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The National Geographic/Disney+ series Secrets of the Whales — which features extraordinary cinematography and commentary, including some from executive producer James Cameron — earned Emmy nominations for documentary or nonfiction series, narrator (Sigourney Weaver) and cinematography for an episode that focuses on the sperm whale, the largest of the toothed whales, immortalized in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick.
In addition to finding suitable filming conditions — including the right amount of sunlight to penetrate the water — capturing the sperm whale on camera involves some unique challenges. “The whales are going down 3,000 feet for 40 minutes to an hour at a time, eating a ton of squid a day to sustain themselves,” explains Brian Armstrong, who with Andy Mitchell wrote, directed and served as one of the 20-plus cinematographers on the four-episode series. “You may find the sperm whales, but then they’re only at the surface or within the area where you can film them for short time. When they show up, you need to hope they hang around and hope they’re going to do something worthy of a great sequence.”
As with other nature documentaries, they filmed their subjects with care. “Our philosophy is to go in with a small crew very gently, with all of the species,” Armstong says. Some of the underwater DPs lensed sleeping humpback whales: “When they woke up, they wanted to play. We got some of our best materials because they spent 20, 30, 40 minutes in the water swimming around our cameraman and just engaging in this curiosity.” Not all whales, however, act the same. “The sperm whales are a little tricky because they’re a little bit more about business. They have to go down very deep to get food.”
Patience was key — as was the need to expect an uncomfortable environment. “Before the whales dive, they usually empty their bowels, so even if you’re filming at the surface, you’ve got to be prepared to be, you know, covered in whale poop,” Armstrong says. “We had a lot of success, though, with the young [whales], which stay at the surface while the adults go down to hunt. And the young are equally as curious.”
The nominated episode was lensed in the Eastern Caribbean island Dominica, Sri Lanka and the Azores islands of Portugal. “We’re trying to demonstrate whale culture and how it’s different in each location, and that made it a bigger challenge with the sperm whales than perhaps the other species, where their culture is more obvious,” Armstrong says. “[For instance], in Dominica, it’s a resident population and the whales know those waters, and they have hunting techniques and things they teach their young,” but “other transient whales would be teaching different things. This was by far the trickiest episode to try to get that [culture] across.”
The filmmakers worked closely with producer and National Geographic explorer and photographer Brian Skerry and Dr. Shane Gero, a behavioral ecologist and founder of The Dominica Sperm Whale Project (both are featured on camera).
For the cinematographers in the water, Armstrong says the “approach is to try to not disturb the whales, to try to be in that environment as peacefully as we can and not appear as a threat, which means a lot of free diving. One of our great underwater DPs, Steve De Neef, was holding his breath for three or four minutes because we’re not using tanks. We don’t want bubbles.”
Armstrong proudly states that the team’s work on the documentary led to discoveries about the sperm whale; the filmmakers, while free diving, captured images of a whale calf feeding from its mother. “They’re mammals, they need milk. And the filming we did there allowed us to see for the first time how that actually works, which is incredible,” he says.
Whether filming on the surface, free diving or diving with scuba gear, the cinematographers primarily relied on Red cameras and selectively tapped Phantom cameras for high-speed photography. They also developed several rigs.
“I wanted everything to be down at whale level as much as possible. So even on those gyro-stabilized cameras, we created cranes that would allow us to put them over the edge of the boat so that they were sometimes just inches away from the surface of the water,” Armstrong says. “We also had a drone that would fly 30, 40, 50 feet up in the air so the whale wouldn’t think it was anything more than a seagull, but then we had a tether coming down with a camera on the bottom. So when we saw where they were from the air, we could drop a camera into the water without bothering them and get some really close-up stuff and be very responsive.”
In an episode featuring orcas, there’s a scene in which one is tangled on a fishing line and a diver frees the whale. When shooting a nature documentary, where does a director draw the line in terms of getting involved? “The standard procedure is that we are observers and documenting what’s going on in nature and natural behavior and not interfering,” Armstrong says, adding that thousands of animals are killed by these entanglements.
“The truth is, this series is a celebration of whales, but also throughout you see how some of these animals are in real trouble,” he adds. “In this particular case, we felt that this was a man-made problem, and we had a responsibility to intervene.”
This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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