High Angle, High Pressure

The sun is no longer beating down on us. But even in the shade of the jungle foliage in late afternoon, the heat and humidity are brutal. Minutes earlier, we had pulled our skiff up to a small sandy cove with a steep, forested mountainside rising from the beach, and began climbing the 2,500-foot west face of Mount Pindito, the highest peak on Wayag Island. My muddy feet slide off the branches that hold me up. If I lose my footing here, I will be dead, and so will our filming for the day.

Tomorrow, we are scheduled to film the aerial shots for our IMAX documentary on the South Pacific, and this summit is the best place to scout locations for the shoot. With me are Marc Ostrick, our videographer, and Angela Beer, education coordinator of the Kalabia, a boat we will film tomorrow as it winds its way through the islands.

The trail is steep and technical. No railings up here.  In the U.S., tourists wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a trail like this.  After several hours navigating twisted roots and thick branches, we finally reach the summit: five square feet of jagged rock sticking out of the forest, none of it flat, with vertigo-inducing views on all sides. It is spectacular.

Directly below, the turquoise water is a translucent lens, magnifying the kaleidoscope of coral that stretches across the seafloor between us and the green, mushroom-shaped islands dotting the ocean. Close to sunset, the whole panorama is awash in otherworldly golden light. It looks like the inspiration for James Cameron’s floating islands in Avatar.

We set up a tripod and film a short 20-minute time-lapse. Down below we can see the brightly colored Kalabia anchored in a bay surrounded by islands.  We’ve done a lot of aerial shooting for earlier films, with my favorite scenes being the islands of Palau in The Living Sea. But these islands surrounding Wayag are even more spectacular, with higher peaks, unique clustered formations, and the most brilliant water you will find anywhere. The Kalabia will look unbelievable sailing through this seascape.

Named after a walking shark found only in Raja Ampat, the Kalabia was once a tuna long-lining boat.  Purchased by Conservation International in 2008, it was removed from the fishing fleet and turned into a floating school. Its on-board educators travel between Raja Ampat’s 120 island villages, teaching kids how to protect their backyard reefs. The lessons are primarily hands on and experiential; many of these kids have played in the ocean their whole lives but have never seen the reefs with a dive mask. When the kids are taken snorkeling and discover the full grandeur of what lies below the surface, they are shocked and overjoyed. Then they take their new knowledge home to share with family and friends.  The Kalabia is literally educating communities through their children, increasing the likelihood this incredible environment and culture will stay intact.  An inspiring story of local innovation that we want to feature in the film.

The sun begins to set as we sit on top of Mount Pindito, plotting the Kalabia’s course for tomorrow’s shoot.  It is time for us to move. Any climber will tell you summiting doesn’t bring a feeling of elation, but the burden of getting down safely. It’s easier to slip on the descent, and we move very carefully, often sliding on all fours and holding onto tree branches.  Half-way down it’s close to pitch black and we are basically going on feel. After several hours of knee-crunching descent, we finally land back on the sandy beach, our mission accomplished.

Shooting begins the next day with the SpaceCam system—a gyro-stabilized mount that holds an IMAX camera perfectly steady on the nose of a helicopter. The cameraman, Michael Kalem, will operate the camera remotely from inside the helicopter with a monitor.  Like all IMAX cameras, the IMAX camera in the SpaceCam set-up holds a 1,000-foot film magazine, which provides three minutes of shooting before you have to land and reload.  But the islands here in Wayag are so steep there is nowhere to land the helicopter. The nearest place is a field on another island ten minutes away.  We decide to attempt the shot without having to land the helicopter, which means we’ll have only a few tries to get it right.  

On the decks of the Kalabia, the crew is in place and we wait for the helicopter to arrive at 9am. The clock ticks past 9:30. Then 10. Then 11. We finally reach our field producer, Neal Allen, by satellite phone, and 30 minutes later I hear the helicopter approaching. I run through the boat yelling, “It’s here! Action, action!” I jump into the captain’s deck so I won’t be seen—a fair complexion would look out of place on this boat—and the voice of the pilot, Johnny, comes crackling over the radio.

“We’re going to shoot,” he says, “How far can you go into the islands?”

“We can go past the next two islands on the left, then we will have to turn around because of the shallow reefs,” I reply.

“Copy that.”

Johnny buzzes us twice and calls to say he got the shot, then flies off.  As the sound of his rotors fade in the distance, I realize it has taken just 20 minutes.  The filming is done. I now have a 10-hour boat ride back to the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge for a late dinner and a review of the day’s footage. Which is stunning. Better than Palau. At $40,000 a day for the SpaceCam and helicopter, it would be tough to settle for anything less.

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