Blogs & Comment

The art of HTML5: NFB's One Millionth Tower and the future of web creativity

New documentary project should be an inspiration for filmmakers and brands.

On Nov. 5, the National Film Board of Canada and director Katerina Cizek launched a new breed of film with the documentary One Millionth Tower. What makes it so groundbreaking is that it’s not a film in the traditional sense but an experience created entirely with HTML5, WebGL and other open source JavaScript libraries, all co-ordinated using a new open-source technology by Mozilla called Popcorn.

The film is part of the NFB and Cizek’s Highrise project. Last year the project’s inaugural web/film Out My Window won an international digital Emmy, a Webby and other awards for its unique way of depicting the lives of people living in highrise apartment buildings in 13 different cities around the world.

Up until now, the most high profile use of HTML5 has been in music videos, particularly those done by Google, Arcade Fire’s award-winning “The Wilderness Downtown” and “3 Dreams of Black” by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi.

One Millionth Tower seamlessly blends video with Flickr photos, Google Street View and real-time weather data from Yahoo, and allows viewers to navigate the story in a 3-D environment.

All this tech wizardry was orchestrated by Toronto’s Helios Design Labs, a multi-discipline design studio that has done client work for RIM, Nokia and MTV, among others. I spoke with creative technologist Mike Robbins and creative director Alex Wittholz about the film project, why HTML5 technology is so groundbreaking and why we can expect more brands to be using it in 2012.

Canadian Business: How did you guys get involved in the Highrise project?

Mike Robbins: It’s all a six degrees of separation. A friend of mine, Mark Jones, introduced us to Kat for the first film. So we sat down with her and had this amazing idea for a multi-year web documentary. That became Highrise.

CB: Where did the idea to use HTML5 and Popcorn come from?

Robbins: For One Millionth Tower, Kat approached us to do the HTML5 treatment of a video piece which was pretty much complete. Kat wanted to use Popcorn, which is an initiative to create open source programming and video content over the Internet. The original idea for Popcorn was to create tools for filmmakers to make compelling Internet content. So through the course of researching what Popcorn could do it became very apparent to us that architects like to think in three dimensions, so we should try to re-create the piece in three-dimensions.

CB: It’s one thing to say that and quite another to do it. Some of this technology is less than a year old. What were some of the biggest challenges in creating  this project?

Robbins: One challenge is the percentage of people who will actually be able to see it. Many times, when we do things for the Internet we have to reassure our clients that it will be seen by as many people as possible. The initial stats surrounding this project was about 30% of browsers, but since launch we’ve seen it’s running at about 55% to 60%, which I think is because the demographic that would be interested in a piece like this is more likely to have the right browser.

Alex Wittholz: It also speaks to the incredible speed that this technology has been adopted.

Robbins: Yeah, in this world I find six months is an incredibly long period of time. When I was researching this technology back in March, the oldest useful article on it was from mid-2010. A lot of the technology it’s based on is old but these modern interpretations for web use are quite new and proliferate at a daily rate.

CB: That sounds equally exciting and daunting.

Robbins: Even still it’s daunting. The one thing we’ve noticed is, there haven’t been a lot of completed projects that someone paid for and does something more than present a spinning cube or other geometric shapes. Really big standard bearers for this have been the music videos by the Google arts team. Both opened a lot of eyes, both for the creative and marketing community, to what could be done with this technology.

CB: Is this something brands are starting to ask about?

Robbins: The short answer is yes. This is still early days.

Wittholz: Everybody knows about it or is starting to know about it, but nobody knows quite what to do with it yet. It’s a pretty exciting time.

CB: How significant is this project for creative web development in general?

Wittholz: It’s just another tool, really. But it’s a tool that does certain things a lot better than what’s currently available. The main difference is that this works in the browser. Up until now it’s been a world where either you go online to look at stuff or you download an app to do stuff with your mobile phone or tablet. The exciting part about building things with HTML5 is that you can create it once and deploy it across devices, regardless whether it’s a BlackBerry, Android or iPhone. That’s a huge thing.

Robbins: Another main advantage is it’s an open platform, nobody owns it. It’s an internationally accepted set of standards. And whatever you create for the desktop browser actually works the same way on your mobile. There will be less of a division between something that’s designed for mobile and something that’s designed for the ordinary desktop browser. They’ll be one in the same.

CB: Are you having conversations with clients about using this technology? How can brands best utilize what you’ve learned on this project and what can we expect in the near future?

Robbins: Because of this project we now have two wildly different client sets. One is filmmakers who are embarking on putting their visions into a different medium. Now you can take your story or film and put it into a whole new context, in this case the Internet. On the other hand, we’ve got commercial clients but they’re the type who make you sign non-disclosure agreements.

Wittholz: Look at banner ads. They haven’t worked in years and the only reason they still exist is because you can go back to the client with measurable results. The fact someone clicked on something doesn’t really mean anything and advertising is increasingly about telling convincing stories that are worth the viewer’s time. Clients are excited by this technology, but at the end of the day they don’t really care. They want an interesting, new experience and this is just a new set of tools that can give them that. Ad agencies, brands and marketers usually want to see what they’re buying upfront, so it’s really up to shops like us to make things and then take it to those clients and say, “Look what you can do.”