Through the Eyes of Huntwatch: Enhancing Documentary through Cinematography

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

For nearly 50 years, activists and camera crews have ventured into the frozen world of Canadian seals, their goal to expose the graphic brutality that has become commercial seal hunting. But there are countless challenges. In Huntwatch, a documentary narrated by Ryan Reynolds, director Brant Backlund pieced together film taken throughout those 50 years all the way up to today, utilizing it to tell the stories of both the hunters and the seals. 

ProductionHUB: What initially interested you in Huntwatch?

Brant Backlund: I first heard of this project when the producers were looking to hire a director and they showed me a rough cut of one scene. It was an incredibly powerful moment from the 1970’s between a cameraman and seal and seal hunter. It was so powerful it stuck with me. I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of this film and this scene was how I was going to open the film.

PH: How would you describe the difference in directing a documentary versus directing a ‘mainstream movie?' What is your preference and why?

BB: My previous experience has been directing and producing mainstream documentary television.  It was really liberating to work on this feature - independent of a broadcaster -because we could do whatever we wanted. On the other hand, this made it more difficult in a lot of cases because we had no constraints…we had to own every creative and story decision that we made. 

PH: As a director, how do you use cinematography to enhance the story?

BB: I think in a lot of cases the story or subject matter naturally dictates the look of the cinematography. Huntwatch has a huge archival element to it, so much of the footage was already shot. One of the really cool aspects of this film is that it spans 3 different eras and each has a very unique look because it was shot in different styles and with different cameras. We used these different visual ‘looks’ to set each era apart. The footage from the 1970’s has a beautiful and rich film quality to it. The 1990’s has a much rougher, dirtier video quality to it, which reflects the wild-west nature of that time on the ice.  The modern HD video is crisp and clean reflecting the much more cold and technical feel.

PH: What camera equipment did you use?

BB: This film is basically a museum of camera equipment from the 1970’s to today. The activists have been using film to try to stop the hunt for almost 50 years and so the archive we worked with represents about every flavor of film, video, and digital file ever invented. Most of the 1970’s footage was shot on 16 mm film cameras.  In the 1990’s they used spy cameras and early digital video cameras. More recently we used Cineflex cameras to film from helicopters and Canon C300’s as our primary tool.

PH: What emotions did you hope to evoke in this film? How did you accomplish this?

BB: This film is naturally packed with strong emotion. What we had to work on was dialing the emotion back a little bit. Nobody wants to be overwhelmed by seals being killed for 90 minutes. We made sure to pick our moments to include the really emotional scenes, but to also include lighter moments, action moments, intriguing moments, etc. I wanted to make sure that in addition to feeling sympathy for the seals, that people could feel empathy with the seal hunters and the activists. It is a very complicated story with lots at stake for everyone involved.

PH: What was the greatest challenge in filming Huntwatch? [Cinematographic challenge?]

BB: The greatest challenge of filming Huntwatch was getting the imagery in the first place. The activists were trying to film seal hunting to make sure the hunters are doing it by the rules. The hunters don’t want to be filmed. To get the footage our camera team had to endure incredible and dangerous challenges, many of which are showcased in the film. To get the shot, they hung out of helicopters and used undercover spy cameras. They were attacked with a knife, endured a three day hostage situation, encountered dangerous weather, stood up to powerful politicians and more.

PH: Describe how you filmed seals in their natural habitat, without intrusion. Was that difficult?

BB: There was always a little intrusion when filming the seals because to get to them on the ice the film team had to fly in with helicopters. One cameraman described his first attempt at filming the seals as very frustrating. He kept chasing them away and couldn’t get any natural behavior. He said he almost gave up and just sat down for a while. Then all of a sudden the world of the seals opened up for him. If he just sat quietly, the seals accepted him in their world and went about their business.

PH: Do you have a favorite onset memory from Huntwatch that you can share with us?

BB: One of my favorite things about making this film was discovering new footage and stories buried in our enormous archive. Sometimes we would dig something up that turned into absolute gold for the story. It was really exciting to make these discoveries.

PH: When the audience leaves the theater, what do you want them to take away?

BB: I really hope the audience leaves the theater with an appreciation for the amazing characters involved in this story. The film is a window into their lives and the raging controversy that takes place from the remote ice floes of Canada to the European Parliament and the rest of the world.

Huntwatch BTS - Ryan Reynolds Narration Recording Session from Huntwatch on Vimeo.

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Huntwatch BTS - Ryan Reynolds Narration Recording Session from Huntwatch on Vimeo.

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