Luna: A Whale to Watch

The true story of a lonely orca leaps from printed page to silver screen, with a boost from new technology

Luna sought the company of humans on Nootka Sound. (Fred Lazuk)
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The article generated interest in doing a movie. People called and came to visit, but nothing came of it.

We talked to people who made documentaries. They told us that the story was nice, but if it didn’t have a strong point of view, they weren’t interested. There had to be advocacy.

We tried the studios. We wrote proposals and took a trip to Hollywood.

“Sure,” said one studio executive, “but your whale is one of those big black and white things. What about those other ones, the little white whales, what do you call them, belugas? Aren’t they cuter? Could we do it with a beluga?”

But while this was going on, things were happening in the way movies are made. In the mid-’90s, the price of high-quality digital video cameras came down dramatically. The cameras were simple to operate, and within a few years they were shooting high-definition footage that looked great on the big screen. With editing software that could be installed on a laptop, they enabled moviemaking at a fraction of the previous cost.

In 1996, the Sundance Film Festival, the most prominent independent film festival in the world, had some 1,900 submissions, including 750 feature films, and people thought that was a lot. But this year Sundance had 10,279 entries, including 3,812 feature-length films. Most of them were filmed with digital cameras.

“The opportunity to be a filmmaker is definitely becoming more democratic,” David Courier, a programmer at Sundance, told me. “People who couldn’t afford to make a film in years past are feeling empowered.”

One of the newly empowered filmmakers is a documentarian named James Longley, who trained on 35-millimeter film. “I certainly miss the dynamic range of film negative and the mysterious wonderfulness of getting material back from the lab, days later, smelling of chemicals,” Longley told me in an e-mail. But “I can’t say I miss the bulk of the cameras or the expense of working on film at all, not for the kind of work that I do.”

Longley made Iraq in Fragments, a documentary that played in U.S. theaters for almost a year in 2006 and 2007. He spent two years making it in and out of Iraq after the U.S. invasion, working with only a translator, filming with small digital cameras and editing with two colleagues on home computers. After it was released, a Village Voice critic wrote, “[I]f Longley’s astonishing feat of poetic agitation has a precedent in the entire history of documentary, I’m not aware of it.” The movie was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2007.

“I could never work the way I do now if the world were still analog,” Longley told me. “It would be a practical impossibility.”


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