Jeff Orlowski grew up wanting to be a nature photographer. But like so many in that field, his work now focuses less on capturing Earth’s natural wonders than it does on cataloging their steady demise. “This is an entire field of professionals who are witnessing firsthand the falling apart of our planet, and they’re all scared,” he explains. That’s why Chasing Coral, his latest documentary, feels so personal. His film doesn’t simply cover the death of coral reefs in warming oceans — much of our planet’s coral has already been lost, and the phenomenon of “coral bleaching,” which indicates mass coral death, has been accelerating. Chasing Coral also examines how best to capture and convey this information, so that people understand the urgency and horror of the situation.
The journey takes Orlowski and others — including former ad exec Richard Vevers and young camera technician Zack Rago, a coral buff who plays an increasingly prominent role in the film — all over the world, as they try to find a way to document and lay bare the horrifying sight of a mass global-bleaching event. Spoiler alert: They succeed, and the final act of this film is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever seen. I talked to Orlowski about the effort to get this story told, and the effect it’s had on him and others.
A couple years ago, an “obituary” ran for the Great Barrier Reef. A lot of people were obviously very concerned, but some were also upset because it was an exaggeration: “Well, it’s not dead, and this is irresponsible to say that.” My thought was, We need to get people to notice this! Will you be so much happier if we wait until after the reef is fully, truly dead to run the obituary? With activism, where do you draw the line?
It’s a challenge. I think one of the benefits that we had was that we were able to figure out a way to show how bad it was. So we didn’t need to be hyperbolic. This is as scientifically sound of a film as you can possibly get. It’s been peer-reviewed. But it’s not a science-first film. We’re trying to keep the human story, the thread that gets people engaged, and the science is as little as you need to know to understand what’s going on. And the footage of the climax is so damn shocking that it kind of does its own job.
But I do understand, and it’s been a struggle for activists and scientists for a long time now. The science community is struggling the most with this because they can’t be hyperbolic — they can’t write sensationalized headlines. They have to write the facts as they know them. And oftentimes it doesn’t sound as scary when a scientist says, pretty straight-faced, “Oh, yes, we’ve lost half of the world’s coral in 30 years.” Right? It doesn’t pack the same sort of punch that it could. Scientists aren’t alarmists; the science is alarming.
The film is, on one basic level, about the search for how best to express an idea.
Climate change as a whole is a concept that is hard to visualize. I think that’s why the general public is so confused about it — because the only way it has really been visualized is through ice and through a polar bear standing on an iceberg. And the criticism is that this phenomenon always happens — it’s just the photographer being selective and exaggerating. And there’s a legitimate response there. That’s why, with [Orlowski’s previous film] Chasing Ice and then Chasing Coral, the goal for us was to make both of those movies visual evidence — so you can’t refute this story being told through the time lapses.
It’s almost like the word idea is itself hard to deal with, because it suggests something abstract when it’s not. Most people don’t get to go to Antarctica and see ice chunks falling off or glaciers melting, so to them it’s just an image on a screen. And the Great Barrier Reef … obviously, to a lot of people in the region, it is a very real thing. But to somebody in, say, Cleveland who hasn’t ever been out there, that’s a little abstract.
Absolutely. Part of our task as filmmakers is to capture those corals and bring them home. I do think of it as the Golden Fleece — we’re going out there on these epic journeys to try to capture something to take back to civilization. You know, less than 1 percent of the world population goes scuba diving, and of that percentage the vast, vast majority of recreational divers get brought to the beautiful spots. So even if people were diving on the Great Barrier Reef last year, they weren’t usually seeing what we were seeing — because they were being brought to the healthiest, prettiest parts. And they certainly were not spending enough time there to notice the changes happening. That’s another big challenge here, too: A stressed coral reef still looks pretty beautiful. The average person who doesn’t know any different goes out there and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so pretty and it’s so colorful.” It’s like, “You know this is on its way to dying? This is a really, really devastated reef right now.” That is its own challenge in the storytelling.
The emotional impact of the time-lapse photography is absolutely shattering. And the film builds to that, so we get it right at the end. It’s like few things I’ve experienced in a movie theater, having to watch that. Narratively, it makes sense because it was only toward the end of your own journey that you were actually able to see this footage. But isn’t there a challenge here with viewers? With a film in a movie theater, you have kind of a captive audience — people don’t walk out of movies very often. But now, this is going out on Netflix. On the one hand, that’s a huge audience — a much bigger potential viewership than a theatrical release on a couple of hundred screens. But it’s also easier to turn it off halfway through.
Yeah, I mean, we weren’t designing it specifically for Netflix. It was a Netflix acquisition. So we were designing it based on what’s the best way for us to tell the story. You’re right: In a physical theater, people are captive, and I guess your question is representative of how attention spans are shifting and how people consume content online. What’s the most optimal content for various platforms? We’re also making shorter versions of the film that we can screen in schools, so that if you only have 40 minutes, we still want you to be able to really use the film. But for us, to fully appreciate and understand what the time lapses represent, there was a lot we wanted you to know before that point in time. We wanted you to know how beautiful they [the corals] were, how magical they were up close, the relationship between the plant and the algae, the role that the corals play. So we did feel like the only way for that climax to have its full impact was for you to understand the significance of losing this ecosystem. Because I could just show people those shots, and they might not care in the same way that I hope they do after going through that whole process.
I’m intrigued by the figure of Zack Rago, the camera technician and coral obsessive. He has this fascinating emotional journey in the film. Our reaction to him is also interesting, because at first he’s kind of this goofy guy — a little too cool, in an uncool sort of way. But by the end he becomes such a sympathetic figure. Our heart goes out to him as he witnesses what’s happening to the reefs and becomes an activist.
You know, when people are writing narrative films, they often say, “If you know what the climax of the film is, you can work backward from there”? We didn’t know for a long time what the climax of this story would be. It was only when Zack and I were shooting out in the field, and I saw how emotional it was for him to watch the corals die, that we knew this was the climax in some way. But we needed to set Zack’s character up in the film, to pay that off. At the beginning of the project, we had no idea that he’d play a role at all; he was just the tech guy who happened to be there, who helped to install the stuff. But we were fortunate: One of the things about documentary is that you just have to shoot everything, so I had all this footage from earlier of Zack doing the first camera installations and setting that stuff up. As a result, we were able to introduce Zack and integrate him into the story as it happened in real life. I’m very proud of the way this works now in the film, where at first you don’t realize that he’s going to become a big part of the story and it slowly builds over time. I just have such a soft spot for him and seeing what he’s gone through, and audiences have really responded positively to it.
There have been a couple of stories over the last couple of years about scientists working on climate change issues, and how depression is a real thing that they now have to deal with.
Yeah. I know scientists who are getting therapy just due to the state of the planet.
Has it taken a toll on you?
When we came back from the Great Barrier Reef, I seriously thought that Zack and I needed to get some PTSD treatment. There was an odd conflict there because using that language of PTSD made me feel like I was downplaying the troubles that veterans go through: “Well, no, what we went through is not on the same scale as, like, watching a person die.” But this was a legitimately traumatic event that Zack and I experienced: Over the course of two months, we slowly watched — firsthand — an ecosystem die. That messes with your head. Zack was really depressed when we were coming back, and it took us both quite a long time to adjust back to normal. I’ve been using this line during Q&As lately, saying to audiences, “If you’re a little depressed after seeing the film, don’t worry — we’re far more depressed.”
All the nature photographers I know — everybody — is thinking about or working on or studying how the planet is changing now. Scientists, journalists, travel photographers: There’s a small collection of people who are going out and seeing it firsthand on a regular basis, and they’re the ones who right now are dealing with a version of this.
Is a movie enough?
The biggest problem right now is that very few people know what’s going on with coral at all. It just started getting some press coverage, quite honestly, because of Richard [Vevers] pushing it a couple years ago. The only imagery that exists are the photos that Richard’s put out there. And most people don’t have any way of seeing it. So, no. By no means is a movie enough. But it’s the best tool we have right now to be able to show what’s going on, and hopefully that can start the conversation of, “OK, what do we do?” That was the biggest thing for me. I had no idea corals turned white. I had no idea corals were dying like this. I had no idea we had been losing as much coral as we have been. And I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about environmental stuff and planetary stuff, so this was just a total shocker.
With so-called “issue docs,” I feel like there’s often a real tension when it comes to reconciling the message with the art. How do you tell your story in the best possible way while also being clear about the urgency and gravity of the situation? Was this something you had to dwell on?
Yes. Every day in the edit room. We don’t have a call to action in the film. We’re not telling people what they should do. We get criticized for that from environmental groups, who say, “Oh, you need to tell people what to do.” But there is no silver bullet. Changing your light bulb is not gonna solve this problem. It helps a lot, but that’s not the one thing that needs to happen. And so we really tried to keep it as this objective study, and I think that’s one of the strengths of Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral: You can’t deny the reality of what this team has seen. This is what we saw. This is what we documented. These are the photographs.
And we’re explaining through the best science available what this means, and you can make your own decision and judgment about whether that’s bad or not, or how bad it is, or if you want to take action on it. We are working to create calls to action that we can bring to audiences after the film, and we’re doing an impact campaign for that purpose, to help people make a shift in their own community. But I look at that as a separate goal than the film itself, and the hope is to keep the film as artistically and creatively pure as possible. I don’t want the film to be seen as propaganda. This is evidence of something that’s happening. Yes, there’s a point of view and a perspective there, but that perspective is informed from objective science.