We reached out to our Jackson Wild Media Awards filmmakers to ask them five questions about the experience of making their films.
What inspired this story?
Writer and Director Peter Stonier: When National Geographic Explorer Naftali Honing, Research and Development Director at African Parks in the Congo, granted the Esri's visual storytelling team an interview, we could see that he had a great story to tell. The question was how to tell it.
The story was one of how a technology, not much known beyond the community of specialists who use it, has tremendous potential to take on some of the world's greatest conservation challenges -- such as wildlife poaching and trafficking. Naftali was putting the tech to great use protecting elephants and rangers from some of the most formidable armed poachers in the world -- and winning. This was all clear from his interview. We captured him on video telling us all about this - but doing the story justice required b-roll. There was none. Filming in the Congo would be costly, getting good wildlife shots time consuming, and shots of poachers dangerous, if not impossible.
Thus came the idea - let's animate it! We could still feature Naftali photo-realistically, but get all the shots we needed by drawing them! That's how the journey began.
How do you approach storytelling?
PS: Two things we immediately realized in taking an animated approach to the story were:
a) We could tell a story in the most basic sense of the word - as a "Once upon a time, in a wild kingdom far away" ... narrative drawing from conventions of Hollywood fiction. "Story" is probably one of the most overused words in corporations. Narratives devoid of character, conflict, drama, hope, fear, climax and resolution are often still described as "stories." Lists of software features are even described as stories. Here we clearly had all the ingredients for a story - exotic locations, animals, compelling characters, protagonists, antagonists, as well as relevance to an important issue of global concern. Our writer, with years of experience scripting for Hollywood and the BBC, decided to make this into what any child would recognize as a story. By drawing the images, instead of working with a camera on the ground, we had complete visual control. This helped us borrow from the compelling conventions of dramatic fiction, even though we were producing non-fiction.
b) We knew that documentary footage of animal poaching could be seen as overly gruesome and violent for some audiences. Animated illustration allowed us to still communicate the realities of the violence, and be emotionally evocative, while softening the tone.
Describe some of the challenges faced while making this film/program?
PS: Perhaps the biggest challenge faced was not a production challenge but one of getting our marketing team on-side to support the project. We needed to overcome a bias that animation is "for children" and "inappropriate for a technology company." In other words, despite the flourishing of animation across so many genres of storytelling - some still equate animation with cartoons. A major turning point came when the video was first showcased at an Esri user conference where Jane Goodall and Ed Wilson praised it as a "fantastic way to communicate how GIS is vital to supporting conservation."
What did you learn from your experience making this film/program?
PS: That technology has evolved to the point where mixing photorealistic and animated forms of storytelling can be done relatively quickly and cheaply. What's hard is figuring out how to mix the mediums into relevant, compelling storytelling!
What impact do you hope this film/program will have?
PS: We hope to raise awareness of the effectiveness of GIS technology in fighting poaching and wildlife trafficking and get it used more widely throughout the world. A joint initiative between National Geographic and ESRI is helping achieve this.