Diary of a Documentary

Saturday, February 10, 2007

25. Fishing for Oyster Footage

I have received a number of complaints that I have not posted anything new on my blog for some time. To be honest it's been so long that I can't even remember the last time I blogged!

My excuse? Seriously guys, I'm moved on to bigger and better things! Like documentaries about oysters...Mmmm, now that I write that, it no longer sounds so glamorous.

However, below is proof that I'm too busy to blog!

Leaving Bluff feeling rather buggered after a week of 5am starts

Katie very excited that she may have happened upon a name for a our film

A box of oyster shells is better than no oysters at all...I guess?

This old boat shed was only possible to reach at low tide

Filming Bluff township from a Tugg boat

Katie filming on the now retired oyster boat the 'Monica'

Filming under a typical Bluff sky

Katie filming Bluff from pier

Bluff habour

Monday, November 20, 2006

23. Gas Guzzlers

I read the other day that market research into people who buy SUVs or large 4X4s shows that they are typically "insecure and self absorbed"...mmm, why does that not surprise me.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

22. Photo Gallery

I received a gift the other day! A CD of Kat Baulus photos. Kat has one of those very snazzy SLR digital cameras, which she pulls out at every opportunity and snaps us doing what ever it is we're doing. The nice thing about her shots is that they are rarely posed, and she has captured many a great moment.

The following shots are a tribute to our camera teacher Paul Donavan, whose classes were always interesting and fun, and I certainly learnt a hell of a lot...so thanks Paul.

Our camera teacher Paul Donavan.

Nick and I setting up the camera for shooting rabbits.

Shooting rabbits!

Our very handsome rabbit

Packing for Victory Beach: our first Wildlife Filming Adventure!

Walking to Victory Beach.

Setting up camp - Victory Beach

Julia and Alistair setting up the hide...Some how I don't think the seals were fooled.
Yes, as alwasy that's me in the back ground, eating!

Filming Penguins from inside our hide.

Louise and I - Dressed for the snow, on a beach! Man, it was chilly.

Judging the snail gardens. Katie's snail holiday home, complete with swimming pool and bicycle,
won first prize.

Paul demonstrating a Jib-arm.

Trying to film a flower using the Jib-arm...Ummm, it didn't really work so well.

Paul demonstrating Macro filming.

Kaite and Nick on the Dolly tracks, trying to work out how to use the camera...

Still trying to work out how to use the camera...

mmm...we have no idea how to use this camera!

'If there is one thing chopper pilots hate it's people slamming the doors'

Bored? No, just dreaming of aerial footage!

Paul reminds us not to slam the doors!

Qualified in 'Filming Safety in a Chopper'. Shame we never made off the ground.

Ed from the field store at NHNZ explains the ins and outs of Pole-cams.

Demonstrating the pole-cam and clam-shell recorder.

Drinks after a horrendous film pitching session!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

21. Animal Rights and Irwin

This is a section from a transcript of the ABC Radio National programme 'Encounter' on 'Animals' 1st October 2006... I wish I had said it as well myself.

What sort of rights do animals have? This week Encounter explores the theology and the ethics of pets, vegetarianism and zookeeping.

Binoy Kampmark: The modern concept of the zoo is a democratic one, in the sense that the public can now see it. In the historical sense, they used to be limited spaces for the aristocracy during the Enlightenment, or even earlier when we consider the Imperial Dynasts in China, these animals were to be kept as symbols of power and prestige.

David Rutledge: That's Binoy Kampmark, who's a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge. He's a regular visitor to Australia, and he recently published an article on zoos in Eureka Street magazine, in which he explored some of the apparent contradictions in the Australian love of native animals. Binoy Kampmark is in the ABC's Townsville studio in Far North Queensland.

Binoy Kampmark: There is this gladiatorial element here in Australia towards animals. A gladiatorial element that's very much reflected in the way Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo operates, and the whole idea about the project of demystifying dangerous animals. On the one hand, you demystify them by playing games with them, by tormenting them, by jumping on them - but at the same time there is also this element of contest. The animal may bite back, the animal may eat the child, the animal may do something that is akin to its nature. But as human beings we can still deal with them.

And I think there is this constant juggling that goes on with the animals, especially in certain parts of Australia where people aren't quite sure how to deal with the wildlife.

David Rutledge: Australians like to project this image of easy familiarity with dangerous animals - you know, when we're trying to scare British tourists we'll say, 'oh yeah, snakes, no problem'. Do you actually see that in the Australians that you've met here?

Binoy Kampmark: Well, I think there is a contrived familiarity. But when it comes down to it, Australians are terrified about their animals. There is a very ambivalent relationship between Australians and the wildlife they seek to promote. And this is reflected, I think by - you mentioned Steve Irwin: the fact that even after he was so tragically killed by the barb of a stingray, there was a retaliation against stingrays. Suddenly this figure that had been touted as a conservationist, and who had been encouraging so-called wildlife warriors to promote his legacy, suddenly this relationship with animals is manifested in this most violent revenge against the very creatures that should have been protected in the first place.

And this is one of the things that worried me in light of Irwin's passing. And it's in the language that is used in the whole context of conservation in this country - and I'm talking about not other conservationists, I'm talking about Steve Irwin's particular brand of conservation - I find it rather peculiar that a conservationist does what he did. I don't think a conservationist hauls crocodiles in front of cameras and jumps on them and pokes them, and wraps them up in rope.

It's a rather peculiar means of conservation, so that we have the issue of conservation as a word that has to be defined.

We also have the issue of - this is used without irony at all in this country - 'The Croc Hunter'. I always thought it was a very odd term in the first place, a 'crocodile hunter', what are we actually endorsing? An ironic sort of way of hunting crocodiles, but actually preserving them at the same time? There might be a nuance that I might have missed, I'm not sure.

And also certain words that are used in the language of Irwin's Australia Zoo. I was struck by the fact that this arena, this sort of amphitheatre, is called The Crocoseum. And when I first heard the word I was a bit taken aback, because I thought 'is it what I think it is? Is it based on a museum of artifacts, parading wild animals? Or is it based on the Colisseum?' - only we are referring back, of course, to the way animals were paraded in the arena in ancient Rome. And if that's the case, then it's quite sinister, because we're actually seeing - and it's probably more accurate - we're seeing animals paraded for sport in an arena.

David Rutledge: This ambivalence, though, it's taken to an extreme in this kind of context, but it's there just in the whole idea of zoos anyway, wouldn't you say? Where you have concern for animals in the abstract - you know, the gorilla with a capital G - but that comes at the cost of the suffering of a handful of individual animals that have to be incarcerated and displayed for the good of their brethren out there in the wild?

Binoy Kampmark: Yes, they're the privileged few. They suffer for the sake of their species, if you like. Yes, there is a problem in that. And this is the problem we can't really get beyond, if we accept the legitimacy of zoos - and I certainly do find I'm comfortable with the idea of zoos, but at the same time I realise that inevitably there is an element of suffering that's very hard to remove completely.

Andrew Linzey: If you want to preserve a species, then you must preserve it in its natural habitat. Because unless you can preserve its natural habitat, then there's no point in keeping it at all, because there'll be nothing to put it back into, do you see? Because unless you can preserve the natural habitat, the species doesn't have a future anyway.

David Rutledge: Animal rights theologian, Andrew Linzey.

Andrew Linzey: Besides, you have to ask: what are children looking at when they see a lion, for example, behind a cage, behind bars? What they're looking at is - well, they may be looking at the lion, but aren't they also looking at an exercise in human dominance and control? Is that really what we want young people, young children to learn?

David Rutledge: I sometimes wonder if the growth of concern about animals is congruent with a sense of disgust or anger at the terrible mess we humans have made of things - and the idea that animals, like children, are somehow less complicated, less compromised, and therefore easier to empathise with than humans. Is there any of that in your own mind, or your own heart?

Andrew Linzey: Well, it's in my mind, because I think it's also in the bible. If you look at Job, for example, human beings are compared most unfavourably with the Behemoth and the Leviathan - which are, I understand from those people who know about these things, the equivalent of the modern-day alligator and whale. So there you have it, you see, and despite what Steve Irwin has done, that in holy scripture we're compared unfavourably with alligators.

David Rutledge: What point's being made there in the Book of Job?

Andrew Linzey: Well, I think the point is being made, amongst other things, that we alone amongst all the creatures of the earth, are capable of debasing ourselves. We are the most lovely, and the most un-lovely species of all. That our kind of violence is out of all proportion to any other kind of violence. I mean, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dresden, Nagasaki, these are human inventions. Other animals do terrible things to other animals, but the systematic, ruthless killing that one has seen, for example, in the 20th century, is something out of kilter even with the worst thing you can find in nature - and I don't romanticise nature.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

20. Perfect Pole-cam

It goes with out saying that a film about oysters would not be complete without underwater footage. But underwater footage is not so easy to get. Even the thought of getting it is not particularly appealing given that Bluff water is FREEEEZZZZZING!

That's why they invented the pole-cam. For the filmilliterate, it is a camera on a long pole, and much better idea than swimming, if you ask me.

It is the best of both worlds. I get to stand in the warm sun and film under water all at the same time. Perfect!

Practicing my pole-caming technique at Portobello Marine Lab

Sunday, October 08, 2006

19. Not In The Brief

I have been itching to write this piece for weeks now, but have been fighting an internal battle between my conscience and my fear of the repercussions. I attribute my sudden courage to write it to my lecturer and the Annie Dillard article he gave us to read.

Dillard’s advice was, “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting of solely terminal patients. That is, after all, the case….what could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality”.

So, determined not to be anything less than utterly vital I am compelled to write.

I write this not to be deliberately controversial or to raise hackles unnecessarily, but because it is my passion. You do not leave your friends, family and comfortable home just because you think that natural history documentary tickles your fancy. You do it because it stirs you.

My dilemma this that I have to choose between refraining from criticism of the organisation supporting my course and speaking out on behalf of the planet. I have chosen the greater cause.

We were given a lecture by an award winning natural history documentary film-maker, from Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ), who gave us great insight into the making of their latest award winning documentary.

Insights like the “truck loads” of materials that were used for reconstructing entire aquatic scenes in order to capture, literally, 7 minutes of never-before-seen footage of a never-before-seen animal, were astounding. When you see the footage you know the loads of trucks were worth it.

The documentary was about life at the equator. The footage breath-taking. The story incredible. Plants and animals that survive freezing nights and scorching days high up in the Andes. Each with a unique set of remarkable adaptations to survive life at the extreme. They only manage to survive however, because the temperature never drops below or sores above certain limits and thus, the difference between survival and death is a fine, very fine, line.

As incredible as this story of survival was, the burning question on my mind was how will global warming affect the fine balance of this Andean ecosystem? The answer was devastating to say the least: the glaciers are already disappearing and will probably be gone in 20 years.

For me, the hopelessness of this thought is overwhelming. Having just seen some of the most spectacular footage of animals never filmed before, the idea of it all disappearing was difficult to contemplate. The next question on my lips (and for at least one other in the audience) was'do you say as much in the film'?

The answer to this question, I must confess, was almost as unbelievable as the idea of the disappearance of an entire ecosystem in the space 20 years. ‘The effect of global warming was out side the brief of this film’.

Out side the brief? I was dumb struck. Exxon Mobil also has a brief that does not include environmental issues. An omission which has, and rightly so, meant they have come under serious pressure to include it. Does an industry whose livelihood is based on the continuation of the planet’s natural history also have a brief which excludes environmental issues? I am a little confused.

On second thoughts it starts to make sense. News Corp are the proud owners of NHNZ. I know little of the media in New Zealand, but Australia’s I know well. In Australia News Corp (or Murdoch, shall we say, since he is the proprietor and wields the power), has a 60 to 70 per cent market share in the print media. He is openly and proudly pro war in Iraq and thus, all his newspapers tow this editorial line.

It is no secret that Murdoch flouts the ‘editorial independence’ of his newspapers. It is unlikely he has any reservation about interfering with the independence of any other of his media outlets. What’s more, News Corp's own ‘Standards of Business Conduct’ and their ‘Statement of Corporate Governance’ make no mention of any environmental corporate responsibility so why would any of the subsidiary companies include environmental issues or responsibility in their brief.

But never mind the industry and its owners. When, as individual documentary makers, who are in a highly privileged position to get out our message to huge audiences, when do we decided to take responsibility for our own tiny, yet critical, contribution to the survival of the planet’s natural history?

In the case of this particular documentary (which I gather is up for an award and rightly so), I am left wondering what its purpose was if the environmental issues facing the ecosystem weren’t included?

Was it merely to get rare footage of a rare beast? To win prizes for such footage? Or should the purpose of Natural History documentary be to enable those less fortunate to get a glimpse of the breath-taking beauty of the natural world, in ways that educate, stimulate and inspire them to want to preserve it for generations to come?

If that is not our ultimate goal I can only hope that it will become so.

What’s more, as I understand it, documentary is all about ‘telling it like it is’. Surely the omission of such critical information is, in some way, a distortion of the facts?

As one of the next generation of natural history documenters I have to point out that if the current generation continues to take the stance “it wasn’t in their brief,” my generation will not have a brief.

If we, the natural history documenters, do not make it our mission, no matter the vested interests, ‘to put it in the brief’, then who on Earth will?

18. Team Oyster

Kaite and I at chopper school. Here we come aerial footage!

Sadly my fossil whale doco has gone out of the window. After much wheeling and dealing I have paired up with Katie. We decided to go with an entirely new topic as both our original ideas had, shall we say, issues.

Sad as I am to put my whale baby to bed it seems that already we make a fab team. Our new idea was put to the test last week at the dreaded pitching session. More often than not these film pitching sessions end in tears, when we students get scorched by the hot breath of our lecturers as they proceed to tare our ideas to shreds. This time however, to my amazement, the comments were nothing but positive about Katie's and my film idea.

Hooray! Finally! Something is going right.
I may not be a deft hand with a camera, but at least I seem to be able to write a good story...one must be thankful for small mercies. I cannot of course take all the credit, but I can say that Team Oyster is on a roll!

The story? In a nutshell... An oyster fisherman, a dying oyster fishery, a tiny marine worm and a fight to save it all...Stay tuned!

17. All Work and Some Play

A little ballroom dancing goes a long way to keeping me sane!
Dancing with my champion ballroom-dancing housemate

At the Arana College annual ball

Monday, October 02, 2006

16. Resting in Peace

The death of Steve Irwin has caused a lot of discussion. Despite the timing being rather irksome it is a discussion that needs to be had. For no less a reason than the reality that sooner or later we are going to need a new Attenborough/Irwin type to fill the void. Apologies to Sir Attenborough who is still alive and kicking, but you get my drift.

Given that Irwin was indeed popular with many, the debate now is do we want the next ‘animal crusader’ to be an Irwin, an Attenborough, or should we take the good bits of both and discard the rest.

I, for one, strongly believe that while Irwin’s enthusiasm did seem to be infectious with the kiddies and a great draw card for his zoo, his approach to handling animals was utterly unacceptable and should never again be promoted.

Indeed, I would like to take a moment of silence to reflect on his death in light of his tragic animal-handling...

As a Zoologist, I would like to reflect on the fact that string-rays, or for that matter the vast majority of animals, do NOT attack others, be they human or other wise, unless they believe themselves to be in grave danger. The reason being, from a biological point of view, that aggression is ‘energetically costly’. Aggression risks injury and injury means the animal is more vulnerable to predators, less likely to secure a mate and of course a fight can lead to death.

Thus, animals are forced to think seriously before getting entangled in a brawl. The easiest method of deciding whether or not to fight is, if one’s opponent is bigger, Run! But animals have evolved far more accurate methods than this of assessing their opponent’s fighting prowess. Adaptations such as long horns, colourful bodies or large barbs are very accurate indicators of an animal’s ability to win a contest. These ornaments are so accurate an indication of who will win the fight that most of the time they are used only as a signaling device, to deter competitors. It is only when opponents are so closely matched in the size of their ornaments that confrontations become aggressive.

The other use for ornaments is to deter predators. But once again, because ornamentation such as a wasp’s sting, or the sting-ray’s barb take lots of time and energy to grow in the first place, it is a rare creature who will risk losing them. Rather, the main purpose of large barbs, horns and antlers is to avoid an attack.

A good example is warning coloration. Species such as wasps with a powerful sting in their tail are often brightly coloured. Predators will, either instinctively, or as the result of experience avoid eating such an animal. This way the wasp keeps its sting, but is still able to ward off predators.

In the case of a sting-ray, not only does it risk injury or death should it engage in a fight, but if it is forced to make use of its poison barb, and survives to tell the tale, it is now minus its only defence mechanism and therefore, highly vulnerable. No sting-ray is particularly eager to loose it very ‘expensive’ and very useful barb so they chose to use it wisely.

Not for one moment am I suggesting that Irwin intended to kill or for that matter even touch the sting-ray. I am suggesting however, that it is highly probable, given its reaction, that the sting-ray perceived otherwise. In the end, Irwin’s intentions are irrelevant. It was his actions that led the sting-ray to lash out in defence. I also suggest that this was not the first time an animal felt threatened by Irwin. As Germaine Greer puts it, “Every creature he brandished at the camera was in distress”. Greer is not alone in her thinking. (see ABC Radio National – click to listen "Aniamls" - Sunday 1st Oct)

What was offensive about Irwin was not his catch cry, “Crikey”, or the Aussie larakin persona it was his treatment of the very creatures he protested his love for. Irwin may have loved to wrestle crocodiles, but I have yet to be convinced that crocodiles love being wrestled. Irwin may have loved to swim with the rays, but clearly the sting-ray did not share his views. In fact, it disliked the event so entirely that it decided to put an end to the encounter and sadly Steve as well.

I am also yet to be convinced that Irwin’s work lead to his fans having a real understanding of conservation. The proof is in the killing. In the days after Irwin's death there was a spate of what seemed to be revenge attacks on sting rays. About 10 were found dead with their tails cut off. One can only conclude that Irwin failed dismally to convey to his fans the importance of respect for animals or make them understand that when you invade an animal’s space they are highly likely to attack, not out of malice, but because the poor creature feels compelled to defend its self.

The spate of ray killings gives the strong impression that the word he did manage to spread was that of interference and intolerance of animals and their needs. His behaviour seemed to encourage the attitude that barging into another creature’s home to do as you please, be that shrieking ‘Crikey’ to the four winds or wrestling a croc, was ok.

Sadly, what Irwin failed to realize was that his behaviour set an example. An example of disrespect for our fellow creatures. An example that humans can use animals for their own pleasure. What he also failed to convey was where you draw the line. Where exactly the wrestle ends, and the hacking off of tails begins? The latter is arguably just a more extreme version of the former.