Arts & Leisure

Local cinematographer directs ‘Secrets of the Whales’

A MOTHER HUMPBACK Whale with her calf in the waters off of Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Humpbacks in this region spend summers feeding in Antarctica, then migrate to the South Pacific to places like the Cook Islands where they have their calves and spend time in the warm, protected waters here. Calves spend approximately one year with their moms, during which time they learn many of the things they will need to survive. PHOTO / BRIAN SKERRY

Some jobs are just cooler than others. No offense, but it’s true. Let’s look at Andy Mitchell for example. For over 20 years, this two-time Emmy Award winning cinematographer, director, producer, writer and storyteller has documented anything and everything he can. From rock stars to great white sharks, natural disasters to Buddhist monks, music, reality, science, Sasquatch, dolphins, dingoes, diamonds, gorillas, celebrities, insects, Jesus… and countless things in between. He has over 100 credits for National Geographic, Wild, Discovery, Animal Planet, Netflix, Smithsonian, POV, PBS, the list goes on… and has filmed on every continent and in every ocean. 
Now, get this. Mitchell calls Middlebury home. After one of these gnarly adventures, he makes his way home here to Addison County. 
A couple weeks before the pandemic locked everything down, Mitchell returned home from traveling for the new National Geographic four-part series “Secrets of the Whales,” from Red Rock Films, directed by Brian Armstrong and Mitchell, produced by James Cameron, Maria Wilhelm, Armstrong and Shannon Malone-deBenedictis, and narrated by Sigourney Weaver.
“We got really lucky timing wise,” Mitchell said in a recent interview. “I returned from my final shoot early March 2020… just a week or two before the lock down. So we were heading into months of post-production anyway. We really got lucky.”
The series premiered on April 22 (streaming on Disney+) taking viewers “deep within the epicenter of whale culture to experience the extraordinary communication skills and intricate social structures of five different whale species: orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales.” The episodes were filmed over three years in 24 locations.
So, here he is, Andy Mitchell, to tell us all about his experience as the series’ director and writer, and cinematographer on the Orca and Sperm whale episodes.
What’s the process of making a film like this? 
It is a long process that involves dozens of talented people; this film took three years. First, there’s the pre-production — finding the stories, working with scientists, permits, travel, equipment etc. The most fun, and the most stressful part, is the field work. Every shoot is different. Sometimes you get what you need in the first day. Often, you don’t get it until the last day. It’s always a roller coaster of patience and perseverance. When you finally do get it, you’re about half way done. It typically takes months to craft each film. From chiseling the story out of hundreds of hours of footage, to writing the scripts, working with a composer to produce the score, to directing the narrator — it’s terrifying and exhilarating directing Sigourney Weaver. Luckily everyone from the PA’s to the Executive Producer at National Geographic believed in this project, and they were all a pleasure to work with. 
Can you give me a day in the life of making this film?
No two days are the same. Some days are life changing — when you’re able to swim up on a family of 11 sleeping sperm whales — and some can be frustrating, like when your boat sinks, or your boss decides Act 5 and Act 1 should switch places. But it’s all part of the process. 
What were some highlights, some low points, and some things that made you stop and think along the way?
It probably goes without saying that the best part of the job is seeing whales in their natural habitats. The premise of the series is that whales have culture — just like humans. They have traditions, life long relationships, even popular music. It was pretty cool learning just how deep this went. It’s also a highlight working with some of the most talented underwater filmmakers in the business. 
National Geographic explorer and photographer Brian Skerry is a legend — one of the most decorated photographers on the planet. He has dozens of covers for the National Geographic Magazine, and has received pretty much every photography award there is. It’s an honor spending time with him, and helping him tell these stories. The whole crew was great. Without a good crew it would be a much different ballgame. It’s also fun working with James Cameron. I’d heard some “rumors”… but he was nice to us. 
Low points are par for the course. Multiple boats breaking down, the occasional obstructionist bureaucrat, I tore a ligament in my wrist (which will require surgery), and field guides in the Arctic getting too stoned to guide. Half our job is working through these lows. Without lows, there would be no highs — and they often make for the best stories. 
Where did you travel to make this film? 
The team traveled to every corner of the globe, from the Arctic to Antarctica, Mexico, Tonga, Norway, Alaska, the Azores etc.… I personally filmed in Patagonia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Australia and Dominica. 
What’s it like swimming with and filming whales? 
Swimming with whales is awe-inspiring. I was lucky enough to get in the water with Orcas and Sperm Whales. That said, one of the biggest parts of being a director is knowing your own limitations. Whales don’t love the bubbles of scuba, and I’m not one of those people that can hold their breathe for five minutes. So I shot mainly topside and drone. We worked with some of the most remarkable underwater cameramen in the world. People like Lu Lamar, Ernie Kovacs and Kina Skollay really take the art to a whole other level. It’s hard enough to keep your composure and film steady underwater while swimming with 30-ton animals — but add having to hold your breath the whole time. Yeah, I have mad respect for these people. Without them, we would not have a series. 
How is filming whales and filming sharks different? 
I’ve done far more filming with sharks… There’s something about looking a whale in the eye. They look back. And they are thinking, just like you. It’s a very different experience. Almost spooky. I’m partial right now to Orcas and Sperm Whales, because those are the ones I spent the most time with. But there’s nothing quite like a big classic Humpback whale breach. 
—Elsie Lynn Parini

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