we’ve been working since the beginning of the HIGHRISE on a participatory media project. We had learned a lot from them about the conditions within which they live, and we wanted to harness their knowledge and creativity to envision a better highrise neighbourhood. We teamed them up with a group of architects, ERA, who have been studying and advocating “tower renewal” – an approach to rejuvenate tower neighbourhoods. Together, they chose 4 sites around their building, and re-imagined the spaces using photography and illustration. We then thought it might be great to bring the illustrations to life, so we brought in a team of animators.

Meanwhile, I had begun discussions with Helios Design Lab. I asked them to look into an emerging project at Mozilla, called Popcorn, which I thought might be an interesting way to make our little documentary video behave a bit more like the web, by bringing in real-time contextual data. Mike Robbins, of Helios, went much further than that into the HTML5, and brought back the idea to place the whole story in a 3d environment directly in the browser, using emerging technology called webGL.

So the whole project and process is very iterative and organic, merging social innovation with technological innovation. We explore the story of re-imagining a physical world by telling the story in a re-imagined virtual world.

There’s also more about the genesis of the project in my director’s statement.

Q. How long did this project take from conception to completion and what was the budget?

A. We’ve been working with the residents since 2009 and that’s very important to note: participatory and collaborative work needs the time to develop. One Millionth Tower as a concept started in the summer of 2010, our architectural workshops happened in the fall of 2010, the animators worked from late 2010 to March 2011, and then Mike, the 3d creative technologist, started working on project in earnest in the spring of 2011. The budget was around 100,000$ CAD (Editor’s Note: ~ $96,260 USD).

Q. What equipment and software were used both in the field and during the website production phases?

A. We used a simple audio recorder and photography “in the field.” We used Final Cut Pro to cut the main story and the special features. The animators used Photoshop and aftereffects, and then Mike used almost entirely open-source technology to create the website: webGL, Mozilla’s Popcorn, Jquery, Three.js, Blender, WebM, Ogg Vorbis. We draw on universal subtitles for crowd-sourced translation (so far users have helped us with Spanish, Chinese, Portugese and Dutch versions). We also use a bunch of APIs: Yahoo weather, Wikipedia. Flickr, and Google street- and satellite views.

Q. What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome during the production phase?

A. Innovation is always exciting but also complex as a process. No one has really gone before you, so there aren’t always tried and true structures to follow. We ended up using web technology that didn’t even exist when we started the project a few months earlier. So that was really a challenge, to take what had started as a simple linear animated documentary and turn it into a non-linear story set within a 3d space. We went through many painful rounds of user-testing through the summer, and thanks to Mike for always being up for try something new, we eventually worked out some really interesting solutions to the limitations of the project, and we’re all pretty happy with the results.

Q. If you could go back and do anything differently, what would it be and why?

A. It’s important not to dwell on regrets when you are working in a context of totally new technology in an iterative process. The point is to experiment and try different things, and just constantly move forward (that was our mantra during user-testing: move forward!). In the fall of 2010, while at the community site, Heather Frise, the Community Media Lead and I had some wishful thinking of making the project in 3d space, but at that point, it would have been financially and logistically impossible to spend so much energy working with the conventional 3d systems.

It’s only when Mike discovered webGL in the spring of 2011 that it became a possibility. It’s also really thanks to our Senior Producer, Gerry Flahive, who is always open to new ideas and supports innovation at any stage of a production – we were almost done the animated documentary at that point, and we had to seriously reshuffle the budget and the production process.

So staying flexible and open to new ideas and not looking back too too much is a really important part of doing this kind of work.

The biggest lesson I learned, back while still making conventional films (from my co-director Peter Wintonick) was to always do a lot of screen-testing and user-testing, and I think that one can never do enough of that. So if there had been more time, I would have liked to do more user-testing.

On the other hand, releasing at the right time was an important part of this project, one can’t hang on to things in an innovative environment striving for everything to be “perfect” There’s a balance of just letting the work go into the world and contribute to a contemporary discussion. It’s all a balance.

Q. If you can, please share any other usage statistics such as time spent on site and numbers of pages visited.

A. One Millionth Tower has had a huge immediate international response. We premiered on the front-page of, and within 48 hours they had 40,000 hits. Gizmodo picked up the story, and within 24 hours they had 30,000 hits on their article about us. Within the first week, we were in 4 of Technorati’s top global blogs – TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Engadget, Boing Boing, and Gizmodo. We’ve had great response from the social side of things too, a fantastic article in The Atlantic Cities blog came out that same week, which is a huge honour. Also, a great interview on BBC world services Radio.

We’ve had users from 180 countries within the first week. From what we can tell, our biggest numbers of visitors are coming from the US, then Japan (!) and then Canada. So, apparently, we are big in Japan.

Q. Is there anything else that you would like the viewer to know before visiting this project?

A. The project is built in an emerging technology called webGL, which is available to users who have webGL enabled computers (new-ish graphics cards, essentially) and webGL plays in Firefox and Chrome. So based on the stats available to us at the time, this meant the 3d version of this story would reach only 42% of users. So what we did was create an HTML version of all the content, so that all users across all computers (and mobile devices) could watch all of the stories. Mike developed a browser detection system so that users would be automatically sent to the version best suited to their computer systems.

As it turns out, our own early numbers are suggesting that way over 50% of our users have accessed the webGL version, which is pretty amazing. It means we’ve reached a tech-savy crowd, but it also means that webGL is moving very fast. It’s been around for 6 months, and it has somewhere between 40-50% penetration. Most other new tech have taken a much longer time to get that kind of pickup. Things are moving fast.

What is also clear, is that users are understanding that One Millionth Tower is not just about the technology. We didn’t just choose webGL and Popcorn because they are cool and new. We chose them because we feel strongly that use of space as well as a deeper connection to the web are both fast becoming the next important evolutions in telling documentary stories of our times.

Until recently, as a documentary maker, I had only access to audio, visuals, locked into a small 2d box. We chose to tell One Millionth Tower, a story about space within 3d space. We also chose to connect a “real-life” story connected to real-time data across the web, thanks to Popcorn. For example, when its raining at the real tower, its raining in One Millionth Tower.

And I think users are getting all that. People are really inspired by the residents of the highrise tower to envision and re-imagine something better for the space around them. It’s moving.

I was as really happy to hear @Terry_Whyte, of rural PEI, one of 2000+ twitterers who’ve tweeted about the project so far, say, “Came for the HTML5, stayed for the story.”

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