Perhaps no organization is more synonymous with excellence in animated shorts than the National Film Board of Canada. Since Norman McLaren put the first animation team together in 1942, the NFB has produced some of the world’s most famous and certainly most enjoyable animated shorts, garnering 8 Oscars and literally thousands of international awards.
And yet, this tremendous legacy of success comes against the backdrop of a recent identity crisis, a question of relevance and purpose in the face of shrinking government coffers and just as importantly, seismic shifts in how people find, watch and purchase animated shorts. As both private and institutional sources of funding continue to dry up, the NFB has deftly navigated Canadian political waters, pushing for greater public awareness of their brand while continuing to expand their creative profile through new film development initiatives and an aggressive online presence spearheaded by their 2009 Screening Room launch.
Firmly at the helm as Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the NFB stands Tom Perlmutter. Since joining the NFB in 2001 as Director General of the English Program, Tom has been responsible for a number of significant organizational efforts, from sweeping changes in digital distribution and online operations to expanding artistic outreach to young filmmakers and those from cultural minorities. Now entering his second five year term as head of the entire organization, in a job that requires equal parts bureaucrat, production executive, cultural referee and artistic cheerleader, Tom seems well suited to guide the NFB as it faces whatever creative, fiscal or political challenges may lie ahead.
I recently sat down with him to discuss the Film Board’s mission, his role as chairperson and how he plans to continue pushing the NFB forward operationally and artistically.
Dan Sarto: So, what exactly is the role of NFB Chairman? What are your main responsibilities?
Tom Perlmutter: First of all to be clear, it’s an unusual role which is not typically done these days. I’m both Chairman of the board of trustees as well as the equivalent of the CEO. The most critical and important role is providing the strategic vision of what direction we need to head in, where are we going to put our priorities and how are we going to get there. Then, how we take our strategic vision and make it operational. How do you actually make it work? How do you use your resources effectively and efficiently, because they are both limited? Because we are essentially government funded, through a parliamentary appropriation that is not indexed [for inflation], meaning we’re losing purchasing power [over time], we have to be effective in terms of how we use our dollars. But all of that has to be in service of something. It’s not simply that I’m there as an efficient manager. It’s to provide a vision for this odd thing [the NFB] which doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s a production and distribution studio that happens to be publicly owned. And that drives the job.
DS: What is the biggest challenge you face right now?
TP: There is a fiscal challenge, the financial challenge in terms of being able to live up to all the ambitions in terms of what we want to do and be able to do more with different kinds of filmmakers. We’ve got some solutions in mind for that over the next few years. I’d say the other challenge for us is we’re living in a time where the disruptive effects of how people are connecting, watching, seeing, you can’t just say, “Well, we’ll just do what we’ve done in the past, we’ll come to Annecy and the Ottawa Animation Festival, and that’s good.” It’s not good enough,
DS: You can’t just stay in your comfort zone.
TP: No. You can’t. This world is moving. So it both provides opportunity but it’s terrifying because it’s constantly adapting to uncertainty. That’s interesting. It means you have to create structures that are much more supple, much more able to dance that dance. A metaphor I use, it’s like being a surfer. You’ve got to know how to read the waves.
DS: How do you think the NFB is viewed within the Canadian animation community? How do you feel you’re viewed with regards to accessibility for people to make films? Among some groups of people, there is a feeling that the NFB is a fairly exclusive club that they just aren’t a member of.
TP: Yeah. You know it’s something that I’ve been really working hard to try and change. That’s why, for example, the Hothouse program was a way of addressing that. When you’re working with one or two emerging animators for three years on an expensive project it leaves little room for others. But then, when you’re bringing in six new animators in a group, for three months, you’ve opened the door. I truly believe we constantly have to push ourselves to make ourselves accessible in the sense of saying anyone should be able to come in and knock at the door. Not everyone gets to make a film, that’s about talent. We have limited means, we have limited resources and that includes producers. But the effort is there.
DS: So, what is the strategic vision for the next two, three, five years?
TP: Can I take a step back…
TP: I came into this role five years ago. It’s a five-year mandate, a government appointed position. I was head of English language production previously. I applied, and for various reasons I became a dark-horse candidate. Everyone was telling me not to apply because I had no political connections whatsoever. But I had a very clear sense of what to do. I worked out a strategic plan, I sat down for a week and said, “This is what we need to do.” And to me it was fairly clear, there were some fundamental issues that needed to be answered. The first was the Film Board was in danger of vanishing. It was in danger of vanishing because it wasn’t being “seen” or wasn’t being “seen to be seen.” The directive when I first arrived at the Film Board was that things were going to be done for television because that’s how you’re connected with audiences. The trouble with television is even though 90% of the stuff [NFB films] was going on television, we weren’t being distinctive, we were just another product. So what happens in television is, your product, you are one among thousands. So people stumble upon you perhaps, but you are not appointment viewing as such.
So that was one issue. The second issue was how it affects animation. It had to be formatted for television. So suddenly you’ve lost a measure of creative freedom because you’re dealing with the demands of television instead of whatever the demands are of what it is you want to do. It’s also a real issue of why should the public sector do what the private sector could do very well. So, if you are invisible and you don’t exist there’s no reason for you to exist. There’s all this amazing stuff [NFB productions] there and you need to make sure audiences connect with it. Not only see it but engage with it, have a relationship to it. So that was fundamental.
The next thing was that I came from the private sector and I said, “Well, why should taxpayers pay for this?” It was very clear to me that we were there to do things that no one else could do. Because there was no economic model, because the creative risks were too great. So it became fundamental for me, and it took a bit of doing in the various management layers to get people to accept this, to say our ambition is to do what no one else could do. That was it. I said, “That’s it. We may not succeed but unless we set that as the ambition we’ll never get there.” And I said the most irresponsible thing that an organization like ours could do was not take risks. That’s what I mean by setting the strategic vision, setting a sense of here is where we’re going, here’s what we are after and then inspiring, in a sense, the organization to push that through.
When I was head of English programming, I was experimenting with a lot of different things, and I knew that they were interesting things to develop in the digital world, things that were rapidly changing and disrupting our industry fundamentally. In Canada, the visual industry tends to be fairly conservative partly because of the nature of how funding structures work. And I think well, we’re not bound by that. We started to develop what I saw as a screening room. For me, it wasn’t a website. It was really important from the start to think of the screening room as the place where you have an “experience.” And there was a lot of disagreement internally. Why are we doing this? Back four or five years ago, it [video online] wasn’t quite as prevalent. We did have video online, but it didn’t have that kind of role.
DS: It wasn’t as crazy as it is now.
TP: No, it wasn’t. And the second thing I said, which also caused everybody a great deal of concern, was when I said we were going to make all of this free by streaming. Because again, I understood something which is in this online world, what you need most of all in order to build a future economic model was brand equity. You needed to get audiences to understand who you were, connect with you, want you. Then, you could build a whole business basis on that. So we launched NFB.ca and that was driven by this vision of a screening room. It was the world’s first that supported two languages, English and French. There were a couple of surprises from that launch. First of all, it was enormously successful off the bat. It got enormous coverage. For the staff at the Film Board it made an enormous difference. When they told people they met that they worked at the Film Board, the response would be, “Oh, does that still exist?” This was in Canada!
After a couple of months [after launching NFB.ca], people were coming up to them and saying, “Wow! That’s terrific. I’ve seen these films and I’m remembering things from my past and I loved this.” Suddenly people [at the NFB] are going, “Oh yeah, that’s us.” So they took an enormous sense of pride in everything they were doing because it was connecting to ordinary people. Younger audiences were watching. The numbers were going up all the time. So many people understood what we were doing.
The thing that made a big difference, that I wasn’t fully aware of at the time, was that the site became a platform for our traditional content, the library, as well as the new stuff that we were producing. The big difference with television was that you entered its own universe. People were flipping around and stumbling onto this animated short or this documentary, now I’m watching Wheel of Fortune, or Survivor or whatever it might be. Our audiences, they were like voyagers traveling through time, from Norman McLaren’s Neighbours to Chris Landreth’s Ryan, then crossing geographical barriers, going across the country, going across language barriers, discovering Co Hoedeman and Jacques Drouin, and suddenly, it was like, people were discovering a universe. They were sharing it. It was embedded in social networks. So the experience of it was a very engaged one in a very different way from television. A profound difference.
And then the other aspect that came along, again part of this vision, was the sense that it’s not simply a platform for showing traditional content, it’s a technology, it’s a medium of creation. So we started experimenting, becoming one of the leaders in the world, in terms of thinking of it is as a new art form in and of itself. Demanding its own language, its own grammar, its own aesthetics. We we’re developing this whole new interactive work and it happen both in the doc world and also in animation.
DS: This is all so very new.
TP: Yes. We’re in the very early days of this. Lots of people are skeptical. But it’s a new narrative form. We’re driven by notions of narrative here. It’s different. I do presentations where I often start off and show a clip from Edwin Porter’s classic 1903 film The Great Train Robbery. It looks very amateurish. American audiences, at that time, it was the first time they had seen double exposure, tracking shots, panning shots, the way the cutting was done. They had to learn a whole other language of storytelling. They had to be educated. That’s what is happening now. So we’re exploring a whole other world of creation now which is a kind of interesting.
DS: How has this impacted your production planning? How do you determine what mix of projects you’re going to take on?
TP: We’re bringing in creators from all sorts of different artistic disciplines that are excited to work in this kind of way. That’s laid a foundation for thinking about the future, about where we go. Within that context, again in terms of animation, it creates a context for whether you are doing traditional 2D animation, or 3-D stereoscopic, or whether you’re working like Michèle [Lemieux] with the pinscreen. Whatever style you’re working with, the overall context is creative excitement, the possibility that exploration, whether it’s going to be in a traditional form or whether it’s going to be something completely different, will connect you with audiences, that people are going to see it and will go to festivals. It will connect you with traditional animation. It will go beyond that. It’s going to open up worlds and people will have a relationship to that in ways that are yet unimagined.
We have two production units. One is in French and one is in English, and I hire a head of production for each. I believe very strongly that decisions ultimately must be made by one person with a sense passion and commitment. They have to make the decisions about these sorts of things. They can bring together program committees where people sit around, they discuss things, figure it out. But at the end of the day, one person says “Yes” or “No.” Now how it happens is that in both English and French, there are executive producers, René Chénier and Roddy McManus.
DS: I haven’t met René. I’ve met Roddy several times.
TP: Roddy just started here [last year]. René has been here for many years and has long experience in the industry. He has come to the NFB out of the private sector, with a sense of liberation for pushing the boundaries of creation. And so, we’re meeting animators all the time, meeting creators, we’re looking at things to bring them in. You’re just trying to get jazzed by certain things and say “OK, let’s go there.” One of the things that’s been really interesting, and in fact, was something I pushed for when I was head of English programming, was the Hothouse program.
DS: I’ve seen a number of those projects.
TP: Well, when I arrived, we were working with emerging filmmakers in a very expensive way, and I said there must be a better way of doing things, to give them the experience they need without costing so much. It can be more efficient and they can learn better. So we set up a program called Hothouse. For three months, we bring together six animators from across the country. First there’s a selection process, and then they’re placed in the animation studio in Montreal for that three months. Now the big difference from a student project is that they are produced like Oscar films. We’ll bring in a leading animator to act as a mentor for the process. Every element of it has the best talent in terms of sound design, in terms of music, in terms of any part of the digital imaging. They’re being pushed. Everything is being pushed. They have to come together to figure out how to be effective story tellers in a short, short format, from thirty seconds to two minutes. It’s extraordinary and the work’s available on line.
DS: Didn’t Patrick Doyon’s film come out of Hothouse?
TP: Yes. One of the Oscar nominees this year, Sunday, by Patrick Doyon. He began in Hothouse, and then graduated to doing Sunday in that sense. People are attracted to this because they want to do auteur animation. There are not a lot of places to go first of all.
DS: No there isn’t.
TP: And there isn’t a real economic model for it as a short form animation…
DS: Not at all.
TP: And so what you have is that our system, in a sense I think for many filmmakers, the Film Board is their kind of Holy Grail, where they can come and do it and work there.
DS: When you look at the NFB, your job, what gives you the most sense of personal satisfaction?
TP: First, I have to say that the most profound sense of satisfaction is the sheer amazement and astonishment that I see when I sit down in a screening room and watch some of the work. When I go onto the set and watch Michèle work on the pinscreen and I’m literally blown away by the work. I just sit there and my insides go all kind of funny because something’s happening to you. You’re in a relationship with a work of art. You feel it transforming you as you’re sitting there. And I think, God, we’ve created a place, an environment where that kind of magic happens. Second, I always love this, is to sit with an audience in smaller communities across the country. I do that, I regularly go out. And I’m sitting there, maybe in Prince George in Northern BC, or maybe in the Arctic with the Inuit community, watching films with them and how they respond to it in completely unexpected ways, ways that open their eyes to how important this work is to the people whom you want it to be important to. Those two things are the sheer joys of what I do.
Dan Sarto is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Animation World Network.