That time I was studying bat testicles and ended up making a movie about balloons

Those of you who have attended a Rubber Jellyfish director Q&A may know that my film journey started about five years ago when I was studying bat testicles. Yes, you read that right.

Years beforehand I had read a landmark study that had stuck in my mind about a tradeoff that exists between testicular tissue and brain tissue in microbats (ie the small insect-eating bats common the world over, as opposed to fruit bats). Apparently because microbats are so tiny and light (often less than 10 grams), they have extraordinarily tight energy budgets meaning in this case that they can ‘afford’ to either have large brains or large testicles, but not both (sound familiar, ladies?) 

Me with a to-scale replica of a Chalinolibus gouldii (Gould’s Wattle Bat) brain. The purple model is the same thing, just magnified 500x.

When I learned of this I wondered if in the species where males are packin it downstairs, perhaps the females had larger brains than the males. After all, as females we are lucky to never experience the heavy burden of lugging testicles around the world (life must be so tough for them) and so therefore it stands to reason (or so I thought) that perhaps female microbats could afford to have larger brains than their unfortunate male counterparts. 

My findings, however, found this to not be the case and rather, it appears that regardless of how big a male’s testes are, brain size is fairly equal between the sexes  – at least for each of the Australian microbat species I measured. I am still perplexed about this outcome but there you go. 

What is most fascinating about all of this is that the determinant of what causes large testes size (and as a result in this case, brain size) in microbats is female behaviour. 

In fact, female behaviour drives testes size in all species. In species where females are relatively promiscuous and take numerous mates, males

Closeup of my Chalinolibus gouldii (Gould’s Wattle Bat) brain models. The purple model is the same thing, just magnified 500x.

will have relatively larger testes than you see in species where females are extraordinarily loyal. It’s an evolutionary adaptation not unlike purchasing many raffle tickets (aka sperm) if you really want to win the door prize (aka egg) and there is a lot of competition for it. Gorillas, for example, have absolutely tiny testicles compared to humans. Clearly, there must have been a whole lot of slutty caveladies back in the day – at least as compared to gorillas. Although, to be fair, we have nothing on chimps but that’s a story for another day.

This field of study is called sperm competition and it fascinates me to no end. One day I absolutely will make a film about sperm competition and it will look at a variety of species including humans.

 But anyhoo….

To do this comparison between male and female brain sizes in microbats I had to CT scan a whole lot of bat skulls and then create 3D models of the skulls using 3D modelling technology. It took a lot of work to learn how to do this and my supervisor suggested that once I had completed my masters degree I should go on and do a PhD using CT technology and digital modelling again but to study sea turtles experiencing float syndrome.

It was absolutely hilarious watching such tiny specimens moving through a CT machine large enough for a horse! We literally performed the scans at the University of Queensland Equine Hospital.

I learned that float syndrome is a unique health condition that sea turtles are increasingly falling victim to. One major cause of it is ingestion of marine debris – especially of plastics and other man made items. Early into my research I came across a study out of the University of Queensland where they had examined the digestive tract contents of sea turtles that had washed ashore, deceased. Of the rubber items inside of these sea turtles, 78% was comprised of balloons and balloon fragments which was about double what they had expected to find, based on how common balloons are as a type of litter found on the beach. The high numbers of balloons inside of turtles indicated that sea turtles were not consuming balloons by accident or random chance – they were specifically choosing to eat balloons. Why would they do this? Well, the study accounted for this with a clear as day image of a balloon looking exactly like a favoured sea turtle prey – a jellyfish.  

From there, I continued my investigations and learned that there had been numerous studies demonstrate that balloons are harmful to animals and very slow to decompose in marine environments (if they ever fully do). I also learned that the balloon industry was telling a very different story. Their claim, which I found on balloon store websites all around the world, was that balloons were 100% biodegradable and environmentally friendly. 

A picture is worth a thousand words. Here is the first image of a “rubber jellyfish” balloon that I ever saw, which had appeared in the 2012 academic paper by Schuyler et al. 2012 (reproduced here with permission by the Creative Commons). Viewing this one single image changed the trajectory of my life.

I don’t know if it was my love of wildlife, my stubborn streak, or the fact that I’m a Libra which is supposedly all about fairness and justice, but I couldn’t let this go. It was clear to me that as much as I wanted to pursue a PhD (something I am still planning to do), this particular issue would be better handled through the media and a long-form documentary, where I could really sink my teeth into the issue, felt right.

So there you go. You never know where life will take you. You might be balls deep (har har) into something which you feel will take you along a certain trajectory but which actually takes you down a completely different path. I’ve learned that it’s important to stay curious, to be determined, and to not be afraid to take on something big if it’s the right thing to do and could benefit the world.

Thinking beyond the price tag – what do you consider when you buy clothing?

This post was also featured on 1 Million Women.
If you follow my work I would be willing to guess that you both care about the environment and wear clothes. For too long I have had my head in the mud when it comes to clothing but I have finally decided to wake up. One of my best friends in the world, Stacey Oliver, has just completed a masters degree in sustainable fashion out of Parson’s School of Design and is launching the new California-based business Garment Hub which does everything from Marie Kondo style closet makeovers with an environmental edge to alterations and clothing upcycle redesigns. I would encourage you to follow her social media pages (Facebook, Instagram) where she is posting lots of interesting and inspiring information about how to help the world with your clothing choices!
One thing she has put me onto is the “Good On You” app. With this free app you can enter all your favourite shops and brands to see how they rank in terms of ethics (conditions for factory workers), the environment, and for the animals that the clothing may be sourced from. It is truly fascinating! Below are some screen shots directly from my phone from the app.
From now on I am pledging to be as intentional about my clothing choices as possible. No more buying something on impulse just because it’s cute and cheap!! One of the things Stacey has taught me is that fashion labels can get away with almost anything because their products are made all over the world. They can choose to use factories in countries where workers have little to no rights and get paid almost nothing. They can also choose to conduct their operations in countries where it is legal to dump insane amounts of polluting chemicals directly into rivers. The fashion industry is now one of the most polluting industries on Earth because they can escape all legislation that would require them to make more responsible choices.
The only way to change this is to hold clothing companies accountable. We can avoid the companies that do not disclose information about how the factory workers are treated and the environmental toll of how they go about creating their products – and we can certainly avoid those companies that are known to have a poor track record in these areas. We can then also reward the companies that are doing things well or at least making steps in the right direction. Please download the “Good On You” app and start investigating the brands that are hanging in your closet. What have you been supporting? It may be a big eye opener! If you find that some of your favourite brands have a poor ranking, you can also use the app to send them a message to request that they improve these things! 
 
Disclaimer – I understand that we can’t always make the most deliberate, informed, socially responsible and environmentally responsible choice every single time. I get that (and this is true for me also) – but I really believe that it’s time for us to stop using shopping as a recreational activity/pastime and become a hell of a lot more deliberate about what companies we support. An alternative to shopping sustainable labels is to shop second hand through thrift stores, op shops, Gumtree, Craigslist, and good old Facebook Marketplace where possible. Many of the items that you will find through these sellers are practically brand new so you can get whatever item you are wanting (even if it doesn’t have the best social/environmental track record) without actually financially supporting the brand itself and therefore rewarding them for poor behaviour .. and as a bonus second hand stuff is almost always cheaper, too.
Do exercise some caution with your secondhand purchases, though. The fact that you are saving an item from landfill does not necessarily make it an environmentally-friendly choice.Many fabric types contribute to ocean plastification (epsecially polyster, nylon, and fleece) when they go through the washing machine. The tiny microparticles that come off of the fabrics are too small to be processed by wastewater facilities and they end up flowing directly into the ocean – and as fabrics age they will shed these tiny polluters even faster.
Feel free to comment below or on our social media pages about what you discover about the brands you know and love though the ‘Good On You’ app!

5 things to do (and not do) when you make your first film

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

Rubber Jellyfish – a balloon documentary. An update on progress and our final fundraising push.

Hi folks,

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!

Carly

Braving death by blood suckers at Minyon Falls

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

Stacey meandering through the rocks – I didn’t manage to get any photos of the more insane points while the rain was coming down

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.

I was so proud of my little nature babe. I also really recommend the Ergo Sport baby carrier for adventuring with a baby or toddler!

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.

The one that fell off, engorged, in the car was probably 5 times the size 😮

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.