Ontario’s French public broadcaster TFO is booming. Driving this growth is the use of technology and innovation to pioneer new ways to create TV content. The awards, and the audiences, have followed.
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TFO, Ontario's educational French-language broadcaster, is publicly-funded, with a focus on content for young Franco-Ontarians and French speakers and learners worldwide. Like many media companies, it is pushing its TV content to digital platforms, but TFO is doing much more than that in the digital sphere. It's using technology, not normally found in a TV studio, to boost production at a fraction of the cost, for all platforms.
"Because of our expansion in digital programming, one of our shows for 2-6 year olds became very popular. We had a set made up of a house, a garden, and more. As popularity grew, my producer wanted to build a street and a bakery. We simply didn't have the room for that," said Éric Minoli, vice-president and CTO at TFO.
"I started to look at virtual sets, which are not new and mostly used for news and weather. We were disappointed with the technology, which may have been good for a show in the 90s but not now. We started to look at other options, one of which was gaming engines. They're very realistic and just run on an Xbox or PlayStation," he said.
TFO settled on the Unreal Gaming Engine, one of the most popular and powerful gaming engines on the market, which is also free. The broadcaster partnered with an Istanbul-based startup called Zero Density, which made it possible to connect the Unreal Engine to a broadcast environment.
"You have your cameras, and you have sensors to be able to track the X-Y-Z position of the camera, zoom, and you need to be able to translate that into the gaming engine. You do that with layers, and Zero Density was able to do that for us. They also developed a revolutionary keying system, which happens directly in the gaming engine," said Minoli.
TFO called the new production environment the Laboratoire d’univers virtuels (Virtual World Laboratory), or LUV for short. In August 2016, it started production in the LUV; actors do their scenes in front of green screens, moving around the virtual environments while interacting with real world and digital objects. To Minoli, calling the environment a laboratoire, or laboratory, is very important.
"I wanted to get away from the studio and control room. We call it a lab so the employees know they're here to try, to learn, to test, to fail, and retest. We really want them to push the technology," he said.
As TV production ramped up, Minoli began to notice a new-found creativity blossoming at TFO. Writers were suddenly free to create any story or environment they wanted. Minoli says the Unreal Engine allows for a level of realism that would be impossible on a virtual set.
"The quality of image, and all the different effects, you cannot do those on a virtual set. For example, shadows aren't produced on a virtual set. If a virtual cloud is going between the set and the actors, it will all look the same. In a gaming engine, you can create a shadow on the face of a live actor."
He also adds working in a gaming engine is very cost effective, thanks to an online marketplace where users and creators make their own digital assets like sets and objects, available at a low cost.
"You can buy sets for 20 or 30 dollars. Instead of paying $150,000 to build a big set, like a forest, I can go on the marketplace and download a forest for like $20," he said.
Minoli says he was surprised at how employees embraced the new technology, since it is such a dramatic shift from how TFO produced content in the past. Despite that, he says the change still came with a big learning curve, especially for producers and writers.
"Now, I need people that understand gaming development, 3D graphics, and also understand studio production. We have these two worlds mixing together, which is the worlds of gaming and TV production.
"We now spend way more time in pre-production, and have to think through what needs to be done. In the real world, you tell the writer there's a house and garden. The writer can write 'the actor goes from from the house to the garden, opening the door.' But in the virtual world if you don't tell people at the beginning that there is a door that needs to open, you need to go into the graphics and redo the whole thing," said Minoli, adding that post-production is much quicker in the digital environment.
There was also a learning curve for actors, who need to interact with virtual objects they don't see in front of them. Surrounding the set, there are 6-7 screens so actors can position themselves properly. Like production staff, Minoli says they've adapted quickly.
While TFO has been making strides in digital content for several years, Minoli says the addition of the LUV and the productions the corporation has been able to create have dramatically increased the audience size and grow the brand. TFO now has 20 YouTube channels, including Mini ABC, one of the top French-language educational channel in Canada.
There are new partnerships as well. Last year, PBS became a distribution partner. The American public broadcaster wanted to have French-language content for 1.7 million students and teachers in the U.S. Now 4,000 pieces of TFO content, all produced in its studio in Toronto, are available through PBS Media Learning. And if you go to New Orleans, you'll even see TFO programming on PBS every day.
"I think the gaming engine is a game changer in the industry. I'm disappointed to see a lot broadcasters leaving production. We've actually increased our production every year. If you want to own the rights, you have to make it yourself. The reason we can sell to PBS is because we produce it ourselves. A lot of broadcasters are just buying content and doing news."
- Éric Minoli, vice-president and CTO at TFO
Media and technology industries are also acknowledging TFO's pioneering work in digital production. The broadcaster was recently shortlisted for the IBC Innovation Award in Content Creation (the winner will be announced in London on September 17). Earlier this year, TFO was also named a finalist in the IABM Game Changer Awards in Las Vegas.
"We are not a big media group like CBC or PBS, and to be able to be recognized as a game changer in the industry, we're very proud because it's a big recognition. Originally, we just used the LUV for kids programming, but now the current affairs programme [titled ONfr] is going to use the LUV starting in September. All production wants to shoot in this environment. It's really catching on" said Minoli.
Minoli says the next goal is to integrate motion-capture technology into the LUV, so TFO will be able to create productions that have both actors and cartoon characters, interacting on screen. "It's very cost-efficient, and allows a lot of creativity for the writers, they can be in the water or on the moon. We have no limit anymore."