TIFF Nexus Moves Beyond Film
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TIFF Nexus Moves Beyond Film

TIFF Nexus works with next-gen digital storytellers. Because video games are movies too.

The folks at the Hand Eye Society. Photo courtesy of Jim Munroe.

This past May, Cassie Creighton wanted to tell a story. Not any story, mind you, but one of evil lemons, rainbow portals, and unicorn-pony hybrids. And with the help of her father, Cassie’s story began to take shape. It was called Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, and was released as an online Flash-based game: the musings of a five-year-old girl brought to life with pixels, programming, and, well, ponycorns. “There’s a mystique about making games that makes it seem like it’s this really, really complicated thing that only a handful of people can do,” says Mare Sheppard, president of Metanet Software, and co-founder of The Hand Eye Society. “But it’s something [everyone] can and maybe should be doing.”

Which is exactly what Sheppard is trying to encourage. Next Wednesday, TIFF—in collaboration with The Hand Eye Society, amongst others—will officially launch a brand new interactive program, dubbed TIFF Nexus.

The initiative is designed to give those with an interest in games, from full-fledged filmmakers to five-year-olds, the tools and support required to make a game of their own. Frequent conferences and creative jams are scheduled over the next few months, aiming to bring otherwise disparate groups of creative types together with the hopes of prototyping new games and ideas.

“I think [TIFF] recognized that video games are yet another visual medium that can be used to tell a story,” says James Weyman, manager of industry initiatives for the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC), which provides funding for the Nexus initiative. “There’s an alignment and a similarity to the film industry” that both communities can benefit from.

Take, for example, 2003’s Enter The Matrix. While the film was largely panned by critics, over two hours of additional cinematics were filmed exclusively for the game—an unheard of degree of involvement and collaboration. The game itself was almost treated as an interactive movie, “written and directed by The Wachowski Brothers.” It’s a phenomenon MIT media scholar Henry Jenkins has termed “convergence culture”: the intersecting of different media to expand franchise possibilities, fan engagement, and of course, bottom-line profits.

Today at 3:30 p.m., a panel of filmmakers and game designers (including Trevor Fencott, CEO of Distillery-based Bedlam Games, and film producer Jay Firestone) will discuss the forthcoming science fiction film Neuromancer, and the crossover game they have planned. “The Nexus project allows us to connect these disparate silos,” says Shane Smith, director of public programmes for TIFF. “It’s designed to equip a new generation of story tellers with the tools they need to succeed in this rapidly evolving digital landscape.”

The first of the initiative’s creative jams are already underway. Organized by Sheppard and fellow Hand Eye Society co-founder Jim Munroe, The Difference Engine Initiative was conceived as a six-week program intended to address issues surrounding underrepresented groups in the gaming community—in this case, women. Workshops such as Difference Engine “open up the possibilities for different types of people who don’t have programming skills to make a game on their own,” Munroe tells us. And in the future, Sheppard says there’s no reason why issues of race or sexuality, for example, couldn’t be explored as well. (Sessions on child-friendly games and comic art collaborations are planned for later this year.)

Of course, The Hand Eye Society isn’t TIFF’s only collaborative partner. Financial support from the Ontario Media Development Council has been crucial, while peripheral partners, such as Ryerson University and local hackerspace and “colaborator” Site3, have offered their facilities and expertise. (Site3, for example, was crucial in bringing game developers and hardware engineers together to explore peripherals and alternate input interfaces—the sort of diversity that is proving to be the initiative’s real strength.)

“We’re increasingly recognized internationally for the indie game development taking place here,” says the OMDC’s industry initiatives consultant Kim Gibson. “And we’ve seen that community grow exponentially in recent years.” And with programs such as Nexus, where almost anyone can participate, you can bet those numbers will only continue to grow.

The TIFF Nexus initiative officially launches September 14 with a panel discussion in the Filmmakers’ Lounge of the Hyatt Regency hotel.