TMC Hugues Sweeney Experience Design Interview ENG Version
HUGUES SWEENEY (onf/nfb)
…on experience design
Part 2 of an interview with
Executive Producer Interactive media
onf/NFB Digital Studio Montreal
Hugues Sweeney is head of French-language interactive media production at the
ONF/National Film Board of Canada, based in Montreal. Sweeney's recent
production credits include the webdocs, The Devil’s Toy Remix (2014), My Tribe
Is My Life (2011), an online interactive web art work, Bla Bla (2012), & Rouge au
carré (2012), an interactive web-based response to the 2012 Quebec student
protests. Multiplatform works include, A Journal of Insomnia (2013), a webdoc &
installation on insomnia, inspired by the lack of sleep Sweeney experienced in
the summer of 2009, when he and his wife were up nights with their newborn
daughter, and the web/installation/mobile work, Barcode (2011).
In 2012, he was president of the jury of the 18th edition of the Concours
Boomerang, honouring the best advertising and interactive websites by Quebec
companies. From 2000 to 2007, he was head of Radio-Canada’s Bande à part, a
multi-platform project to promote Canadian independent music. Hugues was
then head of programming at Espace Musique from 2007 to 2009. He studied
philosophy at the Dominican College of Philosophy and Theology in Ottawa and
multimedia at Université du Québec à Montréal.
who is HUGUES SWEENEY?
S.O. : When we spoke last, we talked brieﬂy about designing for an experience,
as opposed to ‘telling a story.’ How do you approach designing for an
experience in your work as a producer with the NFB Interactive program and
now as head of the NFB Fr. Interactive program? Can you describe what that
means to you?
HS. : It’s a switch of point of view from storyteller/author to the person
who is living the experience of the project. For Insomnia, there were three
aspects to the brief, ﬁrst, the insomniac had to be part of the creative
process. The big question is if a documentary is a representation of the
world, how does that representation change if people are actively
engaged in the experience? For me it’s the foundation of everything we
do, and the experience comes from there.
1HS. : There are levels of participation, of collaboration; in some parts
people do not create content, some parts people do. We try to shape it
from the pov of the user. I would never want to make a doc as a
participatory project, as UGC can be very bad.
Sometimes though it’s the right ﬁt and then we ask: how do we make
great UGC? How can UGC become a conversation between a creator, a
producer and an audience? We try to make a conversation that is
relevant, artful and rich - it’s not just this is my part & what’s your part, it’s
more about ‘let’s do something together and this is your role.’
web & interactive installation
a journal of insomnia
S.O. : In a talk you gave at the Interactive Documentary Conference 2012, you talked
about your process of coming to digital media from your work on Wittgenstein, and your
fascination with language, how meaning emerges between words and how we use them
and the context in which words appear.’ How then when you started working with cinema
and multi-media, you became interested in how words, sounds, still images, multi-media
function to create meaning together. Can you talk about more about this?
HS. : Caspar Sonnen of UTFA & I were discussing the difference between
the Montreal ONF studio & Vancouver NFB studio and he said the Vancouver
studio is words & the Montreal studio is senses. It’s true that we put a lot of
care into sound, all the audio of the project. Most of the projects are original
content, except for a few, like My Tribe which is more of a web radio thing,
and musicians are part of the creative process for everything we do. But it’s
funny you bring this back to the philosophy thing as when I studied
philosophy I found it very interesting that aesthetics and art become the
answer to philosophy’s search for truth. How then do we represent the
world? and how does meaning emerge from representation?
2HS. : That’s when I discovered Direct cinema from the 60s. Cinema Verité,
particularly from Pierre Perrault, was the cinema of ‘la parole,’ of speech -
of speech not from the elite or intellectual or artisans but from the most
ordinary people. What really interested me was the question of how can
we use sound, text, still image, moving image, code, programming in a
very asymmetric way?!
The unﬁxed aspect of interactive media felt more adequate to represent
reality from a documentary stand point, because reality is a very complex,
unstable, ungraspable thing. I’m not saying this as a pejorative thing at all,
but from an abstract formal view, life is not a continuous thing that sits still.
In the approach of interactive media there is something nearer to life.
S.O. : Your approach to interactive and digital media seems to give the audience a chance
to co-create meaning and this seems to counter the documentary maker’s unavoidable
bias in the position of the camera, framing, editing, and production of a documentary.
Instead your approach give agency back to the audience and in a poetic way, as no one
ever reads a poem the same way as anyone else.
HS. : yes - and meaning changes all the time.
S.O. : Your projects create very different experiences: Bla Bla is playful, game-like and web-
based. Insomnia’s installation creates a very moody experience. Can you talk about the
process of ﬁnding the appropriate immersive installation? Was Insomnia’s installation part of
the original brief?
3HS. : With each project we had a different question because of the set-up,
the physical constraints or the contextual constraints - is it a festival?
subway station? open air? Bla Bla came from looking at people playing
the project, which was funny, so we reframed the experience around
putting the user in the middle so that when you‘re not playing watching
another person play becomes part of the show.!
The Insomnia project started with the pov of the insomniac and the pov of
the user/the spectator became the content. They enter the installation and
make the content alive on the walls of the installation. As a performance at
a festival, each time someone drew stuff, people gathered to watch. This
brings something from the inside to the outside.!
web & interactive installation
a journal of insomnia
3HS. : We did an installation for Barcode and we tried to translate the
metaphor of the project into real life. The installation is like a giant bar
code, with all these objects on the ﬂoor and when you scan an object, the
bar code becomes a screen for short ﬁlms.!
It’s funny how every time we do an installation of a web piece we go
through this long production process and when we arrive at the end, we
close the circle, so often the installation is better than the web piece
because we’ve been through so much. We have made so many decisions
through designing the web project, we arrive at the installation at the end
and we go straight to the point. !
The Insomnia installation is like the culmination of the web project - we go
straight to the point. We’ve started doing more installations that have no
web component at all. These are two very different categories now.
coproduction ONF/nfb + ARTE
WEb, mobile & interactive installation
S.O. : The process you describe seems to complete what you can’t control
in designing a web-doc, which is the environment, because you get to
design the experience more fully than in a web-doc alone.4
HS. : Maybe we’re just frustrated architects! Well, you know we joke about the
architect thing but it’s true that architects create urbanist art. They are the
highest experience builders because they create spaces where humans will
interact, do stuff and change things. It’s really about creating a space. For me I
think that projects are a physical, imaginary place that you go. !
In the last six months, we’ve seen important things shifting, really three things:
ﬁrst, working more with public spaces and installations, and second, working
with indie gamers on projects. I realized how much time we lost because we
forgot about video games and games in general. Because people have been
building games for a long time, and if you include table top games, interactivity
has existed for centuries. And now we’re like ‘oh… what’s interactivity?? Hey
wake up!’ (Laughs)
coproduction ONF/nfb + ARTE (Fr & GR)
interactive multi-player docu-game
4HS. : So that’s one part where we feel we’re trying to catch up for lost time.
We have 3 projects on the go where we are working with indie gamers
and a fourth project where we work with a game mechanic. A question we
ask ourselves to save a lot of time goes straight to the question of
emotion: what’s the impact you want to have on the audience? want do
you want them to feel? think? what do you want them to do? And you
have to answer these questions from the get-go. Then you deﬁne the
whole experience from this standpoint.!
The third shift is Oculus Rift as the impact will be phenomenal. Is it ﬁnal? a
stepping stone? a rebound of something else? I have no idea but this is a
direction where something will happen. I’m blown away. My ﬁrst real
experience of OR, was Pat (Patrick) Watson playing a song in his home.
It’s the simplest thing ever - you just sit down on a chair as you would in
his apartment. There’s nothing more, he’s playing his song, his dog is
there, the phone rings, it’s all there. !
S.O. : Last time I saw you, you mentioned Megaphone, an urban installation
you were working on. Can you talk about that?
5HS. : We did that in September-October 2013 - It was designed so that you
talked through a megaphone in a public space and your words were
transcribed in real time through speech recognition software onto a building,
and the more people talked the more words you saw. By the end it was a
compilation of what Montreal was saying at that time of the year. We gave
the top 300 words at the end to a philosopher and we asked him to write a
short piece based on those words, which he published in Le Devoir the day
after the installation closed. !
To have speech as an external representation in urban space is interesting.
Megaphone had an impact on the kind of experience the city wants to
produce downtown, and the question was how do you bring an editorial
presence to that? audio visual wallpaper is easy to do - 3D projection - how
do you make a social impact from a public installation?!
SO: The question of meaning again! Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer talks about how
in his public interactive installations it’s not a successful work unless you build in
an element of chaos. Matt & Susan Gorbet have a piece called Power to the
People that’s a big outdoor marquee of light bulbs and a switch panel that lets
anyone spell a word. So there are no ﬁlters or controls and someone will always
throw up the F-word. With Megaphone did you use ﬁlters at all? Was there a
HS. : Actually its surprising how when the frame is set, and there’s a sense of it
being artsy or reﬁned or editorial, it selects itself, you will not attract a certain
kind of people or interaction. It’s surprising there’s not a lot of stuﬀ we have to
moderate. The context and the frame make the ﬁrst ﬁlter.
[Each night began with pre-booked speakers and a set topic, then the
‘megaphone’ was opened to the public]
SO: Do you ever start with the technology? I ask because we both know the
mantra ‘Don’t start with the tech, start with the story!’ but now you’ve had this
experience with Oculus Rift…7
HS. : Barcode for example for me was an idea up in the air - ‘How can we use
a barcode as a piece of tech to tell what’s hidden behind the objects? Is it
about tracking corruption? environmental impact? then it became more of an
anthropological investigation - scan an object and an object will tell a story. So
Barcode came from the technology. It’s a bit of an egg/chicken thing. I have no
dogma about this.
I am always uncomfortable when there’s a statement at a conference that
‘whatever the technology it’s always ‘story ﬁrst!’ Yes and no as the same crowd
will think about a documentary only in a 24 frame per second form and that is
entirely based on technology. The documentary world has forgotten that the
documentary could only exist only in sound or in pictures, pre-internet.
Sometimes the technology can point to stories.
coproduction ONF/nfb + ARTE
7HS. : The way Cinema Vérité was born was that the guy who was doing the
editing realized he could sync the audio track to the ﬁlm. That happened
because one guy was looking at the ﬁlm and wondered: what if I synced
everything? then they tried to shape the tech diﬀerently. Sometimes you will
have a story & subject and will try to ﬁnd the right form, the right tech. With
Insomnia, I thought in a ﬂash that the internet was the best metaphor for
insomnia, so I thought let’s do it on the web.
Or with Oculus Rift - what could that mean? How will OR shape representation
diﬀerently? What are the possibilities that emerge for representation?
It’s ﬁnding the right ﬁt between form and content and when it clicks, it doesn’t
SO: Right now, there’s a drive to mobile because mobile penetration is so much
higher globally than the web. Yet there are real challenges in designing for mobile, in
terms of content, function and the constraints of the platform. Can you talk about
how you’ve used mobile? I think Barcode had a mobile component.8HS. : Yes, Barcode was mobile ﬁrst. We have a project right now, the working
title is ’Dead Time (it won’t be called that) and it’s about our incapacity to do
nothing. The phone is like a cigarette and each time we have down time we
take out the phone. We generate solicitation.It’s a mobile project because the
phone becomes a metaphor, a symbol of that incapacity.We also have a tablet
Mobile penetration is high though the use is very diﬀerent, as if you want to
make something creative and artful on a phone it has to be very speciﬁc to that
device. The laptop is still one of the main drivers. It’s an ongoing concern that
we have as with some projects, with tablets it’s like going back to 2001.
When we made Bla Bla, we couldn’t convert it to a tablet because of the
processing. The processors couldn’t handle what we asked, and I would not
diminish the quality of the experience just for the platform. It’s trying to ﬁnd the
SO: Is there any thing you can share about the projects with gaming elements?
HS. The next project was really inspired by the indie gaming sphere because
when we were looking at stats for Bla Bla, people were really coming from
gaming blogs and we started discovering that world and projects like Journey
and Flower. I spent a lot of time playing games and trying to understand the
grammar and the language. We are working an indie game, small agency on
Dead Time, they look more like a young band.
There’s two other projects we’re starting to develop right now around
economics that we are working on with an indie gaming company in Montreal.
One is around social innovation - it’s very abstract right now - it’s about
understanding changes from the perspective of social innovation, a ground-up
9HS. The other one began with a retired VP of le Banque national. Leon
Courville is a renowned economics teacher at HEC, the Economics School in
Montreal and in 2008 he wrote an essay because he was outraged by what had
happened in the economic collapse. He says that we have been robbed of
democracy because we have lost control over our economy. Canada,
fortunately, was saved because of how the system was built.
Courville wrote an essay, 150 pages, and he thought, I’m going to publish this
and it will reach only reach 2,000 people. So he called Monique Simard (then
Director of the ONF), and said I’m not an audio-visual guy but I want this to
reach the highest number of people possible.
This interested me as I’m really concerned with how poor our knowledge of
9HS. Now We’re going to MIT with the Open Doc Lab to do a 5 day workshop to
bring his thesis into an interactive concept in a gameful manner. It’s about
understanding that even if you’re the most left humanist person, if we don’t
change the system, you will behave exactly the same as you did in 2008.
Because of the way the system is built, it doesn’t matter if you’re left wing or
the 1%. It’s really about understanding how the system shapes behaviour, so
this project is more top down than bottom up.
We really want people to understand this view through game play, playing with
systems. If we really take this from the point of view of behaviour, that’s where
game play becomes a very interesting ﬁeld. That’s why i want it to go more and
more towards game play even if we don’t call it ‘game.’ In games, behaviour is
content. Behaviour is not a way to access content, behaviour is the content.
This is how we need to make the user experience the content, not just a very
complicated way to press play and look at videos.
10HS. : Yes! This spring we’re releasing a tribute to Norman McClaren. We’re
giving 8 architectural surfaces in downtown Montreal to 8 diﬀerent artists to
interpret Norman McClaren. That will be up until June 2nd. We just released an
interactive skateboard project - a web-based video experience which will have
a little something downtown.
And there’s Montreal’s Digital Spring…
SO: You know the ONF/NFB mandate for innovation in form and content
is such a gift….
Bla Bla : http://blabla.nfb.ca/#/blabla
Barcode : http://codebarre.tv/en/#/en
A Journal of Insomnia : http://insomnia.nfb.ca/#/insomnia
Megaphone : http://www.megaphonemtl.ca/home
Fort McMoney : http://fortmcmoney.com/en/#/fortmcmoney
McLaren Wall-to-Wall : http://www.mclarenmuramur.com/en/
The Devil’s Toy Remix : http://thedevilstoy.com/en/
The Hugues Sweeney experience design
interview is released under a NonCommercial
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TMC Resource Kit
the Hugues Sweeney Co-Production
interview was prepared by:
Dr. Siobhan O’Flynn
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