It’s not only Waterloo Region’s spirit of innovation that has helped businesses adapt and survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our openness to collaboration was demonstrated repeatedly with tech companies helping restaurants and retail businesses pivot to online ordering, curbside pickup and local delivery throughout the lockdown periods. 

Pandemic restrictions also affected local media production businesses. With travel at a near standstill, Stratford-based Ballinran Entertainment suddenly found itself grounded. 

Founded in 1995 by former CBC journalist Craig Thompson, Ballinran has produced award-winning documentaries, including The Truth is in the Stars, a documentary about whether humanity can truly reach the inclusive vision for humanity’s future shown in Star Trek. The film featured an interview with theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking filmed at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo.

Like other businesses affected by the pandemic, Thompson looked to technology for ways to continue telling stories for audiences around the world. 

“Most of our company’s work has been travelling. In 2019, we were on the road for most of the year. With technology changing so rapidly, we’ve been doing a lot of remote filmmaking, and coming up with new ways of telling stories using new technology and interactive platforms,” said Thompson. 

In June, Ballinran was awarded the Excellence in Innovation Award by the Radio Television Digital News Association of Canada (RTNDA) for their documentary Inside Wuhan. Ballinran filmed the documentary during the pandemic without anyone from Ballinran having to leave Canada.

“We were the first Western documentary about Wuhan,” said Thompson. “But the remarkable thing about that is we never went there. We shipped a camera in and we used remote filmmaking.”

Local video technology company Dejero sponsored the RTDNA award. 

“It’s a good example of how Waterloo Region tech is paired up with the things that we do,” he added.

Filming with a remote camera is just one example of Ballinran changing its technology to tell stories. This summer, Ballinran collaborated with Explore Waterloo Region to produce 360-degree virtual tours of Waterloo Region attractions. The immersive tours include snow tubing at Chicopee Ski & Summer Resort, a horse-and-buggy ride through Mennonite country and a walk through uptown Waterloo and downtown Kitchener with Stroll Walking Tours.

The collaboration was brought together thanks to the Digital Main Street program operated locally by Communitech. Thompson was introduced to the program by a friend.

“We have this new camera and they said we should be talking to Digital Main Street. We have good connections with Waterloo Region Tourism too, so we asked if they would be interested in supporting the project,” Thompson said.

Andrea O’Shea, a supervising producer at Ballinran, said the project isn’t necessarily about drawing in people outside the province or the country.

“It’s about people here that are just trying to travel regionally and discover things that they might not have realized were here and available. Things like the Stroll Walking Tours, they’re things that you walk by probably every day that you don’t know the full history of,” O’Shea added. 

The finished videos can be viewed on any device that can access YouTube, but for the best viewing experience, O’Shea recommends using a smartphone or tablet. Since the videos were filmed with a 360-degree camera, viewers can see everything happening around the scene by simply moving their device around. You can also use a Google Cardboard or other VR device to immerse yourself in the tour. 

“It was a cool project to be involved with,” O’Shea said. “On the St. Jacobs Mennonite buggy tour, there are these hidden roads that no one knows about.”

For Thompson, the project was also an opportunity to reconnect with the Waterloo Region tech community. 

“I renewed my membership in Communitech because I think there’s so much talent that could have a benefit to screen-based content industries,” he said.

Ballinran is exploring new ways that they can use their experience with remote filmmaking and 360 video production. With remote teams becoming more of the norm for many companies, O’Shea said there are opportunities to create immersive experiences for remote employees.

“It can absolutely be used for businesses, whether it’s someone wanting to show the head office or give someone a tour,” she said.

Thompson is looking to add an application developer to the team to build out Ballinran’s digital offerings. The 360-degree videos can be augmented with interactive elements to add anything from links to detailed content to even shopping or ticket purchases.

“It’s taking the story and making it interactive, it’s not creating some new tech device or software that’s going to do something new,” Thompson said. “Story will always be at the heart of what we’re trying to do.”