News | November 21, 2016

Southern Exposure: Herald of the Sea

As a 2016 fellow, filmmaker Celine Schmidt created the Southern Exposure Film Fellowship’s first fully-animated film “Herald of the Sea,” which looks at the crucial role of oysters as an indicator species in gauging the ecological health of the Gulf of Mexico.

Already stressed due to ongoing pollution and water degradation, oyster populations were hit hard by the 2010 BP oil spill. Ongoing oil and gas exploration and the potential for future spills leave them vulnerable to further harm.

Each summer, Southern Exposure brings emerging filmmakers to Birmingham to learn about Alabama’s pressing environmental issues and meet the individuals and organizations working to protect one of the most ecologically and geologically diverse states in the U.S.

Below are some of Schmidt’s reflections on her time in Alabama with the Fellowship.

As a filmmaker, what particular aspects about the Southern Exposure Film Fellowship were you drawn to?

I was immediately drawn in by the environmental focus of the Southern Exposure fellowship— since I’m currently focusing on both animation and environmental issues in school, I’m always thrilled at any chance I’m given to combine the two. I was also incredibly grateful for the type relationship the Southern Environmental Law Center fostered with the fellows. They gave us a level of creative control that I truly didn’t expect, trusting our filmmaking sensibilities and allowing us to discover new information and explore different narratives largely on our own creative terms.

What did you find to be the most rewarding part about the filmmaking process?

The most rewarding part of the filmmaking process was getting to meet so many people who care so deeply about the health of our waters and about the small, often overlooked creatures that live in them. Anywhere you go, you can encounter people who understand that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a tragic event that hurt the environment — but it’s more rare to meet people who are still, to this day, working hard to help the Gulf of Mexico overcome the negative impacts of both the spilled oil and the chemical dispersants that were used. Before starting the filming process, I wasn’t even aware that there were persisting impacts of the spill, let alone that there are people still fighting to remedy them and to elucidate the potentially disastrous consequences of continued oil drilling. It was incredibly refreshing to see.

What was most challenging to capture about your topic?

Some of the coolest things about oysters are also the things that are too small to be seen, or too elusive to be captured on camera. The same goes for the factors that threaten our oysters—a lot of this action takes place deep underwater and over long periods of time, so getting live footage of these processes can be a big challenge. That’s partly why we felt that an animated documentary would be best suited to shed light on this topic. So, one of the challenges I faced this summer was figuring out how to use animation and drawings to describe minuscule processes that most of us had only ever read about in textbooks, if that. I had to do a lot of research into how oysters do things like filter water, build up reefs that become wave buffers, and how they react to toxins in their environment—and how to draw those processes in both an accurate and captivating way.

What image stands out to you from your time in Alabama?

I vividly remember wading through knee-deep water while shooting a scene at Dottie Lawley’s oyster farm in Mobile Bay. That’s how Dottie gets out far enough to manage her oysters—and as we walked through the warm water towards the oyster cages, past docks still under construction, I remember marveling at the fact that Dottie, family, and friends had built that oyster farm from the ground up and continue to build it daily. This scene is the image I always go back to when I think about the workers I met in Alabama—no one I encountered was afraid to get their hands dirty for work they love, and they all seemed to have a deep appreciation for Alabama’s natural resources because they work so intimately and fearlessly with them every day.

Over the course of six weeks this summer, six talented filmmakers traveled all over Alabama to meet with community members, elected officials, scientists, business owners, riverkeepers, and other conservation groups, resulting in six films about Alabama’s environment and the triumphs and struggles to preserve its abundance of natural wonders and scenic beauty. We will be sharing the six films on SELC’s newsfeed over the next few weeks.