The Making of My Octopus Teacher
ABOUT THE FILM
My Octopus Teacher follows the story of the year Craig Foster spent with a wild octopus. It was created by the Sea Change Project and showcases the Great African Seaforest.
My Octopus Teacher
Finding the Story
The ocean looked especially lively. White horses rode hard towards rocks while the occasional spindrift lifted towards the sky. It was one of those days when the South Easter howled down False Bay and anyone with even a modicum of common sense would not attempt a swim. However, there I was on my deck at home, worrying about three people. Craig, Pippa and Roger, who were out there filming Craig in the water.
They were not auditioning for a Survivors type show, but filming Craig who had made a promise to himself that he would swim in the ocean every single day – no matter what. It was his way of dealing with a deep disconnect from nature and himself, and healing the physical and psychological pain that he was experiencing as a result. It was his happy place, even in moments like this, when the ocean looked like a washing machine.
All three of them are experienced swimmers and divers. They were diving within 100m of the shore, inside the kelp forest that helped to dampen the oceans’ ferocity. They were shooting a film titled My Octopus Teacher. On this day in 2017, the project was just starting to shape into a film. Its true origin however, began years before when Craig began documenting the wonders of the great underwater forests of Cape Town. A few years into this process he met a very special, wild octopus and started filming her.
For years, Craig dived and filmed alone, but when he started having extraordinary experiences with the octopus, Roger Horrocks, an award-winning camera operator and old friend of Craig’s, recognised that there was something very special here. The duo spent hundreds of hours underwater and created a sequence for the BBC’s Blue Planet II. Craig had been mulling over ideas for a kelp forest film for year, and he suddenly realised that he had a story. Towards the end of the shoot, a young filmmaker called Pippa Ehrlich helped out for a couple of days underwater. Pippa was a specialised marine conservation journalist and storyteller who had been diving almost daily with Craig for 6 months. In early 2017 he invited her to help him craft all of his extraordinary underwater experiences into a feature documentary.
Science and Storytelling
By the time they started the edit, the octopus had passed away. Their lifespan is only about eighteen months. There were hundreds of hours of footage spanning years of Craig’s daily dives in the Seaforest and more recent experiences with octopus. This material required multiple viewings in order to identify a key narrative. It also required extensive scientific input in order to understand all of the complex animal behaviours Craig had captured on film.
The kelp forest, or Great African Seaforest, is a giant underwater forest home to an immense biodiversity and abundance of marine life. Over years of diving and exploring the intertidal zone, Craig had become a kind of citizen scientist, under the mentorship of Emeritus Professor Charles L. Griffiths of the Marine Biology Department at the University of Cape Town. In time, the Professor’s young PHD student, who has since graduated, Dr Jannes Landschoff started to work alongside Craig, helping him identify, classify and collate all of the animals and behaviours he was observing.
Craig was doing something unique. Unlike a lot of scientists, he was in the ecosystem every day and was taking photographs and videos of everything he saw. It wasn’t rigorous scientific research, but it was immensely helpful in providing proof of certain observations and hypotheses, and in identifying new species and documenting animal behaviour.
A year into the edit, Craig was excited to get in touch with Professor Jennifer Mather, an “octopus psychologist” at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. There are no octopus behaviour experts in South Africa and Craig and Pippa needed to get into the mind of the octopus if they were going to tell her story authentically. In early 2018, Dr Mather flew to Cape Town and joined them in the edit for some rigorous scientific consulting.
Getting the Shots
This ecosystem is filled with tiny to medium-sized creatures who are mostly hiding from bigger predators that live in the forest. It’s not easy to find the animals you are trying to film. This is why Craig has spent years developing a system of underwater tracking, which allows him to find even the most cryptic creatures – including an 8-armed, shape-shifting, almost invisible cephalopod. Pippa spent months learning to track octopuses with Craig.
A lot of the action and behaviour takes place in relatively shallow water. Filming requires careful movement and with certain animals, you need to get into tiny spaces. For many shots, this precluded the big camera rigs used in most natural history filmmaking. Using smaller gear also meant that Craig could shoot without scuba and not use a wetsuit. Over years of daily diving he has adapted his body to cope with the cold. Pippa had also trained her body in this way and all of the filming that they did together involved no wetsuits or scuba gear. This meant that Pippa was having a fully immersive experience the entire time she was directing and editing the film. The incredible, cinematic material shot by Roger on a RED Dragon with all of the usual filming equipment required for a big-camera setup.
Apart from some incredible shoots with Roger, Craig was on his own during most of his time with the octopus. For certain shots he was able to place the camera on the seafloor and capture their interactions, but at the time he was not thinking of creating a feature doc, so these shots were precious and rare and are certainly some of the most powerful scenes in the film. To tell the rest of the story, it required months of additional filming, mostly focused on Craig. Many of the underwater shots were filmed by Pippa and Tom, Craig’s son, captured the drone sequences.
On a couple of special occasions when the water clarity was especially good, or to film Craig with the seals, Roger came out with his RED. Additional material was also required to showcase the kelp forest itself: generic shots of the Seaforest, other animals and their behaviour and highly specialised long lens shots.
As the story took shape, we realised that Tom’s relationship with Craig would be a very important part of it. As when Craig was struggling initially with exhaustion, disconnect and depression, he was worried about his ability to be a good father to his son. This too was a big motivation for Craig to begin his ocean immersion and get himself right. Underwater, these scenes were filmed by Pippa and by Warren Smart, a very talented and creative topside cinematographer who came on board to create shots on land that felt like they were happening underwater.
Crafting the Story
With many terabytes of footage to sift through, a plethora of potential narrative threads and the complicated life histories of two very different species to weave into one story, getting the narrative right was a daunting task. This is when Pippa stepped in with a critical eye and her gift for telling stories
Daily debates that went on well into the night between Craig, Pippa and I became normal. There were so many angles and dramatic moments and complex back stories that it was hard to find one cohesive thread. Most importantly, where did the story begin? Was it with the San people who first introduced Craig to tracking and the wonders of what deep nature connection actually meant? Was it during Craig’s childhood on the shore of the seaforest? The beginning of the film was debated and scrutinised and recut over and over again – far more than any part of the story.
Many beautiful sequences were cut and discussed and reworked and eventually discarded because despite being fascinating, they were not part of the core narrative: the story of Craig and the octopus. It was her who had drawn him deepest into the underwater world and the invisible “mind” of nature. She was his “Octopus Teacher”.
Around 6 months into the process, another old friend and professional associate of Craig’s became excited about the project. Ellen Windemuth, Founder of Off the Fence Productions, based in Amsterdam, came on board as Executive Producer. She had played this same role on The Great Dance: a hunter’s story, Craig’s first very successful film.
Ellen was a critical sounding board from a creative point of view, and with decades of experience driving several international award-winning projects, she became invaluable to the progress of the project. She also worked closely with Ludo Dufour to find a buyer for the film without which it would have never been completed nor have found an audience.
The first rough version of the film took a full year to edit. After months of shaping and crafting, this draft, although very powerful, was deemed too esoteric and inaccessible for a wider audience. Craig – in fact all of us – were having deeply powerful experiences in the wild, but this was proving difficult to convey to viewers who didn’t have a similar frame of reference.
We realised that the best way to get the power of these experiences across was to focus on the octopus’ story and tell it in the most emotive and authentic way we could. If viewers were drawn into the story, they would be more likely to absorb the larger ideas of deep nature connection, spiritual awakening and transformation and healing through having a relationship with the natural world. If we were too overt with these messages, we could make viewers uncomfortable and the whole story might get lost on them.
One of the toughest debates focused on how to convey the conservation aspects of the film and how much of an overt message to have. At the time of editing, there was a thriving octopus fishery operating in False Bay and within 10 days we witnessed 2 whales being dragged out of the water after becoming entangled in octopus trap lines and drowning. This was disturbing for us on both a personal and environmental level. For Craig and I, it seemed like it would have to find a place in the film, but Pippa was adamant that this story would overwhelm the more profound message that she was trying to explore around the transformative power of nature and the idea that as humans, we are part of the natural world. Pippa believed that if we told the story right, the conservation narrative would be embedded inside of it without needing to be vocal about conventional, often polarising environmental issues.
From the beginning there had been questions around how the story should be told. Would it be a natural history film with a conventional voice-over? Should Craig appear in an interview? How about others who had met the octopus and been part of Craig’s journey? Should they appear on camera as well? A few rough edits of just the first minutes made it clear including other characters was both confusing and diluted the story.
For Craig, this was a new experience. He was an experienced filmmaker and had spent thousands of hours behind a camera and while all of his films explore the interface between humans and the wild world, he had never been the subject of his story before. The idea of being on camera as a central character, rather than just narrating in the background was intimidating for him. But slowly he got used to the idea and it seemed more and more important for giving the film an authentic and accessible voice. Pippa tried to interview Craig on a number of occasions, but because she already knew him and the story so well, these interviews just didn’t seem to work. Eventually they settled on an alternative approach that involved voice-over with shots of Craig in the story, but never speaking directly to camera. While the narrative was strong and emotive, something just didn’t feel right. Without seeing Craig speaking to the camera there was not a deep enough authenticity to the story. We needed an interview, but we knew that Pippa was not the right person to do it.
By late 2018, Pippa and Craig had been working for 18 months. Pippa had quit a paying job and taken on this project full time. The team at Off The Fence realised they were too close to the story and needed an objective eye. They approached James Reed, a popular and award-winning filmmaker based in Bristol. He had a knack for telling a story by stripping it down to its essential details. The film was sent to him and we were all very excited when he agreed to come on-board to run an interview with Craig and help to reconstruct the edit around this conversation – a storytelling approach which he has mastered. James came out to Cape Town and collaborating with Pippa in the background, he did a gruelling 3-day interview with Craig.
Making the Cut
Once James shaped and gave the film it’s foundation and flow making it universally appealing, the cut came back to South Africa for a final pass over with Netflix editorial input. The film needed both James’s experienced eye and hand and Pippa’s more direct daily experiential involvement.
As with any story, editing is a dance. When does a story need to be slowed down and when does it need to speed up? How do tension and relief play in this dance? Ellen and Sara decided to bring on an edit consultant to help refine the film and Jinx Godfrey, award-winning editor of projects including Man On Wire, Chernobyl and The Theory of Everything joined the team. Jinx became an incredible support and mentor for Pippa. Her sensitivity and experience were critical in sculpting and polishing the film and also finding the right music to create the moods and pacing that brought the story to life.
The score for My Octopus Teacher was composed by Kevin Smuts, a composer whom Craig and I had worked with on several other projects. Although young, Kevin has one of the finest sensibilities. He was approached very early in the production and in the beginning he worked with another composer called Matt Dennis who also made some beautiful tracks for the film, but by the time the budget came through, Matt had moved on to other work and so it was up to Kevin to compose the entire score for this massive project on his own. This was a daunting task, made more intimidating by the many experienced ears that were giving him inputs from all over the world. Tom Foster, Craig’s son who had composed a more raw, elemental piece of music using only kelp and water sounds for an earlier version of the edit was asked to compose two small pieces for the film. He also recorded notes and sounds using the kelp which Kevin incorporated into his music to create authentic soundscapes in some of the more eerie, ominous scenes.
Later, Ronan Skillen, a master percussionist recorded live radio sequences using his collection of exotic instruments to add to the atmosphere of the soundtrack in key places.
While all of this work was going into the offline edit, the enormous task of the online was also looming. With Netflix on board, the technical demands of a modern media giant had to be met and with so many cameras and formats from a library of footage that had been collected over nearly 10 years, the team was nervous. How would they match the colours from all of these different cameras? Would the film meet the required technical specs and could it pass Quality Control?
Although this had become an international production, it was important to Craig and Pippa to run the online edit in South Africa and not send it outside the country. We were put in touch with Jade Kohler, a producer at The Refinery, an online production house in Cape Town who are experienced with delivering programs to international broadcasters. This world-class team is headed up by Lauren van Rensburg. Kyle Stroebel, a young genius Baselight colorist had the enormous task of making 20 different camera systems look like one. The project became his passion and he did extraordinary work on the film, going far beyond the call of duty to make sure that every shot matched and had the right feeling and tone to tell the story. Lauren, Jade, Kyle and the rest of their team ran a seamless post production process and were extremely generous with their time and energy. In the end, delivery took a full 6 months, but the film passed with flying colours, despite Netflix’ stringent quality control procedures. In fact, Netflix commented on the ease, professionalism and high quality of the production.
For sound, there was really only one consideration: Barry Donnelly, an international award-winning sound engineer who had worked on all of Craig’s previous films. He also grew up playing with Craig’s younger brother at the bungalow that appears in the early scenes of the film. Before sound design began, Barry ventured out into the kelp forest with Craig so that he could hear firsthand what an octopus’ world sounds like. He recorded some sounds in the field and worked with foley artist Charl Mostert to recreate others in his studio. In the end he created an audioscape with more than 150 layers that would transport viewers to The Great African Seaforest through their ears.
The film now stands at 94 minutes, and is set to be released globally as a Netflix Original Production on the 7th of September. It is a story of a man who falls in love with an octopus in a great underwater Seaforest and how that connection opened his world to transformation, discovery and wonder. Already the film has received overwhelming responses and was selected by festivals all over the world. It won the prize for best feature at EarthX film and is nominated for 2 Wildscreen awards and in a whopping 8 categories at Jackson Wild – as well as a number of awards at smaller festivals.
I saw firsthand the love, energy and sometimes agony that went into creating this film. Throughout the process, Craig and Pippa were supported by Carina Frankal, Ross Frylinck, Faine Loubser and Jannes Landschoff and I of the Sea Change Project. Ross, Carina and I were credited as Associate Producers.
We, at the Sea Change Project, experience every day, the profound emotional and spiritual magic of being deeply connected with nature in the Great African Seaforest and I am deeply proud of Craig and Pippa and the rest of the production team for translating that wonder into this film. We cannot wait to share it with audiences around the world.