How They Did It: Navigating the Turbulent Waters of the Oscar-Nominated Short “Lifeboat”

In 2015 our creative team set out to produce “50 Feet from Syria”—focused on the civilian impact of the Syrian conflict. This was the first of a triad of films focused on one of the great humanitarian crises of our time—the growing plight of refugees in a global and interconnected world.

During the course of creating that film it dawned on me that the sheer scale of the refugee crisis (which has been growing exponentially during past five years) warranted more than a single film. Creating a series of highly cinematic short films, each set in a different geographic location but with shared themes appealed to me aesthetically and also was imminently more practical than undertaking the years long endeavor of a single film.

In the case of “Lifeboat,” the film bears witness to refugees desperate enough to risk their lives in rubber boats leaving Libya in the middle of the night, despite a high probability of drowning. My hope is that “Lifeboat” puts a human face on one of the world’s greatest contemporary, global crises and provides a spark of hope surrounding how civil society can intervene in the refugee crisis in a meaningful way.

“Lifeboat” examines the often deadly practice of Libyans fleeing their country by sea

Customs, Cameras, and Balancing the Work

The challenges of filming a search-and-rescue operation are myriad and sustained. Many of them are simply practical and have less to do with technical savvy and have more to do with cultivating a flexible mindset about how you are going to accomplish something. For example, during the segment we filmed in North Africa the newly appointed authorities in Tunisia stopped us in the airport and immediately confiscated one of our camera packages. Luckily, my DP slipped past the customs agents without being noticed. So very suddenly we had only a single camera and had also missed our next flight to Zarzis near the Libyan border. So we adapted—jumped on a night train, figured out how we could rig a second camera angle with a DSLR instead of our larger (confiscated) camera and moved forward in a new way.

These things happened each and every day of the shoot.

While filming on our SAR (search-and-rescue) vessel we had an altogether unique challenge to overcome simply because our DP Kenny Allen is a big strong guy. Because he was strong enough to pull people out of the ocean all day long the head of mission kept tasking him to rescue asylum seekers who had fallen into the water. And so for extended stretches he’d simply be on a zodiac pulling people out of the water. At one point about a day into a major water rescue I approached him and asked him where his camera was. And when he didn’t know, it was sort of a coming-to-Jesus moment where both of us realized how difficult it was to balance the work of saving lives alongside documenting an unfolding tragedy from inside a rescue operation.

Adapting to Rough Water

While “Lifeboat” doesn’t rely upon traditional sit-down interviews and is more of an immersive film, we did need to capture backstory and story points through a limited number of interviews. On a 30-meter vessel in the middle of the ocean, buffeted by waves and weather, we constantly had to alter our approach to capturing a stable frame and clean audio. In the end we resorted to filming the bulk of our interviews in 4k knowing that our primary deliverable would be in 1080 which allowed us latitude within the frame to dampen any movement later in post. It was also a practical need borne out of the fact that we were a filmmaking team of two on the boat—if we shot 4k for 1080 delivery it allowed us to shoot one camera for two frames and freed me as director to maintain a meaningful and reciprocal rapport with the subject  rather than be buried behind a second camera.

Director Skye Fitzgerald understands that having key collaborators onboard who you can trust goes a long way in crafting a compelling film.

Understanding the Concept, Sticking to Principles

I had many filmmaking principles reinforced for me multiple times during the course of the project. Chief among them is my belief that one of the keys to any project’s success is having the right people involved. I couldn’t have done this work without key, trusted collaborators like Kenny Allen and Dan Sadowsky (editor) who are not only incredibly gifted at what they do but also completely trustworthy. In the case of Kenny for example we often had to trust each other with our lives.

I am also an adherent to a concept I think of as the three creations of non-fiction. The first is my conception of what the film will be before I shoot it—the directorial vision for the film. “What am I setting out to create?”

The second creation happens in the field during the shoot. Immediately, my conception of the project is altered by what we actually discover while filming.  In the case of “Lifeboat,” we were forced to completely change our character focus when the person we intended to interview and follow couldn’t commit to our re-scheduled SAR mission. So we arrived in Malta not knowing who we were going to marshal our limited resources around. And Jon Castle—an amazing human being who had committed much of his life to volunteering as a ship’s captain on difficult missions all over the world—enters the picture.

The third conception, of course, is post. When you fire up those hard-drives after recovering from filming, what do you actually have in front of you? What sequences and characters come to life? Which shots convey the experience most powerfully? And often this means allowing earlier conceptions of what you were creating to change. In non-fiction it’s critical to embrace this evolution of vision. It’s not elective, it’s necessary. MM

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