I felt inspired today to put a few thoughts to paper regarding film making. While I only have one film to my name so far, the experience was magical. It was a lot of hard work, hundreds of late nights, but somehow it all worked out and now the film has been screened 19 times (with many more planned), is being considered by distributors, has attracted a huge amount of press, and is sparking a global conversation about balloons and the more general environmental consequences of our everyday purchases. I am so thrilled. Quite often people ask for me advice about how they should go about making a film – here are a few pieces of advice I would give to any aspiring film maker.
1. Don’t go into debt to make your film.
When you start looking at articles about gear for documentary films, it can be very tempting to credit card your way into tens of thousands of dollars worth of expensive equipment. It’s always a good idea to have the best quality equipment you can afford, and certainly do your research to find out what is going to be the best choice for your budget, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need a $20,000 camera to get started. I filmed Rubber Jellyfish on a Cannon 60D which cost me only $1200 (when I purchased it in 2014). I also had a Go Pro which I used occasionally and for sound, a Zoom H1 and two lapel mics – all relatively inexpensive pieces. I do want to upgrade my equipment for my next project but I have no regrets about creating my first film on inexpensive equipment. Having said this, once you work out what you will be filming on, do some practice shots before you do anything important and learn how to use your equipment well.
2. Do be determined.
Documentary films, particularly if it’s your first project, can take a very long time. Be willing for this to happen. A film project is like a marriage in a way and you have to be committed. I made Rubber Jellyfish in my first few years as a mother. Life was hectic and there wasn’t always a whole lot of time. I had a poster board blue tacked to a hallway wall with a big list of everything I wanted to film (which I added to all the time as the story unfolded). I made sure that in my planner I always had at least one, usually two, of the things on that list scheduled. Sometimes this was just a “set up an interview with so and so” or it might be “research helium inhalation statistics” or “interview at 10am with the University of Queensland”. Once I completed a task I would take another from the poster board and add it to my planner to make sure that the project was always moving forward. Eventually, just about everything on that list was ticked off and I had a hard drive of raw material ready for editing.
3. Have a social media presence for your project but don’t give a crap about how many people follow each page/feed.
So many people fall into the trap of worrying about how many “followers” they have. Let me be the first to tell you that this just really doesn’t matter very much. It is much more powerful to have a small amount of followers who are enthusiastic about what you are doing and engaged than it is to have thousands of people who are just vaguely interested or not interested at all (did you know some people actually pay for followers??). Worrying too much about your social media following is an ego trap. Just focus on releasing quality content to engage the people who truly care about what you are doing. This will yield the greatest harvest.
4. Do go to networking events and conferences.
For years and years before I had any kind of success, I would go to lots of film industry networking events. Every state in Australia has a state film agency that organises things like this and then there are other larger events, conferences, and workshops, also. I am assuming most other countries have plenty of film industry events as well. Whenever I would go to these events I felt like a loser. There were so many people there that were so accomplished and I felt like a big dork but I still went and I talked to people. At the workshops and lectures, also, you will learn a lot. Many of these events are free and if you have any interest at all in getting into this field of work, go along to as many as you can and be a sponge.
5. Do stay humble.
There are so many people that will help out a first time film maker. Established film makers are usually happy to pass on words of wisdom, offer advice, point you in the direction of grants you may qualify for, etc. When it comes to setting up interviews and filming scenes, most people are also extremely willing to be involved in film projects. One proviso to this, however, is that nobody wants to deal with a dick. Be friendly, be accommodating, be easy to work with, be nice, be humble. It will get you a long way!!
Thank you to Wayne S. Grazio for the use of this photo under a creative commons license
I just wanted to give you all an update on where we are at on my film making journey. As many of you know, I am working on a documentary called Rubber Jellyfish about balloon release ceremonies and the impacts to marine life. It has been an incredibly long road getting here. I started making this film when I was pregnant with my daughter who is now 2 and a half and I am now actually expecting a second child. I have learned from speaking with other film makers that a long time line such as this is not unusual. The creator of the fantastically fascinating SBS documentary, Scarlet Road also had two children whilst creating that film.
I can finally say with certainty, though, that we are nearing the finish line. We have a wife-husband editing team in Sydney that are working hard to bring the film to life. They also work in the film industry professionally as a day job and very generously offered to edit Rubber Jellyfish for a bargain basement price on their free time. I am so grateful for them and for everyone else that has contributed time, resources, expertise, photos, videos, and money to this effort. I have a spreadsheet of people to credit in the film and it so far has 126 names on it. For a small, independent film that I have pushed along myself, that number astounds me.
I am also so grateful to the Documentary Australia Foundation who recognise this film as a project worthy of philanthropic support and give it not for profit status and to The Pollination Project who has blessed the project with much needed grant money. We have also raised $2502 through small private donations from all of you which has just been incredibly helpful. We are also thrilled to see that the film is already making an impact. The city of Bainbridge Island, Washington banned balloon release ceremonies after a council member viewed our trailer and I am aware that there are many other cities and councils around the world considering similar bans.
The film has had quite a few delays in post production but I am starting to have a feeling that maybe that all happened for a reason. Now that so many parts of the world are aware of this issue and considering outlawing balloon release ceremonies, perhaps the film will be released at just the right time to help them make their final decision. At this stage I am thinking we will do our first screenings in July, around the time I am also due to birth my second baby. Interesting how these things can coincide – birthing a child and this major project at the same time. What a busy but exciting time it will be!
We are very lucky to have recently received a $4500 grant (more about this in an upcoming post) which covers the majority of our finishing costs – editing, graphic design, and a flat fee rate media attorney to check over everything prior to release. We are, however, still $2200 short of the full figure we need to pay for all these services. I have been busy applying for grants but wanted to let our supporters know about this in case anyone knows of a business that would like to be featured in the credits as a sponsor. Individuals and families can, of course, also contribute and will also be credited. I will also take note of anyone who contributes $30 or more and will make sure they receive a complimentary download of the film via email once we are ready to release.
All donations over $2 are tax deductible and can be made to our account through the Documentary Australia Foundation.
We also have a donations page on the film website that gives a transparent outline of where we have received all of our funding and how much we are still in need of.
Thanks again to everyone for your continued support!
To anyone in SE Queensland or Northern New South Wales, the Minyon Falls hike is just awesome. One of my closest friends in the whole world, Stacey, is visiting from LA and I took her down to Byron for a night. We woke up yesterday morning, swam a bit at Wategos, and and then off to Minyon Falls. I had only ever made it to the falls once before and I canyoned in from the picnic area straight to the falls. The actual hike that you are meant to do to get there is way more intense. I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we got started and we didn’t crawl back to the car until the sun was starting to make its descent.
It’s fairly straight forward until you reach a stream which on a day like yesterday
was more of a small river because it had been raining. A man had ‘mansplained’ to us when we were 20 minutes from that point that we would need to head back after we reached the stream because it was going to get dark very fast. I said “oh ok, we’ll just have a quick swim and head back”. He said “oh you won’t be swimming .. its just a little water and some rocks”. I said “really? when I have come before there was a waterfall and a huge pool of water”. I could see in his eye when we said that that despite the fact we were two women and a small child, we weren’t idiots and had made it this far in the past. He started backing back his words and
saying “oh, well I’m not sure if that is where the hike is meant to end but that’s what’s down there”. Ok sir, thanks for the info. We said our thank you’s for the info and pressed on.
When we finally got to the stream we found a girl about our age standing there waiting for her friends to return
who had been brave enough to cross to the other side where the trail continues (to the mansplainer’s unawareness). She wasn’t game to do it and considering I am six months pregnant and had a toddler strapped to my back Stacey was thinking we probably shouldn’t bother either but I could see that if we were just willing to get our feet wet and walk through the water rather than chancing the slick, wet rocks on top it’d be fine. She begrudgingly followed me in this escapade (not the first time I’ve led her on some insane trail .. last time she ended up hip deep in snow). The trail lead to a series of large boulders we had to climb. At one point we squeezed between the crevice in two large boulders and then realised there was an arrow pointing in the opposite direction. I didn’t bother showing Stacey the very large spider that I discovered on the way out again that was pressed against the interior of one of the boulders her head had just come inches from – or even centimetres, had I been measuring. At this point it was raining quite heavily and I was really considering whether or not I was doing a very stupid thing, coming here with a young child. Luckily we were only feeling the brunt of the rain when in the steam but back under the cover of trees again, it wasn’t too bad although still breaking through the canopy in large, heavy drops. I grabbed a small sarong that was in Stacey’s bag to put over my baby carrier to keep Alice a little more comfortable.
Finally, we made it over the rocks and down to the falls. What an amazing site it was. Alice has hunkered down under the sarong and fallen asleep after eating a few pieces of our packed leftover pasta dinner and a banana so I wasn’t going to worry about swimming. Swimming under a waterfall was a bucket list item for Stacey, though, and something she had never done so I encouraged her to go. Upon reaching the water’s edge, she discovered three rather large eels and decided that she could still tick the experience off her bucket list without sharing her swimming quarters with a collection of hungry freshwater predators (she knew she wasn’t in any real danger but the ick factor with eels is legit). We then both started discovering we were covered in leaches. Oh. My. God. Most of them we caught when they had recently latched on, still just the thickness of a thin nail. They were sticky and latched on like experienced breastfed babies but we were able to flick them away. The icing on the cake moment, though, was on the drive home when we were about 5 minutes from my house and I felt something the texture of a large slug hit the side of my foot and fall off. I knew exactly what it was but was hoping it was just my imagination. After nervously driving the rest of the way home and pulling into the driveway, I very nervously checked the foot pad under my feet and discovered a huge, black slug-like creature flipping around and a couple of small pools of blood.
After having a minor heart attack and flipping it off the edge of our yard I went inside and found ANOTHER one on the outside of my sock on the other foot. I used the garden hose to flick off that one (and it really was stuck on there good) and then proceeded to have a shower and writhe in disgust for about an hour, horrified at the sense of violation knowing that two blood thirsty creatures had been making a buffet out of me and I was completely unaware. Leach wounds take a while to heal because of the anticoagulant they inject into you to help make their meal go down easier. We were out of band aids so Stacey fastened herself a kind of makeshift bandage out of a scarf that looked like something out of WW1 and I rested my legs on a dark brown towel while we watched one of the new eps of Queer Eye on Netflix and waited for our blood to clot. All in all, it was the perfect girl’s trip and I was so glad I was able to show Minyon Falls to Stacey – although if I don’t see another leach in my entire life, it’ll be too soon.
(This post has been re-published on the environmental blog, 1 Million Women).
For the past several years, the subject of balloons has occupied a large proportion of my thoughts. It started in 2014 when I was nearing the end of my masters degree. I was doing a study on micro bats and utilising CT scanning technology. My supervisor suggested that I think about doing a similar CT-related study as a PhD on “floater turtles” – a term I was not familiar with. He explained to me that when sea turtles consume plastic and other kinds of litter, they often acquire a condition known as float syndrome when gasses build around the foreign materials that they are unable to digest. It’s a painful, often deadly affliction leaving individuals unable to dive under the water for protection from predators and boats. I did some initial digging around into the issue and learned that a research team within my university had discovered that along with plastic, helium balloons also present a serious threat to sea turtles and that within the local area where I live, sea turtles actually appear to be consuming 2-3 times as many balloons as would be expected based on how common balloons are compared to other types of ocean garbage. It is believed that this is because balloons burst into bizarre jellyfish-looking shapes when they burst high in the sky where atmospheric pressure is low. All seven sea turtle species are known to consume jellyfish and are then vulnerable to balloon ingestion. Six of the seven sea turtle species are also endangered or critically endangered which makes the issue all the more alarming.
I originally planned to study this phenomenon through the PhD program my supervisor suggested but started to change my thinking when it became clear that science had actually already documented a lot of important information about this issue. However, people don’t know about it because the balloon industry has been muddying the water by creating a lot of propaganda claiming that balloons are biodegradable and safe to release into the environment.
[A balloon in the classic “Rubber Jellyfish” shape caused by bursting high in the earth’s atmosphere after being ‘released’.]
Google searches made it clear to me that the accurate scientific information was buried amongst the many articles and websites sponsored by balloon manufacturers and party stores preaching untruths, (like stating that balloons are the same as oak leaves!) Here is the number two item that comes up in a Google search for “are latex balloons biodegradable?” – it’s a good example of the kind of balloon-industry propaganda I am talking about. I decided to change course and instead of completing another scientific study that may or may not be adequately communicated to the public, to instead focus my efforts on a feature length documentary that could act as a powerful education and conservation tool.
[Balloon litter collected on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo courtesy of Christian Miller and Tangaroa Blue]
One of the more common questions I am asked is why am I focused so specifically on balloons when there are so many more prevalent (and it could be argued, worse) types of marine debris? For example, straws and cigarette butts are virtually everywhere but you could go weeks or months without finding a littered balloon. To this question, I have three answers.
Balloons don‘t biodegrade in salt water.I spoke with a researcher in Holland as part of Rubber Jellyfish filming who had studied the degradation of latex in ocean water and found that balloons actually increase in mass when immersed in the sea because they absorb salts from the water!This is pretty disturbing considering 70% of the Earth is made of ocean
Balloons fly .. Releasing a balloon into the air is a little different to tossing a plastic cup out the window (although equally disgusting).When a balloon is released, you have absolutely no idea where it is going to go.Balloons have been known to rise into jet streams and travel across entire continents like this one that traveled from the UK to Australia! Many of them land in the ocean and then travel in ocean currents, congregating in certain ‘hot spots’.One of these helium ballon ‘hot spots’ is actually the Great Barrier Reef, home to so many sensitive marine species.
But more than anything else, my number one inspiration for making this film was:
Most people have no idea they are doing anything wrong
It’s hard to do anything about certain litter issues like cigarette butts because people already know they aren’t doing the right thing – they know they are being a bit of a weasil. Apathy is a hard thing to deal with.The popularity of balloon release ceremonies is something totally different.I was shocked to learn that a lot of charities and not for profit groups perform balloon release ceremonies.These are amazing people trying raise awareness to important causes.I believe in my heart that this wouldn’t be happening if people understood the effects.There is a reason you don’t see charities performing ceremonial flicking of cigarettes – who would want to affiliate a good cause with this kind of inappropriate behaviour?
[An example of misleading, completely inaccurate information supplied by the balloon industry.]
Creating this documentary has an eye opening, profound, emotional, and at times upsetting and turbulent journey. I had worked on other wildlife-related film projects in the past but this is the first major film I have ever attempted. At times it has also been exhausting. As you would have noticed in the trailer, I had a baby in the process of creating this film. There were many sleep deprived days where I would place my baby in a carrier on my chest to let her nap while I sat at my computer to research the topic, set up interviews, and apply for grants. I would also continue working most nights after all the relentness daily tasks that are part and parcel with new motherhood were over and my partner had gone to bed. I am grateful to be in a relationship with a man who is happy to get up early with the baby so I can sleep off the late nights.
We’re now at a point in the film journey where we could really do with some extra financial support to finish. We have launched an Indiegogo campaign (ending April 9th) to accept contributions in exchange for fun perks including Balloons Blow stickers, art work, t shirts, jewelry, beeswax wraps, and of course the film itself! Tax deductible donations can also be made directly to our program through the Documentary Australia Foundation .