Chasing Coral: Capturing the end of an underwater world
In this piece from our sister site Creative Planet, John Merli reports on the race to capture disappearing reefs in Netflix’s Chasing Coral.
Coral reefs around the world are dying at an unprecedented rate. In the documentary Chasing Coral, a team of divers, camera designers and marine biologists set out to discover why. Although beset by technical challenges, after three years of stops and starts, the film is now streaming on Netflix.
The film started with the idea of showing changes taking place in the world's oceans. Richard Vevers, a former advertising executive, left his career to become an underwater photographer. During his work, Vevers noticed that a favorite creature, the weedy sea dragon, was beginning to disappear.
"I began hearing about a lot of things that were happening on a global basis, and realizing there was a lot going on underwater that most people weren't aware of. People just weren't engaged with the ocean."
Calling on his background as an advertising executive, he decided to tell this story. One way to inform the public about what goes on underwater was to show it to them. "Our idea was, 'Let's reveal the oceans," Vevers explains. In 2010 he founded the nonprofit Underwater Earth, which eventually became The Ocean Agency.
After exploring and ultimately abandoning the idea of documenting underwater environments with modified Google StreetView camera systems, Vevers developed his own underwater camera rig consisting of three Canon EOS 5D cameras with fisheye lenses in an underwater housing attached to an underwater scooter. Imagery from the three 5Ds would be stitched together for a 360° still image.
With funding from Catlin Insurance, Vevers and his team completed a comprehensive survey of Australia's Great Barrier Reef in 2012 and 2013, and received a contract to expand the oceanic survey globally over the next several years. It was during the Caribbean part of the survey in 2013 that Vevers detailed extensive coral bleaching.
What is coral?
Coral reefs are sometimes referred to as the "rainforests of the sea." While comprising less than half of 1 percent of the ocean's area, they are home to a quarter of all marine species, including crustaceans, reptiles, seaweeds, bacteria, fungi and more than 4,000 species of fish. Coral reefs are endangered by many factors, including the effects of climate change: warming oceans and increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Coral reefs are colonies of individual animals called polyps. Living within each polyp is an algae, which provides the coral with oxygen and other nutrients necessary for its survival. The symbiotic relationship between the algae and the coral can only exist within a narrow range of environmental conditions. If the water gets too warm, the coral becomes stressed and expels its helper algae, resulting in coral bleaching. If the adverse conditions persist, the coral starves and dies.
Telling time lapses
In August of 2013, Vevers saw the documentary film Chasing Ice, which detailed the world's disappearing glaciers due to global warming via time lapse photography.
"It dawned on me that we were doing exactly the same thing, but with coral reefs," Vevers said. "So I decided to contact the director [Jeff Orlowski]—perhaps this could be a follow-up film."
We chose RED because Jeff really wanted everything underwater to feel huge and colorful, and as 'cinematic' as possible
Orlowski and his Exposure Labs team agreed to participate in an underwater documentary film with Vevers. Accompanying them was cinematographer Andrew Ackerman, who had joined Exposure Labs just a few weeks before.
Scientists at NOAA at that time predicted that a widespread coral bleaching event would take place in Bermuda, the Bahamas and Hawaii in 2015. Orlowski decided this would be an ideal time to shoot footage of white coral for the film. His approach would be to set up custom time-lapse camera systems in those locations and capture the bleaching as it happened, over a period of two months.
Process and production
In addition to this time-lapse footage, the film consists of video shot primarily by Orlowski and Ackerman, with miscellaneous shots nabbed by whichever other team members were available. The pair shot 4K video underwater with a pair of RED Dragon cameras and zoom lenses inside Nauticam underwater housings. Lenses were typically a Canon EF 24-70mm 2.8 lens on one RED camera and a Canon EF 16-35mm 2.8 on the other. They also used Canon EF 100mm and Canon EF 8-15mm Fisheye USM (ultra-wide zoom) lenses, depending on what they were trying to capture. Filming topside was grabbed with a Sony PXW-FS7. In addition, Orlowski mounted a GoPro camera on top of the Nauticam housing to capture any discussion the divers would have upon returning to the surface.
"We chose RED because Jeff [Orlowski] really wanted everything underwater to feel huge and colorful, and as 'cinematic' as possible. He really wants the audience to feel like they're somewhere completely different when we're underwater—like they were able to see and feel what we're experiencing," Ackerman says. "RED's raw footage also really helped us in postproduction because underwater footage is notoriously hard to color-correct."
Systems, solutions and setbacks
Orlowski began considering the technology required to operate the time-lapse cameras and turned to underwater camera engineer Trevor Mendelow and his company, View Into the Blue, for a solution. View Into the Blue created an autonomous time-lapse camera system based on Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GH4 camera. The GH4s could shoot 4K still or video footage with a 12-24mm zoom lens.
Zack Rago, a camera technician and coral expert at View Into the Blue, says of the time lapse system, "It would essentially wake itself up on a preprogrammed schedule and take 30-burst shots, and then go back, to sleep. And then wake back up a couple hours later and do the same thing."
The team built several autonomous underwater time-lapse rigs and installed five of them in locations in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Hawaii in July 2015.
"We needed to install these underwater time-lapse cameras, but we also needed to film the installation of them at the same time," says Ackerman. "So, for me, jumping in between filming on the boat, then filming underwater, and then actually installing these time-lapse cameras was the most difficult challenge."
Complicating matters was the fact that the installation of the time-lapse cameras amounted to a sort of underwater construction project itself, involving dealing with an estimated 700 pounds of equipment for each camera. "So sometimes trying to juggle shooting goals with the logistics of moving that much weight underwater and then also trying to film from the boat was difficult."
Jumping in between filming on the boat, then filming underwater, and then actually installing these time-lapse cameras was the most difficult challenge
The time-lapse cameras were left into September to do their job of recording daily imagery of the reefs bleaching. As seen in the film, when the cameras were retrieved after two months, the team discovered there had been a lens malfunction and all of the recorded imagery was out of focus.
Eventually the team solved the focus drift issue by switching to fixed focal length lenses, as well as using the camera's autofocus mode instead of focusing manually.
A trip was arranged in late January 2016. Orlowski, Rago and underwater Ackerman went south to Australia to shoot coral bleaching there. After setting up the reprogrammed time-lapse cameras in several locations on the Great Barrier Reef, the two production teams waited for the predicted warm water to arrive. But the arrival of Major Tropical Cyclone Winston in mid-February brought warm water nearly 700 miles north of their positions, leaving the coral at their camera traps potentially unaffected.
Moving to manual
Wanting to seize the opportunity, in mid-March the groups packed their gear and headed north to Lizard Island (Orlowski and Rago) and New Caledonia (Ackerman), leaving the five time lapse cameras in place and running in case the warmth should move south and cause bleaching there as well.
Without time-lapse cameras, they decided they'd shoot coral bleaching manually, going out each day and shooting the same coral locations on the reefs over a 40-day period and creating time lapse imagery from the gathered footage. The teams took along the same Lumix GH4 cameras, in standard diver film housings (with Orlowski following along behind Rago with a RED Dragon, to shoot his subject at work).
The process is, as one would expect, an arduous one, and emotional. Rago experiences grief and frustration as he, a longtime coral lover, watches, over the course of the shoot, one of the world's most incredible natural wonders dies before his eyes.
The resultant footage of their voyages is shown to scientists attending last year's annual International Coral Reef Symposium, where even the most hardened of marine biologists can't help but find themselves tearful as they see the withering and death of these massive, spectacular ecosystems. But change, they realize, is possible, and it begins with not only educating adults about the crisis, but by sharing the majesty and wonder of these ocean environments with school children.