5 Tips on Creating Powerful Films from a Sundance Award Winner

Jeff Orlowski shares insights on creating cause-driven art, and the advice he wishes he’d gotten as an emerging filmmaker.

Jeff Orlowski is a Sundance Ignite Mentor and Director of award-winning films Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. The films capture the devastating decay of our planet’s glaciers and coral reefs, lending powerful visuals to a reality many are not prepared to accept.

He spoke to us about his creative process, and shared advice for filmmakers creating towards a cause:

1. Accept responsibility. We have to get the stories out there. We have to let people know what’s going on. For me, what began as a very selfish desire to see the planet, turned into a sense of responsibility to tell people what our crew saw. We have this rare privilege of going to the most remote places on the planet. And glaciers and coral reef are very beautiful. Most people will never go to these landscapes. Just because they don’t go, they should know what’s happening in our planet.

It’s because we have this rare privilege that we must fulfill our duty to inform.

We can be blissfully ignorant and stick our head in the sand and ignore what’s happening in the world, or we can be responsible citizens of this world we live in.

Before and after image from “Chasing Coral,” taken only three months apart, showing coral bleaching at Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef.

2. Commit to inspiring change. There has always been denialism. It feels disproportionately high right now, but it’s always been out there. What gives me hope is that by approaching the subject visually and creatively, I believe we’ve created something that can break through the skepticism, and if we can show this film to audiences who don’t know much about the issue, we’ll seen people persuaded, we’ll seen hearts and minds shifts – and we have. There have been converts. We see this film as a tool to help combat denialism.

3. Innovate. My team is constantly thinking: what’s the best way to capture something? We used a dozen different camera systems and tried five or six different ways to capture the coral reef over time; 360° photo/video, things done manually, etc.

I shot video of the reef that was stressed but still alive, but as we were going back over and over, we realized we had this great before video and wanted to show the aftermath. So we found the only company in the world who makes an underwater case for an iPad. We loaded videos onto an iPad, and then we would scuba dive, hit play, watch the video from two months ago while we were still underwater, then replicate that camera movement.

When you watch the sequence in the film, you can tell it’s the same scene. Our diligence was worth it, because with comparisons, you can make people focus attention on what you want them to see.

Still from Jeff’s film, “Chasing Coral.”

4. Be vigilant; never stop looking for answers.
Absorb everything that’s already been created, and deconstruct it.

I love watching films and deconstructing them, scene by scene. Where is the first action; where is the climax; what is the major dramatic question that’s tying it all together? Just that exercise of deconstructing other stories and films is such a growing opportunity.

The more you can do this, and understand what makes it work, the more empowered you’ll be to create something yourself.

Jeff, on “set” of “Chasing Coral.”

5. Choose a topic you can be passionate about. If you want to do this kind of work, make sure you believe in and care about it. It takes time. If you’re not motivated enough, it’s tough. Our whole team really cares about the issues we’re exploring with our films.

When we were doing Q&As about Chasing Ice, I received more questions about climate change overall than the film itself. I did my best to do my research and learn the answers to those questions.

By speaking out about the issue, I had unintentionally become regarded as an expert.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about issues. If you want to change things, become an expert. Learn enough about the subject that you are representing it accurately. The worst thing we can do is shed light on a subject and have inaccuracies in your work. This takes time, and it’s hard. Even after Sundance released our film, we were still making tiny tweaks to the language to make it as accurate as possible.

Jeff, speaking at Sundance London about the importance of creating for impact.

Learn more about Jeff’s award-winning films here.