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.
Have you ever considered taking your talents to a feature-length studio-released film? Do you think that environmentalism and oceanography might gain more adherents if we had a live-action Finding Nemo? — Eric Wagner, Royersford, Penn.
We have really only toyed with the idea of making theatrical release films. It is very inviting, but also a very different end of our business. Being successful in features requires a slightly different set of contacts and skills. If you have those, let’s talk!
What’s it like working with big-name celebrities like Ed Norton? Do you find you have to do a lot of catering to their needs? — Name not provided
Edward Norton is intense and intelligent. He is extremely thoughtful about what he does and works on. I have enjoyed our interaction tremendously. He is very professional and appreciates ideas. When working with people, celebrities or not, I try to provide them with the resources they need to do their best work. In all honesty, however, that’s not always possible in documentary work. We fly coach! Edward understood our constraints.
Do celebrities approach you about environmental work or vice versa? — Name not provided
In this case, Edward came to us through National Geographic. He knew we would be interested in a project that his father was involved with in China. Our conversations about China led to his involvement in Strange Days on Planet Earth.
How can I get a job working on a production team for films about the environment? — Lara Miranda, Emeryville, Calif.
Great question. I’m afraid there are all too few opportunities because there just aren’t that many films about the environment. We are thinking about ways we can be more helpful for you, and you should see the results on our Sea Studios Foundation website in the next month or so.
There are a few film school programs that might be of interest to you. Check out the program at UC Santa Barbara, a master’s program at Montana State University, and a new program at American University in Washington, D.C.
What’s your favorite part about filmmaking? — Name not provided
Second to actually getting the money to make the film is being underwater and shooting cool natural history behavior. Our series Shape of Life was a huge treat. It allowed me to film some sequences underwater I had thought about for years. Time lapse of sea stars cruising, battling anemones, huge sponges on phenomenal walls in Indonesia.
Do you feel films are the best way to get the environmental message out to non-greens? — Name not provided
I think films can be a great way to make people aware of environmental issues and can give viewers a certain new understanding. At their best, they can certainly build an emotional connection to the issue. We at Sea Studios Foundation think that television is particularly effective when combined with messaging and programs in other venues as well.
Our goal is to build communities where people can share ideas and support each other’s efforts to care for the environment. The media can be a big part of creating and fostering those communities. We are experimenting with ways to build and support communities through our Strange Days site. Send me your ideas.
What’s your next project? — Name not provided
We are producing a one-hour special for the nature series on PBS. This one is about the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We were able to follow the great white shark as it learned the ropes in captivity and followed her back into the ocean when she was released.
We are also continuing Strange Days and will concentrate on the ocean next. The ocean needs a huge new following to address some urgent issues. We have found that there is a huge disconnect between the threats scientists see and the understanding that the general public has. We hope to build a greater constituency for the ocean. It deserves it, no?
I work directly with people in biodiversity hotspots in Panama and have experienced how incredibly curious and willing to learn most people are. One of the main issues that conservationists have to deal with in developing countries is the lack of current information (especially multimedia) in the country’s native language. What are the best ways to go about changing this situation so that more people can have access to this priceless information more efficiently? — Adrian Benedetti, Panama City, Panama
Adrian, this is important. We are in the process of making a Spanish-language version of Strange Days. We are hoping to target certain countries with the project, and we’re also trying to reach Spanish speakers within the U.S. So, hopefully, you will find more materials as time goes on. Contact me in a month or so and I can facilitate you getting it.
Does Conservation International provide media in Spanish?
On your Strange Days website, you suggest ideas for “promises” to the earth — little changes like eating sustainable seafood, using native plants, etc. Do you think little baby steps like these really add up to big change? — Name not provided
I personally think that baby steps begin to put your actions into a positive environmental consciousness. That, in theory, can translate into a variety of actions including perhaps our most important individual action which is to vote for the environment. Said another way, purposeful behavior can help build an ethic that can be applied in a variety of ways.
We have been interested in behavior-change theory; awareness and understanding is essential, but it is important to do things regularly to reinforce the behavior. Walking rather than driving, turning your lights off when not needed, and eating local foods all help to remind you that you are connected to the rest of the world and your actions have an impact.
National Geographic‘s attitude is that indigenous people living in their natural way are in “poverty.” The magazine decries their living conditions while celebrating their culture. Not only is this an ignorant and arrogant attitude, it encourages further Western-world-style encroachment, which means environmental and cultural death. Do you really think National Geographic has had any good impact? — Patricia MacDonald, North Bay, Ontario, Canada
Patricia, you are right to question and push. I don’t work very closely with the magazine, so I can’t really speak to that attitude.
I do think that the great success that the Megatransect project had in creating new national parks in Gabon is a positive example. I think that’s encouraging.
Do you travel a lot for your work? What sort of places have you been, and what’s been your favorite? Have you considered offsetting your travel-related emissions? — Name not provided
Yes, I have done quite a bit of travel. I am a huge fan of exotic and remote locations. I have been in awe in both the heart of ocean diversity — Indonesia — and the heart of the least diverse place in the world — the Atacoma Desert of Chile.
Yes, I think about the emissions caused by my travel. I try to think about the value of my travel and whether there are alternatives. I try not to travel for meetings as much as I used to (I also have a four-year-old daughter and don’t like being away as much), and we have tried to use local talent and only travel those absolutely necessary for filming the sequence.
We can do better. We can also do better in offsetting our carbon use in other ways — planting trees, driving less, maintaining a paperless office.
There is a lot of room for improvement in our field. I am very interested in trying to improve the environmental impact of my business.