30 Days of OCEANS: A Conversation with Filmmaker Jacques Perrin

French film actor, director, and producer Jacques Perrin has worked both
in front of and behind the camera. He acted in and produced Z, directed by
Costa-Gavras, which won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1969. More
recently, he’s best known around the world for his big-budget, high-concept
nature films, Microcosmos and Winged Migration. His Galatee Films spent eight
years on the groundbreaking new film, Oceans. For more of my conversation with Perrin and his team, check out the companion book to the film, OCEANS, The Threats to the Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide.
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“It started with a simple dream: to swim with the fish and the dolphins, to accompany them underwater and as they crossed the oceans. The desire to forget the little we do know in order to rediscover it and see and hear it anew. To invent a camera as fast and nimble as the sea lion, a camera made for the big screen but using short focal lengths so we can get up close and personal with the animals, sparking new relationships and emotions. To stop watching the spectacle and be a part of it. To never slow down—the sensation of speed and vitality is far too precious. That’s what we wanted: a living camera dancing with the whales, leaping with the dolphins, bursting forth with the tuna, and gliding with the manta rays.”

That was Jacques Perrin’s goal for his new film Oceans and aided by a cast of many hundreds they managed to pull it off. On a sunny spring day I find Perrin and the top echelon of his team – the film’s co-producer Jacques Cluzaud, executive producer Jake Eberts and biologist/writer Francoise Sarano – in Paris. The official opening of their beautiful film in the U.S. was still a month away (April 22).

Conceived in Perrin’s head a decade ago, the filmmaking required to match his vision had been a monumental undertaking, taking the mostly-underwater camera crews to 54 locations around the globe. (At one point, there were twenty-six location managers and nineteen cameras in the field on a single day). A veteran producer and film director, known to an international audience most recently for his bold, technology-pushing wildlife films Microcosmos and Winged Migration, Perrin’s films have always been major events. Oceans, funded by a long and varied list, including the expected (film companies and television channels) and the unexpected (NGOs and philanthropic foundations, banks, businesses and regional councils) is no different.

'OCEANS' producers Cluzaud and Perrin

'OCEANS' producers Cluzaud and Perrin

His team built thirteen specially modified digital camera systems and sophisticated waterproof housings for each. Every camera operator had to be able to use rebreathers in order to allow them to stay down long and dive without bubbles; each cameraman was assigned a security diver/“rebreather instructor” who shadowed his every flipper-stroke, responsible for managing and maintaining the dive equipment so the cameraman could focus solely on the pictures. In cases where the diving site was more than two hours from the closest first aid center specialized in diving accidents, the expedition traveled with a pressurized stretcher and an emergency doctor trained in hyperbaric medicine. They built a high-tech crane using military secrets dubbed Thetys; a remote controlled helicopter camera they called Birdy Fly; a torpedo-cam that could be dragged 300 feet behind the boat; and a pole-cam, for getting up-close with the fishes from above sea level. All that time, energy and money is apparent on the screen.

But they were after something bigger than a nature film or documentary. In the words of the film’s co-producer Jacques Cluzaud, “Be clear, Oceans is not a wildlife documentary. A documentary maintains a certain distance, an outsider’s viewpoint. It describes a phenomenon and often explains it. Oceans takes the opposite approach: It doesn’t teach the audience anything, it attempts to jolt it.”

Jacques Perrin: The idea for Oceans came to me about ten years ago when we were finishing Winged Migration. Still vague, it was an idea for a fiction film about a defender of whales and oceans based on the story of Captain Paul Watson. Then the sea animals grew increasingly important. Of course the story continued to fill out, getting increasingly rich, with more and more characters and points of view—that of the sailor, the diver, the oceanographer, the fisherman, the judge, the polluter and the ocean traveler—to represent every aspect of the ocean. But it was never enough: the ocean has too many faces. And more and more the sea creatures were taking over our script, ever more disconcerting. Clearly there wasn’t just one ocean but thousands of them, making up the great global ocean we couldn’t ignore. It filled us with enthusiasm over the days and nights and years that we worked on the script. Jacques Cluzaud and I surrounded ourselves with an indispensable, unbeatable team who helped us to develop an intimate understanding of the oceans. After three years of collaborative work, we realized the script we had finally finished was a dead end: at three and a half hours, the film wove the stories of human characters and sea creatures into the greatest impressionistic vision of the ocean—and was way too long. We came to an abrupt, painful stop.

We had to start over, build it from the ground up, using only what was essential: the marine creatures—the best advocates there are for the ocean. So long as you’re not just in it to film pretty pictures or vent your pessimism, this kind of filmmaking is the best weapon you have to testify, take a stand, denounce, and convey your indignation, no matter how complex the subject. The evocative power of cinema could truly resonate with that of the ocean.

Of course, we’re not the first to make a movie about the sea. But we wanted something else. Wasn’t it possible to make something different and innovative using images we might have seen before? Naturally it wasn’t easy. The breadth of the ocean cannot be defined from a single point of view. It took a long time: three years of writing and pre-production, nearly four years in production, endless trial and error that allowed us to pinpoint our desires and better define our intentions as we went along. Though Winged Migration was a challenge, Oceans was incredibly more complicated. Underwater, our cameramen were physically and visually handicapped: too slow to swim as fast as fish in an environment where visibility is rarely greater than fifty feet. Yet we wanted to express the life and movements of sea animals as different as the cuttlefish and the sailfish. Oceans isn’t a documentary, it’s a wildlife opera. And each animal played its part, contributed a few notes to the score.

The essence of a documentary is that you start off with a theory, that you wish to explain using pictures or images. In a way it becomes an illustrated text. Our case was a bit different because we spent a long time listening to scientists, learning from them, digesting that information and re-expressing it by giving full throttle to nature itself, allowing nature to express itself fully, getting really into the heart of what nature could show us. Which is a very emotional way of expressing it and the viewer should feel that emotion.

It’s a bit like the end of the nineteenth century painters doing seascapes, for example. They would show you colors of the sea and colors of the sky, and would perhaps describe scientifically what was happening at a particular point of time. What I hoped to do is convey that expression and that emotion in a similar way.

With Winged Migration we were trying to see things that we know, animals that we know, but see them differently and therefore discover new things about them. We’ve done that in this film in different ways. First of all, in the way in which we filmed and also the way it’s been edited. The way it’s been presented gives you that very close feel to the animal, but also the fact that we are covering them extremely fast in the speed of their movement. For example, if you are following a dolphin at 10 knots in the water, or 22 knots outside water, you see things differently, you see things in a new light and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. So we’re very close to them.

We had all sorts of advisors but scientists were not dictating us to do certain things. We just followed the animals; they guided us, kind of telling us what to film, what not to film, and how we should feel. We might be right in the middle of them but their behavior didn’t change with our presence, which is what makes it so special, the fact that we are there, we observe them, but they continue to behave in a completely natural way without being modified in any way.

We have heard several times after private viewings of Oceans people coming out of the theater saying, ‘We didn’t realize the diversity that we talk about so much is an expression of life and movement.’ To us, that is what is important to show. For example, when you see a sequence where there are sharks being brought out of the sea and their fins cut off just to be used for soup and the bodies thrown back into the sea it means these sharks have been condemned to death. People young and old people have come out of our movie in tears because of those scenes. The fact that we’ve been able to touch people in that way, show them something different, shows that there is this great diversity and that the diversity also is a question of personality. We are not just talking about ordinary fishes; we are talking about predators and prey, about innate and acquired behavior. We’re not just talking about fish that are going to be eaten or displayed in a store or a market but about beautiful, graceful animals moving in a natural, balletic way. What we are trying to do is show that this diversity is something that we belong to as well, that we are not more than these animals, that we are not in any way better or greater but just another species, part of the huge diversity that exists on the planet. We are not just showing them a gallery of pretty animal pictures, but all of life’s theater, which we hope is going to move them, blow them away.

Many people have come out of the theater and said, ‘we want to share this with someone else. I want to talk about it with my children, my family.’ They either come out feeling really angry at some of the things they’ve seen, or incredibly moved.

After all these years of such intense filming on the ocean am I concerned about it and its creatures? Absolutely. During these eight years several species of fish have disappeared, forever.
I truly think individuals can change things. Otherwise it’s just like going to church and lighting a candle and hoping that something is going to happen. We need to do more than that. We need to have tighter regulations, a United Nations of the Sea so to speak, and it should no longer be mere rhetoric for conferences and discussions. We’ve got to go much further and really have an armed sense of protection of the sea and its nature. I think, however, that more people are becoming aware of these issues and that they are going to really put pressure on governments to take action along these lines.
The ocean is really quite strong and capable of regenerating itself if it were to be allowed to do so. So I think our film is an ode to the ocean, and I think if we kind of sing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, and we sing in tune, we can make a difference.

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