“Oceans” ’11

Directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud scored a box office hit with last year’s Océans, drawing a major theatrical crowd for their big-budget underwater spectacle. Now the team is expanding on the documentary with a major four-part series for France 2, promising to reveal another side of the world beneath the waves.
September 27, 2011

When news first broke that acclaimed French directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the duo behind the critically revered and Oscar-nominated Winged Migration, were reuniting for a big-budget epic examining life below the sea, expectations were high.

Winged Migration, a 2001 documentary looking at the migratory patterns of birds all over the world, won particular plaudits for its innovative use of new technology, which allowed cameras to silently travel alongside birds, giving the viewer the impression of flying among the flock.

With Océans, Perrin and his team were promising an equally immersive experience, with an eye-watering budget of some €50 million (US$72.6 million) put aside for the aim of showing audiences what it would be like to become “a fish among the fish.”

As with Winged Migration, technology played a key part in the making of Océans. Among the most notable shots in the film are scenes of cameras speeding along side by side with dolphins and shoals, both above sea level and underwater.

“To be near to these creatures we needed to invent new technology – equipment that hadn’t existed before,” explains Perrin, Océans co-director and narrator. “With Migration, it was the first time [filming migratory birds] using ultralight aircraft, allowing us to go up mountains and along the desert.

“For Océans, it was the first time we were able to travel at the speed of the fish. Before, you were always immobile – you don’t move in the sea, and just look around, and the fish cross in front of your path, like in an aquarium.

“But if you can go with them at the same speed, you become ‘a fish among the fish,’ and the sensation, the comprehension of nature, becomes absolutely different. That was what we wanted – to be in the center, at the heart of the life of the animals of the sea, and to stay with them, even when they are speeding at 20 knots.”

Among the new technology developed to make these shots possible was an innovative torpedo camera, capable of being dragged by a boat underwater at speeds of up to 30 kilometers per hour. The team also designed a helicopter camera which could fly anywhere from 20 to 100 meters above the surface of the water, specifically to keep speed with traveling dolphins.

The project took two years to plan and four to film, before being released theatrically last year to near universal critical acclaim.

Made by Perrin’s prodco Galatée Films in association with American firm Participant Media, Spanish indie Notro Films and French nets Canal+, France Télévisions, Pathé and TPS Star, the doc has become the third most seen French film abroad, with ticket sales of more than 10 million internationally – including three million box office admissions in France, two million in Japan, and 2.6 million in the U.S.

In the latter territory, actor Pierce Brosnan served as the narrator for the American cut of the doc, and the film received a major boost when Disneynature – the natural history arm of the global entertainment giant – picked it up for theatrical distribution, launching it on Earth Day.

With its theatrical run complete, Océans is now heading for television as a 4 x 52-minute series, entitled Le Peuple des Océans (The Kingdom of the Oceans). The series premiered on France 2 on September 11, in the channel’s ‘Grandeur Nature’ slot, and will have its second window in roughly a year’s time on ARTE.

For the TV series, the tone and approach will be markedly different from the theatrical effort, with more of a focus on context and information, and less focus on creating a visceral reaction, or a “symphony of pictures,” as Perrin describes it.

The series will draw on the more than 400 hours of footage available from the four-year shoot, and will consist of entirely new footage, with none of the material that featured in the theatrical cut being re-used.

“During shooting we filmed more than 200 species, and only a few of them made it into in the film,” says Océans co-director Jacques Cluzaud. “So in the series, people will discover many other species. Also, some sequences of the film had no explanation at all, whereas in the series you will have this information.”

Co-scriptwriter and scientific adviser François Sarano adds that the series will attempt to explain the relationships between different species in a number of different ecosystems. “In the film, we didn’t care about the place, about time – we mixed different species,” he says. “The only thing we wanted was to give out emotions.

“For example, at the beginning of the film you see a sea lion bathing on the beach. We didn’t care what beach or what sea lion, we just wanted to express that feeling of happiness, and we didn’t need to say, ‘This is a sea lion of the Galapagos.’ It was the same all through the movie – the species, the time and the place had no importance. But in the series, it is completely different.”

One area the team did explore the possibility of – but ultimately rejected – when making the film and series was doing the project in 3D.

“We did some tests in 3D and they were spectacular – spectacular!” enthuses Perrin. “But I don’t think you can give the same emotion in 3D – you are not at the heart of the story. I think 3D is fantastic, but it’s more or less for show. It depends how you use it, but it would have been difficult to make the kind of movie we wanted to make in 3D.”

Cluzaud adds that cumbersome 3D cameras would not have married well with the new versatile technology they were pioneering. “If you wanted to shoot Océans in 3D it would not be the same film – you cannot go fast underwater with two cameras or a big system, you have to have cameras that are small yet still powerful enough for the big screen,” he explains.

Océans and Le Peuple des Océans join a rich tradition of impressive blue-chip natural history programming looking at the sea, sitting alongside high-end series such as the BBC’s The Blue Planet and more recent theatrical efforts such as The Cove and The End of the Line.

However, the trio insists that what makes their filmmaking different is a willingness to anthropomorphize and attempt to create an emotional connection onscreen, rather than bombarding the viewer with facts and information.

Taking the BBC’s box office hit Earth as an example, Sarano opines that even on the big screen, “the BBC stays in the traditional point of view of the documentary – they try to explain the natural history of one animal or another. They always stay in the ecosystem and they don’t try to make an animal a character or give it emotions.”

Perrin sums up his take on the difference more succinctly: “Planet Earth speaks to your brain, whereas Océans speaks to your heart.”

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