If you sit through the twenty minutes it takes you to view the online version of Bear 71, you might be surprised at the emotions it wrings out of you. Its roots lie in a pool of millions of photos and videos taken by trail cams near the town of Canmore in Banff National Park. Many grizzly bears live in this area, and most are caught, radio tagged and put under surveillance.
The creators of the experience—Jeremy Mendes, Leanne Allison and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)—took the novel approach of letting one of these bears tell the story. You pick up her narrative at the moment when she is first snared by park rangers, and from there you wander with her across a digitized interface. You see actual footage of her with her young cub; you listen as she tells you about her problems. You sympathize. At the same time, you know that to people tracking her, she is anything but sympathetic. She is a number: Bear 71, a dangerous animal that must be monitored and may be killed at any moment for doing what bears do.
“If you catch us by surprise,” she says, “we don't look for a tree to climb, we take what’s coming head on.”
The fact that we can discuss the impact of Bear 71 much as we would a movie says something about the startling digital work coming out of the NFB. Its productions are now commonplace on the awards circuit and include everything from documentaries to interactive films.
If all of this doesn’t sound like it's coming from a dreary government bureaucracy, don’t be surprised. The National Film Board, bland name aside, is something special. Its charge, for a long time, has been to push things forward in film. Its principal work has been animation and documentary, but it’s also where the iMAX was invented. Over the years, it has won twelve Oscars for its films and received honorary and technical achievement Oscars as well.
That said, the NFB is a latecomer in the interactive space. Like most film studios, its original approach to the web was remixing content. Then three years ago, the organization decided to devote twenty percent of its budget towards pushing the envelope in interactive narrative. Not creating companion websites. Not rehashing old films. Original digital stories.
To explain their philosophy, Tom Perlmutter, government film commissioner and chairperson of the NFB, likes to show people clips from Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. The film, which was surprising and effective in 1903, can seem clunky and amateurish to modern eyes. The NFB sees interactive storytelling at a similarly nascent state and in similar need of refinement and innovation.
“Audiences have to learn a new way of understanding stories,” Perlmutter says. “Like many technologies, [interactivity] is going to demand its own language, aesthetics and way of working. That’s what we are pushing and exploring in a very systematic way.”
Those working for the NFB enjoy two luxuries unavailable to most web artists: time and money. Nowhere else can you find the kinds of budgets—$15,000 to $300,000 per production—that the NFB steadily throws at pure innovation and storytelling. Time is even more crucial. Projects can take eighteen months or more to produce—an eternity on the web.
“That’s the most important thing,” says Vincent Morisset, who has worked with the NFB several times. “You need the time to try stuff and fail and then retry. You have to be able to get some distance from what you're doing so you can see the whole work in perspective.”
None of this would matter, of course, if the NFB didn’t have very good storytelling DNA. The organization’s interactive productions access the same creative talent as its films. They have the same screenwriters, cinematographers and sound designers—with interactive artists thrown into the mix.
It’s easy to see the advantage of the approach in works like My Tribe Is My Life, which looks at the lives of young people in the many small, isolated towns scattered across Québec. The NFB’s executive producer Hugues Sweeney, came from such a town and began the project by wondering how social media was changing the lives of young people with offbeat, marginal identities.
“When I was sixteen, I was in a punk band in my own little town,” he explains. “We used mail to connect with other French punk fans. It was not a continuous network, and it was hard. I was curious to see how things had changed.”
His team trolled the Internet to find young people with relatively uncommon identities and musical tastes. There was a French-language rapper, a reggae fan and even a young, male Lolita. Though isolated from others like them, they lead vibrant lives on social media sites. The idea is intriguing and well executed, but the time and effort required to produce it are simply unavailable anywhere else.
Another aspect of their work is a continual attempt to bring technology into the narrative. “We have colleagues who...know how to tell good story,” says NFB executive producer Loc Dao. “The challenge is the creative application of technology and how we let it influence the story.”
You can see this come out in places like Bear 71, which has a feature that allows you to put yourself under “surveillance” like the bear. (You do this by turning on your webcam so that everyone on the site can see you.) And while that’s not exactly surveillance, it certainly is discomforting.
A more elaborate example is Barcode. Created with Philippe Archontakis of the Montréal-based Departement, it is a conscious attempt to move digital narrative into the real world. You activate the experience by taking pictures of barcodes with your device’s camera. The site (it’s also an app and physical installation) then plays one of 100 films based on what you’ve scanned. The result is a fun experience, especially on an iPhone, where a Yelp-like social media engine also allows you to see things that have been scanned nearby.
Probably the most imaginative effort to date, though, has to be BLA BLA [Interactive Annual 2012, p. 114]. Co-created with Morisset and his studio Aatoaa, this quirky little experience takes its cue from the animation tradition of the NFB. BLA BLA plays out as a series of wordless interactive vignettes. You are always in control of the experience, and you advance the story by interacting with objects on the screen. Each chapter unfolds with unexpected twists, telling an abstract story about language and relationships that resists easy interpretation. It is a little hard to get the hang of, but if you play with it enough, it’s strangely endearing.
With everything the NFB has done so far, you might wonder what's next. The answer seems to be “farther” and “deeper.” For example, they are currently working on another project with Archontakis and Departement that follows 2,500 homeless people affected with mental illness, across five cities in Canada—for five years. Other projects are geared towards tablets and phones; and they all continue to play with form.
“They believe in this platform and I respect the fact that they want to explore digital culture the best way possible,” says Archontakis. “No boundaries.”
No boundaries. OK, we’ve heard that plenty of times before, but these folks seem to mean it. ca