Read our interview with Chasing Coral Director Jeff Orlowski and Producer Larissa Rhodes
CHASING CORAL is the latest film from acclaimed filmmaker Jeff Orlowski who documented irrefutable visual proof of the melting ice caps in his 2012 film Chasing Ice. In Chasing Coral Orlowski returns with a team of divers, photographers and scientists to investigate why coral reefs are vanishing at an unprecedented rate. Coral reefs are the nursery for all life in the oceans, a remarkable ecosystem that sustains the rest of the Earth. However, with carbon emissions warming the seas, scientists have seen an alarming increase in “coral bleaching”, a sign of mass coral death.
Orlowski joins forces with his passionate collaborators to figure out a way to capture the effects of climate change on the coral and they embark on a race against time to record bleaching events to show the world the devastation that is silently raging underwater.
Ad-Exec-turned-ocean-photographer Richard Vevers emailed you about documenting coral bleaching, after seeing your last film, Chasing Ice. What was it about the coral, and about Richard himself, that convinced you to set off on the long journey of making this film?
Richard is such a motivated individual and when he reached out, we realised the great potential to tell a story of our ocean in a unique and powerful way that no one has ever seen before.
After the film of Chasing Ice was finished, the team thought we knew a lot about climate change. When we learned that over 90% of the heat trapped in the earth’s atmosphere from climate change is being absorbed by the ocean, we realised this was another story that was rarely being told and so we pointed our cameras beneath the ocean surface.
Richard often said that part of the problem lies in how we've been telling the narrative around climate change. Since the ocean temperatures are rising at an alarming rate, coral bleaching and mortality have also been occurring at an unprecedented rate. When most corals around the world are exposed to water temperatures rising above a threshold of only a few degrees, they turn bright white, or bleach, which can eventually lead to death. This stunning transformation from living ecosystems to death was a haunting visual story that needed to be revealed to the world.
One way or another, there’s a lot of technical information to impart in the film – about climate, ecology and coral - but it never overwhelms the storytelling. How do you approach finding that balance?
It is difficult to find that balance, but we focussed the story on our subjects and their experience, using their narrative to parse out which facts and explanations needed to fit into the story during key moments of our journey.
It is easy to get lost in the weeds, but we worked with our story and edit team, as well as our incredibly knowledgeable scientific advisors to help us distill the most essential information. We also relied on the imagery and animations to help us explore these most important concepts so that all of the learning that needed to be communicated could be done so through narrative / storytelling / visual mechanisms.
You have gone to extraordinary lengths to get visual evidence showing coral bleaching, which has never been captured before. Is there a line between filmmaking, science and activism? Where do your team sit on that spectrum?
We believe in art for art’s sake and we don’t look at ourselves only as activist filmmakers. Our team has been to places where we have witnessed extraordinary and tragic events that have occurred in nature. We’ve learned through some of the leading experts in these fields what is happening in our world and observed these changes with our own eyes. In documenting these events, we now feel a responsibility to show people what we saw, communicate what we experienced and what we have learned.
At Exposure Labs we believe films are a tool to inspire action and drive impact on pressing social issues. They have the power to change hearts and minds, invite new people into the conversation and raise consciousness. We believe the best way to do that is by bringing together the best from the film, science and activism worlds.
The nexus between filmmaking and activism is our sweet spot. Activism alone can leave politically disenfranchised audiences out of the conversation and film alone requires infrastructure in order to leverage it for change. Our impact campaign for Chasing Ice and now for Chasing Coral is meant to reflect this infrastructure by providing tools and materials for the average viewer at home as well as local organisations to use the film to drive conversation and take meaningful action in their community.
Why aren’t we already all talking about what’s happening to coral?
Around 1% of the world's population gets the privilege to scuba dive and witness the underwater wonders revealed in Chasing Coral. Very few people actually get to see the magic of the ocean up close.
Over the making of the documentary, we have met and interviewed dozens of the world's leading ocean and coral experts. They have been publishing papers and sharing their data for many years now, sounding the alarm and trying to tell the world this story of the coral. However, scientists often communicate in a bubble to other scientists and it is hard for their message to get beyond their traditional audience. Visual storytelling is a vehicle in which we can wrap this scientific evidence and years of research inside an emotional, human story with which a new type of audience can empathise.
In Chasing Ice you show us receding glaciers, in Chasing Coral you show us coral dying, will there be more films documenting the effects of climate change?
We hope we don’t have to make another climate change film. We hope these films will inspire action and continue the great transformation toward a clean energy future that will prevent further ecosystem loss.
Unfortunately with the amount of carbon already committed in the atmosphere it is likely that we will continue to see negative impacts on ecosystems from our oceans, to grasslands to rainforests. We don’t have concrete plans for a new film just yet, but we believe that hidden within each of these often unexplored environments there are powerful stories for our team to reveal.
With so much of the film taking place underwater, I wondered how it affected your process as a filmmaker undertaking such a physically strenuous shoot? Can you also talk a bit about the technical aspects of shooting underwater?
Filming underwater was an entirely new experience for most of our team. We were in great shape by the end since the cameras were so heavy and we had to lug them onshore and into the water every day!
The ocean is a very unforgiving environment at times with very strong currents in shallow waters that can knock you around. There is a limited supply of oxygen, and every tool or piece of equipment comes with added difficulties of buoyancy which counteracts gravity and creates operational challenges when you are trying to hammer and secure a camera into a rock bed or weigh a camera down so a storm or current doesn’t unhinge it from its mount causing the time-lapse to be ruined.
All of us had to get new certifications to make sure we could operate our cameras safely—some even got boat operator licenses to be able to operate our own boats since we were out on the water so often it was the only way to get to our dive sites daily, week after week. Our team included dive masters and an array of experts in the field who had years of experience in order to build the most effective teams to film Chasing Coral around the world.
Communication was also a challenge. When you are underwater you have to find ways to communicate. Several people on our team learned some sign language in order to quickly get ideas across.