TIFF ’13: Art, wildlife and Hollywood converge in “Midway”

During a TIFF Doc Conference panel, Midway (pictured) producer Stephanie Levy and co-director/editor Sabine Emiliani discussed the artistic and logistical challenges in shooting a wildlife film on the isolated Pacific Ocean atoll.
September 11, 2013

The filmmakers behind one of the buzzier docs at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) gathered at the TIFF Doc Conference on Tuesday (September 10) to explain how some the top technical talents in Hollywood and wildlife filmmaking united behind what could ostensibly be considered an “art event.”

Midway (pictured) chronicles the daily lives of the Laysan albatrosses that flock to the tiny Midway atoll in the Pacific Ocean to nest amongst old now-defunct World War II machinery. Lying at the top of the Hawaiian archipelago roughly 2,000 miles from the nearest shore, the atoll is an unincorporated territory of the United States and wildlife refuge that is expensive, time-consuming and difficult to visit.

Since 2009, Seattle photographer Chris Jordan has been traveling there to photograph the effects pollution is having on its feathered inhabitants. The birds, which feed on squid, fish and other food near the water’s surface, have been accidentally ingesting plastic flotsam and feeding it to their chicks, causing thousands to die each year.

“It’s a beautiful film. It’s a poem,” producer Stephanie Levy said during the panel, which also included executive producer Dan Cogan (The CoveThe Island President) and co-director/editor Sabine Emiliani (Jordan was unable to attend due to a family emergency). “It’s about the love of our planet and the beauty of our planet.”

Jordan’s trips have resulted in several striking and devastating photos as well as a short film that has racked up 15 million views online. When he showed his footage to Cogan and Levy, they instantly loved it but felt the first-time docmaker would need to work with a seasoned storyteller’s eye to bring out the material’s full cinematic potential.

The producers recruited Emiliani, a French filmmaker and editor who is best known for her work on the 2005 film March of the Penguins. She was tasked with reviewing 420 hours of bird footage that Jordan shot during eight trips to Midway over three years and shaping it into a narrative.

“My first feeling from [the footage] was the feeling of its beauty,” she explained. “To be immersed in a story, we needed to build it around that beauty and then fill in the details after.”

The albatrosses spend much of their time foraging for food and return to Midway to mate and nest. Since the atoll is free of predators, the birds are extremely relaxed and friendly to the point where they would nestle up to the cinematographers as they shot.

The birds’ laid-back nature made it easy for Jordan and his crew to shoot close-up and captured the kind of details and angles other wildlife filmmakers might need long-lenses to obtain.

Less accommodating was the atoll’s Federal Aviation Administration beacon generator that emits an inescapable buzz, meaning all of the footage was shot MOS – or without sound. Thus, Midway‘s sound design had to be composed in post using sounds native to Midway but recorded in remote areas well away from the buzzing beacon.

The producers approached Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn to score and sound design the film and were elated when the pair said yes. They were working on five features at the time and are among the top names in the business – their combined credits include the features Tree of Life, The Lord of The Rings, Argo and Titanic.

“This is the first time they’ve ever worked on a film that was MOS and they had to build the sound design from the ground up,” said Levy.

“When they arrived and looked at the first 15 minutes, they immediately proposed that that sound would be another character in the film,” added Emiliani, who had been editing using temp tracks up to that point. “The ocean is a kind of bad guy so we needed to identify it through sound.”

She has been editing the film right up to its world premiere and is not yet finished. The version that screened at TIFF, though billed as a world premiere, is a work-in-progress. Multiple buyers who attended press and industry screenings commented negatively on the narration to realscreen, and following the festival, the post-production team will reconvene to finalize the edit and re-record the narration.

After that, the producers’ next challenge will be to capitalize on the short film’s 15 million views, the film’s 100,000 Facebook followers and the 50-80 emails Levy receives each day from people around the world as Midway continues its festival run and possible theatrical distribution (Midway is one of the few docs that arrived at TIFF this year without a distribution deal.)

“This story isn’t happening in our backyard but it could be anywhere in the world,” said Levy. “Our premiere at TIFF is the launch of a movement that will grow exponentially again.”

  • Midway screens at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday (September 13) at 9 a.m. EST at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
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