Chasing Coral/Jeff Orlowski

Breaking with Director Talk tradition, we are presenting a write-up of Chasing Coral rather than an interview with the film’s director. Jeff Orlowski’s schedule was too packed to arrange a chat, but we felt that the film is too important to pass by.  •Availability: Streaming now on Netflix, and available in select theaters. Thanks to Kate Patterson, Brigade Marketing, and Kim Parker Gordon, Netflix, for arranging a screening.

To most of us, the oceans are alien worlds, populated by strange creatures who live  in unknowable depths. Yet oceans are the source of all life on earth. They control our weather and air. They provide us with pleasure, food, raw materials to make cancer-fighting drugs. They inspire love.

For all that, we’re killing the oceans and the remarkable creatures who live there. It’s a simple but tragic process: The carbon dioxide we pour into the air traps heat; 93 percent of that heat is absorbed by the oceans. (Without them, the average land temperature would be 122 degrees.) In the process, the temperature of the oceans has risen to such an extent that they’re becoming inhospitable to marine life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the coral reefs, living superstructures that create their own habitats, much like cities aboveground. The reefs support vast quantities of fish, which many human communities depend on for survival. But in the last thirty years alone, 50 percent of the world’s coral has died, affecting a quarter of the life in the oceans.  In twenty-five years, the oceans may be too warm for coral reefs to survive at all.  According to a March 15, 2017 article in the New York Times, “Hundreds of millions of people get their protein primarily from reef fish, and the loss of that food supply could become a humanitarian crisis.”

Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, knew he wanted to address the calamity unfolding below, but he didn’t quite know how. Before entering the field of ocean conversation, Vevers had spent ten years as a top London ad exec, and he’d brought this advertising mentality to The Ocean Agency. The advertising problem with oceans, he discovered, was that they’re largely out of sight—and therefore out of mind. So he formulated an ambitious goal: revealing the oceans to the world.

But how best to alert a largely uncaring world to a problem they couldn’t see?  As it turns out, corals respond to rising temperatures by bleaching, or turning stark white. For an ad exec seeking to communicate the dire state of ocean affairs, that was an unfortunate response, because the white looked beautiful, not stressed. Vevers realized he needed to communicate the problem in a different way. One night, after watching Chasing Ice, the Emmy-winning documentary about the effects of climate change on the world’s glaciers, Vevers realized that the answer to his ocean problem was change: in order to move people to action, he had to show them what they were losing.

And so Chasing Coral was born. Vevers brought Jeff Orlowski, director of Chasing Ice, onboard, along with an amazing crew, who would use remote-controlled underwater time-lapse photography to document the ongoing death of coral reefs. They designed and created a revolutionary photography system, in which underwater cameras manufactured with 3D printers would be placed inside transparent bubbles and situated on the ocean floor, where they would communicate wirelessly with an operator sitting in a boat. There was only one problem: the system didn’t work. Under pressure to catch the corals before they died completely, they switched to the old-fashioned method: documenting the change by hand, making twenty-five dives per day along the Great Barrier Reef.

In the process, they discovered that stressed corals did more than turn a beautiful white: In their second stress response, the corals glowed, producing the equivalent of a chemical sunscreen to ward off the heat. It was as if they were screaming, in their final phase of death, Look at me. Please notice.

Shooting manually, the crew developed emotional ties to the reefs. Besides the utter beauty of the corals themselves and the astonishing creatures who live there, the crew’s love for the coral humanizes the reefs, giving Chasing Coral a stirring resonance.

Corals, when alive, are breathtakingly beautiful. They’re enchanting, and mysterious, and life-giving. We see all of that in Chasing Coral. But they are not only objects of beauty to be admired from a distance; they’re also valued neighbors in this ecological web we share with other lifeforms. That’s in Chasing Coral, too. And that’s the part we really need to see.

Go to chasingcoral.com to learn about how you can get involved.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

 

Seasons/Jacques Perrin (director), Stephane Durand (writer)

The writer/director team who brought us Winged Migration and Oceans now proffers a saga of animal life on land. This magical, hypnotic film goes back 20,000 years to a time before agriculture, when our hunter-gatherer forebears lived alongside animals with no thought of domesticating them. It takes us back to a time of natural order and resplendent biodiversity, when humans allowed animals to be their teachers. And it urges us to return to that time, to treasure the wild planet we inhabit, to make room for other species once again, and to care, each and every one of us, for the magnificent gift of life, which is not ours to own. •Availability: Opens in select cities November 25, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  What was your motivation for making this incredibly beautiful, unusual film?

JP: We always try to have aesthetics, but we didn’t make the movie for aesthetics. First is the theme of the movie. As you see, the planet can be so beautiful because of the diversity of trees, plants, and animals, but the diversity of animals is only in our minds, because in Europe we have fewer animals today. That’s why we begin the movie 11,000 years ago, because in this epoch we saw so many animals. If we consider wild animals today, it’s only in our mind, because we don’t have them anymore.

It is so important to know we are all wild. We were all wild. Before, animals and humans could live together. When we live together, there’s a notion of freedom. And freedom means wild. We can recoup that. We can return to that, to have new lands with animals and many plants. That moment is beginning just now, more or less in a good way, but in a good way when we understand what agriculture does. When we see how few fish there are in the sea, when we see attacks on nature and the planet, it’s terrible, but we didn’t make a movie on terrible things. Why make bad things? When we made the movie we were cautious; we know it’s not good but we feel good, because we believe in hope. And when we made the movie, the aesthetic is more or less hope. An expression of hope.

 

DT: You recounted 20,000 years of the history of Earth’s wild animals. Meanwhile, you depicted the evolution of humans through the eyes of animals. I thought that was a very interesting choice. Can you talk about that?

SD: You’re right. We wanted to tell this story about wild Europe 20,000 years ago through the point of view of the wild animals. One of the subjects is human beings coming into Europe as hunter gatherers at the beginning, and then new people coming from the East, the Middle East, and they start to cut the trees and grow cattle, grow crops…

JP: We make so many fiction movies, but so few movies on animals. We make five thousand movies in the world, ten thousand, without seeing animals except a very charming little dog in a garden. No! In this movie we tried to create space at the dimension of the animals. Animals give us the notion of freedom. They give this impression. If we have all the animals in the zoo, in some closed area, we don’t understand. We don’t understand the way of the wind, the way of nature.

SD: What we realized in doing this movie is that we share the same territories with wild animals. We share the same history. We wanted to show what happened in antiquity, during the Middle Ages, during the Renaissance, but from the animals’ point of view, and it’s why we made this sequence about the First World War, for example.

 

DT: I found the scene where the wild horses are fighting really terrifying. For me, this scene really exemplified the magic of cinema, because you have a camera there, and crew, and equipment, but it ends up being something so raw and so powerful and so terrifying.

JP: Our camera was always on the same plane as the animals. Always. We were a meter, a meter and a half away, not fifty meters. Very occasionally we used a tele lens, but very little. We wanted to always be near the animals. If they went very fast, we went very fast. If they ran, we ran at the same moment. So the technique had to change, had to be created for that.

It’s the same with humans. When I speak with you, I look at you. I understand because I look at you. For animals, we don’t understand if we’re five, ten, twenty meters away. We must be very near to understand their mystery. For the movie about birds [Winged Migration] and for the animals in the sea [Oceans], we were also very, very near. Not like photography. We are not photographing. We are looking at movement. We want to be near the movement.

 

DT: The animals seemed to have great trust in you, given how close you were to them.  How did you accomplish that?

SD: It depends on which sequence you’re speaking about. There was shooting in the wild, with wild animals, when we would take a long time to hide and be close to the wild animals. Sometimes that was impossible, because in Europe animals have learned to be very shy and have been afraid of humans for centuries and centuries. So we use hand-raised animals, imprinted animals. We took small babies from zoos and parks with us, and we were part of the pack of wolves. We worked together. We lived together.

JP: For these kinds of animals, they are not wild, but they are free. That means we never trained the animals to do something. We didn’t teach them movement. They were absolutely free to make their own movement. It’s us; we adapted our technique to the function of the movement of the animals. We are at the orders of the animals. They are free. They give the impression of being wild, but they are only free.

 

DT: Were you using long lenses to get close to the wild animals?

JP: Ninety-five percent is near the animals.

 

DT: Jacques, what sparked your interest in making nature films?  You started out producing for Costa-Gavras.

JP: I made several political movies with Costa-Gavras. When we make this kind of movie about nature, we have something we must defend all over the world. Twenty years ago, people didn’t realize how badly we treated nature. I think it’s political. We can live better if we are in agreement with nature, with the trees, with the plants, so for that reason, it’s political. It’s not only the aesthetic—“Oh these birds are so beautiful, these fish are so beautiful, these animals are so beautiful.” They are in life more than we are. When we made Winged Migration, many of the birds flew more than 5000 kilometers one way and then back, every year. Humans can’t match that performance.

 

DT: Was that political aspect in the script? The animals were very adorable, but the encroachment of humans was what was driving the story.

SD: That’s really what we wanted to make you feel. We put the wild animals in front of the camera, while behind them we saw the human beings, some living like animals, some cutting the trees, some building big castles and making war. Some animals are afraid and disappear from Europe, while other animals are opportunists. They try to live with humans, like the owls in the castle, in the fields, even in the battlefield, as we saw in the sequence of the First World War. Animals try to find their food in between the bones and the bullets, and it’s really important for us to show this power of wildlife.

 

DT: What’s the most important thing that we humans can do now?

JP: Don’t’ worry too much about political things. Politicians always speak too late. I think the solution comes from the individual human being. A man lives near a lake and takes care of this lake. People who work in agriculture must understand why they should not use pesticides, insecticides. It’s up to each of us, you, me, to understand that we have a treasure. But it’s very fragile, this treasure, and year by year the diminution is terrible.

Sometimes we make good decisions, like what happened six months ago in Paris, with COP 21 [the Paris Accords]. That’s good. COP 22 [Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, November 2016] wasn’t so good; they didn’t say, “We’ll do that,” only “We hope we can do that” because people are afraid of so many things.

The most important is that nations must say enough, It’s our planet. Actually, it’s not our planet, it’s their planet, and if species disappear, it’s a disaster. We’ll be discussing an article in the New York Times about the disappearance of some species, but when a child hears someone say we must lose an animal, they don’t believe it. They see animals in the country, they see animals on television, and they know it’s wrong that we have less. What we can do is make movies, write books, begin some little associations, believe we can change things. But not political.

SD: At the end of the movie we are optimistic, because experience shows that in North America and in Europe lots of wild animals are coming back. Huge elks and bears and wolves, and big birds like vultures, raptors, cranes, they’re all coming back in North America and Europe. So nature is doing better now than fifty years ago. But not all nature, because animals in the countryside and farmland—small birds, butterflies, snails, frogs—are all going down and down and disappearing. There are different kinds of biodiversity. For some animals the news is very good; in Europe there have never been more bears than there are today. So that’s good, and that’s why we’re optimistic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016