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Grain Elevator fervour

Grain Elevator, Charles Konowal, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Part of my job involves putting films online. There’s a calendar (prepared by our Collection analysts) that I consult every week. It tells me what films are supposed to be published to and when. Every week, I add between 2 and 5 films to the site. It’s always a mixed-bag: new, old, highly anticipated releases, forgotten gems.

My job then involves watching part of a film, writing up a web-friendly description (key words! SEO!), asking our savvy graphic designers Gil and Mivil (hey guys) to prepare images for the player image and thumbnail, and zoom! off they go catapulted into their new careers on the World Wide Web where anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can watch them for free. A whole new lease on life.

The exciting thing about this process is you never know what kind of life films will have online. Will they survive, will they thrive? Will people grab them, share them with all their friends, post them all over their Facebook walls? Will they end up making tons of new fans, nicely embedded in niche blogs? It’s always hard to say, and always fun to watch.

The reason I am telling you this is because we recently got a shining example of that. Poring over statistics last week, we realized that our viewers had elected a new darling – one none of us had seen coming.

“Um. So it looks like Grain Elevator was the number 1 most viewed film on the site last week,” Benoît, our analytics honcho, said.

Grain Elevator?!” everybody else said.

Grain Elevator,” Benoît said.

Now. Let me be clear, there is no reason, per se, why short-length documentaries about grain elevators shouldn’t go viral. Grain elevators are as good documentary-making material as anything. But seriously? With everything else we have online? No one could believe Grain Elevator had been viewed more than our usual suspects, cult classics such as The Cat Came back, or The Log Driver’s Waltz, which claim the top “most viewed” spots week after week. Yet there it was. Grain Elevator. People were watching that film like it was going out of style.

In a somewhat cliché way, I thought the bulk of viewers would be from the Canadian Prairies. Perhaps folks who’d lived in the midst of grain elevators their whole lives and were feeling a titch nostalgic, now that most of these Prairie giants were gone. Turns out I was wrong. The stats showed us there were 3 times as many people watching it in Ontario as there was in Saskatchewan. For that matter, most of the views were “international”, meaning they were made from outside Canada. Grain elevating, I learned, is a hot international topic.

Thinking about it more, after the meeting, I realized that Grain Elevator works because it does what good documentaries do. It provides a new perspective on the world – whether it is by introducing something new or by shining a fresh light on a banal object. People are curious, whether they’ve spent their entire life in a grain elevator or have never heard of one. How do those contraptions work? What function do these beasts perform? The documentary answers those questions – and then some. It’s like an “everything you’ve always wanted to know about grain elevators but were afraid to ask.” Beautifully shot in color. I highly encourage you to check it out.

I think, too, that seeing the unlikely success of the film made me feel good about the fact the NFB has made and still makes films about just about everything. From how to build igloos to driving rocket-powered cars across the Saint-Lawrence River. Build it and they will come, they say. Because somewhere, somehow, every story finds its audience.

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  1. @Terry – I looked into it and everything seems okay on my end. Do you have the latest Flash plugin installed? Can you send me a screenshot? Thanks.

    — Julie Matlin,
  2. @Terry – I’ll have to check the source file. Our apologies.

  3. This video won’t play in Firefox, Safari or Chrome. What gives?

    — Terry M,
  4. I worked in a very old wooden elevator flour mill for many years…which had similar characteristics to this place, but unbelievably on a much larger scale that included two separate mills, and three large stack plank construction wooden elevators. By the time it shut down in 2000, it still ran with mechanical scales and operator driven trippers and set-ups. The mill was pneumatic however, which helped keep it going as long as it did. It still stands awaiting a renovation project…that is to come sometime soon, featuring history and shops, etc. The simple beauty and labor-intensive operations of this small film are about all left on film (I guess) of similar operations throughout North America. Thanks for letting me find it, as it puts a real feel of peace over me as I watch and it triggers those memories of the 10 years of my youth when I worked in the historical mill.

    — William Bown,
  5. It took me a few minutes to get that this film wasn’t staged, comedic, or ironic. From “Did David Lynch go to Saskatchewan?”, I moved to a profound respect for the finesse with John handled his divurgence of tasks. And then there was the perhaps unintended metaphor of John’s hand-tool moving the box-car, much in line with how the grain elevators moved the agricultural economy of the prairies–all while a series of industrial visuals got pretty much balanced out by the sound of prairie birds. Nicely done!

    — Joe Crump,
  6. It appears your video player is very similar to youtubes flash player. Dunno if this is relevant but the error generated by various browsers points to a script with author jsbeaulieu, so maybe you can locate who that is to troubleshoot? In chrome it gives ‘Woah Chrome Crashed’ and in IE, it gives this error

    Webpage error details

    User Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 5.1; Trident/4.0; .NET CLR 2.0.50727; .NET CLR 3.0.4506.2152)
    Timestamp: Wed, 6 Oct 2010 21:11:23 UTC

    Message: Object doesn’t support this property or method
    Line: 27
    Char: 41
    Code: 0

    — ND,
  7. @ND – We’re looking into this. Thanks for the bug reporting. We’ll get back to you as soon as we figure this out.

  8. PS – it’s the same as it is for tup… only the HD section videos work, everything else is dud.

    — ND,
  9. I’m in the same boat… none of the videos on NFB will play for me. I can view and stream videos from thousands of sites in every conceivable format, except yours. I’ve tried ie ff and chrome… all have the same effect. Maybe you have an encoder problem?

    — ND,
  10. I have worked the grain industry since 1978,I have worked in a simular elevators as the one in this short film. I have seen the industry change from the wood elevator to the new inland terminals that now dominate the prairies. It was heart warming to be recognized as individuals who helped develope the canadian grain industry. I would like to see a new nfb short film on the modern grain terminal manager.

    — andrew,
  11. This is a great film. So glad someone thought to do this. I well remember the first trip to a grain elevator with my dad. in those days a lot of trucks did not have a hoist and dad scared the heck out of us by keeping us in the truck and letting us ride up with the truck as the whole front end of the truck was elevated. I remember well those days when the cars were coopered and delivery was halted in order to get the cars filled without interruption. Those elevator managers worked hard and managed a lot of different tasks. I feel that the entire industry has certainly lost touch with the personal side of things. To much rush rush. We have lost sight of what matters most. No time for people.

    — Don Laqua,
  12. @Tup – I’m concerned. All the content on our site should be accessible. I’ll follow up with you to see if we can get to the root of this.

    Also, you should know we do have a YouTube channel, at Enjoy!

    — Julie Matlin,
  13. i have spent many hours over several months trying to access the films on the nfb web site. the only films i have been able to access are the high definition section of the nfb website. all the other films are not available to me. I have on the other hand been able to access some nfb films on youtube.

    if you are creating content for everybody why not also process it for youtube so everybody can access it. not just those people you make exclusive to your website!

    i’m sure this could be automated with the push of one button to get all your content on youtube. i have done ports for fire wall and also keep downloading the latest version of adobe in the hopes that the newest version will enable me to see movies directly from nfb.

    but i have always failed. I am restricted only to those few high definition movies at nfb website the rest is not accessible to me I wonder how many other people have the same problem. Or i wonder what settings i’ve screwed up without knowing on my computer to restrict myself to only the High definition movies of your website?

    — tup,
  14. It’s a great film. I wouldn’t have checked it out if I didn’t stumble on your post though. This film has been made with careful choreography, respect and style. Great shots and editing. The voice-over is minimal for an industrial film and actually stands out because of it. The dedication to the workers at the end is right on!

  15. Two things. First, Saskatchewan has suffered from a brain-drain for many years with many of its young people leaving for other countries or other provinces (including myself). This could explain why the views are coming from outside of Sask.

    Secondly, the film harks back to a simpler time when people actually phoned each other or dealt face-to-face, when having a job didn’t mean being stuck in traffic or sitting at a computer all day. There is a meditative aspect to the elevator agent’s daily routine that anyone anywhere can romanticize and long for.

    — LeaNak,

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