On World Storytelling Day, a veteran filmmaker shares his secrets

John Martin, pictured above, filming in Ecuador. (© Conservation International/photo by Peter Stonier)

Nature storytelling has entered a new age.

From the immersion of virtual reality to the jaw-dropping videography of “Blue Planet II,” new technology and new techniques have revolutionized how we tell nature’s stories.

Yet in light of these new tools, the same questions remain: How do you find a character or a narrative that stands out? How do you select the techniques that best tell a story? How to determine — from the nearly unlimited amounts of photos and footage we can now capture — what makes the cut and what ends up on the digital equivalent of the cutting-room floor?

On World Storytelling Day, Human Nature sat down with John Martin, director of production for visual storytelling at Conservation International, to learn more about his process for telling nature’s story.

Q: Let’s say you’ve got a new story to tell. Where do you start?

A: For the most part, it starts with the place. Once we have identified that place we want to feature, we work with our in-country offices to talk about those compelling, charismatic characters to feature in the stories. You always need that hero — that person that your audiences will connect with.

We ask our field staff various questions: Who is the most compelling person to be in the story? Is it the chief of the village, or a medicine man or a fisherwoman? We want somebody who is a true natural leader that people respect and most importantly, a person who won’t be shy on camera.

Watch Sophy’s story here.

Q: In all of your years of storytelling, who jumps out as a particularly memorable character?

A: Ruos Sophy, a woman who lives on the Tonle Sap lake of Cambodia. She tells the story of how she has been able to become a natural leader in her community thanks to help from Conservation International.

Her village depends mostly on fish to thrive, and they used to fish a lot, indiscriminately, often using illegal techniques, and it became difficult to catch anything because of overfishing. The villagers needed the fish not only for their own food, but also to create fish paste, which they could take to markets and sell. So, Conservation International came in to consult with the community.

Sophy was one of the strongest voices in the village. Immediately, when we learned about her story from our Cambodia staff, we knew we had to film her story. So, we went to the Tonle Sap and lived on Conservation International’s floating office right next to her floating village of Akal for about five days, spending every moment of every day with Sophy and her husband.

Watch Valen’s Reef here.

Q: Tell us more about how you pick your characters.

A: We rely heavily on our field offices to pinpoint the strongest characters, because they’re working directly with communities and they know the people.

For many people, especially in remote locations where we work, it’s not every day they get cameras in front of their face and have their houses inundated with crews and equipment. You have to build a lot of trust and rapport with them before you ask them, “Please, sit here and look at the camera and tell me all about your life.” Building that relationship is a careful process. Luckily for us, our characters are often people that work directly with our field programs, who have already built that trust, so that makes it a lot easier.

However, that’s not always the case. I can tell you it’s a lot more difficult when you suddenly arrive in an indigenous village where they don’t know you and the chief says to you, “There have been other film crews that come here to tell our story, make promises and takes and we never get anything back.” Overcoming that misconception and proving the value of our work, and the value of telling their story, is a crucial part of what we do.

Q: What if the character you pick doesn’t work out?

A: This happened during our filming of Conservation International’s very first virtual reality project, “Valen’s Reef,” which takes place in the stunning waters of the Bird’s Head Seascape, in Indonesia. The central character, Ronald, had this great transformation story from illegal fisher to coral reef monitor and leader in his community, but it was his son, Valen, who ended up becoming the star of the film, because we wanted to tell the story of the next generations who will take up the leadership roles from their parents and elders. Thus in “Valen’s Reef,” Ronald became the narrator of the piece, so his voice and perspective were still featured, but in a different way.

Watch Under the Canopy here.

Q: So how do you convey the value of storytelling to your characters, to get them on board?

A: When we filmed “Under the Canopy,” our second virtual reality project, set in Amazonia, we first met with the “granman” or chief of a Trio village in Suriname to explain what we wanted to do. We had a meeting in the tukusipan, which is their traditional gathering hut, with him and his basjas, or captains. We introduced ourselves and the purpose of our visit, and told the group what we would like to film: Their story of being guardians of the Amazonian rainforest, and how their forest is their pharmacy and their supermarket and why it’s so important to protect it.

In the middle of us explaining all this, the chief stops us and says, “You know that up river there are illegal gold miners. We’ve heard of them. Other villages — our brothers — told us about them and that they’re coming this way. We want you to say that in your film. We want to make sure our government hears it. We want [the government] to go stop them because we can’t.”

This cry of stress really brought it down to reality. These people have healthy livelihoods, but they know that something bad is coming. What happens with gold mining? It poisons the waters. The fish get poisoned. You eat that fish, and your kids get sick.

The chief understood exactly the power that storytelling can have. And he wanted this story told.

Watch Peru: Towards a Green Path – Three Stories of Sustainable Development.

Q: Your tool is video. Have you ever been in a situation where you couldn’t tell the story without the visuals?  

A: Yes, and I’ll give you an example.

In 2009, in partnership with the Ministry of Environment of Peru, we produced a half-hour film titled “Peru: Towards a Green Path.” It was produced thanks to support from Sony, and it was hosted by the then-minister of the environment in Peru, Antonio Brack, a well-known environmental voice in Peru.

In one of the segments of the film, Minister Brack took us to a place in the Peruvian Amazon where the Tambopata River divides the forest. On one side of the river is a community called Infierno, which in Spanish means “hell.” Yet despite the name, this place is lush and thriving and is home to a successful community-run ecotourism project. On the other side of the river, is a community called Guacamayo, which means “macaw.” It was in a horrible state of degradation: The entire community, all of the forest, had been razed to the ground due to gold mining. When we went there, we walked on white sand — the topsoil is gone because they’ve dug so much of the forest. The rainforest became a desert. All the restaurants in the area tell people not to eat the fish there because the fish are poisoned. The chemicals from the gold mining get into the water, which poisons the fish. The mining also brings in organized crime and criminal activity. It brings in prostitution — primarily young girls from up in the Andes Mountains. It became an illegal and unsustainable mess for short-term immediate gains.

We told the story of these two starkly different communities, separated only by a river, through the voice of a local Ese’Eja indigenous man and ecotourism guide. His story is about how conserving the forest turned Infierno into a healthy, prosperous, and thriving community — the complete opposite of Guacamayo. But his powerful testimony aside, this story was largely told through the visuals that showed the contrast between these two areas. The visuals ensure the viewer can’t escape from the two very different realities these communities are living.

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Q:  Much has been made about the promise of virtual reality films — what is your take?

A: In virtual reality, you’re in a world that’s as close to reality as possible. You’re in a sphere, just like in real life, where everywhere we look is what we see. When you use that format to create empathy, it can be a powerful tool, especially for nature. There are people who haven’t had the experience of going on safaris, or to the Amazon or scuba diving. Through virtual reality, you immerse them in that world.

Sound is a key part of that experience. In virtual reality tech terms, we refer to it as “ambisonic sound,” meaning wherever you turn, there’s noise to indicate where the action is coming from. It’s true surround sound. In virtual reality, sound is 50 percent of the experience.

We’ve had people remove their headsets in the middle of the experience sobbing, because they just saw a manta fly by them, and then the next scene they’re in this totally damaged, bleached coral reef. They’re experiencing the beauty and the tragedy of what’s happening, in a way that feels incredibly real. This touches people emotionally, and hopefully it compels them to do something, whether it is to share the story with their friends, to learn more about the issues, to actually go on a diving trip, and hopefully to give money to the cause. Maybe a viewer says, “I can’t travel across the world and go scuba diving, but I want to help these guys protect this amazing place and the people thriving there and give a donation.”

It’s when you create that empathy that is so powerful that you can change people’s minds and people’s hearts — that’s when you know you’ve successfully told a story. Virtual reality is giving us pretty magical new ways to do that.

Check out Conservation International’s latest virtual reality project, “My Africa,” when it premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival April 18-29. See a sneak preview here.

John Martin is the director of production for visual storytelling at Conservation International. Morgan Lynch is a staff writer at Conservation International. 

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