May 13, 2012

NFB's 'Bear 71': Where the Wild Meets the Wired

From the National Film Board of Canada interactive Web production <em>Bear 71</em>

"Change. It's scary," states the "About" page on nfb.ca/interactive, the website for Canada's National Film Board.

Indeed it is, especially for a 70-plus-year-old government institution. Then again, the NFB has long explored the possibilities of the moving image, having produced over 13,000 groundbreaking animated and documentary films in its long history. So it should come as no surprise that the NFB is playing a leading role in the development of the so-called "interactive documentary." Some of the early projects evolved as interactive companion sites to NFB-produced documentaries such as Waterlife and Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary, but more recent projects live solely online, apart from the odd special presentation at a film festival.

Such is the case with the NFB's latest effort, Bear 71 , which premiered as an interactive installation in the New Frontier program at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Since then, the site has attracted over 106,000 views by 95,000 people and has been nominated for three Webby Awards. Not bad for a 20-minute documentary about a bear trapped, tagged, released and kept under surveillance by park rangers in Banff National Park.

From the National Film Board of Canada interactive Web production <em>Bear 71</em>

Directors Leanne Allison, Jeremy Mendes and the entire project team were in Park City for the premiere, as well as NFB chairman and government film commissioner Tom Perlmutter and English Program director general Cindy Witten to support the project, a clear sign that the NFB is serious about its role in the development of the medium.

"This has been part of that continuum for us," says Witten. "We're taking risks where there aren't business models right now and putting one foot down, not necessarily knowing where the next foot's going in terms of defining what digital storytelling is. You know--figuring out the grammar of technology and then applying storytelling to that technology. It's part of our story, and it's part of what a public sector institution such as ours should do."

Bear 71 is a remarkable achievement, albeit an early one in the development of the medium, as pointed out by Perlmutter, who likened it to The Great Train Robbery during a Q&A following a live presentation of the website. "We're not trying to produce projects that are derivative of ones we've done before, so they are all big experiments," says Witten. "We really don't know what the next step is or where it's going to wind up because we haven't done it before. And not that many other people are playing in the space, so it's not like we can look and say, 'Oh, they did it that way and it's going to come out like this. There are clues, but I think we're still very much in the experimental phase of just learning by doing."

From the National Film Board of Canada interactive Web production <em>Bear 71</em>

In many ways, Bear 71 does feel like an early experiment in interactive storytelling, and there is clearly room to grow, but something about this project sets it apart from its predecessors. The interactive component, while a bit awkward and fairly basic, is actually quite engaging, yet not so much that it detracts from the moving tale of Bear 71 herself. 

The project was a natural fit for online, according to co-director Allison, who discovered the massive cache of surveillance photos of the wildlife in the park via her husband, who is a park ranger. Having previously made several docs with the Film Board, she brought the materials to their attention. "It started with the trail camera photos themselves," she explains. "I had access to this imagery and I found it endlessly fascinating. It was just like this secret world of animals. Every time I got off my computer and looked around I saw the landscape differently, and so I realized there was a lot of power in this imagery.

"But each image is sometimes only 100 KB, so I knew it was never going to be a big screen sort of thing," Allison admits. "At the same time, the National Film Board was venturing into this digital medium, and it just seemed like it was going to be a good fit."

Allison recalls the reaction of her soon-to-be directing partner, Mendes: "When I took this imagery to the digital team, Jeremy in particular thought the images looked a lot like the ones taken of us all the time in urban environments, and here we are looking at the forest in this same kind of surveillance way."

As the film's tagline says, "Sometimes, it's hard to tell where the wired world ends and the wild one begins..."

"When this bear footage came up [the NFB] knew that there was a good fit for me," Mendes says. "When I saw these 10,000 trail-camera photos, I just thought, 'This is about surveillance, this is about us, this is about cameras in Times Square, this is about cameras in 7-Eleven.' So that's where it started, and then we started to build the story around that."

Mendes directed the design and interactivity and the NFB enlisted writer J.B. MacKinnon (author of the bestselling book The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating) to write the voice of Bear 71.

"Bear 71 was collared at the age of 3," Allison explains. "She was watched every day of her life, so there was a tremendous amount known about her. One time, I was looking at the imagery and started to imagine what she would be saying and that made the leap to her telling her own story."

The result is a riveting 20-minute experience. The basic idea is that users are dropped into a digital representation of Banff National Park, and while navigating the landscape, you can search for bits of video and photos scattered about the space that relate to the story. Meanwhile, the narrator (actress Mia Kirshner) tells the first-person story of Bear 71. Occasionally, videos and photos pop up to augment her tale. But beware: The story will bring tears to your eyes, which can cause minor embarrassment when you realize that you're being watched-that is, if you agree at the outset of the film to turn your camera on.

But what about the future of Bear 71? Unlike a traditional documentary, which, once it's in the can will likely stay the same until the end of time, an online project can change over time.

"The cameras are out there right now taking photographs," says Allison. "I think this project's going to have an end, but we haven't talked about that yet. I guess it depends on how it evolves--how all this multi-user stuff happens, and the blogging and the social media. I think those factors will inform how it grows. It's very organic."

 

Sarah Keenlyside is a Toronto-based producer and writer.

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