Raja Ampat Expedition Howard Meghan

Shaun MacGillivray in West Papua

Shaun MacGillivray is producer and president of MacGillivray Freeman Films, an Oscar®-nominated production company that specializes in making documentaries for IMAX® theatres. In this series of blogs, he reports from West Papua, Indonesia where he and the MFF film crew produced “Journey to the South Pacific,” an IMAX Entertainment and MacGillivray Freeman Films presentation of an IMAX 3D film.

Dodging Sea Snakes In the Heart of the Coral Triangle

In the remote village of Sawinggrai, on Mansuar Island, Indonesia, a mass of people and filmmaking gear spill out of the jungle onto an ancient pier whose wooden legs look like they’ll buckle if a bird lands on it. On a makeshift platform high atop the rickety structure, three crew members set up a shot as the entire village looks on. A group of 12 local kids are poised to jump off the pier into the aquamarine water that veils the colorful corals in the shallow cove, while an underwater film unit waits in the water below. The kids giggle with excitement.  It’s all they can do to hold still. Suddenly, the clouds shift and sunlight bathes the pier.  A voice cries out, “Action, action, action!”  The kids explode into motion, whooping and singing at the top of their lungs as they leap off the edge of the dock.

We are here in Raja Ampat, Indonesia—the heart of the Coral Triangle—making an IMAX documentary about the reefs of the South Pacific. We might as well be on Mt. Everest.  An archipelago of 1,500 small islands located on the northwestern edge of the West Papua province, Raja Ampat is one of the most remote locations we’ve ever filmed in more than 40 years of filmmaking.  Almost none of its 120 villages have electricity, phones or internet, and most of the islanders speak no English.  Even radio communication is temperamental among this labyrinth of islands.  Here, word travels by boat.

We arrived here after five flights, an overnight boat ride, and 65 hours of travel that took us from Los Angeles to Sorong through Taipei and Jakarta, and finally to our base of operations at the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, a surprisingly modern resort that caters to dive tourists.  With us are five camera crews, 17,000 pounds of filmmaking gear, and enough insect repellant to serve a small army.  The equator is near, and I feel like a carrot in a slow cooker: 101 degrees, 90% humidity, and its only 6am.

As the Indonesian kids pop up from their jump to the reef below, underwater cinematographer Howard Hall surfaces.  He’s got the shot.  The kids had nailed it, landing right in the middle of his camera frame.  Although our filming has just begun, we’re already amazed at how in tune these kids are with their environment.  They are completely at ease in the water and exhibit a keen connection to their aquatic world.  Something we’re trying to capture on film.    

We chose to film in this spot because Raja Ampat is considered the most bio-diverse marine ecosystem in the world—a treasure trove of exotic marine life.  To picture what it’s like, imagine the ocean centuries ago, before human encroachment: an underwater kaleidoscope of reefs teeming with life, giant colonies of sharks and manta rays cruising for food on nutrient-rich currents, thick schools of fish darting from sea grass to reef.  This is what Raja Ampat is still like today.  Its isolation and sparse population have helped keep the reefs here thriving and wild, and it is home to more than 500 species of hard coral – more than in the entire Caribbean – and 1,300 species of fish.  Everything here is superlative, from the brilliant waters brimming with sea life, to the unusual birds and plant species, to the colors and beautiful settings of the local villages.

But in recent years, outside threats have impacted the region’s rich marine resources. Overfishing and poaching have taken a toll.  The locals here are countering by setting up marine reserves and building a growing eco-tourism industry. They are educating their youth about the importance of conservation. This is the positive story we hope to capture on film.  That although the struggle to deal with shrinking ocean resources is not unique to the people of Raja Ampat, perhaps their unique solutions can offer a model for the rest of us.

As the kids swim back to the pier to prepare for another flying leap in front of our cameras, a chorus of voices pierces the air.  “Ular!” they shout, “Snake!”  A white- banded sea krait s-curves through the water, following close behind the last kid.  Its deadly bite can kill you in an hour.  It barely misses the boy’s feet as he scrambles up the dock.  Safe on the pier, the kids begin to laugh hysterically – they’re used to these sea snakes. Some kids have even been known to throw them at each other in a risky game of dodge ball.

Since we have the shot, we decide there’s no need to tempt fate, or the sea krait.  The crew begins to dismantle the cameras while the kids skip up the pier.  Not a bad start to our first day of filming.

Sweetlips and Tungsten Lights

There is a lot of water moving fast over the reef, so the skiff drops us off well up-stream from the rest of the underwater IMAX camera crew already in place 65 feet below the surface. The current will pull us straight to them if we judge everything right. If not, who knows where we’ll end up.

I dive in the water and follow the light cables down toward Howard Hall, the world’s best underwater cinematographer. He has logged almost a full year of work underwater on rebreathers – specialized closed-circuit dive systems that enable much longer stays underwater.  Months ago, back home in California, Howard saw a photo of a giant rock somewhere here on Otdima Reef in the Dampier Strait.  If he could find it, he knew it would be home to thousands of fish—and could yield some of the best footage for the IMAX film we are making about the reefs of the South Pacific.

On the surface, two 15-foot inflatable skiffs hold the support gear needed to capture IMAX footage at 65 feet deep—a 100-pound generator for powering the underwater lights and 400 feet of buoyed light cable.  The crew is using a tungsten 3-light system, which produces more light than any other system, including LED.  When filmed underwater in natural light, a coral reef’s colors often look dull and too blue.  Adding powerful lighting is like turning on the Christmas tree lights: reds, yellows, greens, and magentas pop all around.

As I get closer, I can see Howard and his assistant Peter Kragh, a world-class underwater cinematographer in his own right, holding the giant IMAX camera perfectly still with three lights positioned around it.  Wrangling a 300-pound camera in strong current, on a reef about three football fields in the length, they had landed on the exact rock from the photo, first try. It is surreal to see his team’s well-orchestrated operation, like a ballet with heavy machinery on another planet. The light cable stretches out behind him, handled by two dive masters, also perfectly still. I film the scene with my Canon Mark III.

These reefs are what give Raja Ampat the most marine biodiversity of anywhere in the world. They are the foundation for the entire ecosystem and provide a symbiotic habitat for the algae and plankton that support small fish, crustaceans, bigger fish, and marine mammals. Some of the sea life found here is thought to exist nowhere else on earth. The reefs are what make it all possible.

As Peter trains the lights on the rock, a school of foot-long, electric-yellow sweetlips swims right in front of Howard’s camera, hovering in a formation the size of a refrigerator.  This is their home reef.  A group of small cleaner wrasse move in to pick off the bigger fishes’ parasites as thousands of glassy sweeper fish join the scene. As the current moves, each fish rocks in unison, swaying back and forth rhythmically with the swell, moving as one body.  It’s awesome, even spiritual.  I can imagine the shot filling the giant IMAX screen, with music timed to their undulations.  The scene is so mesmerizing we end up shooting three rolls of 15/70 film—about nine minutes and $4,500 worth.  As we scramble back onto the skiffs, Howard looks at me and says “I guarantee at least one of these shots will make it into the film.”  It might also prove to be one of the best shots of the entire trip.



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.

Lesson From a Master

Water visibility in the Dampier Strait has been less than perfect.  Over the past two days, the underwater film team made six dives at two different manta ray sites—Manta Ridge and Manta Sandy—but director of photography Howard Hall is getting antsy.  He has some good manta shots, but not enough A+ shots to create a dynamic sequence for the IMAX documentary we are making about the reefs of the South Pacific. 

Back at the dive lodge we call a production meeting to discuss whether we should move the Pindito and our two underwater film crews to Misool, a 7-hour sail away, in hopes of better conditions. Howard wants his crew to stay in the Dampier Strait with the hope that visibility will improve.  DJ Roller, our other underwater cinematographer, wants to move his team right away. They are both stationed on the Pindito, so we need to make a decision.

After hearing reports that visibility in Misool is 80 feet, it is decided.  DJ’s team will head to Misool while Howard’s team and I will stay and film mantas.  I have total faith in Howard’s judgment. He is one of the best underwater cinematographers in the world and has directed some of the most successful underwater films ever made.  We are spending $30,000 a day on production and don’t have much room for mistakes.  Howard’s experience is something we can rely on. 

Manta rays are one of the species we’re focusing on in the film, not only for their beauty and grace underwater, but because they are increasingly vulnerable. Mantas have been targeted to such a degree that the two main species in Raja Ampat, giant and reef mantas, are both listed as a vulnerable species, one step below endangered. The IUCN estimates their population worldwide has declined 80% over the last three generations, primarily due to overfishing. 

As we get ready to dive a third day at the Manta Sandy site, we know we need to get the shot. Howard specifically makes a point of telling us we are going to film turtles, not manta rays. We had filmed a turtle in the area the previous day, so we know they are there. As we walk down the ladder, Howard repeats it like a mantra, “We are looking for turtles, absolutely no manta rays.  We don’t want to see a single manta ray.”

I follow Howard into the skiff and we race off with our captain, Edi Frommenwiler, navigating through sections of exposed reef. When we arrive, the current is strong.  Edi dips his head into the water and peers down. The visibility looks good—a good omen.  Howard and his crew slide backwards into the water and assistant cameraman Sam Abeger hefts the 300-pound IMAX 3D camera into the water. Howard heads for the bottom with the huge beast of a camera while Peter grabs the lights and dives after him.

As I swim down I can’t believe it; the visibility is three times better than it was the last two days. Fifty-five feet down, Howard stands on the bottom near a beautiful 6-foot-high mushroom-shaped coral, with a 6-foot manta ray hovering three feet away, mouth open, cleaner wrasse inside. Peter shines the lights not on the manta but on the coral, making it pop with colors. The background is a spectacular deep blue. The manta starts gliding in circles.

As I hug the light cable to stay out of the shot, I can see how difficult it is to film with this huge camera. Howard is shooting with a 30mm fish eye lens, which gives a 180-degree view.  The light cable and divers tending it must stay directly behind the camera to avoid being in the shot. This is simple when filming stationary objects, but complex when filming unpredictable wildlife. After 45 years of experience underwater, Howard is very good at predicting the unpredictable.

I watch as he composes a shot, starting with the camera focused on the coral, then tilting the camera upward while pushing it ever so slowly up, just as the manta glides over the coral bed rock, as if on cue – a brilliant reveal. In what seems like a minute, Howard finishes the three-minute film roll and starts swimming up with the camera. Assistant cameraman Peter Kragh helps him pull it through the fast current to the surface.

While the camera is being reloaded, two more mantas approach. Incredible. I brace myself by releasing all my air and kneel on the sandy bottom. As the mantas pass just over my head, I shoot video with my Canon Mark III, copying Howard’s technique. The mantas glide around us, and for 20 minutes I am utterly torn between the amazing experience of filming them and wishing the IMAX camera was here to capture the scene. Howard is sitting on the bottom with me, waiting and watching. Peter finally dives back down with the camera reloaded and we start filming again. The mantas continue to perform as if Howard were directing them.

Back on the boat, we are elated. We have three rolls of exquisite manta ray footage—enough for an incredible sequence in the film. Howard’s ploy of looking for turtles had worked, and I had learned a valuable lesson from a master—persistence pays off.

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