NFB delivers movie archive online

The National Film Board of Canada wanted to catch up with the times and get its archives online for the masses to view, a challenging project that has resulted in a trove of classic and contemporary NFB content that its developers have been working to bring to everyone, including the visually and hearing impaired.

In 2007, the NFB set out to bring a 700-strong archive of productions, films, trailers, and clips to a virtual screening room where users can legally view the content.

Right away, the IT team ran up against a wall, said Joel Pomerleau, head of interactive services and relational marketing. “The main issue that slowed us down was the rights. Most of these things were produced before the Internet even existed.”

The NFB already had two in-house rights management systems, but the new project required a fresh interface that could ensure that all updates were entered. “The integration there was quite a challenge,” said Pomerleau.

From there, the research and development team had to finesse the asset management chain to get the musty old film stock onto the newfangled Internet. The 35mm format was converted to a high-resolution uncompressed format that can be used for future Blu-Ray or HDTV applications. Then, that format was further compressed into several different formats.

“As a government organization, we’re legally obliged to make our content accessible to every Canadian, no matter how connected they are,” said Pomerleau. There’s a low-resolution option for those connecting via dial-up, and a happy medium comparable to YouTube quality for the average viewer. Those who want a higher-resolution experience can view the high-definition playback.

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The NFB had yet another challenge. The Screening Room wasn’t just a simple media player. Due to the organization’s “content for all” mandate, this meant accommodating the visually and hearing impaired. All content was subtitled via an optional track embedded within the files. Audio description tracks were also created as an add-on.

Charles Silverman of the University of Toronto Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (and developer of CapScribe, a free, open-source application for developing captions and video description for the Web) said that could do with the conventional “cc” or speech bubble symbol for closed captioning and that the captions are a touch small.

But, he said, “the NFB site is impressive and it’s clear that a lot of time and thought into providing an accessible, easy to use environment for people using assistive technologies such as screen readers.”

“We also had to make sure the whole site was surfable without a mouse,” according to Pomerleau, who said that the NFB will continue to work with these communities to improve the ease-of-use of the site for the visually and hearing impaired, and add more captioning and audio descriptive tracks. “People think these technologies are only for the blind, but they’re not. With the aging population, they can be for everybody.”

For example, said Silverman, “Seeing the text gives us access to proper spellings and other information that just wouldn’t be there. Added description can be helpful in understanding the content, especially in documentaries. Captioning and description are especially helpful to people whose primary language is different from the spoken language of the sound track.”

Silverman suggests that technology can also be used to get that feedback from user communities. “One suggestion is that the NFB provide an accessibility blog and share their goals, process, and progress. How are they handling all the captioning and description?” he said. “If captioning exists already, how are they migrating it…What are their timelines? Would they accept volunteer support for some of the captioning and video description?”

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Pomerleau plans to continue to work with the IT team to make as much content available to as many people as possible, which includes bringing more videos to mobile devices and enabling user playlists and interface customization. “The Web now enables us to reach more people, and we want to be exemplary online citizens.”

This project would make the NFB definite leaders, according to Silverman. “The biggest fear of content providers is that if they begin the process and put some things out, will the perception be that they aren’t doing enough. Will the hearing loss and deaf communities accuse them of doing too little? Will they have to devote a lot of time and funding to captioning and describing everything all at once?” he said.

“NFB is to be applauded as this move is smart and gutsy. To my knowledge, NFB is the only Canadian organization to date that has created an infrastructure for making its video accessible. It that sense, they’ve opened the door. It’s hard not to compare their efforts to that of some of the broadcasters at the recent CRTC hearings who talked about all they reasons they couldn’t deliver captioning and description on the Web.”

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