Writings : Feet in the water

Feet in the water

In our decade-long effort to develop a technique for making documentary science films, Geneviève Hamon, André Raymond, and I have come up against thousands of obstacles. But life is kind. Aside from a few dead ends, each difficult or perilous situation has brought happy rewards.

In choosing the aquatic world as a field of investigation, we have encountered two problems, non-existent elsewhere:

1. Establishing the basis for the study of aquatic animals, which, unlike that of land and air animals, has so far been conducted in a summary and backward fashion.
2. Obtaining photographs that are as clear and illustrative as possible under the most realistic conditions.

Our investigations continue today and often give rise to surprising facts that contradict previous findings. With each new animal that we film, our technique is modified. Each shot takes into account an animal's individuality.

Whether shooting in freshwater or saltwater, light poses a delicate problem. As in all studios, various lighting sources—ambient and spot—are necessary to illuminate a specific area. After compensating for the reflections and refractions through the water or the aquarium's glass, the correct amount of light must be determined: there must be enough light to be visible on film without, however, bathing the animal in so much light as to affect its behaviour.

Even in their natural surroundings, aquatic animals shun excessive light: they bury themselves in the sand, conceal themselves beneath algae, slip under leaves, hide in mud or under rocks. If in some cases they are attracted to strong light, it's only in the way moths are drawn to car headlights, and this type of behaviour is not interesting. Some luciphiles, moreover, become luciphobes in captivity.

Putting aside the element of panic these animals often exhibit (which makes any mise en scène deceptive), let us simply consider their normal habits. With rare exception, there is little coherence in their movements.

Some display almost constant stillness, except during periods of sexual activity, punctuated with gestures of astonishing abruptness and speed. This would suggest very different shooting speeds. But if one films at high speed, the animal's movements will appear slowed down and artificial on screen. This artificiality is even more deceptive than if one shot at normal speed, obtaining clear footage only while the animal is immobile. These rapid changes, moreover, make it very difficult to focus.

Depending on the animal, other complications arise. For instance, aquatic insects suddenly fly away when roused by spotlights. Their larvae, after a violent struggle, die in terrible spasms, or so it would seem: moments later, they wriggle around as if nothing had happened. Hermit crabs withdraw into their shells when illuminated, indulging in intershell antics once they feel safe from prying eyes. When the lighting is changed—increased or decreased—some animals will switch directions, for example, descend when they had been climbing. Or a shrimp might vomit in front of the lens just when one expected the most ethereal ballet from it. (But then there was the great fan worm who spiralled its respiratory plume in and out of the tube in which it lived, happily giving a full demonstration for the camera: we have never been able to recapture the equivalent, either from the great fan worm or from its peers.) Animals who decorate their shells will suddenly stop when being watched. Or an octopus who constantly lifts everything that is around it, clouding the water with its groping tentacles, might, when one's back is turned, escape from the tank, flat-ten itself out, slip under the studio door and tumble out the window onto the embankment below to the surprise of bathers. Indeed, a moment's distraction and an expectant animal, whose labour has been under close observation for hours, might just liberate itself before one has had the chance to film it.

A year can be lost this way since certain phenomena take place only once a year and during specific times. Furthermore, finding the animals again is not always easy; they may have moved from their previous location. Once captured, they must be brought back alive. Those living in the depths of the sea may die when brought to the surface. Those living near the sea's surface are very delicate and may die an hour after being taken from their environment, regardless of the precautions taken.

Even among the more resistant animals, there are some that demand such a high degree of aeration in their artificial habitats that it is impossible to keep them alive long. Others require absolute cleanliness, also difficult to achieve. Finally, each must be fed a suit-able diet in the proper conditions.

If, as recommended, vegetation is added to create a more natural environment, one must guard against the dangers that this vegetation can bring. Epidemics and deficiencies are common in even the best cared for animals who, in captivity, are deprived of tidal rhythms and their reproductive capabilities. Furthermore, light can incite combat between two males during fertilization or between animals deprived of natural food sources. Indeed, light often provokes such violence that it brings death to the actors, leaving the filmmaker without a cast.

Our first attempts to film the aquatic world involved the octopus as well as smaller animals: the sea urchin; the hermit crab; and, as representatives of freshwater, the microscopic Daphnia, or water flea.

One winter we secured two generators to a trailer, along with mercury lamps (which turned out to be completely useless), coal burning lamps, filament lamps, a remarkably shaped camera (resembling a Henri IV buffet), a microscope, an optical bench, a hoist, and electric cables—not to mention glassware in all shapes and sizes. We then hopped into a beautiful six-cylinder 1913 and hauled all 1,500 kilograms of this equipment to Brittany.

Our gear seemed to puzzle toll officials. Each time we encountered one of them during the night, we were forced to unpack and repack. It was below zero, but luckily the motor kept us warm. We made good time, and the road was wide open for us, thanks to the trailer that tended to lurch left and right, sometimes even swinging ahead of the car while making an impressive sound of shattering glass. Unfortunately, we wasted five hours fixing the alternator; its insulation had melted into the armature.

This was an attractive car: possessing low-beam headlights before any-body was talking about them in France. When it was given a new alternator, the car was in pretty good shape, though the second of its three gears was destroyed. Also, the exhaust pipe had an unfortunate tendency to heat up and one day slightly burned the floorboards and the clogs of the person above it. Then a fire started in the carburettor, which was put out with the pitchers of seawater we had just fetched from the shore, leading to complications from which this poor car has never fully recovered.

But two days after our arrival, the real problems began. We had left a seven-horsepower generator on the trailer so we could move it around more easily, but the heat it produced ruined some of our glassware. Then the generator stalled. When we restarted the motor we had forgotten that the dial was still on maximum voltage, causing a power surge that blew out the incandescent lights. Because we had ground the bearings during start-up, the motor seized. The fireproof movie screen caught fire, and when fireproofing ignites, it really burns. Later, tiny grains of sand carried by a light wind settled into our water tanks, spreading over the organisms, and into the delicate gears of the various precision instruments we had brought along. From then on, a slight but pervasive nervousness infused us all, which may explain why we kept breaking our glassware. As for the animals, at times there were so few of them we worked with anxiety, afraid of harming them. They had to be used immediately, the moment they were found, regardless of which film we were working on. It was a situation that led to much confusion when we later received the developed film: it was a jumble of mismatched scenes.

While animals are carried in by a great variety of distant tributaries, they are met with many causes of devastation in a fishing village: the yearly clearing of marine vegetation by farmers, abalone fishing, the discovery of fashionable new seafood "delicacies," the swarm of summer tourists. Indeed, the simple act of lifting a rock in low tide and failing to place it exactly where it was can cause damage. The rock, covered in algae, serves to protect a small pool beneath it from the sun. When exposed, the pools inhabitants, along with anything living on the bottom of the rock, are destroyed. Further, anything living on top of the rock may have been crushed when turned over, and the vegetation between the ground and rock may begin to rot as well, preventing new life from forming around it.

Any subtle change in natural conditions can affect the whole of existence and lead to the decline or disappearance of a species for years. If parasites attack and kill the roots of the aquatic plants that grow amid the mud, the life that once sought nourishment there, or served as nourishment for others, or simply milled about in the mud's warmth, vanishes. Soon sand and pebbles invade these deserted places. Devastation is complete.

For ponds, weather is often the enemy. Certain animals lay eggs that need to be dried out before they can start to develop. If these eggs are laid during a rainy summer and the land remains soggy, they will not develop. If they face an arid summer and their pond dries up, the eggs can continue to develop provided it rains later. However, even if there is enough water for the eggs to completely develop, another dry spell at the end of the summer and the remaining water evaporates before the animals have been able to become adults and reproduce. Thus, life at this particular place will be wiped out for years. Only a chance event like a great wind bearing a seed would be able to bring back the delicate and mysterious ferment of this species.

The job has its joys for those who love the sea. (For those, that is, who love the sea to the exclusion of all else.) Wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, day and night, in all kinds of weather, even when there is no hope of finding anything; investigating everything whether it be algae or an octopus; being hypnotized by a sinister pond where everything seems to be watching you even when nothing lives there. This is the ecstasy of an addict, the ecstasy of a hunting dog bounding across a field, crisscrossing it with euphoric expectation, even though each hidden crevice it stumbles over reveals, at most, a rotten potato.

Sometimes the pressing need for a specific animal will bring one into contact with professional fishermen whose lobster traps, treacherous Unes, and large, devastating nets will present you with an unlikely bestiary—exactly what you requested.

There are so many myths to shatter! The most preposterous anthropomorphism reigns in this field: everything has been made for Man and in the image of Man and can only be explained in the terms of Man, otherwise "What's the use?" This leads to observations that are inaccurate. For example, under a rock there lives a lobster that would be eaten by an octopus if not for the vigilant conger eel that benevolently protects it. Yet we forget that when the lobster sheds its shell and is thus soft for forty-eight hours, this same conger eel will swallow it up without hesitation.

The great disappointment is the inability to immediately record unexpected events, rare and fleeting occurrences that leave one flabbergasted- a butterfly striking a female with its wings and treading upon her to give her a foretaste of home life; an octopus, swimming backwards, right into the mouth of a conger.

But there are consolations: the greatest being the ability to eat one's actors—crab, shrimp, sea urchins, squid, all finely cooked in new and unusual ways. Of course, there is much to consider before tossing them in a pan. There are one hundred seven varieties of bouillabaisse to choose from. Should one use garlic or not? Prepare it au gratin? Sautéed in red wine? Add sardines? Classical gourmets may be offended, but the bouillabaisse of Marseilles cannot be imitated, so anything is allowed.

And so ten years have passed. Debts have been paid with the proceeds from lectures around the world, hundreds of them, sometimes three a day, and not always in the same town. Film canisters are not as hard as certain seats in third-class train compartments, which made me feel, upon arrival, as if I had just received a thirty-six-hour spanking. When out of politeness I attempted to speak the language of a country in Central Europe, my accent caused genuine hilarity. So just as the Odéon theatre will restage the old standby L'Arlésienne when the cash box is empty, I took the North Star train to revisit a country where the minds are as cultivated as the tulips.

In France, screenings in small villages often attracted hundreds of viewers, while in some major cities they attracted only two-dozen. The average, however, was about a thousand, despite the fact that in some places children were prohibited from attending. In Nice, a gentleman pretended to be me and wanted to deliver my lecture. Happily, we managed to come to an agreement; it was the only notable incident I have retained from these long tours.

After several years of working on strictly scientific or surgical films— which earn nothing, or rather, no more than public documentaries do, but at least they cost less!—we returned to our investigations and created a new group called "The Seahorse." (For those still interested in gastronomic matters, sad news: this creature can only be used as a toothpick.) This only proved that the difficulties continue. Whatever improvements had been made were quickly cancelled out by new needs. Just like airplanes, the cameras we construct are obsolete the moment we try to use them. Microscopes, automatic lighting, and automatic cameras will soon have to undergo modifications due to the introduction of electromagnetic radiation that will make all instruments more sensitive.

The biggest problems often involve the smallest subjects. For example, insects such as the tiny dytiscid, which we used in the film Freshwater Assassins, were somewhat compromised. With bigger animals, success is a question of sheer willpower and tenacity. For The Seahorse, the enormous aquariums, which were made entirely of glass, shattered on two occasions-once exploding with such force that it flattened a crewmember against the wall while glass shards shredded a bystander's shoes. Later, a person had his thumb severed by a water filter. In the midst of all this, the fish arrived early. It was an incredibly hot day, and so it was necessary to fashion a kind of hospital for aquatic victims of asphyxiation: a rubber tube attached to a bellows skilfully manipulated by foot—to avoid fatigue—sent air bubbling into the photography jars where a few male seahorses were temporarily lodging. They had arrived in a rusty tin of warm water and, luckily, had not yet given birth.

Later, when the artificial seawater spilled, all the spare parts lying on the ground were corroded. Not only did we have to overcome this unexpected inconvenience, we also had a camera platform with the fidgets. After thirty-six hours of waiting, immobile, hands on levers, watching for the liberating spasms of a male seahorse—we missed the first delivery, our reflexes dulled by mummification. After another forty-eight-hour wait, we were finally able to film a birth. The next three days were spent constructing a watertight case that enclosed a camera so that 1 could use it, along with a breathing apparatus, in the Bay of Arcachon. It was lovely; the underwater beauty seductive. It is easy to lose oneself in the water's depths.

So, in sum, just when you think you have finally perfected a technique, you are forced to change it. We now use colour in some of our documentaries, just as cartoons do. And we now bring spotlights into the water with us. Through it all, however, we have kept the pioneers of film in mind: they exemplify the desire to press on, regardless.


Jean Painlevé,"Les Pieds dans l'eau" originally published in Voilà, 4 May 1935.