Issue 17

Animals with human voices: Can we ever find Nemo in real life?

Hey! I found Nemo!” My five-year-old brother yelled at the top of his lungs. Dashing across the aquarium towards the orange clownfish. Pressing his nose against the cold thick glass separating Nemo and him. His eyes followed the fish, inside the deep blue water of the tank

Hi Nemo, do you want to be my friend?” He asked hopefully, staring at Nemo. Chirp. Pop. Chirp. Pop. Chirp. Pop is all he could hear as Nemo swam around. “He could speak in the movie, why is he not speaking up now?” As he glanced at the fish closely, it dawned.“The Nemo I know is so much cuter than this, I don’t know what this orange fish is.” He walked away, with his head down.

Animation movies with an animal protagonist continue to talk human. Walk like one too. Take the just out Netflix animated movie, Extinct. The movie follows two fuzzy-looking characters with holes on their stomachs, almost like a donut.With strange looking bunny ears and tiny floppy feet. 

Incredibly cute?

Realising they need to protect their species from going Extinct, the pair time-travel from 1835 Galapagos to Shanghai today. Interestingly, scrolling through the trailer’s comment section, one may find several “Aww”. But are these harmless looking fuzzballs in some way problematic? 

Depicting wild fauna with features of humans, the way we speak, express emotion and think, is anthropomorphism. Heavy word, right? But haven’t you seen instances in the mass media? Take Nemo in the movie Finding Nemo with forward-facing eyes, just like our species. Brushing  teeth like humans and going to school, for crying out loud! 

The real A. ocellaris clownfish, on the other hand, has outward-facing eyes. Or look at the movie Dumbo, where Dumbo the elephant is shown having an emotional outburst, crying hysterically. But in reality, research shows humans are the only ones who shed tears when sad. Animals display their emotions in other ways.

A 2020 research paper by an American non-profit organization, the Animals and Society Institute, says that using anthropomorphism in films can influence people’s attitudes towards animals in both a negative and positive manner. It may also impact how they expect animals to behave in real life, based on what they have seen on screen. The Finding Nemo Effect may be one negative instance. 

Since 2003, the already endangered ocellaris clownfish species witnessed cases of local extinction as more and more people wanted to own a fish resembling Nemo. Because they liked the movie character. Anthropological literature over the last decade is challenging the view that this leads to conservation success stories somehow. The International Union of Conservation Network, a global body putting out a list of the endangered species year after year, wrote this exactly a decade ago, “all species of marine turtles (“Squirt” and “Crush”) and more than half of all hammerhead sharks (“Anchor”), mackerel sharks (“Bruce” and “Chum”), and eagle rays (“Mr. Ray”) are threatened. Seahorses (“Sheldon”) are the most threatened group of bony fish in Finding Nemo, with two in five species at risk of extinction.”

Then there is the Bambi effect. Walt Disney’s Bambi, an all-time children’s favourite movie, features an adorable looking deer and follows an emotional journey of its mother’s death. The aesthetic portrayal of animals may drive people into thinking that only striking animals are worth saving. While one may wince at the idea of kicking a puppy, they may not react the same way to the suffering of other animals, often seen as less desirable.

To make wildlife relatable for children, movies also tend to paint a picture of the natural world that does not exist in reality. For example, in the 2000 animated movie Dinosaur by Disney, an orphan dinosaur Aladar, is raised by a family of lemurs. “The family unit is described in anthropocentric terms.” Children are likely to believe this is their real family. These movies are constructed to be a feel-good ride, making the viewer want more. However, that might add to a problem bigger than just children learning incorrectly. 

According to Gerbner, a communication theorist, cultivation theory proposes that the more frequently we consume a piece of content, the more are our chances of believing that the virtual imitates the real world. Will this content not play a role in shaping children’s understanding of reality? Leaving children more confused about the natural world? This may be a much larger concern now with the rise of OTT platforms. 

Streaming services are seeing a boom. Netflix, usually cagey to reveal data on views, put out a blog post in December 2020 stating that viewing children’s shows has increased more than 100% in India in 2020 over 2019. Parental controls on what children could see led ironically to kid content showing up again and again for the adults. Who simply got hooked. This category included anime.

Movies like Extinct are becoming increasingly popular too. Stuck indoors in the pandemic, many children continue to understand the world out there through what they watch. This 2013 journal article in Biodiversity and Conservation is part of a long chain of warnings about the pitfalls of anthropomorphism. Making a case for keeping it real.

Real, not reel.

Featured Image credit: Creative Commons

Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 17

And ACTION! Towards a greener Bollywood?

Hundreds of people packed into a street. All of them, bathing in tomatoes. Some climbed onto trucks and stomped on yet more tomatoes. Squishing them. Chucking them at the eager crowd. The Spanish harvest festival of Tomatina. 

An arresting sight. But this was a staged event by the people of the Spanish city of Bunol. Zoya Akhtar and her crew were shooting them for her film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The film cost 60 crore according to trade reports and made approximately 90 crore in just domestic net collection.

A hit in 2011, it became the travel watch, ik junoon, ik deewangi for a whole generation of Indian cine-goers. 

In mid-2021, it celebrated a decade.

Tomatina might be a household name today but it also offers a segue to the big-budget Hindi film process. To paint it red, team ZNMD brought in sixteen tonnes of tomatoes from another country. Portugal, in this case. After the shoot, it had to be pulped, to avoid clogging the Valencian town’s drains. 

As per data curated by World Bank, an Indian in 2010 would emit, on average 1.34 tonnes of carbon annually. A single Bollywood blockbuster, approximately, could end up having a carbon footprint of around 10,000 tonnes

A 2020 report published and submitted to the UK Parliament by the British Film Institute, ARUP, and Albert, an environmental action group, offers some context. A Screen New Deal, says one blockbuster film with a budget of more than $70 million, produces an average of 2,840 tonnes of carbon dioxide, on production. A figure equivalent to the amount absorbed by 3,700 acres of forest in one year.

In air mile terms that is eleven one-way trips from the earth to the moon. ZNMD takes the protagonists from Barcelona to Pamplona, through Costa Brava, Bunol, and Seville. A  total travel distance of 2200.9 kilometres across the five towns and cities. The Albert report clarifies that transport is the single largest carbon emitter at 51% of the overall carbon emissions in a big film production. 30%  is by air and 70%,  land travel. The fuel used up by a film, on average, could be equivalent to 3.4 million miles driven by a passenger vehicle. 

This is not to single out Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara particularly, but to perhaps use its anniversary to begin a climate-conscious conversation across the Hindi film industry. Like Pippa Harris, Chair of the Film Forum in the UK says,

This report is being published at such an important moment for our industry. We have all felt the devastating economic and cultural effects of the pandemic, so now is the time to regroup and come back stronger. We cannot continue to create films, in the same manner, we did before with no long-term plan for the environment around us. It’s time for our industry to lead the way both on and off-screen and rebuild for a cleaner, greener future.

If the Albert report has provided the means for a consensus on reporting actual emissions to the British film industry, a similar study was first published by UCLA, in 2006 for Hollywood. While no such comprehensive work has been done for the many film industries in India, it remains the world’s biggest producer of cinema by quantity. In 2018, for instance, a combination of the film industries in India produced 1813 films. The US and the UK, together made 778 movies that year. 

So what are some of the changes that “need to be made to the whole ecosystem”? Here are some reccos Bollywood could begin thinking about.

Reusing production material for different films. Maybe when they are under the same production banner? Sourcing these locally, instead of importing and then transporting them across long distances, would also bolster local economies. This would help them gain materially from film shoots in their area. Back in 2003, Matrix 2 and 3 planned for this and were able to recycle almost 98 % of its set material.

Using renewable energy on set and light sensors, given that studio lights and air conditioning are heavily used on set. Large production houses in India could afford to lead here. The Hollywood study shows how Warner Brothers has been doing this with an Environmental VP at the helm. 

Thinking about what can replace diesel generators emitting 15% of a film’s carbon footprint. Digitization of on-set logistics would cut down paper use too, enabling greater flexibility in daily schedules. It’s something Bollywood struggles greatly with.

Currently, catering service and quality on many high-end productions are determined by tiers. With the highest tier being the star names, directors, and producers. Centralized catering services and shared transport, to and from frequently used film production hubs can reduce the transport part of the emissions. 

Assamese film director Biswajeet Bora’s 2015 debut film in Hindi, Aisa Yeh Jahaan shows it is indeed possible to move towards more eco-friendly filmmaking in India. It claimed to be India’s first carbon-neutral film collaborating with the Centre for Environmental Research and Education (CERE). CERE’s carbon footprint of this film’s production came to around 78 tonnes. To offset it, the unit planted 560 trees, attempting carbon neutrality in the process. Got done at a fraction of the production cost of the full-length feature film, set in Mumbai and Guwahati. 

Stars who often tell the rest of India to save energy through sponsored ads must at least begin the conversation to clean up their home turf. Perhaps, a desire to break new ground, not just in storylines, but also in production?

As Farhan Akhtar celebrated Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’s tenth anniversary (and Dil Chahta Hai’s twentieth) another road trip movie in the same mold Jee Le Zaraa is hitting the production floor in 2022. Can it herald an era of sustainable filmmaking in Bollywood, singing a sequel to Der lagi lekin, maine ab hai jeena seekh liya? 

Featured Image credit: primevideo, via Google Images

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University. 

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Issue 17

Diving into the life of Jacques Cousteau: What can Gen Z learn from this French icon?

A man plunges into the depths of the ocean wearing an eye mask. A cylinder strapped to his back. We see him place a strange-looking object on the ocean-bed. Before we have time to wonder what it is, we see a flash. Kaboom!

“Commercial fishing with dynamite is illegal, an act of vandalism. But for the purpose of scientific study, it is the only method for taking a census of all the varieties in an area”,  says a firm heavily accented voiceover, as dozens of fish sink to the bottom. A man goes back into the water, grabs a dead fish, his fingers shoved far into its bleeding gills. Coming back to the surface, his bag is filled with many open-mouthed creatures, cold and stiff. He empties them onto the sand. 

This is a scene from the 1956 Oscar-winning film The Silent World. Regarded as the first documentary on oceanic life in full colour. Co-directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it is an adaptation of his 1953 book. 

Sounds pretty horrifying, doesn’t it? What if I say this man who set off a bomb in the middle of the ocean, eventually went on to become one of the first advocates for underwater life? How could someone who did something that would be considered unforgivable in today’s world, possibly even cancellable, also be someone famously known as the world’s ambassador of the oceans? Or an early guardian of the aquatic voiceless – what he believed to be the silent world?  

Liz Garbus, the two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker has recently released a film about him, Becoming Cousteau. From National Geographic Documentary Films, this 2021 American documentary uses a lot of the real footage originally shot by Cousteau. It takes a close  look at his undersea life, touching upon the great many firsts. 

From co-inventing the first-ever scuba gear to being the one to make underwater filming possible, the French icon did a lot for someone with no scientific degree. The trailer of Becoming Cousteau calls him an adventurer, innovator and legendary filmmaker. Yet could he be boxed into either of those three categories?

An AP News article mentions how one of Cousteau’s editors found it so difficult to label him, he finally went with, “A man looking at the future.” Perhaps it was as simple as that for Cousteau. ‘‘We go see it for ourselves”, says the 2021 trailer referring to his life motto. Wanting to dive deeper, he simply co-created a device that would allow him to do so (the Aqualung, the world’s first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). Wanting to show the world what magic lies within the blue depths, he authored over fifty books and created waterproof filming equipment. “You only protect what you love”, says Cousteau’s voice in the trailer of Becoming Cousteau. 

Or perhaps his own unwillingness to take himself seriously was what attracted people to him. “I am not interested in myself, I am interested in the world outside me”, says the scrawny man in a red beanie, who spent 68 years of his life quite casually changing the face of underwater exploration. 

Image Credit: CALYPSO

Being the first to film the oceanic wonders earned him a Cannes Film-Festival win, two Academy Awards, and a couple of long-running television shows. The shows documented his adventures across the world carried out in his special vessel, the Calypso. It was during these long expeditions that Cousteau realised the urgent need to protect marine life. 

He started the Cousteau Society in 1973. It is still working today to set up protected areas for endangered species, under Francine, the second wife of Jacques Cousteau. His children and grandchildren as part of the society, are involved in constantly improving the explorer’s inventions. Taking forward the work he started.

Cousteau soon became an environmentalist over everything else, laying the foundation for ocean conservation. He even made headlines when he spoke passionately about the warming oceans and the rights of future generations to live on an uncontaminated planet at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit.  

The 2021 biopic truly comes full circle in terms of showing Cousteau as someone who started off killing marine life to battling for their protection. While he followed unethical practices in his early days of filming, he was unafraid to retain the clips. He was willing to call himself out on his mistakes and wanted the world to do so too. An important lesson for us to learn as a generation, so reluctant to display our own shortcomings.  

Most importantly, Cousteau was a man completely at peace in water from a very early age. He thrived in the depths of the ocean. As a review by Variety suggests, Cousteau’s life outside the sea was not exactly a smooth ride. His love for the sea meant his family life suffered. A few years after graduating from the naval academy, he had to give it all up after a near-fatal automobile accident. One that broke both his arms. Hitting rock bottom, he was advised to do swimming exercises to nurse himself back to health. That journey of recovery recharged his seafaring passion. 

Makes me wonder – how many lives were on a pause during the pandemic? How many people felt paralysed and unmotivated in the midst of isolation? As the world takes small steps towards normalcy in 2021, perhaps Liz Garbus, through her documentary, wants us to draw inspiration from this legend who was determined to make a comeback, and boy, what a comeback it was! 

Featured Image credit: Combined Military Service Digital

Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student of Ashoka University pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Media Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).