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Big pictures of the world, above, below and on the dance floor

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Film producer Jake Eberts has a reputation for making films that no one else would or could make, films including Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and Dances with Wolves. The film he’s involved with now is even bigger – as big as the blue whales it depicts.

The picture is titled Oceans, and it’s the latest production by Jacques Perrin, the creator of the legendary “Winged Migration“, a beautiful film about birds in flight. Meeting Perrin shortly after Winged Migration was released, Eberts joked with Perrin, “I bet you’re thinking about birds”. Perrin responded that he wasn’t – he was thinking about whales, about sharks and octopus. This resonated with Eberts, who remembered seeing a Beluga whale while sailing as a boy, and always wanted to see the blue whale in the water.

The idea behind the film is to give an emotional connection to 70% of the earth’s surface, a part of the planet under threat from global warming and pollution. It’s not a narrative film in a conventional sense – instead, it’s an impressionistic portrait of the world’s oceans with foot shot on, above and under water. The technical challenges of the filming were substantial – Eberts tells us about a cinematographer who spent 28 days submerged with a camera, attempting to film blue whales underwater, and failing. To obtain footage, the team designed new camera mounts for helicopters, cameras on torpedoes, and cameras capable of filming dolphins swimming at full speed.

It’s cost more than $75 million to film thus far, a sum out of reach even for feature films, never mind documentaries. It’s been financed by investors, sponsors and foundations, and will be released in France in October 2009 on Pathé and in the US on Earth Day, 2010 by Disney. The film has required eight years of Perrin’s life and now exists as 300 hours of footage, which need to become a two hour feature. The nine minutes we got to see here at TED were breathtaking, and I can’t wait to see the rest.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand is beloved and celebrated for providing a new perspective on the world, taking photos from airplanes, showing scenes of natural beauty, of human creativity and impact. His photos the past few years have been a bit darker, portraying environments under threat, like coral reefs in New Caledonia, which are likely to die from global warming. Arthus-Bertrand notes his own impact in coming to TED: “To fly here, I create 9 tons of CO2, the weight of two elephants. I needed as much CO2 as the average Frenchman for a year. Do I now need to kill a Frenchman?”

These new photos, Arthus-Bertrand tells us, are forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths. Showing us a water passage through the North Pole, an ice-free face of Kilimanjaro, a group of Senegalese fishermen dividing a small catch of fish, he tells us “We don’t want to believe what we know.”

To help understand what we know and what we think about the world, Arthus-Bertrand is engaged ina “lifetime project”. Called “6 billion others“, it’s a film of interviews, conversations with 5,000 people conducted by six filmmakers in 75 countries, asking 40 critical questions. You’re welcome to answer the questions as well. The image of different people talking about their lives (with subtitles) is a profound and powerful one.

But that’s not even Arthus-Bertrand’s biggest project. He’s releasing a film in June called “Maison” – “Home”. It shows scenes of a world in peril, under environmental threat, changing in ways none of us understand or can be comfortable with. He’s releasing the film for free, without copyright, on June 5th, allowing people to download it on the internet or to show it on television or theatres.

As Chris Anderson puts it, “These french filmmakers think big.” And so do random Americans. Chris shows a brief clip of “Where the Hell is Matt”, a wonderfully goofy video in which Matt dances around the world. Matt’s in Palm Springs today, at the second TED stage.

Matt tells us that, in his last video, his favorite sequence was the one where he danced a few moves of Indian classical dance with a Bollywood dance troupe. This inspired the idea for a new video – one where Matt would travel the world and dance traditional dances with people. But he couldn’t convince his girlfriend Melissa – who produces these videos – that it was a good idea. She argued that this provided an “It’s a small world after all” version of globalization.

Melissa put a wonderful twist on the idea – get people around the world to do each other’s dances, an international dialog of dance. The goal is to teach South African gumboot dancing in Mongolia, or the tango in Iceland. It’s an idea, but not a plan yet, and Matt wants to start by teaching us some Indian classical dance. And so on a day when we’ve sung “Happy Birthday” while under the tutelage of a professional conductor and chanted about open data with Tim Berners-Lee, we all learn an eight count of Indian dance.

3 thoughts on “Big pictures of the world, above, below and on the dance floor”

  1. I appreciate very much the exuberate images of Matt traveling the world and mixing with people in a friendly non-threatening and fun way, and yet there’s something that feels painfully superficial and strangely uncurious about the interactions he has with people especially outside the US (and especially in the outtakes he’s posted on his website) or acknowledgement of differences, or lacking in curiousity or interest in what is uniquely local. We (Americans) get a pleasant feeling of being good in the world without seeing any more than that. What richness do you see in the Matt meme besides travel and being goofy is fun? I’m looking for a bit more.

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