Digital fest's tractor beam is irresistible

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Over the years, Vancouver has hosted a variety of technology showcases and conferences—some good, some dull. About the only thing they have in common is that they rarely persist for more than a couple of years, except for maybe the ones that are strictly trade shows where companies show off their product lines. The actual conference-and-seminar types always seem to fade away.

Maybe that's because, until recently, there's been a bit more desire than widespread support. A core of interest has always been around, but all the other factors have been out of balance: not enough sponsorship, too few people willing to pay, a few too many underwhelming events, a too-narrow focus on a particular sector, the inevitable burning out of the organizers' enthusiasm. The economic crash of the high-tech industry itself a few years ago helped derail things too. And sometimes it simply seemed that the basic concept was sound but the whole thing was simply ahead of its time.

So when the Vancouver International Digital Festival or VIDFEST (www.vidfest.com/) popped onto the scene in 2004, I was a bit skeptical. The scale was small, the festival passes cost a couple of hundred bucks, the guest speakers were a bit obscure, and it all seemed primarily devoted to a niche group of digital-filmmaking buffs. It looked worthy, but pretty insular. Even the 2005 event didn't really appeal to me, mostly because I'm not in that realm.

Of course, the past year or two has seen a big growth in the popularity of digital film, particularly in short, downloadable movies, open-access Web sites to host them, and a variety of platforms on which to watch them—portable video devices and mobile phones, for example. Even so, I wasn't prepared for the great leap forward represented by this year's event, running from Wednesday to next Friday (June 14 to 16) on Granville Island. It's not just that it's twice the size of 2005's show but also the calibre of speakers, panel discussions, and master classes. Maybe I was too dismissive in the past, but I just revisited the Web sites for the first two years (which are archived on the VIDFEST site), and I still don't think I'd have gone.

But this year looks amazing. Besides the expanded roster of awards, screenings, and industry networking stuff, there are some pretty remarkable people appearing. Take the keynote speaker: Nolan Bushnell, the cocreator and cofounder of PONG and Atari, respectively. I was never a PONG fan, but I sure am acquainted with a lot of Atari's subsequent video games, especially Pole Position. I don't even know what I'd say to the guy—I'd probably just hand over a pocketful of quarters for old times' sake.

Not only did Bushnell help lay the groundwork for the games industry, but he's relevant again today, thanks to the retro gaming trend, which is a mix of nostalgia, the new gaming platforms (like phones), and the simple fact that simple games have an immediacy and appeal that often got lost when technological limits vanished and games bloated up. Those old-style entertainments were intuitive to play and required a remarkable level of intelligence to create, given the restrictions they were designed within.

Another highlight should be the Everythingcasting session, an exploration of the multiple-media present and future, cohosted by Robert Ouimet of At Large Media (www.atlargemedia.com/), formerly one of the CBC's bright brains, known for his groundbreaking work founding Radio 3 and thus helping the Ceeb make an early transition into on-line media. Active Audiences also looks good, an exploration of television and the participant fan base, with David Wishnowski of ProWrestlingX (www.prowrestlingx.com/); Tara Ariano, cofounder and coeditor of Television Without Pity (“Spare the snark, spoil the networks”) and Fametracker “the Farmer's Almanac of Celebrity Worth” (www.televisionwithoutpity.com/ and www.fametracker.com/); plus Chris Turner, author of Planet Simpson, the astonishingly good analysis of The Simpsons as social phenomenon.

Then there's Paul Marino, the executive director of the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences (www.machinima.org/). Machinima is the trend of making short films using the scene-creating features of real-time computer games like Halo, The Sims 2, Warcraft, and Unreal. Just add imagination and creativity to the digital actors and sets and you can end up with something like Red Vs. Blue: the Blood Gulch Chronicles (www.redvsblue.com/). Or check out Brooke Burgess, who will talk about the Vancouver-based Broken Saints (www.brokensaints.com/), the first expanded-format use of Flash animation to create a graphic novel on-line (now released on DVD).

The Future of Digital Entertainment is another must-see, with Nettwerk Music Group CEO and cofounder Terry McBride and acclaimed video-game pioneer Don Mattrick, who founded Distinctive Software before selling the company to Electronic Arts, where he held several senior positions until resigning last fall. That's two very bright Vancouver boys there.

And these are only some of the highlights. There's much more on offer, from screenings and seminars to workshops and educational sessions, with people attending from around the world. VIDFEST 2006 looks poised to become a pivotal event, and it is all the more amazing for the local talent that's represented. Festival passes are $275 for New Media BC members, $375 for nonmembers, and $150 for students, a remarkable bargain. Check out the complete VIDFEST program on its Web site if you don't believe me.