After diving countless reefs across the ocean, Jeff Orlowski surfaced with Sundance-winning doc 'Chasing Coral.'
Orlowski is a film renaissance man: he's part adventurer, part scientist, and all artist. While talking to coral scientists, Orlowski learned that when water temperatures rise by more than 1-2 degrees Celsius, fatal coral bleaching events occur. So Orlowski and his team engineered underwater cameras to capture timelapses of coral dying around the world. When events accelerated last summer, Orlowski and his team left behind the specialized housing and began reef diving multiple times a day to manually capture the world's first visual evidence of the worst coral bleaching event in history.
Orlowski sat down with No Film School at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to talk about the extraordinary underwater shooting conditions, capturing characters within a three-act-structure, and finding a story to tell.
No Film School: Even though the subject of Chasing Coral is mass coral bleaching, the film is also a character portrait of former Ad man, Richard Vevers, and coral nerd, Zackery Rago. How important is it to have a story grounded in character journey?
Jeff Orlowski: There are a bunch of different ways you can tell a story, and with non-fiction, you have a bunch of opportunities. For issues like this, I think of it as: you can do talking heads, or you can find individuals on a quest, who face struggles and will have a climax. If you can frame a story this way, it's much more impactful than just a bunch of facts and figures.
Orlowski : In Chasing Ice, people really engaged because of James Balog and his personal struggles. So when we started making this film, and I met Richard, we were constantly asking ourselves: how do we craft a story out of this? How do we make it emotional and engaging with a climax? And then Zack fell into our laps and joined the team, and it became even more clear that there was an actual structure, the exposition, a first action, a rising action, a climax.
"For issues like this, I think of it as: you can do talking heads, or you can find individuals on a quest who face struggles and will have a climax."
Narrative films usually try to follow that traditional form, unless it's experimental. On documentaries, filmmakers kind of walk the line. It's something that I love about it. Then the challenge is, how do you make it a compelling story, and still convey the information that you need to convey?
The approach we've taken is that the story itself only really has meaning if you understand why it's important, and why the subjects of the film think it's important. That's the challenge for these kinds of projects, to blend those two worlds together and bring the science and the art of storytelling into that hybrid.
NFS: It must have been a huge challenge on a film like this with so many moving parts: you’re diving and capturing the scientific data and coral bleaching time lapses, on top of filming what the main characters themselves are doing. How did you manage and prioritize production?
Orlowski: That's what I found to be one of the most difficult things about this project, because it went on for so long, and we spent so much time out in the field. I felt like I was constantly making these decisions around is this worth filming or not? You can't just really like sit back and relax and enjoy being there. We try to keep the equipment on stand-by and ready to go at all times, but to shoot something properly takes effort and energy and thinking and angles.
But we were doing that with a pretty good sense of what we wanted the story to be, and where the opportunities were. I would talk somewhat regularly with our writer and then with our editor as well. I become so close to the subject that it really helps to have a sounding board to remind you of the bullet points that we need. We know that these are the points that will make it into the story arc. So having that conversation with those partners really helps in figuring out what we need to film. Especially for documentaries like this, if we are clear on what we need, we don't need waste time shooting what we don't.
NFS: Did you know from the beginning that you needed evidence of coral bleaching, and did you have any concept of how difficult that might be to have camera systems to capture them?
Orlowski: We looked at it as a technical problem that had a solution; we just needed to figure out how to execute it. In retrospect, for Chasing Ice it was easier because glaciers melt constantly over a long, long period of time. So if you put a camera there, it'll continue to capture changes, and if it's January to three years later, you can get these changes. The corals, on the other hand, bleach and die at a very specific point in time, at the peak of the summer temperatures. It made it so much more difficult. And it’s much harder to have equipment last indefinitely underwater, and in some places it wasn’t feasible at all.
"We were able to bring an iPad underwater and export video clips that we shot at the beginning. So we had all this reference, and I would take them underwater and watch the video so we could repeat the same shot."
We needed to know when it was going to bleach before it bleached, and the goal was to try to capture that change in state. We had to be at the right place at the right time for this snapshot to capture that before-and-after comparison. So the philosophy was there are so many different cinematic techniques that we can use, let's try to use all of them! We were trying to leverage VR as well. We were shooting a lot of 360 video, 360 before-and-after stills, manually doing 360 time lapses, and all the manual stuff that's in the film.
One of the things I'm most proud of, in terms of how it turned out, was actually something really, really easy to do. We took an iPad, and we found one company in the world that makes an underwater housing for it. So we were able to bring an iPad underwater and export video clips that we shot at the beginning. So we had all this reference, and I would take them underwater and watch the video so we could repeat the same shot. I'd watch it again, and adjust my elevation or the angle or the speed or all of these different factors you need to match.
Repeat imagery has been done, but trying to do it underwater is tough, and then trying to do it with repeat video and not just still photos and then trying to control all those factors was worse. Honestly, I think I’m the most proud of the time lapse footage because of the ridiculous effort it took.
"We had to set up ways that we could repeat the shots reliably, and honestly, we didn't have the right gear to do that. I didn't even have a ball head on my tripod."
NFS: You had to abandon some elaborate underwater timelapse cameras with housing that your team engineered, and start shooting timelapse manually, which required diving every day with a tripod, multiple times a day, to get the timelapse. How’d you keep up the morale to do it?
Orlowski: When we went to Australia, we had already been thinking about doing it manually because with the elaborate timelapse cameras we built would only have a couple shots a day, and what if they suck? So we tested that manual process in the beginning. It was tedious, but when we had to change locations it was the only option. So that's what we had to do.
Our permits didn't allow us to install things directly into the ground, and permits in Australia were an absolute ridiculous nightmare. Major kudos to our entire producing team for executing miracles there. But working around the permits, we had to set up ways that we could repeat the shots reliably and honestly we didn't have the right gear to do that. I didn't even have a ball head on my tripod. I had to adjust the individual tripod legs and I only had like a panning thing so to get the right angle I had to adjust each individual leg.
NFS: That sounds ridiculous!
Orlowski: It was the most ridiculous, tedious process we possibly ever could have done. We found these underwater lasers that we just literally zip-tied to the camera housing so that it would stay in the same exact alignment. If three lasers point at the same three spots, the camera is in the same position and the same orientation. They would triangulate the camera positioning. And then after you do all that, you get a reference shot to check it with. Yes it looks right, inch it a little bit this way...
We used every trick we could possibly think of to capture the change over time, which is the whole concept. We know that this thing is happening and we know that it looks different ways at different times. The interesting thing is that the scientists had never documented it quite in this way. Some scientists had done a few before-and-afters, but they're doing it from a scientific framework and not from an artistic framework, something you could see with your own eyes.
"It was the most ridiculous, tedious process we possibly ever could have done. We found these underwater lasers that we just literally zip-tied to the camera housing so that it would stay in the same exact alignment."
This is something that I learned from James Balog: the importance of the picture being in the same exact position and not allowing the brain to even doubt whether or not they're from the same position. People can tell you, yes, these are shot from the same spot, but unless there are enough visual reference points you may not be able to be sure that it is for yourself. So that's the challenging part that requires precision in cinematography to be effective.
NFS: What were you guys shooting on, especially for the underwater stuff?
Orlowski: Most of the underwater stuff is shot on the RED Dragon. And that's the camera that I would use the most, and then Andrew used a GH4, and then we had a bunch of GoPros. GoPro sponsored us and gave us half a dozen GoPros, which was cool. You couldn't just jump into the water with a RED because it's this massive housing, super heavy, lights attached. So those fun shots of Zack jumping in to dive every day, a lot of that's just GoPro footage because you can hold it and jump in the water at the same time.
We tried to use the best tools available for every moment. There were times where I literally mounted a GoPro onto my RED housing. So I had 6K pristine slow motion with the tiny, little GoPro on top! That’s because there were times when we would pop up out of the water, and the RED doesn't record audio, you can't record audio in that housing easily. It's got fans that are running in it, so I would use the GoPro to get sound when we would come up and it would record audio under water too. A lot of the audio is straight off the GoPro mics.
"There were times where I literally mounted a GoPro onto my RED housing. So I had 6K pristine slow motion with the tiny, little GoPro on top!"
When you're diving, you're under water for 45 minutes or an hour and you're not talking. So when you come up, everybody wants to chat at the surface, and the boat's far away and there’s this energy and this vibe that there. So when I would pop out of the water, or on my way up, I would hit record. If Zack would be eager to say something I'm ready rolling with the GoPro, so a couple of those are in the film.
NFS: And all the while shooting the rest of everything happening and needed in the documentary...
Orlowski: It's friggin' hard!
NFS: You ended up with visual evidence of coral bleaching that nobody, even in the scientific community, has ever seen. What do you see as the intersection of science and storytelling here?
Orlowski: That's kind of crazy in retrospect: nobody has ever seen this imagery. Nothing like it exists. I was honored by scientists who shared their excitement that we brought something to this field that they couldn't have done themselves. We brought the artistic and emotional and visual side that’s not the norm for scientists. In many ways, we wanted to make science the hero of the film. When I started meeting scientists, they've known the realities of climate change for decades, and they felt like they have no voice. It's considered a huge success if a scientist has a thousand people read their paper, and we've already had far more than a thousand people see the film this weekend.
Because of that, we wanted the film to be based in absolute critical science. Our public's lack of engagement with science is a huge problem, and one of the things we wanted to do is make science fun and make it sexy. Somebody called Zack a climate heartthrob and I was just like yes, awesome! And all Zack wants to do is go around and teach kids about how awesome the oceans are or how awesome their ecosystem is in their backyard.
Our curiosity for nature has been kind of squashed in many ways. We're so detached from the fundamental resources that we need for our survival. I would contend that most of the politicians who deny climate change probably suffer from significant nature deficit disorder. They're not connected with the natural world. And that's not trying to sound like eco tree huggers. Our food grows in nature, and where we grow food and where we get water is under threat. There’s massive political turmoil coming our way because of that.
Orlowski: This issue is bigger than corals. In many ways, I don't consider this film to be a film about coral. It's a reflection on where we are with civilization in this era, and our complete disconnection and disregard for that which sustains us. We have seen it in glaciers and we're seeing it in corals and it's only going to get worse.
"That's kind of the crazy thing in retrospect, that nobody has ever seen this imagery. Nothing like it exists."
NFS: The film very powerfully captures evidence of climate change, and it premiered at Sundance just as a new administration takes office with a strong climate change denial policy. What do you hope to see the film accomplish beyond Sundance?
Orlowski: We're planning on doing a really big impact campaign. We’re doing everything we possibly can with the film. That's sort of our team mantra: try everything. I think that there have always been deniers in Washington, and that isn't changing this administration. It’s not the be all and end all.
There's a lot that can and needs to be done, and the biggest successes we're going to see over the coming years is almost definitely at the local level. The rest of the world gets it too, but somehow there's one political party in our country that has been so blinded by the fossil fuel industry that they're not thinking critically. Either they're just genuinely ignorant because they've been clouded by intentionally manipulated, manufactured doubt that surrounds them, or they're just evil people denying reality. I'd rather believe the former than the latter, because that means that they can still be reached.
Orlowski: On the other side of the coin, I'm totally confident we're going to solve climate change. We're on these two conflicting trajectories: the state of the natural world is in this constant decline and the rise in sustainable energy is on a constant rise. The energy generation, creation, and storage are all technologies that are growing exponentially. There is this chicken and egg relationship between government forces, and the market, and the public, that is sort of this race.
Over the coming years, we definitely need to rely on the public to demand change and to take action locally. In the end credits of the film, we included a list of cities that have pledged to be completely renewable because we wanted to show there is progress. Everybody asks, "What can I do?" If your city is not on the list, there's a lot you can do to get your city on it. I hope we can inspire a massive movement all across the country and around the world to do that.
"There are so many stories that need to be told...Just find a story, and tell it."
NFS: What would be your best piece of advice for filmmakers, especially for those of us who are looking at what you've done and thinking, "what a story, what an impact, I want to make a film like that?"
Orlowski: I wouldn't want it to intimidate filmmakers. This was a massive effort for many years, and it was a huge struggle. I hope it's more of an inspiration to filmmakers. With Richard's story in the film, we wanted to show that people can get involved in all sorts of different ways; he left his job to do something more meaningful. People have asked me about doing narrative films and sent me books and scripts and stuff, but most of them are just not important enough for me to put my time into.
For big projects like this, it better be damn important if we're going to put huge amounts of time into it. I wish artists all across the board were doing work that they felt was meaningful. Film should be meaningful to you. When you can make a difference and to put your heart and soul into that, you can get the best of both worlds.
I think our whole team is incredibly proud of this project. Not to beat up on the ad world by any means, but a lot of filmmakers work in advertising. It pays the bills. I know a number of people on our team feel so thrilled that they can give that up to do this stuff. There are so many stories that need to be told. There's so much out there that it's easy to find something important. Just find a story, and tell it.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.