Every January, Canadians watch the Oscar nomination ceremony yearning for some sort of validation of our film industry.
That’s why we revel in those rare occasions when a Quebec feature competes for best foreign film or some quote-unquote Canadian star who hasn’t lived here in decades vies for best supporting actor.
But look past the marquee categories and you’ll find a homegrown body that’s a perennial contender, averaging one Academy Award nomination a year — the National Film Board.
"In Canada, we have this idea of the NFB as that old aunt that everyone’s familiar with, but that you don’t really take a close look at, to see, wait a minute, this old aunt that’s been hovering around is a kind of Emily Dickinson writing some of the world’s greatest poetry," says Tom Perlmutter, who has been chair of the NFB since 2007.
'Anytime we go abroad, the United States, Europe, people almost always say, "Oh, you’re so lucky to have the National Film Board, I wish we had one, and can I move to Canada?"'— Amanda Forbis, co-creator of the Oscar-nominated short Wild Life
The NFB has two films in the best animated short category this year: Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s Wild Life and Patrick Doyon’s Sunday. This brings the NFB’s tally to an impressive 72 nominations in its 73-year history, with 12 Oscar wins.
Of those 72 nominations, 53 have been for short features, including Academy Award winners such as Stuart Legg’s war documentary Churchill’s Island (1941), Terri Nash’s anti-nuclear film If You Love This Planet (1982) and Chris Landreth’s Ryan (2005), a groundbreaking doc about the decline of former NFB animator Ryan Larkin.
The NFB’s remarkable showing at the Oscars has done much to bolster its reputation as the world’s preeminent producer of short films.
A history of short cinema
CBC-TV will air the Oscar-nominated shorts Wild Life and Sunday on Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. and again on Feb. 27 at midnight.
"Working at the NFB is very motivating," says Doyon, who will be making his first trip to the Oscars on Feb. 26. "Every director knows the big history of the National Film Board of Canada, and I think they want to make better films because of that."
The agency’s excellence in short film is partly a function of its history. Established through the National Film Act of 1939, the NFB was initially a propaganda arm in the war effort, producing a series of morale-boosting shorts called Canada Carries On.
In subsequent years, it attracted all kinds of talent. The key hire, according to most observers, was the late Scottish illustrator Norman McLaren. In 1941, NFB founder John Grierson lured McLaren to Canada to set up the institution’s first animation department.
McLaren went on to create a torrent of wildly imaginative shorts, from the jazz-inspired Boogie Doodle (1941) to abstract experiments like Blinkity Blank (1955), and won an Oscar in 1952 for his live-action doc Neighbours.
"He was one of the great geniuses of animation, and [as a result of his hiring] he becomes a centre, and other people are attracted," says Perlmutter.
"It creates that sense, ‘If I want to do great work in this field, here’s one of the few places that I can go to do it,’ and then it became inscribed into the DNA of the place."
The agency also produces feature-length films (Manufactured Landscapes, Act of Dishonour), and in recent years has made dazzling forays into digital media with award-winning interactive projects like Waterlife and Highrise.
The reason the NFB has been able to amass an archive of more than 13,000 short and feature films is because it has an annual government allocation (currently $66 million) and is mandated to reflect "Canadian values and perspectives."
"Whether it’s a short film or feature doc or interactive work, the first question is, ‘Why should a publicly funded institution support this? Is it something that should be done, and can only be done, with the film board?" says Steve Gravestock, a senior programmer with the Toronto International Film Festival.
Envy of the world
Canada doesn’t have a monopoly on short films, but the fact that we have a Crown corporation producing so many of them has led to a lot of envy.
"Anytime we go abroad, the United States, Europe, people almost always say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky to have the National Film Board, I wish we had one, and can I move to Canada?’" says Amanda Forbis, co-creator of the Oscar-nominated short Wild Life and a previous nominee for the 1999 short When the Day Breaks.
Her production partner, Wendy Tilby, jokes about marriage proposals from filmmakers hoping to get into Canada. ("For the love of the film board," she specifies, "not for love of us.")
Yet the fact remains that short films receive limited exposure. While there are whole festivals dedicated to short films, they don’t lend themselves to stand-alone screenings in theatres and are difficult to program on television.
The internet has been a saving grace. The NFB has been proactive in promoting its wares online, making more than 2,000 of its short and feature-length films available for free on its website.
And people are watching: the site got 3.5 million video views in 2009, 5.1 million in 2010 and 6.3 million in 2011.
"It’s a misconception to think that to connect with audiences means to do reality television, for example," says Perlmutter. "Our audiences keep growing, people want to watch, they want to connect to this stuff."
Many more people now have access to NFB films, but what is the upshot to being an Oscar-nominated short filmmaker?
"One very obvious benefit was that we were hired to do this very high-profile United Airlines campaign in 2005, because the [ad]
agency knew they wanted to do animation and their starting point was that they only wanted to work with Oscar nominees," says Forbis.
"That was a great job, and a lot of people saw that," Tilby says, adding that they have gotten "a couple of calls from Hollywood that didn’t go anywhere."
Forbis and Tilby’s experiences reflect the reality of the NFB — that while there is little profit in what they do, it’s a source of national pride and prestige.
"If you want to determine everything on brute economic value on a short time horizon, there may be no justification for the NFB," says Perlmutter.
"But if you want to look at long-term economic value and perhaps more importantly on what it means to a complex society in which you're trying to create cohesion and show global leadership in creative industries, then the NFB is simply priceless."