Tara Smithee currently attends Montana State University to pursue a MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. She grew up in Portland, OR, learned to SCUBA dive and fell in love with the oceans. She earned a MS in Earth Systems, Ocean Track from Stanford University in 2011. She became interested in film when she did an internship on board the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer and saw the stunning footage coming up live from the depths via the ship’s submersible vehicle, Little Hercules. She is an advocate for the oceans and the world’s remaining wild places and hopes to have some small positive impact on them with her films. Tara currently works for The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration as their Media and Visual Arts Coordinator.
TERRA: What are extremophiles and why are they so awesome?
TS: Extremophiles are living organisms that live in environments where the conditions are too extreme for other life to survive. Perhaps that means the temperature is extremely hot or cold, the pressure might be high, or there are chemicals that are deadly to most life. They have such amazing and surprising adaptations that allow them to survive. Some use chemicals for energy instead of the sun. Some can keep their DNA stable at much higher temperatures than normal animals. They are so very different from the rest of life on earth, that they really shocked the science community when they were gradually discovered. Half a century ago, scientists didn’t believe that any life could survive without light energy from the sun. Some of the extremophiles introduced in this film, however, can. In addition to that, they also might have been some of the first life forms on earth! They could be our ancient, ancient, ancient ancestors.
TERRA: What inspired you to make a film about extremophiles?
TS: Because they’re so weird! They are so far from the world we think of in our day-to-day. And they are incredibly adaptable. They have found really creative and valuable ways to survive in places that all other life passed-by.
TERRA: Did you have any extremely cool moments when making this film? (Pun intended)
TS: This was the first film I took to a finisher for sound. I went to Peak Recording when I felt I had done as much as I could with the audio. The expert there, Gill then took it and worked on it for a few hours while I watched and helped. It was amazing to see the subtle differences he made to the sound. I thought it had sounded quite good before the audio sweetening, but afterwards, it sounded professionally done. It was also very educational to watch him work on the sound and to see what bits he changed. Highly recommended. Audio is one of the most important pieces of a film to get right, and it really helped this film shine.
TERRA: What surprised you the most about making this film?
TS: The film was originally going to feature multiple experts in the field of microbiology, but Dr. Reysenbach was so eloquent and engaging that she ended up becoming the guide for the whole film. Just shows that films often change directions during the process and you have to be open to alternative ways to tell your story.
TERRA: If you could be any extremophile, what would it be and why?
TS: I don’t know if I would be a particular thermophile… maybe Thermus aquaticus. It lives in a Yellowstone Hot Spring so I’d basically just lounge in a hot tub all day looking beautifully colorful (because thermophilic bacteria give the springs their rainbow of colors). Thermus aquaticus is famous for providing the method for duplicating DNA in a lab. Its unique cells made it possible for science to sequence the human genome, as well as do all the current mass of genetic research. Today, it is used in nearly every microbiology lab in the world. I used it in a lab myself before I ever knew its history. Pretty neat.
TERRA: What’s your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
TS: I enjoy the times when you sit down with all your footage and start to actually put the film together. I love that creative process of actually laying all the shots and audio together like a giant puzzle. I enjoy trying to create meaning with the juxtaposition of shots and hopefully creating a journey for the audience
TERRA: Tell us about the Okeanos Explorer and how you got involved with it.
TS: The Okeanos Explorer is the only ship of NOAA’s fleet dedicated entirely to ocean exploration. It has an amazing freedom to go to blank places on the map and simply explore. This exploration has led to countless amazing and unexpected discoveries, including new species, underwater ecosystems, and even a new deep-sea canyon. Knowing where these areas are allows scientists to be able to submit proposals for funding to return to study these discoveries. The Okeanos also streams the video from the daily dives directly to shore over the internet. Anyone can tune into the dive to hear the scientists and pilots discuss what they are seeing. It is a very rare glimpse into a live exploration of the world’s last great frontier.
I went out on the Okeanos for the first time doing an internship with the sea-floor mapping team. I was so mesmerized, though, by the stunning footage coming up from the sea floor to the ship that I ended up being very interested in the video side of things. I have a Masters degree in Oceanography but I am going back to school for another masters, this time in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. Now I work directly for the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration (GFOE), which is a new non-profit dedicated to ocean exploration and technology development. GFOE works closely with NOAA and the ship, so I am still involved with expeditions, ROV camera operation, and web video content. I cut together Sunken Stories as a web video for GFOE.
TERRA: Give us a behind-the-scenes snapshot of what life is like in the field.
TS: Being on the ship is a marathon because since it currently only does a few expeditions a year, everyone tries to squish as much productivity as possible into those three weeks at sea. It is very rewarding though, and very exciting to be at sea with so many talented people. Everyone works like a well-oiled machine and the pilots, engineers, video, science, mapping, and crew are all very professional. The ship operates 24 hours a day. During the night, it uses sonar to map the sea-floor. The next morning, that new map is used to choose the site for the day’s ROV dive. Deep Discoerer (D2), the new ROV submersible vehicle is sent up to 6000 meters down through the midwater to the ocean floor. My job for part of the dive then, is to sit in the control room on the ship, where Deep Discoverer is flown, and control the vehicle’s camera.
TERRA: What types of equipment did you use? Do you have a favorite piece?
TS: We used a Canon Ex1 and an Ex3 camera, as well as GoPros. My favorite tool at their disposal, howenver, was the ship’s telepresence. They stream the video feed from the ROV dive directly over the internet in real time. It means that anyone can go to the Okeanos Explorer website, turn on the live feed, and watch the dive as it happens. They are able to listen to the scientists who are on the ship and onshore, as well as the ROV pilots and video team. It is a phenomenal way for the public to see exploration in action and to see history written as discoveries are made.
TERRA: Did you have any particularly rewarding or dangerous moments?
TS: There were plenty of rewarding moments, but no dangerous ones. Safety is an extremely high priority on the ship. One of the most rewarding moments was when we had a group of dolphins join us. They were surfing and playing in the waves made by the prow of the ship cutting through the sea. I went back to grab my camera, so I was able to film them doing aquatic acrobatics and generally having a grand time. Dolphins always seem like they are having a party, and these stuck around for 30 minutes as I filmed. It was magical.
TERRA: What are the 3 things you'd never go into the field without and why?
TS: Extra cards and batteries because it just takes too long if you have to run back for them. You inevitably miss something. Also, for working on a ship, kneepads are quite wonderful. The deck is usually some sort of heavy-duty extra-grip surface, which can be rather painful if you need to kneel or place a knee down on it to shoot. One last thing is a bean bag covered in gaffers tape to use as a camera rest and stabilizer. Tripods can be more trouble than they are worth at certain times on a moving ship, so having something that is portable, not difficult to carry or set up, and versatile can be a lifesaver.
TERRA: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
TS: I did a Masters program in Oceanography and loved the oceans but didn’t see my future in research or academia. I wanted to be able to have a voice, however small to share the wonder of the oceans and the need for their conservation to as many people as possible. Also, the underwater footage coming up from the deep ocean was so stunningly beautiful that I knew I wanted to work with it. The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration has allowed me to live my dream.
TERRA: What would be your dream project?
TS: Very difficult question… perhaps shooting a film underwater in an exotic location like New Zealand. I have been a SCUBA diver for a long time and would love to learn to film underwater.
TERRA: What's your favorite aspect of filmmaking?
TS: I enjoy many aspects of filmmaking. My least favorite is the logistics and planning that goes into every shoot. My favorites are actually shooting footage then also putting the film together in the editing room. Editing is a lengthy process that is constantly in flux and development, which I enjoy. It is fun and rewarding when something really works out well.
TERRA: Do you have a favorite project you've worked on and why?
TS: I was on an Okeanos Explorer expedition at the New England Seamounts off the Eastern US. It was a three week cruise, and we had ROV dives scheduled nearly every day. That cruise was amazing because of the abundance of life we saw in the deep ocean. We would come across the occasional organism where the scientists would say “I have no idea what that is.” And it’s very exciting when they say that. That is what exploration is all about. In addition, I was the primary video editor on that cruise, and I was able to make a 20 minute summary of the entire three-week journey. In the last two days of the cruise, I kept thinking I was finished with the film and then we would see something else that was amazing in the deep ocean, so I’d have to find a place to put it in the film. In the last five minutes of the last dive of the field season, an enormous Greenland Shark appeared out of the darkness. I believe it was the largest shark we had ever seen with the vehicle. It was quite a thrill to be operating the ROV camera and watching an unreal scene unfold at the same time.
TERRA: If you could be any sea animal, which would you be?
TS: An otter. They always seem to be having so much fun! I lived in Monterrey, CA for a couple summers and they were always so lithe and at home in the coastal kelp forest. That would be the way to live!