Monday, August 6, 2007

Bronwen’s Road

July 29, 2007. Desert outside Swakopmund, Namibia.

When Namibia first gained its independence in 1990, the newly established fisheries Ministry had inherited a series of difficult challenges. For years, foreign fishers had been exploiting the rich fisheries off the coast with reckless abandon, ultimately depleting the stocks to devastating proportions. The Ministry set out a series of bold strategies to improve the stocks. Its ideas were progressive, science-based and testament to the spirit of the country's new constitution where sustainable use of resources is a cornerstone.

When Bronwen first arrived at the Ministry of Fisheries, her career path was clearly charted . . .

. . . she set out to study the near shore ecosystem, with a singular focus . . .

. . . but soon after her arrival, when she first learned of the hydrogen sulfide explosions, she veered off her immediate course, took a road less traveled and helped to address a mystery that many suspect needs to be considered in fisheries management -- the sulfide eruptions.

The Big Think

July 28, 2007. Swakopmund, Namibia.

In a warehouse we all gather to block out the sequence. In the sequence, Scarla, Andy and Bronwen would be discussing their theories as to what was causing the eruptions of hydrogen sulfide.

Before shooting, Scarla, Andy and Bronwen take this opportunity to get some work done. In reality these three mostly collaborated virtually via e-mail and phone conversations. Given the chance to actually be in the same room, they never missed a moment when they could dive into their data and work face-to-face.


July 27, 2007. Walvis Bay, Namibia.

For days, Kathy Peeard has been making miracles happen. She got us permission to film at the lighthouse in Swakopmund. She helped us scout locations at the Ministry, ran interference, greased wheels and basically made all of our jobs that much easier. Kathy and Bronwen even helped to arrange a special expedition on the research vessel Welwitcha. This was a great treat for all of us. For Mark Knobil and me, the experience brought back memories of more than a decade ago when we both set sail (twice) to film at the Titanic in the Atlantic. For Brook, who had just finished producing a series of specials focused on ocean conservation, it was a welcome change to the driving, flying and hiking we'd been experiencing for nearly a month.

The happy faces of Richard . . .

. . . Brook. . .

. . . Chad . . .

. . . Chris . . .

. . . Chad and David . . .

. . . Mark and Chad. . .
It was great to be out at sea!


July 28, 2007. The desert outside Swakopmund, Nambia.

After much anticipation, we arrive early in the morning, before the easterly winds, eager to see if our explosives expert George will deliver. As he sets his powder and fuses and pours gallons of petrol, we set our shots, sit back and wait. There's a lot riding on these explosions, and I'm starting to feel the pressure. We've carved precious time out of a very tight schedule and if it doesn't work, we're going to be in trouble. George has brought enough powder, fuses and fuel to detonate five explosions. He's not sure exactly how big they will be, despite the fact that he's carefully measured and built each unit. Explosive can be unpredictable, and if the winds suddenly pick up they could blow fire, dust and rock in our direction. The unpredictability of explosives is real, and the fact that George is missing one hand underscores this fact. After decades of defusing bombs and creating explosive events for movies and concerts, it was a simple flare that blew up as he was holding it, taking his hand.

We decide to set-off a test explosion to gauge its size. We all take our position at a distance, and George counts down. "Three . . . two, one!"

A fireball races into the sky, followed by clouds of billowing smoke and great cheers. We're in business!

Chad, David, Chris, and Mark await the test fire.

Andy, our character can be seen walking in the desert contemplating the destructive nature of hydrogen sulfide events, as an explosion, shot in slow motions, blazes across the sky.

Chad stands next to the explosives so that we can mark the next shot.

Desert Offices

July 24, 2007. Desert outside of Swakopmund, Namibia.

Chad moves some lamps that we borrow from the hotel.

Chris positions a desk, racing the sun as the winds begin to pick up.

The desk is leveled, stairs are built, and a chair is rigged so that it won't sink into the Namibian sand.

Richard Berkely, our production assistant who performed the role of a coordinator with precision, sits in as we block out a shot.


July 24, 2007. Walvis Bay, Namibia.

David Elisco (Vice President for Creative Affairs)

Lighthouses . . . explosions . . . offices in the desert . . . None of this was planned, or even contemplated until hours before we started to set the wheels in motion. The scientists -- Scarla, Andy, Bronwen, and Kathy -- were behind the plan. In fact they were cheering us on, having fun with the creative nature of our endeavor. Brook and Richard employed their laser focus to nail down all the details, pulling rabbits out of their hats, arranging and rearranging the schedule based on a myriad of criteria. Mark, Chris and Chad through their creative energy into the fire, fueling the process with unbridled optimism as only three guys from Pittsburgh can.

But still . . . would it all work? Would it be as visually appealing as we thought? Would it help to drive the story forward? I was confident, but uncertain and this uncertainty was further exacerbated by other more personal events that were simultaneously unfolding in my life.

The Plan

July 24, 2007. Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, Namibia.

With the list of filming ingredients whirling around in my head, a plan started to form.

1. Bronwen is the lighthouse. Like a sentry, sitting on the edge of the desert, looking out to sea in Swakopmund, there is an old lighthouse. As the sun sets everyday, the beam of the lighthouse cuts across the town. The lighthouse, like Bronwen, is forever vigilant keeping its eye on the ocean. I thought that we could meet Bronwen at night, as the fog sets in, follow her up the lighthouse stairs, and stand with her hundreds of feet above the city as her face is awash in the harsh glow of the revolving beam. From here, we can set up the story and the mystery of the fish explosions.

Great idea! Okay . . . how do we get in the lighthouse? Brook, Richard and Kathy were on the case.

2. Since so much of the story takes places within the minds of our three main characters -- Scarla, Andy, and Bronwen -- and since these characters were part of a vanguard of research, maybe we can create a space in the desert that both represents their pioneering efforts and captures the imaginative nature of their enterprise. The idea: whenever either of our scientists were getting deep into their research, they would be transported via a wash of white light into their thought space -- the vast desert.

Sounded cool and plausible, but we were running out of time. Can we create offices spaces in the Namibian desert? Where can we get desks, chairs, other office supplies to shoot the next day? This might not sound like a tall order, but consider this: after days of trying Brook couldn't find a rental car; there is one wireless Internet location in the country, according to Richard; and every store closes exactly at five o'clock.

3. After more conversations with George our guide (and explosives expert) at Tuna Corp, it becomes clear that we could probably pull off about three or four good explosions if we're lucky. George has all the right permits in place. And his license is good for a few more days!

With the potential of explosions becoming more real, I began formulating a plan on how we might use them. For our story, here's the challenge: The hydrogen sulfide explosions are extremely dangerous to life in the ocean. Hydrogen sulfide acts as a poison, and the explosions also remove oxygen from the water, suffocating sea life. The problem is that you can't film these events.

The concept: Our idea was to take Andy into the desert, which will have been established as a thinking space for our main characters, and as he walks the dunes contemplating the destructive force of the hydrogen sulfide events, he will pass through a series of frames where violent explosions erupt on cue.

This could be extremely effective, and very visual, but would it work? Could you get the explosives to fire? Would they fire on cue? How can we make sure that nobody gets hurt?

The lighthouse at Swakopmund, Namibia. Just as in Strange Days One, where we found ourselves saying "Think David Lynch not David Attenborough," in Swakopmund I kept repeating to myself, "Bronwen is the lighthouse."

Did You Say Explosives?

July 24, 2007. Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, Namibia.

Of all the stories that I've shot in my career, I've felt for a long time that this particular story was going to be a creative test -- and not just for me, but for the entire crew. The story itself is extremely compelling: explosions of hydrogen sulfide off the coast of Namibia have been killing ten's of thousands of fish. The mystery: how big are the explosions, what's causing them and what can be done -- if anything -- to lessen the impact?

The problem: There's very little that we can actually shoot. We don't have the time or money to wait for such an event to occur and most of the action, the sleuthing, takes place in minds of the scientists.

During the morning of our scout, we were guided by Kathy who lead us through the Ministry Building in a search for possible locations. The offices and the building were handsome and perched on the edge of the sea, but we'd traveled the whole way to Namibia, and shooting indoors just didn't seem right. Guided by our Production Assistant, Richard Berkley, we headed first to the desert and then on to Walvis Bay to continue our scout.

In the desert, Richard identified a number of locations, one of which might serve for a sequence when our scientists were considering the role of the desert in the story of explosive events. The desert was very impressive, and I began thinking that perhaps this location could play a bigger role in our story. As a location it was very cinematic but how could we use it . . . that was the question?

Next we headed off to Walvis Bay to scout possible warehouse locations at a place called Tuna Corp. In pictures that Richard sent to us, Tuna Corp's warehouses exuded a certain ambiance that might lend itself well to a series of sequences where our scientists were discussing potential scenarios that could explain the explosions in Namibia's waters. At Tuna Corp, we were met by George Pkuhn, who was going to guide us through the facility. Within a few short minutes of our tour, George mentioned that he was in the film business, too. I've heard this line a number of times, and I politely asked what he did. As George began speaking, I stopped dead.

"Did you say explosives?" I asked.
"Yes," George said. "I rig explosives for concerts and movies."
"What kind of explosives? Could you rig something pretty big with a lot of fire?"
"Sure, sure. That's what I do."
As we toured the warehouses at Tuna Corp, which proved to be very photogenic, I continued to question George about the possibility of rigging some explosives for us. I wasn't sure how I would use them, but if we could get explosives, I was sure that I could come up with something that would make sense.

As we left Tuna Corp, things were starting to come together. The ingredients:
1. A cool desert with amazing sand dunes
2. Railroad tracks that bisected part of the desert.
3. The potential of explosives.
4. Several empty warehouses with great lights and shadows.

How could these ingredients be used?

George Pkuhn is an explosive expert with decades of experience. The fact that George was missing one hand, and that we were going to try to put explosive into the film within a few short days, unnerved some of the crew just a little.

Chad, our assistant cameraman walks the desert . . .

. . . and his own sense of internal coolness . . .

. . . keeps him quite comfortable.

Namibia Begins

July 24, 2007. Swakopmund, Namibia.

We started early this morning, and we had a lot to do. On the list:

1. Drop off laundry for cleaning (Brook, our Line Producer, had already made it clear that me, Mark, Chad and Chris were beginning to push the bounds of decency; in fact days earlier she insisted that we all shower before she would let us in the van from Kumasi to Accra.)

2. Meet the scientist whom we'd be filming. Up until this point, they'd all been voices over crackly phone lines.

3. Scout locations. We'd only seen pictures of Swakopmund and nearby Walvis Bay, and I for one had been scratching my head, and if truth be told waking up in cold sweats, trying to figure out how we were going to visualize this sequence. (More on this later.)

1. Laundry: Check.

2. Scientists: Check Plus!

Scarla Weeks, Andrew Bakun, Kathy Peeard, and Bronwen Currie (whom we'd meet later the next day) proved to be marvelous, each possessing a unique and charming personality. Scarla is a satellite oceanographer with exuberant charisma, who would later say in her interview that her office was in space. Andy is a big thinker, who occasionally quotes Shakespeare, and has the distinct good looks of a Hollywood actor. Kathy is both shy and bold; shy in the sense that she avoids the camera when given the chance, and bold to the extent that she became an invaluable member of our production team -- scheduling, scouting, approving shots and even on occasion making sure that our Director of Photography had his camera set properly. ("Mark," she asked during a lab shoot, "Is your extender turned off?")

And then there's Bronwen . . . I'd asked myself prior to meeting her, "Who is this woman on the other side of the phone with such a sweet voice, who patiently answers all of my questions (even the dumb ones)? In person, Bronwen is just as sweet as I imagined, and I would come to recognize that her patience and serenity is born of her love of the ocean. Bronwen is a surfer who spends as much time as she can in the water. She's also a biker, who peddles each day to and from the office. A beginning surfer myself, and a lifelong biker, I can attest to the peacefulness that these activities can bring, but in Bronwen her spirit had quite comfortably and unequivocally merged with her constant motion. Bronwen moves as if her feet barely touch the ground.

The excitement I felt upon meeting our scientists (and dropping off my laundry) was short lived. As we began scouting, it became painfully clear that we had less than twelve hours to reinvent an entire sequence that we had traveled half way around the world to shoot. And the clock was ticking.

Kathy and Bronwen discuss hydrogen sulfide, fish stocks, bacteria (and wonder what's for lunch.)

Scarla and Bronwen examining satellite images of Namibia's coastline.

Me and Andrew in the desert near Swakopmund.