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Digitally speaking, Toronto is a great place to be these days. You may not like the winters (the summers are beautiful) but you can’t argue with the city’s support for interactive art and documentary. Without it, Jam3 would surely have been a great shop. But with it, the firm has created groundbreaking sites like Waterlife and Bear 71, speeding its rise from an obscure freelance team to one of the world’s elite production studios.

For all its success, the studio’s story starts humbly. Ten years ago the eventual partners—Adrian Belina, Mark McQuillan and Pablo Vio—traded in design, film and advertising careers for a one-year, interactive multimedia program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. They entered as traditionalists and emerged as coders.

Their first projects together went largely unnoticed. Without a reputation or many connections, they began working for a string of mom-and-pop businesses in the Toronto area. Vio focused on design, McQuillan coding and Belina ideation and motion.

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“We were like a super freelance team,” says Belina. “We started doing small projects, whatever we could find. A lot of the stuff was websites for interior designers and law offices, things like that. When we think about it, there’s nothing we haven’t done.”

But regardless of the client, Jam3 brought an amazing attention to detail to its projects. It didn’t matter if the team served a plumbing company or a housing contractor; if it was a Jam3 website, it had to be perfect. And it often was.

“We joke,” says senior developer Mikko Haapoja, “but the project that made me want to join Jam3 was a real estate website. That’s not a place you normally find anything interesting, but the polish and attention to detail made me think that I had to work with those guys.”

Haapoja wasn’t the only one taking notice. The firm soon began doing projects with Toronto’s many advertising agencies. One thing led to another, until the studio finally blew the creative doors off a 3-D site for Pontiac (with agency MacLaren McCann Canada).

On the Internet, people are just looking for interesting content. They love to share things that are compelling, and that’s why interactive documentaries can gather many more viewers than most films.”—Adrian Belina

That site helped bring Jam3 to the attention of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), which is never a bad thing. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the NFB annually awards more money for pure interactive storytelling and documentary work than any other organization in the world. Its projects have flexible timelines, ambitious goals and are released only when they’re ready.

The NFB asked Jam3 to help with a story about the Great Lakes, and the resulting site, Waterlife, won major awards in Canada. But it was the studio’s next project with the NFB that brought Jam3 worldwide attention. Bear 71, which told the poignant story of a doomed grizzly bear, won FWA Site of the Year and a Gold Cyber Lion at Cannes, not to mention setting a new standard for storytelling on the web. Not long after, ad agencies from New York started calling regularly.

Throughout this journey the firm has kept to its original working model. Jam3 is not a traditional agency nor does it follow a recognized digital model. Instead, it operates much like the partners did in the beginning. Employees typically team up and work on a single job at a time, much like the original super freelance team.

“We want to bring a high level of detail to all of our projects,” says Vio. “To get that, you need dedicated people. If you’re bouncing around from project to project and doing four different things at once, you lose your focus and the end product suffers.”

You can see the results of that process in a recent project Jam3 completed with Saatchi & Saatchi: Toyota’s Most Glorious Survey. The client brief called for a survey whose answers would affect the elements in a Rube Goldberg machine. For example, if a person taking the survey indicated they liked orange, the balls that flowed though a part of the machine would be orange. Jam3 took this a big step forward by incorporating the questions into the machine itself. The actions of the machine prompt questions, and when you click the answers, the experience changes accordingly.

If you’re bouncing around from project to project and doing four different things at once, you lose your focus and the end product suffers.”—Pablo Vio

The site features white-on-white styling, with friendly accent colors and elements. Jam3 accomplished its many variations not by shooting a million different versions of the machine, but by doing one take and programmatically changing everything on the fly. The result is a playful, on-brand survey that users actually enjoy taking.

While the firm primarily works on advertising projects, it has also gained considerable attention for its interactive documentaries. A recent one, The Defector, shows why.

The project began when Jam3 was contacted by Ann Shin, a director shooting a documentary about people trying to flee North Korea. Because documentaries typically have a narrow reach (festivals and hard-core fans), she wanted to bring the story to a wider audience.

“On the Internet, people are just looking for interesting content,” says Belina. “They love to share things that are compelling, and that’s why interactive documentaries can gather many more viewers than most films.”

Jam3 climbed on board early enough to ask Shin to capture footage specifically for the interactive version. As a result, the two films are quite different. Shin’s film tells the stories of six defectors, while Jam3’s website composites them into a single, linear tale of a woman who attempts to flee North Korea. With shocking footage and a surprise twist at the end, it offers a tense and compelling ride.

One of the more endearing things about Jam3 is that while it has gained success, the team hasn’t forgotten who they are and where they come from. Many firms in its position become extremely picky about their clientele. But Jam3 hates to say no to anyone, and it even does projects for its old roster of clients in the Toronto area. And needless to say, these perfectionists never slack when they do.

“We’ve never had a fulltime sales position,” says McQuillan, “and we strongly believe we’re only as good as our last job. That’s why we try to do everything right so that we get the next great project.”

And while that may seem like a tough way to do business, no one can argue with the results. ca

Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.

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