Blue Horizons: student film makers turn their cameras on the ocean environment

There was a buzz in the Pollock Theater on a recent August night as the capacity crowd of professors, friends, parents, and even a few grandparents rushed to find the last available seats before the house lights went down. Since it opened in fall 2010, the Pollock has hosted a Hollywood premiere, saluted a television legend, and welcomed media industry denizens to conferences and classes, but tonight was different: the Pollock, and the Carsey-Wolf Center, were honoring their own. The five short films on the program had been made by 12 UCSB students under the auspices of Blue Horizons, a summer program which teaches students the basics of digital media production, as they make films that call attention to problems facing Southern California’s oceans.

“Nine weeks ago, some of these students had never even picked up a camera, and now they are presenting their own documentary films,” said Richard Hutton, Executive Director of the Carsey-Wolf Center, which sponsors Blue Horizons as part of its Environmental Media Initiative. “It’s not easy to make a film, especially when you are learning how to do it at the same time, and they’ve done an incredible job.”

The five films, which varied in length from 7 to 13 minutes, were serious, informative, topical, and often humorous. They examined a range of subjects, including the intersection of marine protected areas and commercial fishing rights; an activist’s fight to remove the obsolete Matilija Dam and restore the Ventura River watershed; the negative effects of an invasive species – Homo sapiens – on the Santa Barbara coastal ecosystem; threats to the famous Trestles surfing beach at San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County; and the damaging effects of Floatopia on the beaches of Isla Vista.

Blue Horizons was started five years ago by the Carsey-Wolf Center and faculty from the Film and Media Studies Department and UCSB’s world-renowned Marine Science Institute. The students combine a science-based message about the ocean with the creative and technical skills they need to tell their stories. Steve Gaines, a marine biologist who is dean of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management (and who appeared in two of this year’s films), helped start Blue Horizons when he was Director of the Marine Science Institute. His interest in the program arose from the need to communicate to a broader public how the oceans are under threat. “Most people know the ocean simply from what they see on the surface and have no idea whether an area is teeming with life or is a dead zone,” he says. Gaines was inspired to be a marine scientist by watching Jacques Cousteau on television. “To raise public awareness, we need to harness the media efficiently, and for science to have an impact, we need to communicate our ideas and research. Blue Horizons gives students the tools they need to reach different audiences,” he says.


Beyond Blue Horizons: the Environmental Media Initiative

The Environmental Media Initiative brings together environmental scientists with film and media scholars to collaborate on teaching, research, and public programming. The EMI Research Group – convened by Janet Walker and Constance Penley of the Film and Media Studies Department – consists of faculty and graduate students interested in developing environmental media projects. Penley, co-Director of the Carsey-Wolf Center, first developed the EMI as one of the main areas of the Center’s programming and is one of the founders of both Blue Horizons and GreenScreen. She says, “I realized there was no other UC campus, and no other campus anywhere, that had such exceptional strengths in media/communication studies and environmental science. We joined forces to explore all of the ways media and the environment influence, inhabit, and structure each other: the environment in media and media in the environment. Because the EMI Research Group has succeeded in drawing faculty and graduate students from every division and school at UCSB, I see even greater promise in the future to develop this unique program.”

In addition to Blue Horizons, EMI also sponsors GreenScreen, a production program that engages students in a range of local environmental issues, takes place during the winter and spring quarters, and is open to undergraduate students in any discipline. "Dirty Little Secret", a film produced through GreenScreen in 2010-11, won top prize for the Green Living Project's inaugural Student Film Project. The five-minute film, which follows two surfers on their quest to make an eco-neutral surfboard, was created by Samuel de Castro-Abeger, Aubrey Morales, JJ Nugent, and Cameron Lund.

Steve Gaines, Dean of the Bren School and professor of ecology, evolution, and marine biology, is excited about EMI's potential  for raising awareness about scientific ideas and research through social media. Gaines would like to build on the success of Blue Horizons and Green Screen and work with the Carsey-Wolf Center to develop a program for the graduate students at the Bren School. The program would give science students skills in media production and the art of storytelling so they can tell their own stories to audiences beyond the scientific community. “It takes innovative new ideas and solutions to give science a bigger impact,” Gaines says.

This year’s cohort of 12 students came from a healthy cross-section of majors and backgrounds, says Richard Hutton, with about half from film and media studies and others from global studies, the sciences, etc. The students have little or no knowledge of how to make films, so they start by examining the basic concepts of film making: what story to tell, who the audience is, the core ideas and story arc, the characters, and the conflict. “They go from 0 to 60 in nine weeks,” Hutton says. “They meet the basic goal of making a film, but also come to understand the role of media in today’s society, deconstruct the information they receive and learn how to communicate their ideas, using one of the most powerful tools for conveying information that exists today.”


Michael Hanrahan teaching the film production segment of Blue Horizons, using state-of-the-art equipment donated by Sony. Photo by Carlos Jimenez.

During the first six weeks of the course, the students develop their film proposals, learn the basics of film production, and take a seminar on issues in marine conservation, taught this year by Ben Halpern, a marine biologist and researcher at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Through case studies, they examine the biological, socio-economic, and political aspects of marine conservation.

The students generally work in production teams, although this year one filmmaker was so passionate about his subject that he decided at the last minute to go it alone. The students are encouraged to choose partners with strengths complementary to their own because of the sheer volume of work they must do to complete their films. Each group has to develop a 2-4 minute pitch, followed by a draft and then a final treatment, which serves as guide for filming and editing the documentary. To help refine their treatments, the class studies the history of environmental media and learns how to find drama in environmental issues, find an audience, balance story and information, research the issue, and, finally, translate the story to film.

The last three weeks are devoted to actual film production, based around a class taught by Michael Hanrahan, a filmmaker and producer who also was one of the founders of Blue Horizons. The students must cast the right people to tell their story effectively, select locations, film interviews, choose lighting, record sound, edit footage, and add music. They use high-definition cameras and state-of the-art editing systems donated by Sony, and have access to stock videography, including hundreds of hours of HD footage from the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and aerial shots of Santa Barbara.

It is during the last three weeks that things start to get crazy, as the groups rush to complete their films, “going through hell, even sleeping on the floor of the editing bays for days at a time,” as Hanrahan told the audience at the screening. “This is one of the most challenging projects these students will face in their careers,” he added. Chris Bowerman did not sleep for three days before the screening in the rush to finish. Tyler Robinson, another student, said, “This is one of the most entertaining yet hardest things I have ever done.”


Constance Penley, professor of film and media studies and co-director of the Carsey-Wolf Center, on location with Blue Horizons in summer 2009. Penley is one of the co-founders of Blue Horizons and the Environmental Media Initiative. Photo by Michael Hanrahan.

After each film was screened to enthusiastic applause, the tired but happy novice producers took the stage to answer questions about their films and their Blue Horizons experience.

The producers of “Drawing the Lines”, Luis Duran, Tyler Robinson, and Andrew Ngai, examined how marine protected areas and commercial fisherman can co-exist, looking at areas off the coast of Santa Barbara and Isla Vista and interviewing local fishermen who work out of the Santa Barbara Harbor . The filmmakers said they chose the subject because it is controversial in Isla Vista, whose coastal zone will become a “no take” protected area as of October 1, 2011. Luis said that his favorite part of the process was meeting the fishermen, one of whom said that he had come to understand the need for the protected areas, and that “it was a miracle that a scientist and a fisherman could go out on a boat and not kill each other.”

In “Release Me”, Amanda Wasserman, Darryl Mimick, and Skye Featherstone documented the fight of activist Paul Jenkins to have the Matilija Dam removed so the Ventura River and watershed can be restored to their natural state, saving its population of steelhead trout, whose numbers on the river have declined dramatically since the dam was built. They learned about the subject from an American Express commercial that featured Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, talking about the dam, and went on to meet activists who are fighting to remove the dam and restore the ecosystem.

In “The Santa Barbarian”, Jacob Ferguson and Caitie Gonzalez chose to produce a “mockumentary” that took a humorous look at the impact of an invasive species, Homo sapiens, on the area’s coastal ecosystem. The filmmakers said they wanted to focus on the creative aspect of writing and so chose the unusual format, complete with a British-accented narration that set the tone for the film. They began the film with a funny animated segment (by Jacob) about futile efforts to eradicate another famous invasive species, the rabbits which decimated Australia in the 20th century.

Chris Bowerman was the sole producer of “Trestles and the Toll Road”, about San Onofre State Beach. Asked about his last-minute decision to make his own film, Chris said “I bit off more than I could chew, shot tons of footage but did not have enough time to edit and finish the film.” He vowed to finish it, once he had gotten some sleep, because the story needs to be told.

The final film of the evening, “Dry Tide” by Pedro Chairez, Patrick Saldana, and David Atsbaha, seemed to resonate the most with the audience. The film looks at issues surrounding Floatopia, a beach party in 2009 attended by 12,000 people who left large amounts of debris on the beaches and in the water. Subsequently, Santa Barbara County closed the beaches on the weekends when Floatopia was scheduled, angering many students and Isla Vista residents. None of the producers had attended Floatopia, and they struggled to find footage of the event, but once they did they were able to edit it together with interviews of students who had been there and county officials. The film’s message was that students should be able to organize a responsible Floatopia in future years, but it would require a lot of work and advance planning.

A number of audience questions addressed the technical aspects of filmmaking, including how to choose and add music and secure the rights to use it (ambient music and Jack Johnson set different moods, for example), find a narrator (Jacob and Caitie found the narrator for “The Santa Barbarian” through a web-based service,, or divide the workload. The filmmakers’ consensus was that they would do whatever was needed to get the job done.

Blue Horizons is an annual summer program presented by the Carsey-Wolf Center and the Department of Film and Media Studies. More information about the program is available from the Center’s website.

August, 2011

News Date: 

Monday, August 1, 2011