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How This Cinematographer Captured A Political Movement

How This Cinematographer Captured A Political Movement

Directed by Jerry Rothwell, “How To Change the World” chronicles the bold feats young activists undertook in the early days of Greenpeace. Largely told through the 16mm footage pulled from the organization’s archive, the documentary recently premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition where it won the Candescent Award and Special Jury Editing Award.

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It will have its Northwest premiere at the Portland EcoFilm Festival in Portland, Oregon, which runs from April 9-12.

Ron Precious, the original Greenpeace expedition cinematographer, whose archival footage forms the basis for “How To Change The World,” will be a special guest at the festival. A member of the International Cinematographers Guild, Precious shot a number of TV films, TV series and feature films, until retiring in 2011.

Precious first connected with the activist organization when they were planning an expedition to save endangered whales from the harpoons of the Russian and Japanese whaling fleets in the North Pacific. Greenpeace invited Precious and his soundman to document expeditions during the summer of 1975 and 1976. The footage they captured was used to create the award-winning 1977 film “Greenpeace: Voyages to Save the Whales.”

Indiewire recently spoke to Precious about his experience shooting Greenpeace’s original expeditions from 1975-1985.

What was your approach to filming?

At the time, we tried to be an independent film group. We could only get two of us on the boat, so one was the sound person, but also had to be able to use a camera. Our sound man was also the second camera and I was the main camera. We approached it like this: if Greenpeace does what they say they will do, put humans in front of a harpoon gun to prevent a whale from being killed, it will be an amazing film. But what was the likelihood of that coming to fruition? Would we actually find this whaling fleet?

It played out a bit like “Waiting for Godot.” Film was expensive and I had to decide what was worth keeping the camera rolling on. It wasn’t like digital where you could keep going. Every frame had to be worth exposing. That became a big factor in deciding what was worthy of shooting.

We took a chance and then when we actually found this whaling fleet, we thought, “We’ve got ourselves a great story.” The image [of Greenpeace members placing themselves between the harpoons and the whales] was on the world news that night, the lead story on CBS News. The harpoon shot was like the shot heard around the world. That essentially put Greenpeace on the map.

Did you go into it thinking of yourself as a filmmaker or as an activist?

We were all in our mid-20s, full of pep and go, right out of film school. As filmmakers, we wanted to establish our credibility and we all wanted to make a career out of it…This was going to be our stepping stone. But it became more than that.

Looking back at that time, did you know those images were going to be so iconic?

We got some great images for sure, like [Greenpeace co-founder] Paul Watson on the back of a dead whale. These are images that become iconic. For me, they’re some of my proudest moments. My entire career in film, nothing tops that. What gave me the most satisfaction was the days doing that work with Greenpeace.

How do you feel about films that are being used today to harness social action?

Documentaries on environmental regulations have really helped changed things for the good by influencing political opinion. And films like “Blackfish” and “The Cove” really carry on with the same tradition of what Greenpeace was doing. How do you overcome obstacles preventing you from getting anywhere near the cove, for instance?

You’ve recently retired from a career as a camera operator and DP shooting TV series. What’s next?

I’m retired from Hollywood, but I’m ready to tackle anything. I’m 68 and super fit. I’ll put a camera back on my shoulder and be ready to do what I did back in the early days with Greenpeace. I’m ready go go again! Let’s make the rest of my life as meaningful as the beginning when I first got into this incredible world of filmmaking.

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