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Telling Tales

Interactive documentary explores the secret life of our red squirrel through the public’s eyes
Squirrel Picture from MyGreenPod Sustainable News

A unique, interactive documentary is being used to raise awareness of the declining red squirrel population in the UK.

Bringing together video, photography, words and song, Red Tales has been created entirely from material submitted by members of the public. The project has used our love of social media to create a living archive of this endangered species.

‘A Wikipedia for red squirrels’

The research was conducted through The Creative Exchange Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It was led by researchers at Newcastle University’s Open Lab in partnership with Red Squirrels Northern England and Bristol-based conservation charity Wildscreen.

Red Tales is the first interactive documentary of its kind, bringing together red squirrel ‘stories’ from all across the UK and providing a platform for people to engage with them.

‘It’s a bit like a cross between a traditional documentary, a ‘Wikipedia’ for red squirrels and a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ novel where everyone’s experience is different. Red Tales takes an important conservation issue and provides a one-stop platform where people can contribute content and piece together a story.’

David Green, project lead, The Creative Exchange PhD researcher at Newcastle University and a documentary filmmaker

Red squirrels

The decline of the red squirrel population over recent decades has been dramatic, with current estimates suggesting only 138,000 red squirrels remain in the UK.

‘There are literally thousands of people contributing to red squirrel conservation in northern England in a variety of ways, including awareness raising, education, fundraising, photography and grey squirrel control.

Red Tales will provide a platform to capture the underlying reasons why so many people devote massive amounts of time to look after this threatened native mammal. It will provide a meaningful context to all the beautiful images that are sent to us on a daily basis.

‘They say a picture tells a thousand words and now every photo taken of a red squirrel can be much more than just a pretty image, it can take its place in the bigger picture of conservation efforts and become part of the story. I think it’s brilliant that we have a uniquely engaging tool to help people become a part of this complex conservation challenge.’

Katy Cook, Red Squirrels Northern England

A sensitive topic

Red squirrel conservation is a subject that inspires lots of different perspectives and opinions, particularly around sensitive issues such as squirrel pox and the relationship between red squirrels and grey squirrels. The hope is that this the new film will represent the full range of different perspectives.

Red Tales contains a variety of interactive elements to help users explore the documentary, engage with its content and form their own ideas.

‘Traditional documentary films can sometimes simplify multiple perspectives by rationalising them into opposing ideas to help build a single narrative around a subject.

‘But with Red Tales, we’ve borrowed techniques from social media to allow visitors not only a right to reply to the different perspectives in the film, but a voice within the documentary itself.’

David Green, project lead, The Creative Exchange PhD researcher at Newcastle University and a documentary filmmaker

A living film

A dynamic map allows viewers to see which areas of the country the content has come from while an interactive ‘credits sequence’ filters content from individual contributors.

‘The aim is for Red Tales to become a ‘living thing’ rather than a static piece of non-fiction storytelling and we would encourage anyone with a story about red squirrel conservation to contribute.

‘Over time we hope it will build a record of our encounters with this beautiful and fascinating species, the efforts involved in their conservation in the UK and the issues faced both now and into the future.’

David Green, project lead, The Creative Exchange PhD researcher at Newcastle University and a documentary filmmaker

Registered users are also invited to make ‘collections’ of the content to share with others via social media.

Telling undocumented stories

Through projects such as Red Tales, as well as others including Bootlegger and App Movement, Open Lab is looking into how new and emerging technologies can help shape the next generation of tools and production methods.

The hope is to help other undocumented stories connect with audiences, and support the communities who know them best to come together and tell the stories themselves.

Click here to find out more about Red Tales. More about Red Squirrels Northern England can be found here.

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