In Memory of Mike – SBIFF Honors Filmmaker Michael DeGruy with retrospective and more

Sylvia Earle Alliance photo
Sylvia Earle Alliance photo

It’s been nearly a year to the day when nature filmmaker and friend of the SBIFF, Mike DeGruy, went down in a helicopter accident while filming off Australia. It happened during the 2012 Fest and the shock waves of his death cast a pall over the rest of the week more than any storm could do. In all the years of covering the Fest, the only vaguely equivalent tragedy was the 1999 passing of Stanley Kubrick, but this was completely different. This was close to home; this was one of the festival’s own, a man who not only had started the Reel Nature film sidebar, but also Field Trip to the Movies, bringing school kids out to see films, creating who knows how many film buffs.

And so this year the SBIFF will honor their fallen friend with a retrospective of Mr. DeGruy’s films, spanning over thirty years.

We’re so accustomed to the narrator leading us through nature docs that it’s easy to forget the cameraman who managed to get these magic shots, but Mr. DeGruy was that guy. For each amazing shot of an octopus or any other magical sea creature, Mr. DeGruy was there too, sometimes risking his life to get shots. As he got better known, he started to host a lot of his films, to which his easy-going personality was suited.

The retrospective features five of Mr. DeGruy’s films, chosen by his widow and longtime producer Mimi from over 40 features, shorts, and PSAs shot for companies ranging from National Geographic and PBS, to the BBC and Discovery. He started his film company in 1979 after one of his first gigs: filming the nautilus for the owner of the equipment company that bore its name.

“Hawaii: Islands of the Fire Goddess” is the oldest film here, from 1987. Mr. DeGruy directed and shot this portrait of the island chain, starting from its active volcanos and following the lava down to the ocean, documenting the flora and fauna along the way, and ending in the deep, where an ecosystem is ready to grow where the lava cools.

Michael Hanrahan, Mr. DeGruy’s longtime friend and colleague, says he shot the cooling but still hot lava in just a regular wetsuit.

“He was the first one to be crazy enough to get in the water and film it,” Mr. Hanrahan says.

This film, along with his 1983 deep-sea documentary “Aliens from Inner Space,” put Mr. DeGruy on the map.

“Incredible Suckers” (1995) is not a film about con men, but about the vast variety of cephalopods that inhabit the deep. The hour-long film first follows a chambered nautilus fish, then moves along to other more familiar but still strange and wondrous creatures. The documentary also includes footage of Mr. DeGruy’s research vessel taking on water and sinking, an accident that wiped out months of footage.

“There’s a great photo of Mike leaping off the bow as the boat sank,” Mr. Hanrahan says. “But the cephalopods … that film was everything about the ocean that fascinated Mike. Of those creatures the octopus fascinated him the most. That’s where he centered a lot of his research.”

He returned to the subject with “The Octopus Show” (2000), an episode of “Nature” for which he and his crew built an “octopus gymnasium” at the University of Hawaii in order to study these shy creatures for much longer than chance encounters in the wild would allow.

In “Perfect Shark” (2006), Mr. DeGruy explores the evolutionary history of the shark, including CGI renderings of extinct species. It was a subject he knew all too well, as a shark nearly took his arm off way back when he first started shooting in the ’70s. The attack left him with scars and occasional numbness in his fingers.

“He didn’t really like to talk about it,” Mr. Hanrahan says. “The pain and numbness did bug him.”

Finally, Mr. DeGruy produced, wrote, and shot “Tempest from the Deep” (1999), which brings it all home when he explores the damage caused by El Niño to mammals and ecosystems off the coast of California, including the kelp forests in the Channel. The documentary started as a portrait of the kelp, but he happened to be in the right place at the worst time.

Just before Mr. DeGruy left on his fateful trip last year, he asked Mr. Hanrahan to fill in for him as host of Reel Nature at the festival. After Mr. DeGruy’s death, SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling asked Mr. Hanrahan to continue in that position.

“It’s a great way for me to spend some time with Mike in my mind,” he says. “When I look at the films in consideration … I like to think what Mike would choose.”

One film that Mr. DeGruy helped make happen is the NHK-produced documentary on the giant squid, footage of which shot around the Internet last week and is set to screen at the SBIFF. According to Mr. Hanrahan, Mr. DeGruy came up with methods of shooting the elusive creature that the crew then used. This is just one of many parts to Mr. DeGruy’s legacy.

The SBIFF’s schedule is still being finalized, but Mr. Durling says that all the films will play several times, with Michael Hanrahan introducing each. In addition, small segments of Mr. DeGruy’s various interviews will pop up before film screenings. This, as well as the sea life/schoolchildren-themed poster for this year’s Fest, ensure that this filmmaker’s memory lives on.

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