Director: Jeff Orlowski
Writer: Davis Coombe, Vickie Curtis, and Jeff Orlowski
Cinematographer: Andrew Ackerman and Jeff Orlowski
Producer: Jeff Orlowski and Larissa Rhodes
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Writer: Mark Monroe
Cinematographer: Jeff Orlowski
Producer: Paula DuPre' Pesemen and Jerry Aronson
by Jon Cvack
I’ve never combined two films in a single post before, and while I considered doing each separately, the stories are so similar in style and message that I imagine I would likely repeat everything I had to say about either.
Both films were directed by Jeff Orlowski who's created a format that I’ve never really seen in a documentary, to the point where these could easily be long chapters in a 12-part miniseries. The stories are part adventure, part tech and part environmental documentary. The first film Chasing Ice focused on world famous nature photographer James Balog who’s determined to capture time lapses of the world’s major melting icebergs, figuring that only with visual evidence will anyone be able to convince Climate Change deniers of anything. He creates a company called the Extreme Ice Survey and immediately you understand the film’s another part Werner Herzog. While you grow to love the guy and his passion, at first Balog is at first an insufferable egomaniac; in which only a man of this type would elect to name his very serious ice research company with a name that sounds like a 90s bargain bin Steven Seagal movie.
A large problem with climate change movies is that they need to ensure that everyone has the baseline knowledge of what’s happening. I loved Before the Flood, but I’ve also had heard most of the ideas time and again ever since Al Gore’s film kicked off the subject (BtF’s score and photography, notwithstanding). Instead, many documentaries have moved into more micro subjects - about water, trash, natural gas, oil, and so on. It’s a difficult position in that it’s proves how few people know about or accept climate change. In Chasing Ice and as Balog says the images can say it all, preventing the need for much explanation.
The difficulty is getting the technology to capture those images to work, and in what’s less involved than its sequel, we watch as Balog and his team of interns and assistants march with across the world, setting up stop motion cameras along the major ice bergs. When they return a few years later, they learn that none of them worked. It’s a little suspicious as Chasing Coral has a strikingly similar disaster hit their cameras, in which when they put them underwater and come back to find them all out of focus.
Chasing Corral involves Coral Reefs which, counter to the icebergs, I had no clue were dying at the rate they were. In 2016, somewhere around 29% of the world’s Coral Reefs were bleached; I never knew reefs were animals, involving a complex system of tiny polyps that rely both on protective creatures, sunlight, and a complex digestive system that keeps them alive and growing. As the film sums up brilliantly, just as if our bodies rose five degrees we’d have to go to the Emergency Room, rising sea temperatures of only a few degrees are causing coral reefs to essentially suffocate to death in rapid fashion. In this case Jeff joins “coral nerd” and young marine biologist Zackery Rag who’s determined to help demonstrate what’s happening to the scientific community. While not quite as Herzogian as Chasing Ice, instead he’s a guy that seems like he’d be one of your best buds in college - passionate, smart, and an overall likable person.
Similar to the icebergs from Chasing Ice, where we got to witness an iceberg implode which was the side of Manhattan, in this film we’re seeing the beginning of aggressive coral reef depletion, which is occurring so rapidly that there’s very little time left to reverse course. Projections place the extinction at 2030 should present trends continue, and with little being done to combat the problem, it looks likely to occur.
Similar to Chasing Ice, Jeff, Zach, and their team are determined to capture time lapses of the process, developing complex glass globules where the camera fits in, complete with a motorized windshield wiper to prevent any algae build up. They head down to the bottom of the ocean in order to anchor the devices, returning months later after the coral had already bleached, discovering that the cameras went out of focus within the first few shots, rendering thousands of photos useless. I’ve been in production long enough to understand that what can go wrong will go wrong, and so you can’t help wondering how after experiencing a similar problem in Chasing Ice that the filmmakers wouldn’t have checked the cameras a bit earlier to ensure it was all working. Nevertheless, they identity what went wrong and head off to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef which is nearly as long as the East Coast of America - and 29% of it is wipe out in this one year alone.
When the footage has returned and Zach presents the photographs to a group of coral scientists at the preeminent coral science conference in Hawaii where there’s maybe two hundred people in attendance, possibly fewer, you realize that this problem has mountains to climb in that for something so devastating and vivid only a handful of individuals even really knew the scope of the problem. I had heard of reef bleaching, figuring it was a problem that was occurring in some remote areas of the world, having no clue how expansive and immediate it actually is.
It makes you thankful that someone chose to put together a documentary like this, where Orlowski understood the importance of imagery over facts and figures in telling a story. It’s one thing to read an article about coral reef extinction and quite another to have breathtaking images open up the film, filling the story with subjects whose passion and knowledge enrapture you, until you then see the effects and speed at which these beautiful creatures can die and the toll it takes on those who care most. In one of the most devastating sequences, being at the Great Barrier Reef for months, Jeff and Zach witness the coral die before their very eyes; where when they began the shoot they were vibrant and healthy before fading white and dying, where the slightest touch would cause them to break up into pieces, falling to the ocean floor. Zach’s response has stuck with me ever since and could hit anyone who loves something and is forced to watch it die.
Zach’s hero Ted Reef - a Coral Reef scientist whose television show Barrier Reef inspired Zach to become a scientist - has simple and straightforward advice for the young guy. Understanding the implications, where aside from the creatures, the collapse of corals could have tragic impacts on the entire food chain, Zach now has an ethical responsibility to do all that he can to explain and share his knowledge with the world; the way that James Balog has now dedicated a large point to sharing his knowledge about icebergs.
A great gauge of a film is to imagine yourself as a kid before you ever realized you love film and think about how you’d see the film. The combination of great characters, cool careers, beautiful imagery, adventure, technology, and climate change’s urgency and need for fighters would have thrilled my mind; leaving me to want to go off and use the power of visuals to capture that problems that are going on to not just combat the problem, but to inspire others to do it too. After watching the two, I found myself wanting to make a similar film; to find a niche area of the world that’s dealing with the direct effects of climate change, finding both those who can explain why it’s happening and working with whoever I could to capture why it matters. I’m excited for what Jeff does next. While I was expecting your generic science doc, what I saw was the future of what science documentaries could be.
BELOW: A glacier the size of Manhattan flipping over
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