Film? I’ve heard of that!

Film.  It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about.  Television is, of course, part of our daily lexicon here at the Cooney Center given our Sesame Workshop roots, but movies — not so much.  Last week I had the chance to head out to TIFF Kids (the children’s version of the famous Toronto International Film Festival), where I moderated a panel on transmedia and presented our latest work in the app space.

In preparation for a busy few days, I sort of forgot that what I was going to was actually a film festival.  But upon arrival, I walked in to the amazing new TIFF building to be greeted by the most beautiful sight.  Picture about 40 under-served 3-year-olds waiting in line to see a movie.  For many of them, likely their first movie in a theatre.  Their first movie!  Popcorn buckets the size of their heads.  Excitement actually emanated from their bodies to the point that I had goose bumps.  Ahhh, the magic of film.

TIFF Kids offers children the opportunity to learn about cultural perspectives from around the world through the power of the moving image. The festival includes two public weekends for kids ages 3 and up and a two-week long School Program for students in elementary schools, allowing Toronto’s youth to view features and shorts from around the world, and often giving them the rare opportunity to participate in Q&A with producers and directors.

The festival is really best in class in a number of ways. They have a Special Delivery program that reaches out to youth in under-served local communities who may not otherwise have access to the festival, bringing the experience to such schools and community groups free of charge.  They also have a Jump Cuts program that presents short films created for young people by young people, giving amateur filmmakers from grades 3 to 8 the chance to create and share.  In addition to all of the wonderful kids programming, the Industry and Nexus streams give professionals from multiple disciplines the chance to learn and network.
Well — we may not be thinking about movies, but they are thinking about us.  For the first time ever, TIFF Kids produced digiplayspace, Toronto’s first digital playspace for kids that ran as part of the Film Festival, and is probably one of the best interactive digital play spaces for kids that I’ve ever seen.  Amongst other activities, children got to learn about green screen and stop-motion animation techniques, participate in a micro-makers fair where they learned the basics of making robots, 3D prints and other interactive electronics, and manage their own interactive ecosystem using active play.  I really can’t do the digiplayspace justice using words, but check out this short clip that the TIFF folks put together (it is a film festival, after all).

One of the less sexy but most popular sections of the play space was the “appcade”, a curated selection of educational apps across several tablet and mobile device platforms.  Numerous wonderful apps were featured (full disclosure, I helped with the curation), including the current favorite in our household, Sesame Workshop’s own The Monster at The End of This Book.  But I felt like one app in particular captured the vibe of the festival, and that is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

So I’m going to admit something kind of embarrassing. Morris Lessmore has been one of my favorite apps for some time.  Beautiful imagery, a wonderful story, interactive play seamlessly integrated into an e-book, a digital media experience that celebrates the power of good ol’ reading – five stars!  The embarrassing part?  I totally forgot that the app was based on a short film.  And not just any film.  After winning over a dozen film festivals, the film was awarded the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards this year!

So despite being embarrassing, this realization was also enlightening.  And it makes perfect sense.  How many apps incorporate beautiful moving image sequences, a layered story, an original score, a deep character; so many core elements of film.  But to me, living in the digital media world, I saw a fantastic app.  And it is!  As mentioned, I came to TIFF to moderate a panel on transmedia.  As with any panel on transmedia, we grappled with the definition of what that word truly means.  But however you define it, I think Morris Lessmore is a great example.  When we don’t know where the content originated, when each piece of media tells a story in its entirety but also fits perfectly into a larger puzzle; to me, that is true transmedia.  It all left me pondering how we in the world of kids’ media can further repurpose more of the amazing film content out there into digital experiences that kids can interact with.

On that note, in many ways my TIFF experience left me with more questions than answers.  What does this whole digital media world add to children’s experience with film?  If something on the big screen sparks their interest, how can we develop new media experiences to help them go deeper?  How can we capitalize on the new interactive media so that the magic of the movies doesn’t end when the credits roll?  In addition to augmented realities, virtual environments and apps, there is this thing called film.  Let’s not, as professionals in the interactive media, forget about it!

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