Thursday, May 10, 2012
Alone and stranded by a storm, a three-day-old sea otter doesn’t stand a chance by itself. The film Otter 501 tells the heart-warming story of how this pup is rescued and the many challenges it must overcome for its survival.
Yes, a baby sea otter is quite possibly the most adorable thing on the planet. But I decided to get a valuable second opinion about the tiny, sweet-eyed, squishable ball of fur.
“Sea otters are one of my favorite animals,” says Ruksheen Kasad, 9, who stars in the International School of Monterey’s Ocean Guardian video as Rukie Reporter. “One reason is because they are so cute.”
The pup is also called Otter 501 because it was the 501st sea otter rescued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The idea for the film came from Clint Jones, a volunteer at the Aquarium. His passion for spreading the word about sea otters got things rolling.
After a work-in-progress screening in October, Otter 501, a production of local Sea Studios, is now finished and showing in theaters across the country. Award-winning filmmaker Mark Shelley takes an intriguing approach with Otter 501: “The idea was to take a pure natural history film and wrap it in a storytelling device that helps people get the science and the nature side of it,” he says.
What results is a clever animal mystery. What happens to 501? Instead of traditional narrator, a young woman named Katie, played by Katie Pofahl, leads the audience on a side-by-side journey in a way most documentaries cannot. Katie, who in real life has a background in zoology and experience with marine mammals and other sealife, proves to be smart, inquisitive and full of energy. She is a strong role model. Katie’s compassion for Otter 501 and her curiosity drive the film forward.
The filmmakers didn’t look to a Hollywood leading lady. They decided to cast a non-actor who had actual science expertise and was comfortable with the ocean because they wanted her to be more believable and relatable.
“I thought Katie was being pretty kind,” says Rukie. “She was also learning that a lot of things are happening to sea otters and animals in the ocean because of us. I like it how she was trying to find ways to protect the ocean and the animals.”
In the wild, people have to keep a distance from sea otters because they are endangered animals. Sea otters are also hard to film because they’re relatively small, dark, and mixed in with giant kelp and waves. Mounted on a boat, a state-of-the-art camera system called a Cineflex allowed the use of a long lens for stunning close-ups of the sea otters frolicking and Katie kayaking, even with waves bobbing everything up and down.
The grandeur of Monterey Bay scenery in the film carefully balances with the intimate moments of Otter 501 and Toola, the surrogate mother. Toola successfully raised many adopted pups, but, sadly, she passed away of old age earlier this year.
Katie’s experience with Otter 501 is life-changing for them both. The filmmakers hope this message will inspire the hearts of young and old alike. “It helped me know how I could take care of the ocean and Earth, too,” says Rukie.
Otter 501 was spearheaded by Mark Shelley and his Cannery Row-based Sea Studios, producers of the National Geographic smash Strange Days on Planet Earth. Shelley, along with his crew, collected hundreds of hours of unique footage, from staff at the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) bottle-feeding the youngest pups to dramatic field shots of 501 being released back into the wild. But Shelley was determined not to make a standard-issue documentary, because the story of otters in modern times can’t be told without a look into the creatures’ interactions with humans. In Otter 501, he’s captured that story to a fluffy and adorable tee.
Otter 501 breaks new ground by diverging from the way of the traditional documentary. The film even includes social media as part of the storytelling. It never pretends to be a National Geographic special, even though the filmmakers, such as director Bob Talbot, have plenty of experience making those kinds of documentaries.
There is a lack of well-made family friendly films that don’t dumb down the content. By being bold, different, and meaningful, Otter 501 may even set a trend with its hybrid style of filmmaking.
OTTER 501 (3) Directed by Bob Talbot • Starring Katie Pofahl • Rated G • 84 min. • At Osio Cinemas.