Mark Shelley, environmental film producer, answers questions
What work do you do?
I produce films and other media about the environment. In the film world, I am executive producer of Sea Studios Foundation and a senior series producer for National Geographic Television and Film. In the foundation world, I am the executive director and cofounder of Sea Studios Foundation, and last but not least, I am president of Sea Studios, Inc.
How does it relate to the environment?
Sea Studios Foundation produces media and other initiatives with the express purpose of getting people to be actively engaged in the future of our environment. We didn’t always do that. We started out making programs about natural history and the science of understanding the natural world. About five years ago, it became apparent to me that we needed to focus specifically on the environment. Too many weird things were happening out there, and too many scientists began voicing concern.
It was time to figure out what was really going on and share that with others. That’s when we came up with the idea for National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth. Strange Days, which broadcasts on PBS April 20 and 27, is a four-hour series on invasive species, climate change, loss of predators, and toxics in our waters. It is constructed like a high-tech detective story, with the fate of the planet at stake.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Unfortunately, filmmaking is now big business. So a usual day for me now is raising money so other people can go out and have all the fun. I still reserve a few days of filming for myself, but those opportunities get harder and harder to hold on to. My main joy is shooting underwater — particularly the cold waters off my hometown of Monterey, Calif.
The process of producing films is something like this — you come up with the idea, write a treatment and figure out who would want to fund it. When the funding comes through and the preproduction is over, the real fun starts. Field production is the first place the film really gets made. Whatever you sold to the funders is now turned into the reality captured on tape (we no longer shoot much film). Then, we switch hats and head into the edit room where the film gets made again, this time with music, narration, effect, etc. The final finishing is again a whole new world — sound mix, color correction, titles. And then it is time to pick up the phone again and begin to pitch the next project.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I make (or more correctly, collaborate) on films and media about science, nature, and the environment and our role in protecting it. It was not a directed course that got me here. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, I majored in biology, perhaps mainly because I discovered scuba diving, the phenomenally interesting world of invertebrates, and Baja California. Could someone really make a living by combining those things? Hardly, I imagined, but somehow nothing else ever made much better sense. The filmmaking came later, by chance. The combination stuck.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Email is an evil addiction. For an eternal optimist, it brings hope that something great is going to arrive, so I check my inbox too often. It is a habit worth getting beyond.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
I cannot honestly answer this question. But it is never groups, organizations, or agencies; it can only be individuals.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Actually, I expect everyone to be nicer.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Sacramento, Calif., and I have lived in Pacific Grove, Calif., for the past 20 years. Prior to that, I spent time in Boston, Cape Cod, and 10 years in New York. Several of those years were spent living on square-rigged sailing ships.
Photo: Sea Studios Foundation.
What’s been the best moment in your professional life to date?
The awards process is a strange one, especially when you don’t win! But National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth was recently recognized at Wildscreen for best series. It was particularly heartening in that for the first time at the premier festival for natural history and wildlife filmmaking a series on the environment was honored with that award. It was time.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Perhaps it is a collective one: overconsumption by those who can. I find it disappointing that those who can overconsume often do. I know as much as I think about my personal resource use, it is more than it could be — and using less would certainly not make me less happy. In fact, I and my family could undoubtedly benefit.
In addition, I am saddened that the lessons we could have and should have learned from centuries of abuse on land are continuing into the ocean.
What are you reading these days?
Who is your environmental hero?
Today it is Dan O’Brien who has converted his ranch to a grass-fed bison operation. Right on! His descriptions of the changes to his land are inspiring.
On other days, it is people like Sylvia Earle, who just doesn’t stop her marine conservation work, or Julie Packard, who has directed the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s mission to conserve the world’s oceans.
What’s your favorite meal?
Grass-fed local beef. (Although after reading O’Brien’s book, I can’t wait to try grass-fed buffalo.)
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
My Toyota Prius and the hypocrisy that I fly my own small plane. Environmentalists are rarely perfect. They are just usually more so than others.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The kelp beds of Point Lobos with 100-foot visibility.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
It is certainly true that governments need to regulate, corporations need to be more responsible, and nations need to work together. There are huge environmental problems out there. But let’s not forget the little things each of us can do every day. By being conscious of our actions, the small things will add up. Our website is full of suggestions — especially in the “idea exchange,” a place where readers and experts are encouraged to contribute their own ideas and rate and discuss the merits of others.
And eventually, perhaps more involvement will also translate into demanding our elected officials be more environmentally responsible.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane were my favorites then, and they still are.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
My all-time favorite movie is King of Hearts, and I am hooked on HBO’s Six Feet Under.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
A great start would be to tune into National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth. Tell your friends. Better yet, tell those you don’t know. And go to the website to sign up for “the promise” to make the environment better.