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Redefining the Nature Documentary: The Interactive Experience of 'Bear 71'

In 2001, Canadian wildlife conservation officers captured a 3-year-old female grizzly bear, tagged her with GPS surveillance equipment and returned her to the wilds of Alberta’s Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Using the data they acquired from their unwitting participant (dubbed Bear 71), the officers could track her movements over the subsequent eight years and document how the ever-encroaching human presence in the bear’s natural habitat affected the animal’s behavior. Meanwhile, park rangers also positioned motion-activated still cameras throughout the park to capture scenes no photographer could ever hope to shoot.

   
Graphic representation of Bear 71’s territory

Two years ago, Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes went to Canada’s National Film Board (NFB) with the idea of turning the GPS data and this trove of about a million photographs into an interactive documentary experience, called Bear 71.

“We sat on the material for about six months,” says NFB executive producer Loc Dao, who had been charged with developing innovative storytelling methods based on new media technology. “Something about the data fascinated us, [seeing] the movement patterns of Bear 71 around all sorts of factors that could hurt or kill her—a highway, trains or just encounters with humans on hiking trails.”

It would be crucial to come to this documentary project with a clear sense of how the narrative concept and enabling technology would support and enhance each other. The producers went over ideas about how to present the data and images in a way that would amplify the story.

   
Constant video surveillance, satellite tracking, radio
collars … sometimes it's hard to tell where the wired
world ends and the wild one begins.

Through this development work, the group hit on the larger concept of surveillance itself—how we are all being observed, just as Bear 71 and the National Park fauna had been, whenever we’re picked up by a security camera in a convenience store or at an ATM.

As they worked through the ideas, they came up with the notion of using both a linear, audio-based narrative that would provide structure and a graphic representation of Bear 71’s territory that users could explore interactively. While listening to the audio narrative, users customize their experience by clicking on the map to gather information and see stills and video recorded at particular coordinates.

The audio piece would develop into a 20-minute narration scripted from the POV of the titular bear (with the conceit, of course, that the bear has a somewhat anthropomorphic perspective on the world and the ability to express herself in English). Actress Mia Kirshner (The Vampire Diaries, 24, The L Word) provided the voice.

   
Bear 71 says in the narrative, “Every bear knows the
tracks are dangerous. But sometimes we forget.”

The technical heavy lifting for the project was handed off to Toronto digital production studio Jam3, which handled much of the project’s design and made sure the ambitious concepts were technically feasible. “They had the story of the bear and a million stills from the park and videos of certain events like the bear being captured and tagged,” says Pablo Vio, a partner and creative director at Jam3. “One of the challenges was to have the site do all the things they wanted without making it so abstract that people couldn’t get it.

“We went through a rigorous design process. What were the people listening to? What were they looking at when the narration was on? How many different things could they click on while the narration was going? We had to make sure that we had media everywhere on the grid so people would always have a whole bunch of buttons to click on. The idea was that you never get bored and the narration keeps you emotionally tied to the experience.”

   
“There are 15 remote-sensing cameras in my home
range, plus infrared counters, and barbed-wire snags to
collect my hair. I suppose it’s like most of the
surveillance that goes on today—it’s partly there to
protect you, and partly to protect everybody
else from you.”

He notes that the project, which was built in Flash, required a 3D engine to map out the layers and graphics all at once so the user’s experience would not be slowed by the technology. In the 16 months since Jam3 embarked on the project, Adobe has released its own Flash 3D engine, but no such tool existed when Bear 71 was being built, so Jam3’s Mikko Haapoja wrote new code and created a 3D engine to meet Bear 71’s requirements.

The Jam3 team built a custom multi-user server to allow those on the Bear 71 site to see one another’s webcam images, intensifying the overarching surveillance theme. Vio says, “We did a lot of tests to see how many people we could have on the site at the same time, how many videos could we be watching of other people at the same time. The project itself was very technically driven and a lot of the experience was based on being able to come up with ways to provide these technical capabilities.”

   

The NFB’s Dao adds that the experience continues in other forms. A larger version of the experience with extended functionality was a hit at Sundance and continues to travel throughout the country. His team maintains a Bear 71 Tumblr site that follows reactions to the project and the ongoing debates about subjects related to the themes of Bear 71.

“We don’t believe in using these other media as just marketing tools,” says Dao. “We try to integrate them into the actual story and narrative. When you’re done with the Bear 71 doc, there’s a link to the Tumblr so you have something to follow up on.”

Vio recalls the moment when he knew that this project, with its unique design and approach to storytelling, was more than just a technical achievement. “We finally went live,” he says, “and I went onto the site and I saw a man in his 60s or 70s who was watching it and crying,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful moment to see that this incredibly complicated web site not only reached someone of that age group, but that he was so moved by the story. For us to be able to see that happening was quite special.”

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