Louie Psihoyos has been widely regarded as one of the top photographers in the world. He was hired directly out of college to shoot for National Geographic and created images for the yellow-bordered magazine for 18 years. His ability to bring humanity and wit to complicated science stories carries over to his filmmaking. An ardent diver and dive photographer, he feels compelled to show the world the decline of our planet’s crucial resource, water.
He has been on contract for Fortune Magazine and shot hundreds of covers for other magazines including Smithsonian, Discover, GEO, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Rock and Ice. His work has also been seen on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Television and the History Channel. Museums and private collectors around the world have sought Psihoyos' photography.
With Jim Clark, he created The Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), in 2005. The non-profit organization provides an exclusive lens for the public and media to observe the beauty as well as the destruction of the oceans, while motivating change. With his first film, The Cove, he has touched many with his unflinching view of a dark subject. The eco-thriller has won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 82nd Academy Awards, Audience Awards at Sundance, Newport Beach and Toronto's HotDocs and sweeped through the festival circuit.
Ok Louie, first of all congratulations for winning the Academy Award® and of course for exposing the dolphin massacre in the secret cove in Taiji. In this talk we will concentrate at the gear you used and how did you managed to film such a difficult subject in such difficult filming locations.
• So, what was your production & visual plan? Did you had any digital previsualization before filming, any 3D representations of the difficult sequences to be shot, storyboard?
We didn’t do any story boarding until after principle shooting in Taiji was done. Very little was preconceived in terms of story. The story really came together in the edit. We were shooting a making of film about how we acquired the covert footage and we ended up editing that story into the film – so in the end we had a kind of thriller, a real life Oceans Eleven kind of film.
• You used various shooting techniques that we often see from the big Hollywood studios and production companies like LucasFilm. You went from hidden tree-cameras to fake-rock cameras. What type of cameras did you manage to fit in? Who made the custom equipment?
Kerner Optical, used to be owned by Lucas Film’s 3-D prop department. They made the fake rocks that we hid some of the first hard drive cameras ever manufactured. The hard drive cameras allowed us to record about 4 hours of footage. At the time, there were not commercially made batteries to accommodate the run time so we had expedition batteries made for this operation. We used remote controlled cameras for the blimp photography, helicopter shots and the nest camera. We also used button hole cameras on Ric and video camera that shot through the hole in a camera bag for the sequences with police interrogation.
• What hd cameras did you use on and off the water and why?
We needed the thermal camera to detect guards at the cove at night. We also had night vision cameras but heat is a better indicator of isolate living things. We also used Sony HD cams in blinds operated by OPS camera persons but the rock cameras revealed a more intimate view of the cove because we could plant them so close to the action.
• What were your camera settings for the various shooting situations?
The rock cameras were all set on automatic. The lighting conditions in the cove were pretty extreme and varied greatly. The dolphin hunters like to do their work just after sunrise so cameras would have difficulty picking up what they were doing. Automatic was the only way to go in this instance. Some of the Sony HD cameras operated by people we had to push the gain to 12db sometimes because it was so dark.
• What was your frame rate?
We shot everything at 60 and downcoverted to 24. In the future we’re going to start shooting at 24 because the pans can be a bit jaggy when you film straight edges.
• Did you used any particular lenses?
We did side by side tests of Fujinon and Canon and the Fuji lenses won. We had two zooms, one that went very wide and a long telephoto - can’t recall what they were now – We sold them. We didn’t use primes as docs require shooting fast.
• Where and how did you edit the footage? What software and hardware did you use?
We did the primary editing in Boulder Colorado at OPS headquarters which was in my studio behind my home. We used Final Cut Pro. Geoff Richman is the main editor and he was key. He’s fast, brilliant and gifted. We had three other assistant editors helping assemble footage from about 700 hours of coverage. It took about three years to shoot and about 6 months for Geoff to edit. We use all Apple gear.
• We saw some really nice timelapse sequences in The Cove like the one on the Tsukiji Market and the closing scene with Ric O’ Barry. What camera did you use? What was your settings?
We used a Canon Mark II 1DS DSLR camera with a Mumford Time Machine intervelometer that shot a JPEG frame every second for 24 hours for the shot with the clock. They were all then sped up even more with Final Cut – several thousand percent. It also had a base that would rotate on a timer which gave us some cool movement of a shot from the fish market floor. Some of the footage of at the fish market was also done with time lapse Sony HD cameras that shot a frame every two seconds. We ran them for about three days. The shots of Ric were a bit tricky. We slowed down the video on his chest so it would appear more normal speed while shooting time lapse for the crowds that were going fast.
• Ok, let’s go now to HDSLR Filmmaking. It started slowly among the indie filmmakers and then in a very short period of time became a revolution. We see HDLSRs to be used instead of 35mm cameras for various film and television projects and now it’s acceptable from the big studios. We recently saw Greg Yaitanes, Co-Executive & Director of HOUSE [FOX], shooting the entire HOUSE season 6 finale on a Canon 5D mark II. What is your opinion on HDSLR Filmmaking?
For HDSLRs I think it’s a matter of right tool for the right job. For The Cove we used every thing from a buttonhole 400 line camera to IMAX footage. We didn’t try to match looks because I don’t think it is essential for a doc. I just recently started using HDSLRs (Canon 5DmkII) for the next film. I’m a still photographer, have been for the last 35 years so I’m pretty comfortable with lenses and ergonomic for stills but shooting video through them for a main camera is very uncomfortable right now. The viewfinder is hard to critical focus even with magnification. When you start adding on all the extras, like the steady rigs to make it feel like a real video camera, it begs the question, why not then just use a video camera?
• The Cove was your first film. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 2009 and became the first documentary film to sweep through the Guild Awards for Directing, Producing, Writing & Editing. It also won the Audience Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and had a total of 24 wins and 5 nominations. What’s next?!
We’re shooting a 3-D film whose working title is The Singing Planet. It’s a film about the mass extinction of wildlife caused by humanity – I think it’s the biggest story out there right now.
• Where are you filming it?
We'll be all over the world for that one, The Gulf, Polynesia, all over the Pacific including Cocos and Galapagos, Europe and many places now being determined...
• On The Cove again. Can you tell me about your conversation with Steven Spielberg and his reaction when you told him what you were up to?!
About five years ago I was in the Caribbean on vacation and my son became friends with Steven Spielberg’s son. The director came over to the boat I was staying on and asked me what I did for living. I told him I was a still photographer thinking about getting into film – and asked him if he had any advice. From experience with directing Jaws, he told me, “Never make a movie involving boats or animals.” Just about everything I was going to do as the Executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society would involve boats and animals. We just recently won the Peter Benchley Award for Ocean Conservation. I think Steven’s advice is sound. Shooting in and on the water is the toughest thing in the world. Your dealing with currents, wind, water clarity, unpredictable animal behavior, rocking boats, and electrical components underwater with gear that is always conspiring to kill you, but when it all comes together it’s magic.
• Is there anything you would like to say to all new filmmakers?
Shoot subjects that you are passionate about. Never make a film where your subjects would like to kill you.
Directed by: Louie Psihoyos
Produced by: Paula DuPré Pesmen, Fisher Stevens
Written by: Mark Monroe
Executive Producer: Jim Clark