Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Valley of the Whales

Jude Ryan got back in touch recently. He is one of my oldest friends from the days when, both nine years old, we met after moving to Paris and confronted learning the French language together in school.

Jude has accumulated an impressive travel record, and amongst those travels, a penchant for endurance events.
He ran an ultra marathon in the Gobi desert, which involved covering roughly 250 kms on foot, in the space of 7 days.

Although far from his level of training, I too have on occasion put my body through some grueling but rewarding adventures. In Tasmania with my partner Kelsi, we carried 30 kg packs for a distance of 34 kilometers in two days, sometimes through mud we would sink mid-thigh deep into AND stopping to film along the way. On a couple of occasions, alone and with Kelsi and others, I carried those same 30 kgs up into a remote region of the Northern Flinders ranges in South Australia, under a relentless sun.

So Jude and I have long been toying with the idea of participating in an endurance event together. I doubt I could keep up with him as he is a runner. I really am not. But I might just make it to the finish line.

The reality is that apart from those anomalous spurts of adventure, I have spent the past 12 years in dark rooms, in front of computers. The only rate I raised was not my heart's, but the speed of renders of computer generated imagery for blockbuster movies.

Jude probably knew he had the perfect hook when he contacted me about the Sahara desert race. Same format as the Gobi desert more or less: 40 kms per day for 6 days, and 10 kms the last day, for a total of 250 kms in 7 days. But the race crosses a place called the Valley of the Whales, and as Jude explained this location to me, I felt the familiar tug of a decision I would many times curse, before ultimately treasuring it for the rest of my life.

In the Valley of the Whales, paleontologists have discovered the fossilized remains, millions of years old, of whales that had only just recently (in evolutionary terms) returned to live in the oceans after an abortive attempt at life on land. The remains had small rear legs which the whale probably trailed behind it as it swam, without much use for them (since they eventually completely disappeared).

The poetry of running an endurance event through such a place to raise awareness and funds for Whale Like Me and the work of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society was too strong to resist. Somewhere, I would have to find my running legs to make it through the resting place of whale ancestors who had abandoned theirs. A part of the Sahara desert, that once shallow sea is now one of the hottest and driest places on our planet. To run there, and then by night imagine the sound of the sea and the call of whales now dead almost 40 million years...

Training began at the end of March in Bali. I have to work my way up from a pathetic 5 minute run that first day along the Sanur beach front... to being capable of running roughly 2 hours and walking another 5, with a 10 kilo pack, day after day for a week.

Without underestimating the difficulty, I feel I have a chance. Early May, and I am now able to run one hour per day with a 5 kg pack. After a few years of work for the advancement of a new way to relate to whales and dolphins, it feels amazing to be able to do something simple, direct and physical towards that goal along side the usual work with concepts, digital communication and pre-production work on the feature documentary Whale Like Me. The effects of abstract work are long term and during the effort itself, their results are hard to gauge. This requires a sustained act of faith - over the weeks, months and years of hard work - that the vision is worth it all.

Running, in comparison, is pure simplicity. One foot in front of the other. Each step gets you a step further. After so many steps (a quantifiable amount), you reach your goal. Never mind that it hurts like hell. Never mind that this is the type of race seasoned athletes turn to as they seek greater challenges. I have embraced this and I'm grateful to Jude for having opened this door for me, to the Valley of the Whales.

To all my friends, and all those who support Whale Like Me, there is a standing invitation to join us to run through the Valley of the Whales in October 2011. You can also sponsor our run. If you are interested in either, write to

If you have a friend who you think might be 'our kind of crazy', connect us please.

You can find out more about the endurance event at:

Friday, May 6, 2011

You can have two but not three...

Things do not always manifest in the order we expect them to - hence the lack of updates on the short film contest, folks: we're holding off so that we can give all of the pertinent info in one go, and we expect it all to be in place by the end of May!

For now, I'm back in Japan, ramping up for principle photography to start mid June. I'm doing my best to learn as much Japanese as I can cram into my poor brain: a mission of some importance since I'll be spending close to a month on my own in the whaling town and will probably feel isolated and alienated as it is, without even considering the language barrier.

Progress is good: I can write and read hirigana characters (if you give me long enough) and I will learn katakana next week. Vocabulary is expanding and I can recognize a few kanjis. Learning Japanese is a real adventure, with moments of intense love and hate. One day, I hate kanjis: I find them overly complex, with little squiggles that seem arbitrary and annoyingly slow to draw, let alone remember... sometimes representing a word that would take a second to write in hirigana, katakana or romaji. Other days, I love them: I see ones that I recognize on signs in the street and feel this warm glow of understanding, like getting glimpses of a cozy lounge with a fire place from outside in the cold. And they tell me that sometimes kanji can be very economical, using one ideogram to express what would otherwise take several words. I must trust that they do not lie about this.

The tragic events here are still unfolding. The ground shakes every day in Tokyo, usually only slightly but sometimes with a good jolt - many more aftershocks of various magnitudes are expected. The Fukushima situation 'seems' stable but what do I know: the inner circles of nuclear tinkering don't share their inner-most thoughts with me. With so much controversy over the effects of 'low level radiation' exposure, I've found the most prudent path is to eat very few leafy vegetables, and to stick to bottled water. Though the movement of at-risk produce is supposed to be strictly controlled, there have been a couple of cases of tainted produce making it to market in Tokyo over the past 6 weeks. Likewise with the tap water: current levels of radionuclides are too low to really mention, but should that change following some nightmarish development at Fukushima, who is to tell the information would reach me before I took a long drink from a tall, cool glass of very hot water?

Tokyoites are subdued right now - the national character imposes a general observance of propriety in the face of disaster. It is not appropriate to enjoy oneself too much, to consume too much, whether it be power or food or other goods. This is, in essence, an impressive show of solidarity in the face of hardship and I have great admiration for it. Its definitely preferable to looting, scamming and general selfishness often exhibited in other parts of the world when things go seriously wrong. It is the flip side of the sometimes exasperating respect for authority, protocol and established patterns of behavior, and a powerful reminder that we all have the flaws of our qualities, and the qualities of our flaws.

Whale Like Me will not be the same film it would have been, had we made it before March 11th 2011. The changed face of this nation has influenced our exploration into the stalemate over whaling in a number of ways, and has increased the potent symbolism of a number of events and characters featuring in the film.

Script, breakdown and schedule are being worked on simultaneously and organically, trying to optimize the work so that we are best prepared for the smaller shoots we will be doing before the real schedule in June commences.

The reality on the budget front is grim: we're working with one third of what we need. So grim that even though it took all my energy and processing power to get myself and the gear over here and set things into motion, I am tempted to take up a VFX job offer in Sydney that would take me away from the work here for 3 weeks. It would be very disruptive to the film making process, reducing the amount of Japanese I can learn by perhaps two thirds, and halving the time I get to spend with co-director Hideki for planning and prepping... but the reality is that the money I can earn on this job could end up saving the Japanese shoot if nothing else bears fruit between now and early July.

Its a diabolically imperfect situation, involving not only time working on the film and money to fund it, but my own personal energy which is stretched thin as it is. Carrying out all the pre-production planning for a third of the feature length documentary, script writing, cramming my brain with Japanese lessons, AND training to run an ultra marathon (yes, more on that later) might seem like some sort of hard limit. But flying off to Sydney to work long hours on a VFX job, added to that list, gives a perfect triangle of which I can choose two corners but not three. Enough physical energy to survive, enough money to scrape through the shoot, and enough time to craft the shoot so that it is worth all the effort being put into it.

Fate may have decided for me already as the VFX job remains in limbo. It turns out the Australian company does not yet have a green light for the work, and this may be the best outcome. There is still time for funding to materialize from a couple of sources, but the time I would lose from prep work here with Hideki could never be recuperated.

Also we have been graced by money-saving help from a number of sources. The team is proving to be highly committed, with all core participants willing to work with little or no pay during this period. My dear friend and colleague Dylan Neil is flying himself to Japan in June to join us as second unit DP, complete with his own gear. This, I publicly confess, means I owe him. Big time. Possibly 'my first born' big time. Dylan, would you like my first born?

So we're going to scrape through one way or another. The alchemy of choosing which corners the film can afford to cut while maintaining its quality and core power is one we intend to excel at.

So did I say something about an ultra marathon? I believe I did. Details to come tomorrow.

Lots of love to you all, wherever you are on our magnificent Ocean Planet!

--- Want to contribute to our shooting budget? Come toss us a few coins at here! ---