January: Chasing Coral

“Febrile Ocean: How to See Climate Change Underwater”

Oliver Gaycken (University of Maryland)

Chasing Coral is unthinkable without a series of accidents. To begin at the beginning: the film’s origin resulted from a chance encounter. Richard Vevers, a London advertising executive turned ocean conservationist, saw Chasing Ice (2012), which centers on the time-lapse glacier photography of James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey. After landing (he saw the film on an airplane), Vevers contacted the film’s director, Jeff Orlowski, “out of the blue,” sending an email with two images of a coral reef. Vevers saw in Chasing Ice’s use of time-lapse photography an opportunity to fill in the gap between the images that depicted first a healthy reef and then the same reef after a “bleaching event,” a deadly response by the coral to a sudden rise in ocean temperature. Time-lapse, in other words, could make the phenomenon of coral death phenomenologically evident, thus creating a vivid demonstration of climate change.

The “chasing” of both films’ titles, then, refers to the effort to make the slow violence of climate change obvious to human perception. As the film’s website puts it, “Since our journey began, we knew that if we could capture visual evidence of coral bleaching, we could reveal the phenomenon in a powerful way.” The “if” is not merely rhetorical, and the film consists largely of the crew reacting to a variety of snafus. What’s more, the visible evidence of coral bleaching ends up not being the film’s most powerful revelation. Indeed, the film’s aesthetic achievement does not lie in its envisioned technical innovation, which not only doesn’t work initially (the images go progressively out of focus) but also, when it is finally fixed, is appended to the end of the film as an unremarkable afterthought. Instead, two other aspects of the film that crop up “out of the blue” take pride of place: first, the extraordinary macro- and microphotography of living coral and second, witnessing the emotional impact of seeing the corals die firsthand, refracted through the figure of Zack Rago.

Watching the corals die via time lapse pales in comparison to seeing them live in close up. The true visual star of the film is the extraordinary macro- and microphotography, largely made possible by laser scanning confocal microscopy. As Orlowski notes in an interview, this part of the film, which is in effect a natural-history episode about the physiology and ecology of coral, allows the audience to understand why one might love these animals. These images recall for me a phrase by André Bazin in his ode to scientific cinema, where he asks “what delirious painter, what poet could have imagined these arrangements, these forms and images!” What delirious painter, indeed, could have imagined these hallucinatory colors? Steve Green’s review of the film makes the cinephilic association, noting that the colors of the macrophotography “look like something Bowman might see approaching the Star Gate.” My own association (thanks, kids!) was Tamatoa, the fabulous crab in Moana, and the giant squid in Finding Dory, leading indicators of undersea bioluminescent color’s mass-cultural exploitation.

Chasing Coral’s sequences are in fact the result of collaborations with BioQuest Studios and the University of Hawai’i’s Institute of Marine Biology Confocal Microscope Facilities. [fig. 1] These two institutions’ online intro videos of are an instructive study in contrast, from BioQuest’s slick promo to UHIMBCMF’s more educational effort. Both groups’ websites contain fascinating details about their approach to imaging and deserve more detailed discussion. But leaving aside a detailed engagement with these images for the moment, I will note more generally the spectrum opened up by these two collaborations—on the one hand, a specialized, commercial motion-picture studio and on the other hand a scientific research laboratory—helps to locate Chasing Coral within the field of documentary history. The film, on the one hand, is a nature documentary, focusing on coral’s remarkable physiology (florescent symbiote) and its role as the cornerstone of a critical marine ecosystem. We can refine this affiliation by noting Chasing Coral’s close relationship with the undersea exploration film, whose most prominent practitioners are Jean Painlevé and Jacques Cousteau (on whom see James Cahill and Jon Crylen). Both the film’s ruminations about the strange beauty of the undersea world that is akin to outer space and its central reliance on technical innovations belong to this tradition. On the other hand, Chasing Coral belongs to the more recent genre of the climate-change documentary. Here the most obvious precursor is An Inconvenient Truth, whose filiation with Chasing Coral is most evident in the shared use of animated graphics. Outstanding examples from Chasing Coral are: the overlay of the Great Barrier Reef bleaching event onto the Northeast American coastline, which underscores that the bleaching event is analogous to most of the trees between DC and Maine having died in the course of a single summer; an animated graph of historical ocean temperature data juxtaposed with an interview with the NOAA scientist Mark Eakin; and an animated diagram that visualizes what it would look like to lose an entire class of life.

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The use of time-lapse in Chasing Coral is less compelling than in Chasing Ice because receding glaciers are kinetic while dying coral are not. While the filmmakers envisioned time-lapse sequences that would spectacularly communicate this particular climate disaster, they are fortunate things did not work out as planned. As Zack notes, “We designed something to do this project without emotions.” But the automation’s failure becomes an inestimable benefit. With the automated time-lapse apparatus on the fritz, the filmmaking team is placed in the extraordinary position of having to execute manual, underwater time-lapse sequences. As long as there has been time-lapse, filmmakers have found ways to automate the tedious process. But this problem allows one of Chasing Coral’s most potent effects to emerge, namely, Zack’s emotional exhaustion from the repeated dives to manually operate the cameras. The turn to manual time-lapse also produced another notable moment, a tracking shot that follows a diver as he emerges from the water and walks through a restaurant boat that the crew is using as a diving platform. It’s a moment of surrealist juxtaposition: a party up top, mass death down below.

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Zack is the film’s happy accident beyond his ability to register credible emotion, however. He also functions as a bridge between the film’s scientific content and its mass-cultural aspirations. A key member of the technical team that constructed the underwater time-lapse rig, he is also a reef aquarium enthusiast, a self-professed “coral nerd.” [figs. 2, 3] This background makes him an ideal vehicle for the film’s popular-scientific mission. Vevers says of the project’s purpose, “as filmmakers, we are translators for the scientific community.” In Zack, the film finds an ideal figure for this work of translation, whose historical antecedents go back to silent-era natural-history filmmakers F. Martin Duncan and Percy Smith. Beyond the long lineage, Zack’s position as a citizen-scientist also resonates with the film’s distribution and “impact” strategies, which belong to the emerging “open space new media” paradigm, about which Patty Zimmerman and Helen De Michiel have just published a book. This link to and tweaking of documentary’s grassroots heritage stands as one of the more interesting features of the film and, one hopes, a successful experiment in troubling times.

“Chasing Mass Extinctions”

Selmin Kara (OCAD University)

“They are part animal, part vegetable, and part mineral, at once teeming with life and, at the same time, mostly dead,” writes American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert in describing the coral reefs in 2014. Her Pulitzer-winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History calls for attention to an extinction crisis facing this majestic marine ecology, arguing the Great Barrier Reef to be a key site wherein the catastrophic effects of what scientists now commonly refer to as the sixth wave of mass extinctions in Earth’s planetary history can be most immediately observed. In highlighting the significance of corals to understanding the scale and severity of the global biodiversity loss, which was flagged as one of the most pressing problems of the 21st century during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, Kolbert has not been alone. In the years following the famous Rio Summit, coral reefs have become a symbol of ecosystems that are essential for safeguarding a healthy level of biodiversity yet are under threat (for more on this, see Helmreich, 2016). These so-called “rainforests of the ocean” have also seen unprecedented levels of decline since then, which threatens to wipe out an alarming percentage of marine life and megafauna such as sea turtles and the coral species that host them, most recently through successive global bleaching events.

Netflix-backed Chasing Coral, directed by Jeff Orlowski and shortlisted for the documentary feature category of the 90th Academy Awards, sets out to capture the progress of the latest among these bleaching events, reported to be the third-ever documented. The narrative structure of the film is very much driven by the temporal dimension of the event, which started in 2014 and quickly progressed to do irreversible damage to the Great Barrier Reef, killing 29 percent of it in 2016 alone. Orlowski’s team establishes early on that time is running out to save what’s left. Bleaching is presented as the perfect storm for coralline ecosystems – a fast, merciless killer – not unrelated to actual, climatic storms, some of which are similarly products of global warming. This allows the documentary to introduce the story through the narrative arc of a “cosmic deadline” plot, an editorial logic employed frequently in action and disaster films as well as in Orlowski’s previous documentary Chasing Ice (2012). The technical crew’s ambitious decision to set-up an innovative underwater time-lapse photography system with network communication for the event’s capture might be viewed as an aesthetic choice motivated by that logic, considering that the technique works well in nature documentaries (especially those that require attention to the complex durational unfoldings of ecological change). Yet, it also suggests a connection between the film and other recent non-fiction works, which foreground climate change as a phenomenon that confounds traditional forms of representation and calls for engagements with new media technologies.

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One can think of Louie Psihoyos’s Racing Extinction (2015) and Burtynsky-de Pencier-Baichwal trio’s ongoing “The Anthropocene Project” as poignant examples in this regard. However, the failure of equipment in Chasing Coral undermines the experimental approach midway through the film and compels Orlowski to revert back to a character-driven plot, dependent on the personal journeys of team members like Richard Vevers and Zack Rago. Through these journeys, Vevers, a former advertising executive, decides to become an environmental activist and channel his creative energies towards serving a new “client” – the ocean. (His narrative arc moves towards “advertising coral” more than “chasing” in this sense.) Meanwhile, Rago, a self-proclamed “coral nerd,” gradually takes on the role of the human witness of an extinction event, which the digital time-lapse cameras fail to capture. It is only at the end of the film that the cosmic deadline returns as a narrative trope, with jarring imagery of bleaching corals assembled from imperfectly aligned manual shots (shot with the help of underwater lasers tied to the camera system locating the ground that the camera needs to be placed on every day) to invoke time-lapse cinematography, which generates a ghostly impression and points to the cosmic temporality of species extinctions.

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In these brief assemblages of shots, the imperfect filmic apparatus gives the dead corals’ ghostly white appearance an additional spectral quality. Despite the laser-rigged attempts to fix its position, the manually controlled camera never quite stabilizes in the volatile, three-dimensional setting of the ocean bed. In the noticeable differences between manual and stationary time-lapse effects as well as between muted macro images and colorful micro-photography, the corals come alive, grow, die a collective death, and return to haunt the imagination. The haunting here blurs our certainties about the limits and resilience of life, as well as the temporal trajectories we ascribe to it. Reefs themselves are temporal structures, of course, organic life support systems built by the secretions of tiny polyp animals over thousands of years; bleaching exposes the deep time that governs that process in addition to the accelerated temporality of biodiversity loss in the Anthropocene. While Chasing Coral does not engage with these interwoven structures of time at an overtly philosophical level, it still invites the viewer to question them through its aesthetic and narrative choices.

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Moreover, the lack of exploration of the socio-economic and political dynamics, which might have led to the current extinction crisis and might offer solutions to it, also encourages the viewer to experience the film mostly on an aesthetic and narrative level. There is a brief invitation to visit the film’s official website in the credit sequence, for viewers who might be interested in taking individual action, indicating that the film can also be experienced as a transmedia activist documentary. This is a common strategy in contemporary climate change documentaries, which tend to put most of the filmic emphasis on raising awareness about issues through evocative visualizations and save calls for activism for other platforms. Considering the difficulty of representing grand scale ecological events like rising ocean temperatures and ecosystems collapse, perhaps visualizing the trouble alone is a good place to start.

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