A four-year-old, 135-kilo female grizzly bear is your tour guide through Alberta's Banff National Park in Bear 71, a VR documentary experience created by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Photographed by a series of motion-activated trail cameras, the short video segments chronicle the tagged Bear 71's capture and release back into Banff. An interactive map allows users to make their way through the park and access the shocking amount of footage available. The result is at once quirky, poetic, and haunting.
"There aren't a lot of ways for a grizzly bear to die. At least that's the way it was in the wild."
This ominous line is our first step into Bear 71. As we follow the bear's movements, this vague threat is always on our mind. How will Bear 71 die? How might we be to blame?
But the experience also has its light moments. An interactive map of Banff lets you wander, clicking on outposts and other tagged animals to follow them through the park.
Bear 71 does all the narrating herself and very much grounds the project. We get to know her through the woman's voice that speaks for her, making the challenges she faces feel all the more resonant. She's a surprisingly human character, making our intrusion on her that much more troubling. We empathize with Bear 71, as her voice is eerily laid over images that are visibly mediated, from the grainy trail cam footage to the digital floor plan of the park.
"What's really interesting here is to see it from the other side," says co-creator Mendes, "to see it from the human side and from technology's view."
Immersed in the VR headset, it's hard not to feel a bit voyeuristic. There are no pristine, romantic views of the forest and mountains. Instead, we're implicated in a cold process of digital surveillance.
This is certainly part of the point. Surveillance stands in for the human footprint encroaching on the natural environment. "You go and you look at all the brochures for pipelines and whatnot, and they use what's called nature porn to paint the natural world in a much glossier bubble than it actually is," says Mendes. Bear 71 cuts all of that out.
The project started out as a Flash-based desktop program five years ago, and Mendes describes the chance to remake it on VR as serendipitous. "I think it was a matter of timing," he says.
With the Flash platform getting outdated, and VR coming into its own, the fit was ideal. "To be platform-agnostic is the biggest challenge with these digital projects," he says, noting how hard it is to translate a project into the language of VR or any other new platform. "To finally get there and be mostly intact I think is nothing short of miraculous."
Bear 71 is available on the NFB website in all its formats. The VR version can be viewed as a 2D experience on Chrome or via Pixel and Daydream View, with plans to make it available for other VR headsets in the near future.