Documentaries are a powerful medium of storytelling, supported by an entire infrastructure (cheaper cameras, nonlinear editing systems, and online distribution) that is only increasing their visibility in the information age.
But if we have all this technology, it raises the question, can we do more than motion pictures? Especially when a documentary’s goal is often not just to entertain, but to challenge or even call to action, can documentaries make use of other technologies to tell a story?
The team behind Bear71, a completely new style of technology-driven documentary, believes so. Creators Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison created a 20-minute, interactive mix of video, audio narrative, and infographic to make use of a catalog of one million wildlife surveillance photos—"images that seemed to reveal a secret world of animals"—taken in Alberta’s Banff National Park . It debuted at Sundance, but you can try it out, right now, through your browser.
"I think that the challenge with a project like this, is knowing how to engage an audience with a form that doesn’t have a prescribed formula to follow," Mendes tells us. "Pairing a linear story with a non-linear environment was a huge challenge with a result that couldn’t be fully anticipated until the whole environment was built, and at that point we knew significant change would be impossible."
Indeed, they were working in new territory, and a programming glitch is much tougher to fix than a bad cut of film. The first minutes of Bear71 are a bit jarring, as you jump from full-motion video to an interactive, fully mousable map of Canada’s Bow Valley for the first time. A passive experience becomes interactive, and interactivity means effort. But soon you realize, it’s not that the documentary is expecting you to do extra work; it’s allowing you to multitask. You’re able to explore a region visually while hearing about it, to pull up photos of bears while you’re processing facts about them.
"We have a linear audio story that carries the detail and emotional weight," writes Mendes. "A carefully designed non-linear environment that connects directly in both form and function." It’s an idea that works.
Bear71 encourages the viewers to, in a sense, read ahead at all times, satisfying their own curiosity. And for those of us who already find ourselves on our laptop or iPad while watching prime time, it’s empowering.