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'Chasing Coral' director turns his lens on an underwater crisis




'Chasing Coral' director Jeff Orlowski.
'Chasing Coral' director Jeff Orlowski.
Catherine Yrissari / Netflix

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The death of the ocean’s coral reefs isn't something most of us see on a regular basis, if at all. But for years now a large percentage of the earth's coral has been bleaching – turning white – and dying. Scuba divers and scientists have known this and now, with the documentary "Chasing Coral," its filmmakers hope to show the world.

Jeff Orlowski is the film's director. He told The Frame's John Horn that he didn't know much at all about coral before making the movie.

ORLOWSKI: Coral reefs are often considered nurseries for the ocean. There's a lot of space, there's a lot of three-dimensional structure that provides homes and nooks and crannies for different animals to live in. And that's really a city. If the coral dies, then all of those homes effectively do too.

Chasing Coral
Chasing Coral
Courtesy of Netflix

Orlowski was joined on The Frame by his sound designer Dustin Cawood who previously worked with Orlowski on the film, "Chasing Ice."

CAWOOD: Jeff has blessed me with two fantastic documentaries and ... the emotion that he brings to his storytelling through these character experiences is as good as any narrative filmmaking out there. You can build threads of these types of themes into a narrative film, but to really show this visually and through sound, it's so rewarding emotionally and so important globally.

Chasing Coral
Chasing Coral
Courtesy of Netflix

One challenge was how to bring the soundscape of the underwater environment to the film because, as Cawood said, "the environment itself is a character." Because some of the cameras that Orlowski and his fellow cinematographer used to shoot underwater didn't record sound, Cawood tapped into the sound library at Skywalker Sound to approximate the undersea environment, along with using whatever footage and audio Orlowski could capture or gather from scientists.

CAWOOD: Jeff brought — through his tons and tons of footage — a tremendous amount of sound. There are a lot of moments in the film where characters are coming up out of the water. One in particular where they come up near this party boat. It's a fantastic sound of being underwater and being all muffled ... then you come up out of the water. You suddenly realize there's a whole other world that's totally oblivious to what's going on beneath the surface.

Chasing Coral
Chasing Coral
XL Catlin Seaview Survey / The Ocean Agency / Richard Vevers

To create an emotional narrative to accompany the images and sound, Orlowski relied on the scientists featured in the film. 

ORLOWSKI: Oftentimes, scientists are trained to be very objective, they speak with great caution and care. They don't use overflowing language or hyperbole when they're describing what they're seeing in their research. And along those same lines ... there's a concern to not express emotion in a lot of the work they do. There's a professional challenge a lot of scientists have — this tug-of-war with what they feel inside about threats to the planet versus the way they very objectively speak about it ... 

In the film, there are moments when scientists show the emotional toll that researching coral takes on them. Orlowski saw a value to showing that on film: "You don't often see scientists crying about anything, in fact. Certainly not about the science as it's being described. And this was hopefully a way for audiences to understand what the scientists really feel inside as they're seeing this imagery."

"Chasing Coral" arrives on Netflix at a time when the Trump administration has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. But, for Orlowski, this film isn't about politics:

ORLOWSKI: My hope is that if somebody is skeptical about the issue [of climate change], they can watch the film and then understand what's happening in a different way. One of the big things we are trying to do is depoliticize it. Just show people the pictures and you can make your own assessment as to what's going on. From all of the scientists we've met and spoken with, nobody has an explanation as to what's going on in the oceans right now, other than attributing it to the warming of the planet because of greenhouse gases. 

Chasing Coral
Chasing Coral
Courtesy of Netflix

Orlowski's Twitter bio reads: Director of @chasingice, trying to use film to change the world...

He tells The Frame that it's not hyperbole. He believes in the power of film:

ORLOWSKI: One of the things about film I love the most is people will sit in a dark room and turn their phones off for an hour-and-a-half. They will sit and dedicate their full attention to a story ... Somebody can go and see what we saw first hand and we don't have to preach. We're not here preaching, we're just showing what we saw and experienced. If you can go on that journey with us and see what we've seen, then hopefully it affects you in the same way it affected us emotionally.

To hear the interview click the play button at the top of the page or get The Frame podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.



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