The Great Human OdysseySurviving in the Most
Extreme Environments
on Earth



Clearwater has been a valued client for years. We've worked with them websites for a couple documentaries that they have made, Tipping Point and The Perfect Runner. While both of those projects were challenging and interesting, they were regular websites, featuring a trailer, some behind the scenes videos, and not much else. In the fall of 2012 Clearwater approached us for a project that had a much larger scope. They were planning a three part documentary series that would air on CBC's The Nature of Things and on PBS in America.

The documentary allows viewers to take a journey around the world and back in time with anthropologist Dr. Niobe Thompson, and discover the miracle of our species. The Great Human Odyssey explores the unlikely survival and the miraculous emergence of Homo sapiens as the world’s only global species. Ancient climate research has revealed that we evolved during the most volatile era since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Just like the many other kinds of human who once shared our world, we should have died away. Instead, our species survived to populate every corner of the planet, against all the odds.

Rather than having a stock website to accompany their production, they wanted a place that people could go to immerse themselves in the story of survival. They wanted a web documentary.



Together with Clearwater we began to plan out the site. After a little bit of conversation it became clear that the vision we had for the website would not fit within Clearwater's budget. With CBC's support, we began working on securing funding for the interactive experience. The Bell New Media Fund provides financial support to encourage Canadian digital media project that are associated with Television productions. The Bell Fund was our best shot at gathering the resources necessary to not only fund us at Overhaul, but also to allow Clearwater to take along the extra personnel and equipment necessary to shoot web content.

The Bell Fund has a very strict application process, requiring us to plan out the entire website experience. We developed site maps, content hierarchy, and planned out what web tools we would use and what devices the site would target.

Clearwater helped us see that the interactive experience should show survival in a world of extremes. They would be shooting Reindeer Nomads that live in Siberia. These people were resilient, crafty and adapted to living in extreme cold. How could we show website users how extreme their conditions really were?

To show the importance of survival-based decision making, we began to craft a game-like scenario. Users would be prompted to make critical decisions in a scenario, showing that wrong decisions could quite easily be permanently damaging. At the end of this interactive experience, we were sure that users would understand the remarkable resilience of humanity. With confidence and CBC/Clearwater's approval, we submitted a package full of illustrated wireframes, sitemaps, plans and budgets, certain that we would get the funding that we needed.


After a few weeks Clearwater heard back from the Bell Fund. We hadn't been selected for funding. There were a few key flaws that they saw in our application, so we went back to the drawing board.

We realized that we needed to flesh out the details. It is difficult to plan for a website that is almost three years away from launch, but we had to be more explicit with our designs and plans. We realized that the gamification experience would be too difficult to shoot and wasn't the best way to interact with the user. Instead, we decided that a first-person, ​day-in-the-life​ walkthrough of the environment would provide a better platform for our content, and would be much easier for Clearwater to execute in the field.

We applied for the Bell Fund again in the spring of 2013, this time using photos and creating a more in-depth design language. A video mockup that showed how the user would interact with the site. With anticipation we waited, and heard back from Bell after a few weeks. We had been approved!


Before Clearwater headed out to film in the far corners of the earth, we had to make sure that we were going to receive shots that we could work with. We had several discussions with the man behind the camera, making sure that we shared a vision. We planned how each sequence should be shot. Once on location, he would be co-ordinating the locals, garnering their help as actors. Once he was done a shoot he would mail hard drives with the footage back to Canada, only editing them once he returned after 18 months. We had to make sure we were on the same page.



In 2014 we began to see the results of their work, and were blown away. There was so much footage to work with, and the shots for the interactive sections were exactly what we needed!

CBC worked with us in the design and development of the site, as it would be hosted on their platform. The Great Human Odyssey has several modules that tie together with different messages of the documentary.

The interactive documentary is called World of Extremes, a first-person exploration of an extreme environment. This section is the crown jewel of the site, allowing website users to see what it takes to live in an places that is always cold, a place that is extremely dry, and on the ocean.

Child of the Ice Age tells the story of humanity's journey through time. Written by Anthropologist Niobe Thompson, this module tells us that the Ice Age, droughts, and volcanic explosions and other cataclysmic events all played a part in helping humans become the dominant species on Earth. To test further educate series watchers, the site also features a quiz, behind the scenes videos and pictures, and educational material.

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Surviving in a World of Extremes

The Great Human Odyssey visits corners of the world where people survive in terribly inhospitable climates. The three that we feature are reindeer nomads, sea nomads and desert nomads. The reindeer nomads live on the frigid tundra of Siberia, herding hoards of reindeer. The sea nomads, known as the Badjao, live on stilt towns on the ocean, and have learned to gather everything they need from the waters. The Ju/wasi desert nomads live in the Kalahari, extracting what little water they can from roots and plants during the long dry season. The survival of these groups shows the adaptability of humanity.

The interactive experience lets the user explore the environments in which these nomads survive. The experience is first-person, allowing us to walk (or swim) a mile in their shoes. As the user explores the environment, icons appear. By clicking on these icons the user can read more about what they are seeing. For example, while walking through the badjao village we stumble upon a man stretching octopi. By clicking on the icon we learn how they hunt the octopus, that it is one of their favourite foods, and that they sell much of it to markets across Asia. This information is paired with mini-docs and galleries that were shot by the Clearwater team for the website. By walking through the environment and learning about some of the key parts of life in each setting, users leave with a deepened respect human ingenuity.


Development Challenges

World of Extremes can be explored on desktop, tablet and mobile devices. As far as we can tell, interactive video had never been applied like this. Until recently, 100% of the work like this online has been done with Flash. We placed a bet back in 2013 that web standards would change. Lucky us, processors got faster and the software engineers opened up the doors we hoped for. Although the site is not fully responsive, its the same codebase and experience from tablet to desktop. Mobile users get an alternate experience that focuses more on the mini-docs and galleries, but are still able to explore.

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  • Video Layer
  • Platform HTML Container

Rounding out the Story

The Great Human Odyssey is made up of much more than the World of Extremes module. For one of the sections, anthropologist, director and narrator Niobe Thompson tells humanity's battle with climate change.

Anthropologist Niobe Thompson tells us that humans have survived and adapted to dramatic climactic events throughout their history. In fact, we now know that the last million years was the most volatile period our planet has experienced since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65m years ago. Isn’t it interesting that we emerged—this walking, intelligent, adaptable ape—at exactly the point our global climate went haywire? Clearwater analyzed a mountain of ancient climate data and we built an interactive map—you can use it to travel back in time, to key points in our evolutionary journey, and discovery what was happening on planet Earth.

Each interest point has lots of information that shows what life was like at a crucial time and place. We combined interviews, photo galleries, data and beautiful videos to make a journey that can be taken on mobile, tablet and desktop devices.

Behind the Scenes & Quiz

Shooting an adventure documentary isn't entirely predictable. Weather in Siberia won't co-operate. A journey to an island in the middle of the Pacific may not go as planned, and having a female camera operator at a tribal ritual in Papua New Guinea will result in a fascinating behind the scenes video. Throughout the 18 months of shooting all over the world, the Clearwater team documented their steps to create an abundance of behind the scenes videos, photos and stories. This behind the scenes section leads website users on a journey with Clearwater.

Also featured on the website is a quiz, which tests one's knowledge of human history. The quiz consists of 10 questions randomly selected from the database. Each question is timed, users have 30 seconds to answer each one. A score is awarded based on how quickly the answers are correctly answered. The grade reflects the amount of time remaining of the 30 seconds initially granted. At the end of the quiz users are encouraged to share their score with their friends on social media.

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