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March 5, 2015

SCA Alumni Stories: Gavin Garrison

Gavin Garrison

Global issues of climate change and resource depletion are hot topics that are coming increasingly under media scrutiny as we move deeper into the 21st century. Hoping to “inform, educate, and document violations to the life and resources of our planet,” Gavin Garrison ’12 produces documentaries highlighting eco-disasters around the globe, including the Costa Concordia crash in the Italian Archipelago in 2012 and the ever-worsening pollution problems in Beijing. Now a producer for Animal Planet’s longest running show Whale Wars, Garrison shared with us his firsthand look at filming in Antarctica on the front lines of one of the world’s longest-running eco-battles.

What do you remember most fondly about your time at SCA? My time at SCA was interrupted after my first year when I took a yearlong leave of absence to film the worst environmental catastrophe in American history: the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I was in Louisiana for a year documenting the assault on marine wildlife and the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico’s natural habitat. Shooting the documentary showed me how filmmaking can be a vehicle for social awareness and change, and enriched my appreciation of classes when I returned to SCA. In 2011, I had the opportunity through Professor Mark Harris’ documentary pitch class to develop a pitch based on characters I had encountered in the Gulf disaster. At the end of the semester, the class presented to an open-invitation audience. That was my first time pitching to a large group, and I found the experience to be immensely rewarding. If it hadn’t been for Professor Harris’ class and the swell of support I got after pitching, I probably would not have embarked on the path that I am now on: documenting eco-disasters around the world. It was empowering to have a message that was topical and relevant that people responded to. That being said, no one influenced my time at SCA quite like Michael Uno, whom I student assisted for over the course of my final year. Professor Uno taught me valuable techniques for directing and moving the camera that are critical to my work. He is one of the smartest, most dynamic people I know.

How did you become involved with Whale Wars? I became involved with Whale Wars right before I graduated in 2012. Whale Wars, for those who don’t know, is a docu-series on Animal Planet that follows a group of eco-activists as they endeavor to stop whale poachers operating off the coast of Antarctica in the Southern Ocean. The lead producer of the show was looking to hire a new producer for the sixth season and had contacted my friend Louie Psihoyos, the Academy Award-winning director of The Cove, in search of a recommendation. I got a call a few days later from a salty-sounding Australian asking if I could be on a flight to New Zealand the next morning to set sail for Antarctica. I seized the opportunity. That night I received an e-mail from the producer with a “Things to Pack for Antarctica” list; it included items like vegan chocolate and sunglasses, which made me laugh. Some of the suggested items seemed of minor importance considering the destination. Less than 24 hours after the call, I was embarking on my first 8,000-mile transcontinental trip to Antarctica.

As producer, what were your responsibilities on and off the set of Whale Wars? As a producer for Whale Wars, my job was to capture the real life action and drama aboard three ships whose missions were to protect whales from being poached off the coast of Antarctica. The whalers have massive, floating slaughterhouses that they send to Antarctica to seize whales by the hundreds—up to 1,000 a season without intervention. The month prior to sailing from Australia to the 65th Parallel, I trained my crew, which was comparable to teaching my own film class. Since we had some shooters who were new to the ships, I also focused on teaching how to anticipate, recognize, and capture important story moments, and practiced safety when getting shots in dynamic, high-pressure, and dangerous situations. Also, my crew was separated onto three different ships, so it was critical everyone was shooting similar-looking footage. As another teaching tool, we reviewed old episodes of Whale Wars by breaking them down and discussing how previous crews got certain shots and how the editors used specific coverage to convey critical moments. I had done something similar in Michael Uno’s directing class as a weekly assignment and I found the process incredibly educational.

Last season, we were at sea for a formidable 100 days. A typical day consisted of coordinating crew scheduling, resolving conflicts, conducting on-camera interviews, building character and story arcs, reviewing footage, and coordinating with the other ships. In addition to producing, I occasionally stepped in to shoot if a cameraperson was out of commission or if we needed another angle on a critical moment.

Based on your experience filming in Antarctica and your involvement in Whale Wars, what have been some of the biggest challenges you have encountered? Negotiating! The minute I came on, I had to start negotiating crew rates, gear discounts, travel plans and so on. Even though I would consider this typical for a producer, I felt the stakes were higher than usual because we were operating on razor-thin budgets for work we needed to perform in one of the most inhospitable locations on the planet. We had to use every opportunity to facilitate the best possible deal because failure meant we simply didn’t get what we needed—and failure was not an option—we were already working at bare-minimums.

Water was our biggest enemy in the field. When we leave port, we don’t know when we’re going to be back, so we have to bring third and fourth tier backups for all of our gear. One night during a particularly bad storm, jugs with emergency water rations burst open and destroyed some of our camera gear. Simple mistakes, like setting a camera down in the wrong spot, can be devastating. Food is also a big challenge while at sea. The ships are vegan, so that’s an immediate issue for some people. On top of that, when the galley runs out of fresh fruits and vegetables two weeks into the voyage, it results in a diet that’s mainly beans and rice. If you’ve ever tried arguing with anyone who is hungry, sleep-deprived and stressed-out, you have an idea of what production on the ships might be like. We also were only allowed to shower for three minutes every three days, so that created some of it’s own problems.

Another night, we were in a storm with thirty-meter swells that caused the ship to list so severely that we could almost stand on the wall as if it were the floor. We later learned that the ship would have capsized had we listed any further. The entire ship was getting tossed around, violently heaving with the waves of the storm, and we were being flung from wall-to-wall trying to gaff-tape and secure all of our gear. Even things that had been thoroughly secured were dislodged and sent airborne.

How did you grow creatively during your time with Whale Wars?The skill I’ve honed the most through producing on location is diplomacy. Being on the ships is challenging for so many reasons. I’m thrust into an environment where I have to deal with a production crew that’s seasick half the time, with people that have strong opinions and conflicting ideologies, and where I don’t have access to the Internet. Dealing with not only the usual production problems, like lighting challenges or media management issues, but also issues like getting very little exercise or sleep, freezing, facing growing nutritional deficiencies, praying my crew doesn’t fall out of the helicopter or one of the small boats creates a really intense situation, especially when it goes on for over three months. All of that aside, the adversity is good because it forces me to adapt. I improvise and find new, unconventional ways to do things while on the water. A lot of balancing is required because of the demands on my time and production resources—a lot like life in LA, except it’s in this inescapable pressure cooker-type environment —so I find ways to serve everyone while still maintaining my primary responsibilities. Managing production is like navigating through the Antarctic icebergs that we encounter while at sea—the visible dangers pose a challenge that must be dealt with, but it’s the ability to recognize and mitigate what lies beneath the surface that truly reveals the art of producing.

What advice do you have for current SCA students and other SCA alumni? The best piece of advice I have for my fellow Trojans is to get to know your classmates. This industry can feel very impersonal, especially if you’re freelancing. You hear about the “Trojan Mafia” and I had always assumed that it would present itself to me at some point, maybe with a Skull & Bones-type envelope pegged to my door. Orientation came and went, no envelope. Graduation came and went, still no envelope. I thought I somehow missed the boat on inclusion in this storied group. As it turns out, it does exist, just not in the way I thought it did. In reality, the “Mafia” is the intense loyalty you feel for your fellow Trojans. It’s that ping you feel when you see someone donning a USC sweatshirt. In a place like Los Angeles, which is renowned for feeling a little disconnected, the relationships you build with your fellow Trojans can make a world of difference. I was in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of the year and was introduced to a high-level executive at a major studio here in town because we were both SCA graduates. We hit it off right away.

What’s next for you? SCA has forever changed the direction of my career. With the tools I acquired at SCA, I learned how to produce film that pushes back against the single-greatest threat to humanity—indifference. Through my work I seek to inform, educate, and document violations to the life and resources of our planet, with the hope that someone will say, “That’s not right, and I can do something about this. I can make a difference.”

By producing diverse types of content, I’ve been able to build wonderful projects not only through film and television, but also with drone manufacturers, blue chip advertisers, and top innovators in Silicon Valley. Through working in places like China, Italy, Romania, Costa Rica, Louisiana, Germany and Antarctica, I’ve learned how to capture and convey difficult-to-tell stories, despite real political or environmental challenges. The great satisfaction of overcoming adverse conditions and production obstacles is one that I now crave, and I continue to do it because I love telling stories that few can tell. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll soon be off in another corner of the world, telling a new, untold story.