Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Filmmaker Q&A: Jonathan Hughes, "The Whale that Ate Jaws"

Jonathan Hughes has been making documentaries, particularly on natural history, for 8 years. His work has taken him to all parts of the globe and delivered some amazing experiences. Before film-making, he worked as a journalist and biology lecturer. He has a degree in Ecology from Leeds University, UK, and a Masters in Science Communication from Imperial College, London. He is currently taking a short break from film-making to write a popular science book. "The Whale that Ate Jaws" will be featured in Program 9 of the festival on Saturday, February 6, 2010.

What is your overall summary for the film?
The great white shark and the killer whale are the most formidable predators in the sea, animals so dangerous, they would never challenge each other; or so we thought… One morning, off the coast of San Francisco, a boatload of tourists witnessed the ultimate clash of the titans. The outcome left biologists mystified, but now with the help of a team of experts, this film re-examines this extraordinary incident, and reveals an astonishing new perspective on the relationship between the ocean’s two top predators.

What was your inspiration for creating the film?
The unique sighting of a killer whale attacking and eating a great white shark at the Farallons was a natural mystery waiting to be solved. Looking through the accounts of the event, it was clear that many people still had a host of big questions about what had gone on that day. We wanted to solve the case once and for all.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?
We had to put together an accurate and entertaining reconstruction of that day back in 1997. Luckily, we had fantastic co-operation from many of the people that had witnessed the event, and we had two sources of original footage - a video shot by a whale-watching tourist above the water, and the scientist’s underwater polecam footage of the killer whales eating the shark. Together with a commissioned computer animation of the attack, the great work of our cameraman Simon Niblett, and a good bit of luck with the weather, this proved to be enough to satisfy the brief. In the film we used the reconstruction[of the event] in a non-linear way - starting with the point of view of the key Farallon scientist Peter Pyle, then going back in time to explore the events that led up to the attack. We felt this best captured the drama that all involved must have felt on that day.

What do you want to impart on your film’s viewers?
Several different things: the excitement of a natural drama that took place just offshore of one of the biggest cities in the US, an admiration for both the species involved (we are only now discovering how remarkable they really are), and the exhilaration of conducting a scientific investigation in, what is essentially, a new territory.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?
I was brought up next to the sea, but I have never spent so many consecutive days on boats! It was wonderful to get an opportunity to take out so many different watercrafts in so many different locations. And of course, when you are working on a marine natural history film you inevitably cross paths with the luckiest people on Earth - the guys that set sail every day to work on the ocean. It's a lifestyle that either makes characters or attracts characters because everyone we met was great fun to be with.

Who (or what) is your inspiration?
My favorite documentary-makers are people like Mark Lewis and Errol Morris, but this film was commissioned to fit into a regular cable schedule - it couldn't be "authored". The trick was to make it "popular", for which you could supplant "predictable", yet also keep it engaging, which kind of means "unpredictable". There are a number of people that I know that manage to walk this tightrope: Jo Scofield, Mark Brownlow, and Brian Leith. I think they're some of the best people working in mainstream natural history television today.

How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films?
Our little section at Tigress is jokingly dubbed the "Natural Mystery Unit", we've been making films about odd occurrences in nature for several years now. It's no accident that many of these involve the marine world, we are still so ignorant of what really goes on in the ocean, and the animals that live out there are endlessly fascinating because they are, to some degree, still alien to us.

Why did you choose to submit your film to the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival?
The natural event that this film investigates is now part of Bay Area lore; two marine leviathans involved in a death match within sight of Mt Tamalpais! … Springing from a local event, it establishes a new perspective on life in the oceans - I can't think of a better choice for your festival!

Is this your first time participating in an ocean-focused film festival?
Yes, I haven't made a film about marine life before, though I can't think why!

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?
We were lucky throughout the filming, but our fortune peaked when we arrived at Monterey to interview Alisa Schulmann-Janiger. She had just spent the day with killer whales, and had witnessed them attacking and killing a grey whale calf. In all her years as an orca expert, she'd never seen this. It meant that she knew exactly where the pod would be at dawn - because it takes all night to eat a grey whale! Sure enough, we raced straight to them the next day, and filmed alongside the satiated and playful pod for several hours. That was the first time I'd seen killer whales and it took my breath away.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?
I film around the world, and I just wanted to say that California is still the best place for on-screen characters! Everyone we met on our filming trip was gold-dust on screen. Thanks to all who took part.

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