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Dolphins and Whales 3D Interview: Director Jean-Jacques Mantello

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Copyright 2007, 3D Entertainment Ltd.

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: February 29, 2008

Filmmaker Jean-Jacques Mantello discusses with BMZ his latest film for the Giant Screen, DOLPHINS AND WHALES 3D: TRIBES OF THE OCEAN, a new immersive and highly emotional adventure presented by Jean-Michel Cousteau and narrated by Daryl Hannah.

  

Category: Interviews

Director Jean-Jacques Mantello began his filmmaking career in 1986, and made his mark in the large format world with his film Ocean Wonderland 3D. As an expert diver and ocean conservationist, Jean-Jacques continued to make passionate and environmentally-conscious films with the release of Sharks 3D. His latest project, DOLPHINS AND WHALES 3D: TRIBES OF THE OCEAN, ventures into the open ocean and explores the world of these fascinating and fragile creatures.

BMZ: First, thank you for doing this interview with us. How did you first get involved in the Giant Screen industry?

Jean-Jacques Mantello: Well, thanks for your interest in our film and for the great job you all have done with BMZ.com. My large format adventure as director of a theatrical feature began in 2001 when we started filming the first episode of our ocean-themed film series, OCEAN WONDERLAND 3D. Released in February 2003, it marked the first time a documentary initially shot in Digital 3D had ever been converted into the IMAX format. The end result was luckily a success with a viewership of over 4 million and counting.

BMZ: As you know, there are two older Giant Screen films focusing on dolphins and whales. What led you to revisit this subject in the same format?

JJM: Our approach is totally different. Unlike other IMAX-type films, DOLPHINS AND WHALES 3D was shot entirely in the wild and consists solely of underwater footage, with no humans on screen. As with our two previous films, DOLPHINS AND WHALES 3D is a "diving experience" -- no humans, no boats, no aerial shots, just the underwater world as it really is. Our intention is to create an experience unlike any other audiences have ever had at an IMAX 3D theatre by bringing them closer to these giant and small marine mammals than they would ever have imagined. You can witness them in their daily lives, play with dolphins, see how the giant fin whale feeds itself, and how a mother Humpback helps her calf to breathe for the very first time. Also, I think we show a great diversity of whales and dolphins as never before seen in any other large format shark documentary. I felt very strongly that for this specific film it was essential to get back to the roots of what the IMAX 3D experience consists of: taking audiences places they normally never have access to and letting them feel what only a few fortunate people like me have had the opportunity to live.

BMZ: How did you go about choosing which dolphins and whales to feature?

JJM: It was a very difficult process because obviously we initially wanted to include every species. But when you are limited to a 42-minute timeframe, you have to make choices. Ultimately, we decided on those we believed to be the most representative of cetacean species. We aslo had very long discussions with Jean-Michel Cousteau, our film ambassador, who has a tremendous amount of experience in the field.

You have to face the reality of what you can reasonably expect the underwater world to allow you to film or not. It took three years to capture the necessary images for the film. We spent 600 hours underwater to obtain 100 hours of footage. It was the most difficult and challenging production I have ever undertaken in my life. But in the end, which is obviously the most important, I am still amazed by the images we got.

Among the species we decided to feature in the film are the sperm whale for its incredible shape and diving records; the Humpback whale for its graceful dance and haunting song; the right whale for its incredible shape and skin; the bottlenose and spotted dolphins for the bond we share with them; the orca, the king of the ocean and the most intelligent marine mammal; and the manatee because, even though it is a sirenian and not a cetacean like dolphins and the whales, it is a marine mammal that is so extraordinary and that we love so much that it had to make a special "guest appearance." We also felt a need to draw attention to the fact that manatees, too, are in serious danger of extinction.

BMZ: Did you have a story developed prior to filming, or did it develop organically as the production progressed?

JJM: When working on this type of documentary, you normally begin with an idea of what you want to say but then quickly realize that it develops "organically." Your project evolves after each expedition and from what you learn from scientists, divers and marine biologists like Dr. Sylvia Earle who dedicate their lives to the protection of the ocean. In the end, though, DOLPHINS AND WHALES 3D turned out almost exactly as I had originally envisaged it, with the right mix of educational and entertaining components, and a great place for emotion, which our narrator Daryl Hannah echoes brilliantly.

BMZ: What were the difficulties in filming in so many remote locations? What about filming in the open ocean?

JJM: When Gavin McKinney (Director of Photography), Francois (my brother and producer) and I started to think about making an underwater movie about dolphins and whales six years ago we had no idea of the challenges we were facing. When you see these animals on the surface, that's one thing. Despite the fact that we as a filmmaking team are very accustomed to the difficulties associated with filming underwater in the open ocean, this film marks the most challenging project we've ever undertaken in terms of logistics. We needed to have two film crews work simultaneously, which was a first for us. We were also obliged to build a new, lighter proprietary 3D camera rig (third generation) to film the animals. But locating the pods at a time when their populations are dwindling was undisputedly the greatest obstacle to overcome. Your day always begins by scanning the ocean for hours from the sky bridge to try to spot a pod. Then, you have to approach them, which certainly sounds easy but it's not. The captain has to know how to place the boat in their way without being too close so as not to frighten them. Once the approach is done correctly, you must be ready to jump into the water with the 120-pound 3D camera rig and shoot them as they approach, while the boat has already left the area to leave the small crew alone with these creatures. I also forgot to add that climatic conditions have to be perfect with clear-crystal water, which is rarely the case. Once all these conditions come together you may hope for some luck with the whales but most of the time they flee when they see you since you're simply considered to be an obstacle in their path. This is particularly true for whales, and orcas in particular. Being extremely intelligent, they are more likely than not to avoid you. Luckily, dolphins are far more curious about human beings than these giants, which made my life as a director a little easier.

BMZ: Considering how large whales are, how close did you have to get to film them? What sorts of precautions were necessary?

JJM: For some of the film's more intrepid shots, such as those in which you feel as though you're riding on the surface of their giant bodies, we were within touching distance. These marine mammals do not show any aggressivity toward humans and will not naturally attack you while underwater. However, you always need to remain conscious that, given their sheer size and power, even one accidental swipe of their tail can be fatal. But I would say that we always took the greatest precautions to try to approach them without interfering with their behavior and to keep them out of any possible danger, particularly when they were with their calves. We were always very mindful of our intrusion into their world and we also knew that with just a kick of their fin they could find themselves far, far away from us and the camera. When you get it right and they come to you, it's an experience that is hard to describe. There's this massive creature coming straight at you and, of course, what we always have to remember is that it's them coming to see us, not us going to see them. It's entirely their choice. You just see it coming and stay still, and it dictates what happens.

BMZ: I understand the film also has a strong focus on conservation. How serious is the threat of extinction of these cetaceans, and what can we do to alleviate that threat?

JJM: As was also the case with both OCEAN WONDERLAND and SHARKS, DOLPHINS AND WHALES vehicles a strong conversation message by emphasizing the emotional side by entering the intimate environment of dolphins and whales for the very first time in this manner. Everybody knows that millions of these animals have been slaughtered in the last century and that whaling has been banned in most countries, even if some nations use "scientific research" as an excuse to continue hunting them. That said, the greatest threat to their survival is climate change and continued ocean pollution. The effect of both these factors on populations that have already been weakened by more than 100 years of whaling and overfishing is devastating. The threat has never been so serious. For Jean-Michel Cousteau, who in addition to being our film ambassador also worked with us on the film's script and educational content, the quality of the oceans, which are home to all marine mammals, is in jeopardy right now and there is a lot that can be done to change it. We need to stop using the ocean as a garbage can and we need to protect the coastal habitats. We also need to make sure that we are not allowing the large fishing industry to harvest everything in the open ocean.

As Dr. Sylvia Earle so eloquently puts it, while some things have changed to ensure the future of dolphins and whales far into the years to come, right now they face new challenges to surviving and thriving in the ocean. In fact, thousands of dolphins and whales are trapped each year in fishermen's nets. Presently, that's one of the big threats, but there are other problems that face the future of dolphins and whales in the ocean. Just as we are affected by the toxins that go into the water, to the air, and come back into our bodies, so are the dolphins and whales affected through the food chain, through the fish that they consume and other creatures. They gather the toxins that accumulate through the food chain, magnified many times from the small planktonic creatures that absorb heavy metals and pesticides, many things that we have allowed to flow into the ocean in recent years that accumulate in the systems of really all of the marine mammals. It's not something nice to contemplate, that we are inadvertently -- not deliberately, but in fact very effectively -- diminishing the chances that these creatures will survive far into the future.

BMZ: So far all of 3D Entertainment's films have focused on the ocean and its inhabitants. What do you find appealing about this genre, and what keeps your interest in studying this ecosystem? With the multitude of 3D underwater Giant Screen films being released, what will make yours stand out from the pack?

JJM: Francois and I have worked together for nearly 20 years now. Throughout that time we always loved diving and filming was our occupation. We finally managed some years ago to find a way to turn our passion into our work. Making 3D underwater documentaries about marine conservation corresponds to what we decided to do with 3D Entertainment. There are still so many aspects and elements of marine life to explore, and we are only at the very beginning of the 3D experience or revolution. The ocean is vast and I am more passionate about it than ever. Our film series is different in terms of its narrative structure and the fact that, unlike others, we don't have any human intereference. It's really something unique, and so far audiences have responded favorably.

BMZ: With the popularity of DMR IMAX films and the advent of Digital 3D cinema, where do you see the future of the traditional Large Format filmmaking?

JJM: I don't think we should oppose new and traditional large format filmmaking if you refer to the old debate of digital vs. print. What is important for me is to offer audiences truly unique experiences in 3D while delivering inspiring messages on the protection of the underwater world and its already weakened inhabitants.

BMZ: I understand this is the last film of your underwater film trilogy. Do you plan to continue making Giant Screen Films, or will 3D Entertainment be focusing on other media?

JJM: Because of the tremendous success of our two previous films and the excellent intial public reaction to DOLPHINS AND WHALES 3D, it's highly likely that our trilogy will extend to a fourth episode. We definitely have some very exciting projects in development.

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