Sea Studios banks on sea otter story to spark action on ocean conservation.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Dark skies loom as waves crash against the Big Sur coastline. The wind swirls the sand on the beach, and the ocean roars.
As the clouds part the next day to reveal thin rays of sunlight, a soft but urgent cry trills from the beach. A young woman comes into view. She sets down her kayak paddle and scans the shore for the source of the sound.
She approaches a large rock. The squeal grows louder as she moves closer. A soggy brown patch of fur moves ever so slightly as she kneels down beside it. Though she can’t quite believe what she’s seeing, she recognizes its face and flippers immediately.
A baby otter. Alone. Washed up and calling out.
She reaches for her cell phone and makes an urgent call. Then, she waits.
What comes next is a strange hybrid of fact and fiction, human drama intertwined with a species’ struggle for survival. It’s the true story behind an ever-evolving project in which humans share the spotlight with Monterey Bay’s most beloved mustelid, and science and entertainment commune and occasionally collide. It’s the film Otter 501, and its makers hope to transform the way we view the ocean and ourselves.
First, though, they’ll have to navigate the choppy waters of the creative process.
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The idea for the storm-stranded otter scene came from a retired dermatologist from Louisiana with a passion for wildlife rehabilitation.
Clint Jones, now of Carmel, decided two years ago that he wanted to spread the gospel of ocean conservation beyond the choir he ministers to three times a week as a tour guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
“The last thing I wanted to do was make a preachy nature documentary that nobody would go see,” Jones says in Southern drawl as he walks visitors to the Aquarium’s second floor. “I wanted to reach as many people as possible, and I wanted to do it through film.” The more tours he gave, the more certain he became of his future pet project’s star.
“To me, sea otters are the most charismatic animals that we have,” says Jones, who exudes an easygoing charisma himself, joking with tourists and extending a strong handshake and toothy grin.
He lingers the longest at the otter exhibit, where Joy, one of the Aquarium’s surrogate mother otters, and Otter 540, the rescued pup she’s rearing, are engaged in adorable interplay. As they barrel-roll on the water’s surface before diving and darting around the tank, Jones says: “They’re also a sentinel species. The threats they face – from us, from predators – tell us more about the marine ecosystem and our role in it than any other animal.”
Like many of the Peninsula’s well-heeled retirees, Jones has no shortage of money or time. Much of his time goes to the Aquarium, or his travels up and down the state giving presentations on ocean conservation to advocacy groups. In 2009, he decided to sink his money into an otter movie. He dreamed up a premise: unparalleled, up-close footage of otters, “pure and simple,” with cameo appearances by the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) team as they rescue and rehabilitate stranded otter pups.
“I wanted to use the otters’ journey to tell a larger story about what’s happening in our oceans,” Jones says.
He had the resources; he just needed the talent. As it turned out, the folks he was looking for were just a few doors down on Cannery Row.
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As Jones shopped around for a filmmaker to bring his story to life, one name kept coming up.
“Mark Shelley,” Jones says. “He’s one of the best in the world, if not the best, at what he does.”
What he does, in addition to raising grass-fed cattle on a Big Sur Ranch, is shoot celebrated footage of the natural world. Shelley’s Sea Studios Foundation produced Strange Days on Planet Earth, National Geographic’s award-winning series narrated by Edward Norton that spotlights the connections between human behavior and its effects – pollution, diseases, ecosystem shifts – on the natural world.
In his pre-Sea Studios days, Shelley traveled to some of the world’s most far-flung places to film everything from the Lusitania wreckage at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean to polar bears in the Arctic. But his roots in the Peninsula are marine-canyon-deep, and his college research with Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove in the late ’60s led to a lifelong fascination with marine ecology.
Those passions for nature and film lured him back to Monterey in 1983 for a project that would define the next chapter in his life.
“I was brought on board when the Aquarium got going to produce all their films,” Shelley says from Sea Studios’ Cannery Row headquarters. “That long-standing relationship is what got us access to otters in a way nobody else has. You can’t tell the story of otters without the Aquarium.”
Scruffy and engaging, much like his cluttered office adorned with vintage underwater cameras and trinkets from overseas travels, Shelley speaks about his work against the brilliant blue backdrop of the bay.
“What’s driven me is not just adventure, but the realization that nature is a really interesting place to not just observe, but to maintain,” Shelley says.
Shelley is evasive about the film’s costs – “I don’t want people to judge it based on its budget,” he says – and offers only that it’s more than $1 million and less than $5 million. Some funding is from Jones; the rest comes from Packard Foundation and National Science Foundation grants.
As Shelley worked with Aquarium staff over the course of a year to follow one young otter (known as “501”) in the SORAC tanks and in the wilds of Elkhorn Slough, he grew to appreciate otters’ keen intelligence and serious struggles – and their inextricable ties to humans.
“Sea otters are filter feeders,” Shelley says. “They’re a huge indicator of everything we’re doing here. Of all the sea otters alive in the world, this population” – the roughly 2,700 dwelling off the Central California coast – “had the highest levels of toxins related to agriculture in their systems.”
Given the scale of agriculture in the Salinas Valley and the amount of field runoff that trickles through the Pajaro River Watershed and into the Monterey Bay, it’s not surprising. But to Shelley and other ocean advocates, it’s disturbing.
“Otters are telling us that we have to rethink our relationship to insecticides and herbicides that compromise their immune systems,” Shelley says. “Especially because that’s not the only threat otters are facing.”
After numerous human-led attempts to help the southern sea otter population grow, their numbers have reached a plateau, and nobody’s quite sure why. The emerging theories (including shark predation and diseases), the science behind them, and the human connection are all interwoven in Otter 501.
The sea otter story is undoubtedly compelling on its own, and Shelley and his crew collected hundreds of hours of unique footage, from SORAC staff bottle-feeding the youngest pups to dramatic field shots of 501 being released back into the wild. But Shelley was determined not to make a standard-issue documentary.
“Doing a natural history story about otters without integrating it with the relationship they have with humans seemed wrong to me,” Shelley says. “It goes all the way back to the 18th century, when we slaughtered them for their fur. Then, a couple hundred years later, we started loving them.
“And now, we may be killing them again.”
Shelley decided the audience needed a protagonist they could relate to, and who could relate the otters’ story to them.
“I wanted to have a young woman sharing the journey with us instead of a white guy, David Attenborough-type narrator,” says Shelley, referring to the inimitable voice of BBC Nature films. A year into the film’s production, he began a national search for his lead character, looking not so much for an actress as for a woman with a strong science background and charisma to spare. The applicants were impressive: a woman who had recently completed field research in South Africa’s game parks; a doctoral candidate in a prestigious marine biology program; and nearly 30 others, all of whom submitted inventive video autobiographies.
In the end, Shelley found his star where he’d started: on Cannery Row.
Twenty-eight-year-old zoology major Katie Pofahl quit her job at the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program in March to become the new heroine of what was referred to at the time as “the otter film.”
“We were very lucky to find someone as engaging and natural as Katie who also has an interest in and love of science,” Shelley says. “It wouldn’t have worked at all with the wrong person.”
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Pofahl isn’t your typical lab rat. Sure, she can talk circles around most people on all things biological, but she also surfs, swims and kayaks with the best of ’em. And through her voiceover narration and believable webcam diaries in the film, she is Otter 501’s emotional core, an engaging but understated character whose investment in 501’s recovery makes the film’s conservationist message accessible, moving and even fun.
“It’s been a strange journey,” Pofahl says on a drive down to Big Sur, where she spent much of the spring filming the opening scenes of Otter 501. “I just showed up every day, got in front of the camera, and they said, ‘Act natural.’”
Curiously, the script was written after the film was shot, so Pofahl’s main role was that of action star, doing 5 a.m. dives off Lovers Point in P.G., scrambling down escarpments near Garrapata State Park, and, in quieter moments, recording webcam diaries as Katie, the quasi-fictionalized version of herself that Shelley and screenwriter Josh Page dreamed up.
Otter 501’s Katie has just moved to Monterey and is staying in her globetrotting uncle’s apartment (filmed on the top floor of Sea Studios). One day, while kayaking off the coast after a storm, she spots an otter stranded on the shore. (Sound familiar?) The rest of the film focuses on the connections between 501’s journey and her own.
Pofahl’s role in the film also introduced an element of dramatization that blurred the lines between fact and fiction and took Otter 501 in a very different direction. While everyone from Jones to the Aquarium’s staff speaks highly of Pofahl’s work, some who’ve been involved since Day 1 question the shift from documentary to big-screen drama.
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“The switch to a feature-film format surprised us, to say the least,” says Aquarium spokesperson Angela Hains. For the past year, nearly half of her working hours have been devoted to working with Otter 501’s crew.
“We really helped them get as much footage as possible, and they were very accommodating,” Hains says.
Because Sea Studios’ working relationship with the Aquarium was so positive and the crew so drama-free, Hains was taken aback when Shelley shared his new vision with them – especially when she heard Aquarium staff would be working without a script.
“Not having a script up-front made it a little hard,” Hains says. “We wanted to help make the script as factually accurate as possible, because we have the otter experts here. But Mark said, ‘It’s going to happen more organically, and we’re going to write the script.’
“For all intents and purposes, I’m wondering if Otter 501 should be called something different because of Katie’s role,” Hains says.
Shelley believes the film will give the public a great behind-the-scenes look at the Aquarium.
“When I laid it out for the Aquarium, why we thought the change would be effective, they trusted us, they got it,” he says.
Aquarium staffers are fact-checking the script, but their involvement in shaping Otter 501’s storyline is far smaller than their usual work on documentaries. SORAC’s Program Manger Karl Mayer has faith in the Sea Studios crew, but is also unsure of what the film has become, and what his staff will think when they see the first footage at an Oct. 28 “work-in-progress” screening at Monterey’s Golden State Theatre.
“I hope it’s a product we can be happy with,” Mayer says. “This project has evolved very far from where it started.”
Legendary marine photographer and filmmaker Bob Talbot, who was brought on board in January to provide creative direction, stresses that Otter 501 is also far from finished. To hear him tell it, his involvement in the filmmaking process has been as exciting and unpredictable as the story he was helping to tell.
But despite the strains of filming on a small budget with a small crew, Talbot believes in the film.
“Sea Studios was very courageous in trying a completely new way of storytelling,” Talbot says. “It has the potential to be great.”
Hains, for her part, is hoping for the best.
“You have to have faith in the end,” she says. “I’m excited to see how it turns out.”
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Back at Sea Studios, the crew is preparing for a trip to San Francisco to record voiceovers in Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios. Shelley’s just returned from Oakland, where he edited down hundreds of hours of footage into an 83-minute rough cut. Pofahl’s beginning a Facebook blitz in anticipation of the screening. Mayer’s down the street, watching a live feed of SORAC’s six tanks filled with young otters recovering and awaiting release. And 501? She’s thriving four months after her release into the Elkhorn Slough, according to SORAC staff.
As 501 has grown, 501’s crew has changed and its budget has shrunk. Several key contributors finished out their contracts and moved on. One walked away in August, and Talbot has cut back his time to focus on other projects. There’s much to do before March 2012, the scheduled delivery date for the film’s final cut.
Shelley hopes to screen Otter 501 in nature-centric and feature film festivals. He and Jones share a goal of reaching as wide an audience as possible through Katie and her cuddly co-stars. But commercial success isn’t what Shelley’s after. He wants to inspire ocean action.
“This is the culmination of my career in filmmaking,” Shelley says. “Otter 501 can be a real model for how we engage audiences.”
And for Talbot, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“If we lose our oceans,” he says, “we’re going to lose life as we know it.”
All the more reason to heed the canary in the kelp.
Sea Studios screens a rough cut of Otter 501 Friday, Oct. 28 at Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. Doors open 6pm, screening begins 7pm. Sold out.