Innovator Profiles: Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski Wields a Camera in the Fight Against Climate Change

Jeff Orlowski is a filmmaker who directed the award-winning documentaries Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. He is also the founder of Exposure Labs, a production company geared toward socially relevant filmmaking. His films shine a light on climate change and in 2016 he was the first recipient of the Sundance Institute Discovery Impact Fellowship for environmental filmmaking.

We sat down with Orlowski to talk about how he uses film to inspire change, his experience filming Chasing Coral and what gives him hope.

You can currently watch Chasing Coral on Netflix.

How do you use filmmaking as a tool to create impact around issues like climate change?

As an artist, it’s such an amazing medium to get to work with. You get to use photography, writing, storytelling, music, emotions and time. You can play with all these things to illicit a certain feeling and get people to feel a certain way based on the story. So for me, I just love working in film. It’s such a powerful tool and I just want to keep making more movies. In both of the films that I’ve had a privilege of working on, Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, we had to use new camera technology in part of that process. But really the technology is a tool to a certain end. It’s based on the objective, based on the challenge. It sort of then necessitates what type of technology you need to accomplish that goal. So in our cases, with those two films, we wanted to figure out what kind of technology, what kind of tools we would need to be able to tell the story of the changing landscape. We ended up building those camera systems to serve that objective.

Is technology always a big part of your filmmaking process?

For me I’ve been looking for stories that haven’t been told before, challenging stories, and that sort of just necessitated the new technology and the process. I haven’t been looking for technological challenges to overcome just as sport, but it’s been fun to be able to work in this field where the engineering solutions exist to overcome the storytelling challenges that we have. And that’s been a really, really fun way to work. I was born and raised in New York City and had lots of opportunities when growing up to spend time outdoors and in the wilderness, and I’ve a lot of friends who don’t get to spend time outdoors. There’s something really special about being out in nature and having these deep experiences and being able to capture them and bring them back home for people to see and to feel.

What did you find most surprising when filming Chasing Coral?

It’s like one of the simple things that I learned – coral is an animal. It’s an animal, but it has plants living in it and together they make rocks. It’s sort of just mind blowing, the entire thing. How exactly does this tiny little simple creature make these massive, massive structures? But it’s a really simple organism that is the bedrock of the ocean. And the corals that make a coral reef, that ecosystem only exists because of this tiny little animal. So it’s constantly mind blowing. I think my respect and awe for nature has only grown in working on these projects. And the really intricate and detailed relationships that exist on the planet, that’s what we’re threatening right now. We’re putting them in jeopardy, and how do we preserve those. How do we preserve the stability of the system that we as humans depend on?

When we started Chasing Coral, we thought that maybe we would capture healthy corals turning white and bleaching. What we ended up capturing were coral reefs turning white and then ultimately dying. That entire experience, healthy and thriving, to completely dead took about two months. And both for myself, my team and the scientists that we worked with, I think everyone was surprised by how fast those transitions happened. Corals can die. They’re much more vulnerable than we thought they were and they can die very, very quickly in a short period of time. And that’s happening all around the planet right now. And so it was a shock and it was mind boggling just to see the speed with which these ecosystems can completely shift. And that was a big wake up call for me and for a lot of us on the team.

What’s it like to see these beautiful reefs in person and then watch them disappear right before your eyes?

Being on a healthy coral reef is one of the most beautiful and exciting experiences you can have. You are surrounded by life in all dimensions. And it’s more abundant and just so much life everywhere around you. Picture the most amazing rain forest with all those creatures, except it’s magnified when you’re in the ocean. And you’re swimming in and amongst all these different creatures.

And to be on a reef like that, where a couple of months afterward, it’s dead. It has the energy of a graveyard. It just feels sad, it feels very, very different. Those have been some of the most powerful experiences for me while working on this project. To go back to the same exact place day after day, and to see it slowly falling apart every single day. And the before and after comparison of the photographs, that’s really what hit me the most. Seeing where it started and where it ended up in such a short period of time. And to then know that what we were witnessing in that one particular spot was happening at countless reefs all around the planet. That’s why we wanted to make the film, that’s why we wanted to capture these stories, to capture that visual evidence of what we saw. And hopefully people can see that same imagery and understand what’s going on. That you don’t have to go to these places and go diving in the same exact spot for weeks and weeks on end to understand what’s at stake.

What gives you hope?

I feel a lot of hope from the youth more than anything else, from young people who get it and see it. We can screen Chasing Coral for elementary school kids, or seven year olds who are asking at the end of the screening, what can they do. And actually, honestly, the young kids are the ones who have the best questions after a screening, too. They’re so curious about how does that work? And what’s happening here in the ocean? And what about that species?

They see it, they get it, they’re growing up in a world where climate change is known and is understood. And they’re the ones taking the lead and taking the charge on how we get toward solutions. I’m very optimistic about what we can accomplish and what’s going to happen in the future. And so much of it is just encouraging people to do everything that they can. Absolutely everybody can be doing more and making a difference and we can all be putting our efforts in. But I’m very, very optimistic and a lot of it comes from the youth.