Natural history films have a reputation for entertaining viewers with breathtaking images of the natural world, whilst informing them about the lives of the animals and plants they are watching. But the best films are also able to engage their audiences emotionally – which is something that Netflix’s award-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher certainly achieves.
Part love story, part eco-documentary, the film is an intimate memoir of one filmmaker’s unlikely and touching relationship with a wild common octopus over a year-long period.
In 2015, Wildlife filmmaker Craig Foster was, by his own admission, burned-out after years of intensive natural history filming in challenging environments. He realised that he needed to reset the dial and recuperate.
Part of his self-imposed therapy was to dive every day in the chilly coastal waters of the Western Cape around his home. He trained his body to cope with the low temperatures without the protection of a wetsuit, and to free-dive with just a facemask, whilst immersing himself in the natural history of its kelp forests and documenting what he discovered.
It was during these dives that he came across a female octopus who seemed to reciprocate his interest in her. As their relationship developed Foster was able to record new octopus behaviour as he explored her territory, got to know the animals with which she interacted, and witnessed how she used her intelligence to a catch prey and avoid becoming a meal herself.
Their interactions were filmed over the course of a year on Foster’s own cameras and with the help of experienced underwater cinematographer Roger Horrocks, a friend and frequent collaborator with Foster on numerous wildlife films, which resulted in a memorable sequence for BBC’s 2017 blue-chip natural history series Blue Planet II and an archive of footage that would become the basis of My Octopus Teacher.
The duo used a range of cameras, with the highest resolution images being recorded on high-end Red Dragon cameras at 6K. “The Red ticks a lot of boxes, making it the absolute default camera for blue chip natural history films these days,” explains Horrocks.
Netflix insists on 4K or higher for its natural history films, but most broadcasters are now asking for higher-resolution footage, which is one reason that a number of cameras from the Red stable have become the go-to tools for natural history production, says Horrocks, who is currently shooting a new series about oceans for Netflix.
“Another absolutely critical advantage of the Red system is the pre-record function – this gives it a huge competitive advantage.” In natural history filming events are often unpredictable and spontaneous, making a pre-record function indispensable.
“The ability to offer different frame rates is another big plus,” says Horrocks. “Shooting at 60-70fps gives you a bit more latitude for nailing tighter shots with very shallow depth-of-field, which can be a massive help when recording fast- moving and fleeting animal behaviour.”
Horrocks paired his Red Dragon in a Nauticam underwater housing with a range of Nikon lenses, with the Nikon Nikkor 17-55mm zoom leading the way. “The Nikon 17-55mm T2.8 on the Super35 sensor gives you really good photo-journalistic range, which is important because you can’t change lenses underwater, so your camera/lens system has to be adaptable to a range of jobs – wide enough for master shots and tight enough for portraits and cutaways.”
“The bulk of my footage on My Octopus Teacher was shot in 6K – you really want to shoot at full sensor size. I recorded to a 500GB Red Mini- mag which gives 45 minutes at 5:1 compression – long enough given that most of the filming was done in a three hour window in the low slack tide when shooting conditions were easiest.”
He adds, “The kelp forest is a difficult environment to shoot in because it can be pretty rough. The areas we were filming in with the octopus were very shallow, so the surge of the sea was very strong, and the turbulence often created problems with visibility.”
Whilst Foster went free-diving, without a wet suit, Horrocks was in scuba gear or using rebreather apparatus to minimise bubbles, which can scare-off some marine animals. “Although Craig was diving every day and was able to adapt his body to the cold over time, I didn’t want to do anything which would compromise my ability to shoot,” he explains.
When Horrocks was away shooting on other assignments, Foster was able to continue to document the life of the kelp forest, and his octopus friend, with smaller format cameras from Sony and Panasonic. Drone footage was also used for overheads of the seascape. In total 20 different camera formats were used in the film which did create a headache; how to make all the footage stand up to the quality of the Red Dragon 6K material?
“We didn’t want the Red footage to stand out,” recalls Horrocks, “but there was no getting away from the fact that the smaller cameras really struggled in the grade to match the quality of the 6K material, particularly in terms of dynamic range. So our colourist Kyle Stroebel really did a phenomenal job marrying the different footage on Baselight.”
The key was to focus the viewer’s attention on the story of Craig’s relationship with the octopus rather than the cinematography, says Horrocks, who does admit to having a favourite shot in the film.
“In the film’s opening sequence there’s a tracking shot of the octopus right above you through frame. It’s a nice tight shot with a flare of sunlight – focus pulling that shot properly underwater isn’t easy so that’s definitely one for the showreel.”
The Visual Narrative
Finding the right narrative backbone for the film was a time-consuming process. The idea of using a direct-to-camera interview with Foster – explaining how he met and gradually developed a relationship with his curious octopus, which then introduced him to a greater understanding of the whole kelp forest ecosystem – only emerged at the end of the initial editing process with the input of co-directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed.
The result is a film that carries both an emotional punch and a subtle environmental message, dovetailing neatly with the aims of the Sea Change Trust, the organisation which Foster founded to help protect and promote understanding of the in-shore ecosystem at the South Western tip of Africa.
“Although many landmark series such as Blue Planet and Planet Earth are now being criticised for not making clearer statements about the destruction of the natural world, the popularity of My Octopus Teacher shows that you can engage a wide range of people emotionally and intellectually in natural history without forcing overbearing messages on them, which can turn them off to what is a very critical subject,” insists Horrocks.
“The film comes across as an intimate memoir, giving space for people to respond in their own way rather than trying to deliberately evoke a specific political response. Some people have described it as an ‘empathy engine’, which I think is a wonderful description.”
By David Wood – Originally published in Cinematography World #001