The Making of Bear 71

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Like many who have discovered the 2012 interactive documentary Bear 71 online, Jaya Mahajan was captivated and inspired by what she saw. For this blog post (originally published at Factual for Asia), Mahajan asked National Film Board of Canada producer Loc Dao to share how Bear 71 was developed.

Bear 71 Screenshot (c) National Film Board of Canada

An image from the interactive documentary Bear 71 (Photo: © National Film Board of Canada)

About Bear 71

Budget: $350,000 (Canadian Dollars)
Metrics: 238,000 unique visitors
Awards: “FWA Site Of The Year 2012″ (Favorite Website Awards, 2012), “NetArt” winner (Webby Awards, 2013), “Best Web Series: Non-Fiction” (Digi Awards, 2012)

Creators: Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison
Producers: National Film Board of Canada, Jam3, Aubyn Freybe-Smith
Executive Producers: David Christensen, Loc Dao, Rob McLaughlin
Writer: JB MacKinnon
The Voice of Bear 71: Mia Kirshner


Interactive documentaries, i-docs, web documentaries, multimedia projects — call them what you may, but they are likely to be the future of factual programming. Some interactive documentaries are difficult to navigate. Often there is lots of technology and Flash, leaving one to wonder about the point of the entire exercise. Bear 71 though stands out in this crowd. The technological sophistication of this multimedia project is impressive. But the documentary stands more on the fundamental principle of filmmaking — which is great storytelling. It’s the combination of technology-meeting-story that makes Bear 71 a must watch for everyone.

Produced by the National Film Board of Canada and created by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes, Bear 71 is about a grizzly bear in the Canadian Rockies who was tracked by trail cameras. It’s a haunting story about the ways in which humans, technology and animals interact.

The National Film Board of Canada produces some of the most cutting edge interactive projects in the world today. I had a conversation with Loc Dao, executive producer of Bear 71 at the NFB on how the project was put together.

Pre-Development

The film director Leanne Allison had access to thousands of hours of wildlife footage captured on remote trail cameras in the Banff National Park in Canada, which is one of the most visited national parks in the world. Allison originally pitched the idea as a traditional documentary to the NFB, but after months of discussion, the team decided that the low-resolution pictures wouldn’t make a good theatrical documentary. However, they determined that the subject matter had all the elements for a great interactive web-based experience. Leanne had sieved through 11 years of footage, from when the three-year-old bear (“Bear 71″) was collared until her death. Almost all of Bear 71′s movements had been tracked, supposedly to protect her.

“We introduced Leanne to Jeremy Mendes, a creative technologist, who recommended that the story could be based on all the data that had been collected,” Loc explained.

Where the Wired World Ends and the Wild One Begins

“The birth of the digital idea took place when we decided to use all the data that we had for this project as a commentary on it.”

National parks are created to protect animals from humans. But as we see in the film, humans are everywhere. Animals have to adapt to new challenges posed by man-made railway tracks and highways. What is the toll of this constant surveillance on the animals living in so-called wilderness?

Bear 71 Trail Camera (c) 2012 National Film Board of Canada

Wildlife and humans are under surveillance in the National Film Board of Canada’s 2012 interactive documentary Bear 71 (Photo: © National Film Board of Canada)

“The project is based on the fact that everything is under surveillance today. Humans are under constant surveillance and so are animals. The way we look at wildlife and nature is through all this data and this film in a way is a commentary on our modern day society and the way we look at science and the wild.”

Loc mentioned that the team decided early on that they wanted a first-person narrative for the script. “We wanted to tell the story from Bear 71′s point of view. We managed to get James McKinnon, who has previously authored The 100-Mile Diet. McKinnon’s knowledge and his sensitivity for this issue made all the difference to the script.”

JB MacKinnon is a Canadian independent journalist and author, and his book The 100-Mile Diet promotes local food. The book was converted into a series for Food Channel Canada. I haven’t read the book, but his script for Bear 71 is one of the most powerful narratives I have ever heard. The script manages to weave hard facts into an emotive and thought-provoking story:

I want you understand this I was a good bear. One beautiful morning when I was exploring dandelions with the cubs these two people appeared. I reared up on my hind legs and was about to charge when I realized that they were just two little girls. They were crouched down like they were praying. So I chased away the cubs and everyone walked away from that. I take a certain amount of pride in that.

The voiceover for the 20-minute narrative is provided by Mia Kirshner, a Canadian actress and social activist. “I don’t call her a voiceover, but an actor, for the voice was acted on, and her acting was just so all knowing, so powerful, so in touch with who Bear 71 was,” says Loc.

Once the elements of the script and the voice over were decided on, the interactive experience was fine tuned.

The Interactive Experience

Unlike a normal documentary, an interactive documentary has a different production process.

It starts with the story. The story and the script have to be firmed up before the interactive part gets started.

The story leads to the information architecture (IA) which involves making “wireframes,” the blueprints of a digital design. An IA tells how content and different elements on a site should be classified and is created after all the research is completed. This then leads to the development of a prototype and the actual design, which includes elements like typography and colors. And then the development and quality assurance process takes place, where programmers code the different information to ensure that everything works. User testing is the final stage, leading to the end product which is then marketed and released.

One of the most dramatic aspects of Bear 71 is the fact that it is a linear story, with non-linear elements. You listen to this amazing narrative, but the browsing and viewing experience is in your control. Like a video game, you can decide which way you want to go. If this is your first time with an interactive documentary, or you are tech-phobic, you are still on safe ground. The gripping narrative will keep you hooked. You do have a choice, though, of exploring different aspects of the Banff National Park, just as Bear 71 used to. You can choose to navigate in any direction you want, and you can see the surveillance footage of the different animals in the wild.

“We were on version 14 of the interactive plan, and no one but Jeremy and I understood it. It was a real challenge in terms of wireframes. We had to define the world that represented the national park and we had to put it in one screen, so that users could navigate it easily. The programmers at Jam3 (a Canadian digital design agency) created the tool that would populate the code … what happened in the wild world, what animals.” Loc also mentioned they strategically used a linear audio experience to make it more accessible to a larger audience.

The entire project from start to finish took 18 months to complete. Funded at $350,000 (Canadian dollars), it is one of the most expensive interactive projects made so far. It has so far received 238,000 unique visitors.

Multimedia documentaries are still a nascent field and many new experiments are being done. There are large media organizations like The New York Times and Arte that are also at the forefront, and there is a lot of smaller independent work that is receiving attention. I haven’t come across too many Asian multimedia films so far, but it’s something that all of us have to keep in mind. The future of factual programming lies in interactive documentaries. I am waiting for the day when Asian multimedia documentaries can also be a subject of review and debate.

This post originally appeared on Jaya Mahajan’s blog, Factual for Asia.

Jaya Mahajan has created content for some of the biggest brands in the Asian media industry over the last 15 years. She has made compelling and award-winning documentaries and factual series for channels such as CNBC, the National Geographic channel, CNN and BBC World. Mahajan is currently an independent consultant for factual programming production companies in Asia. She is the author of Factual for Asia, a blog that shares the journeys taken by documentary filmmakers towards completing their films. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.