Q&A: Jeff Orlowski’s ‘Chasing Coral’

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If you haven’t seen “Chasing Coral” yet, we highly recommend you watch it. (It’s streaming now on Netflix.) This engaging documentary successfully communicates the immediacy of the problem of climate change by showing the devastating effects of rising temperatures on coral reefs. Rising temperatures trigger coral bleaching, which can result in the death of these coastal ecosystems that are crucial not only for marine life but for the human race, which depends on reefs for physical protection and for natural resources, including food and cancer-fighting compounds. The film, beautifully shot, brings the story of climate change to life by documenting a massive coral die-off in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. “Chasing Coral” is powerful storytelling that serves as a wakeup call. The director, Jeff Orlowski, whose previous film, “Chasing Ice,” documented glacier melt, spoke with Sea Technology about the making of the movie and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.

Going back to the origins of the film. How did you get together with the ad guy that’s one of the film’s stars?
Richard [Vevers] just emailed out of the blue and suggested that we talk. It was clear there was good overlap. We met with him and started talking about the project.

Did you have a background in the subjects of this film?
I had a background in climate change but not any real background in the oceans. The biggest learning for me has been that climate change is an ocean problem. If people aren’t aware of the connection, they don’t know the full climate change story. This is where the vast majority of the heat is being absorbed.

Do you see ‘Chasing Ice’ and ‘Chasing Coral’ as linked?
Yes. That’s why we called it ‘Chasing’ again. They’re different stories, different subjects, different ecosystems, different themes. But there’s this link. Trying to document changes in the planet, trying to reveal those changes.

What were the technical issues that caused the cameras not to work properly in ‘Chasing Coral’?
A bunch of problems happened. The focus issue was the biggest we reveal in the film. There were other challenges not included in the film. The hardest thing is working underwater and in saltwater—it is a huge challenge. We worked with a lot of different people. It’s all brand new tech, and you’re hacking systems to get them to work the way you want. It opens up bugs and complications. We were able to figure out those challenges over multiple versions of the camera systems. We had problems with focusing, timers, being in the right place at the right time and being able to capture the changes happening. We invented techniques—manual time lapse, manual three-sixty time lapses. There were countless technical problems. A lot of it was constant engineering.

What was the company you worked with for cameras?
View Into The Blue camera company. We hired them to design and develop camera systems. They had this underwater dome with the windshield wiper. The wiper can keep the glass clean. You can keep shooting for long periods of time.

When the cameras weren’t working properly and you had to resort to manual shooting, how did you accomplish that? You see the tedium in the film of diving over and over to get the time-lapse shots.
We used a handful of different techniques to try to make the shots consistent. The water’s moving, the sand’s moving, the topography changes. We made it work between really good markers and underwater lasers, and we used a ball level and reference photos and lots of detailed notes to try to get it as consistent as possible to get the camera back in position.

The corals themselves, as they die, they start to change shape, so the reference changes in the photo. That made it extremely complicated trying to keep the same relative positioning in the frame.

We started testing that [manual time-lapse shooting] technique over that expedition. During the course of our time at Lizard Island, we spent about a month diving every single day.

What do you hope people take away from your film?
We kept meeting all these scientists who are incredibly sad about the fate of the reefs and oceans. The scientists know so well what’s happening. There’s a huge gap between their knowledge and the public’s. We want the public to know and see there’s a huge story happening. It’s happening here and now. These pictures are a way to showcase that climate change is affecting people right now.

What kind of response have you gotten to the film?
Amazingly positive support. It’s been one of those things where the entire scuba, ocean community has come together in support of the story and getting the message out there. There’s been really strong feedback in social media.

What is your hope for ‘Chasing Coral’ now that it’s released?
We’re focusing on an impact campaign to get the film to the right audiences. It’s amazing that with the film on Netflix, it’s incredibly accessible around the world.

The goal is how to get people to care. We were asking that of the scientists all the time: Why should we care? The ability to use the scientists, to use Richard, to help communicate to the audience why it’s so important and meaningful—all of that helps communicate this emotional story. How do we get people to understand why the scientists love it so much? It’s trying to use these human stories and the human love for these landscapes.

How did creating this film change you personally?
The biggest learning was the story of climate change really is a story of ocean change. The oceans are absorbing ninety-three percent of climate change. We think about it as changing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. It’s a visual problem. We visualize a polar bear on an iceberg and calving ice—that’s a tiny percentage of the problem. You can see it in coral reefs first and foremost. The functionability of the ocean and countless ecosystems we depend on, that’s what we’re jeopardizing right now. It’s a scary scenario. We want to wake people up.

What’s your next project?
We’re always looking for stories. We don’t have something in production just yet.

These two projects fell into our lap. These were nonfiction stories. Nonfiction films don’t get the same recognition as fiction. That’s the uphill battle that nonfiction is dealing with. How do we get more people to watch? How do we get true stories out there? 

—Interview by Aileen Torres-Bennett, with contribution from Amelia Jaycen

Photo Credits: The Ocean Agency

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