Inside the Digis: Connecting humans, animals and tech in Bear 71

Leading up to this year’s Digi Awards on Dec. 4 in Toronto, Playback checks in with the nominees in the cross-platform fiction and web series non-fiction categories to present these mini case studies on their projects.

Here, Loc Dao, executive producer for the NFB’s English-language digital studio, discusses building the storyworld for interactive doc Bear 71.

Project: Bear 71, a multi-platform storyworld about the intersection of humans, animals and technology.

Nominated for: Best web series, non-fiction

People/Companies: Created by Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison; exec produced by NFB’s Loc Dao, Rob McLaughlin, David Christensen; produced by Dao, Bonnie Thompson, Dana Dansereau, McLaughlin; written by J.B. MacKinnon, edited by Jennifor Moss; voice by Mia Kirschner.

Components/platforms: Interactive documentary for Flash-enabled desktop browser; museum installation launched at Sundance Festival using projections, an iPad augmented reality app, surveillance cameras, surveillance walls, a “rub tree” and bear traps; a live event featuring co-creator Jeremy Mendes performing a custom version with cellist Heather McIntosh.

Objective: “The project started as a hard drive of infrared-triggered trail camera photos from Parks Canada that was part of a study on animal location and movements as it intersected with human hiking trails, highways and train routes.

“We developed it into a bigger story about the intersection of humans, animals and technology and how we look at the world through a lens of technology that sometimes shrouds our judgement and disconnects us from nature, the roots and instincts from which we came. The project was intended for an international audience interested in animals, environment, design, technology and surveillance issues. The project, like all our projects, is available for licensing and we’re in discussion with some broadcasters about producing and licensing a custom version for them.”

Project spend: “The interactive documentary cost $495,000 to produce. The installations and live events have been co-funded by various partners and museums and in some cases we just send them a hard drive and lend them the iPads from our installation.”

Did you meet your objective? What was your ROI or audience engagement stats/numbers? “The project received tremendous interest and engagement with its launch at Sundance in January. The environmental and technology press picked up the story and it was on Reddit, triggering a big spike of over 30,000 visits two days after the project was unveiled. The project has been studied at MIT and several European universities for how it pushes the boundaries of what documentary is. It’s won prestigious awards for design: the Cannes Cyber Lions Awards, a first for the NFB, for journalism, it won an Online Journalism Award. And now, among peers, its a finalist in the Digi Awards. The project has received over 220,000 visits which is on track for our targets and continues to engage and have traffic spikes every couple of weeks.

Project afterlife: “The storyworld that we launched at Sundance, that was a three-act release of the live event, installation and international online launch. And, the one-week social narrative story we ran ‘on the ground’ on Tumblr, Twitter and a mobile microsite has opened up many doors for the project and new approaches for the NFB.

Bear 71, with five musicians, projected on 80 feet of screens with eight-channel live surround sound was the opening gala at a documentary festival in Vancouver (DOXA) to over 900 people. The live version with Jeremy and Heather was part of the short program closing night at Rooftop Films in New York; the European premiere happened at Amsterdam’s IDFA in November, and the project was brought home at the Mountain Film Festival in Banff where Bear 71 lived. We continue to get requests for Bear 71 live and the installation to travel.”

Thoughts on the transmedia and interactive space: “We are taking our lessons learned from Bear 71 and applying them to future projects and our programming as a whole. We are exploring storyworlds and social narrative stories for our upcoming projects which will involve films and interactive works combined. We have released an interactive graphic novel for iPad and Android tablets (coming Dec. 18) called the Loxleys and the War of 1812 to teenagers 14-18 as part of our program for schools and have upcoming projects on smartphones, tablets, the desktop web, installations and live events.”

The Digi Awards, which recognize ground-breaking Canadian digital media companies, projects, products and pioneers will be handed out Dec. 4 at the Carlu in Toronto.