Diving into documentaries

Back in 2018, Tom Grove and Alyssa Stoller started a research project in North Iceland to assess the potential impacts of whale-watching encounters on whale populations. Tom turned this into a PhD with the Changing Oceans Group (due to finish in 2022). Alyssa subsequently completed an MSc in Marine Systems and Policies at Edinburgh (2019-20), focusing on citizen science in Iceland for her dissertation. During this time, they started Whale Wise, an informal group of young researchers with the aim of studying interactions between humans and whales. In 2019, they decided to make a documentary about their work and the whale-watching community in Húsavík, Iceland. The aim was to share their goals, the true life of a field research team and the incredible community. Eighteen months and a documentary later, Alyssa discusses the journey.

Part of the 2019 Whale Wise team: Abigail Robinson, Flordespina Dodds, Alyssa Stoller and Tom Grove. Photo by Andreas B. Heide.

With no formal training in filmmaking or editing, I believed that making a documentary would be a steep learning curve, but possible. My formal degrees were in science-related subjects (environmental and marine) but I had always been interested in film. It is a fantastic avenue for bringing science to life and into the homes of so many. Suddenly, you could be immersed in foreign and alien worlds, with creatures that you would fail to even conjure up with your own imagination. It is awe-inspiring and emotive – a powerful tool to sway the hearts and minds of the public for conservation purposes. Nothing shows this better than the ‘Blue Planet II effect’.

In 2019, Whale Wise was starting its second field season in North Iceland. To assess the impact of whale-watching on humpback whales for Tom’s PhD, we had planned three months of behavioural observation and blow sampling – collecting whale breath with a drone to measure hormone concentrations. Meanwhile, another team member and Marine Systems and Policies alumna, Flordespina Dodds, was collecting aerial images of humpback whales for her master’s dissertation.

Preparing the drone for blow sampling. Photo by Andreas B. Heide, taken on Barba.

For the 2019 season, Tom asked me if I wanted to make some kind of documentary about our work. Without hesitation, I said yes. We decided that the entire team would do the filming during the season, mostly with a cheap camcorder, but that I would focus on the planning/structure and subsequent editing. I decided I wanted to the film to be about the people rather than the whales – the Whale Wise team and incredible whale community that lived in Húsavík. I wanted the film to show the highs and lows of research, the raw emotion, and at the same time be a slow and almost poetic piece. This was partly inspired by Jago, an incredible film about an Indonesian spear fisherman. Its languid pace lulls you into a sense of peace, immerses you in the world you’re seeing.

Prior to the season, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted the storyline of the film to be. I very quickly realized that it is very hard to plan a film where you aren’t sure what exactly is going to happen. I did not know what would occur during the season, what challenges we would specifically face, or the highlights, but I could at least guess. I created a storyboard that was pretty broad, but hoped it would at least guide me along the way. I then made a shot list of everything we would need for the film: packing up equipment, unloading equipment, bad weather, excitement from whales, blow samples, the list went on and on. I had originally thought this list was thorough and specific. I was incorrect.

Over the course of the season, we managed to collect A LOT of footage and interviews.
Tom and I conducted 27 interviews of the Whale Wise team and Húsavík community – many more than I had originally intended. We also had an enormous amount of footage by the end of the season. The problem was that, despite my planning (what I thought was planning), a lot of it was not the correct footage. The team successfully captured every shot we asked for, but when planning I had not thought enough about the story. We had about 10 million shots of Tom driving the boat and one shaky shot of him turning on the engine, hundreds of shots of us doing research from behind and nearly none where you could see our faces. I had overlooked that we only had pieces of the story, instead of fully considering how they all needed to link together. Additionally, in my shot list there was no information about how the shots needed to be filmed. Was this a tight shot or one meant to be filmed at distance? Was there a specific style we wanted to aim for? Lastly, I realised that, most of the time, short interviews filmed on-site are much better than structured interviews in terms of capturing the true emotion.

Just some of the people we interviewed in Húsavík

All that said, I still thought we did an excellent job for the limited experience we all had. I would like to specifically mention Gabriele Negro, a recent undergraduate from Edinburgh, who joined us in Iceland for two weeks in 2019. Gabi is a rising star in filmmaking and photography, and despite being almost entirely self-taught, has a natural and very talented eye. Although he was only in Iceland for a brief amount of time and during terrible storms, he managed to collect some of the standout and critical footage of the season.

Note: I learned was that it is very difficult to do research and collect footage at the same time and bum bags/fanny packs are very handy when you need more than two hands on a small boat.

The original plan was to edit the film in three months, after the season ended in September. The reality of the situation was that, after three months, I had the first three minutes of the film edited, hadn’t finished transcribing the interviews and had barely started the process of sorting through all the footage. I was beginning my MSc at Edinburgh at the same time and of course that was taking priority. Over Christmas break, I began reaching out to musicians to see if we could use their music. As we were not associated with a formal production company, the way I approached artists was very casual, just giving background on myself, Whale Wise and what we hoped for the film. I contacted mostly smaller groups, however, some bands were more well-known (I didn’t expect them to even respond). To my excitement and surprise, every artist was willing for us to use their music at no cost – making a huge difference and giving life to the film. A huge thank you to: Amarante, Rouge Valley and Red Comet – check out their amazing music!

One of the largest lessons I learned along the way was the importance of keeping footage files organized. We originally had files organized by date, location, camera type and simple tags. However, when it came down to actually editing, simple tagging was not good enough. After discussing it with Tom, we decided that we would create a tagging system that could describe almost everything about the clip. For example, ‘hb, dw, blow, narrator’ means that the shot contains a surfacing humpback whale (hw) surfacing (blow) with a drone in the shot (dw) and some is narrating the whole scene (narrator).

However, above everything, I learnt the importance of storytelling. After all the footage was finally organised, notes made about all conversation said in clips, interviews transcribed, it was now time to actually create a cohesive story. In my mind, part of the documentary was going to focus on the whale community in Húsavík – its characters, its collective passion for whales and its incredible energy, all told in slow visual poetry. Suffice to say, this was not what happened. We simply didn’t have the footage to make the story work. We had interviews of key characters but we didn’t ask the right questions. We had key moments but not the ‘filler’ footage to bind the story together. We were also too goofy (and swore far too much) to make this a serious documentary. We still aim to do proper justice to this beautiful community through a professional documentary, but we first need to learn the art of proper planning and create a clear vision.

The beautiful harbour of Húsavík

What I ended up making was entirely different. ‘The Presence of Knowing’ is a meandering story about the Whale Wise team – our daily life as a research group, our mistakes and successes, challenges and beautiful moments. It is imperfect but it fills our hearts whenever we watch it again. Although relatively unplanned, we are very proud of our first documentary. By depicting research life as it really is, we want to share our journey with aspiring scientists – an audience we only really finalised after making the film (not recommended). You don’t need to be perfect to be a marine biologist or conservationist. You will mistakes, get angry, and hopefully laugh a lot – as long as you enjoy it and pursue your ambitions.

What’s next for ‘The Presence of Knowing’? We will enter it into some film festivals during the year (mostly wildlife/conservation-focused), but you can also watch it on YouTube here

 This is the very beginning of our documentary journey and feedback would be much appreciated.

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