Care About the Ocean? Think Twice About Your Coffee Lid: Filmmaker Q&A with Justin Lewis and Michelle Stauffer

Near Bermuda in the Atlantic Ocean, currents define the Sargasso Sea—the only sea that is not defined by land boundaries. Known by some as a floating rain forest, the Sargasso Sea is named for the free-floating seaweed Sargassum and provides food and shelter for a vast variety of wildlife. However, those same currents carry a huge amount of plastics that eventually break down in the water and are eaten by small fish and other species that are then eaten by larger fish. The toxic chemicals intensify as they move up the food chain through these animals—right onto our plates. This short film by Justin Lewis and Michelle Stauffer is a straightforward look at the impact single-use plastics have on oceans, wildlife, and humans. I spoke with the filmmakers about their piece.

How did you first hear about the plastic patch in the Sargasso Sea’s gyre?

The oceans have been hugely influential [to both of us] since [we were young], and we both knew our passions for filmmaking and oceans would eventually collide. When we started researching threats facing the health of the oceans, it quickly became clear that plastic pollution was an urgent topic that needed a larger audience. Single-use plastics are ubiquitous in our everyday life, and the pollution on land and in the oceans reaches even the most remote corners of the globe.

What was the most interesting thing you saw/learned on the shoot?

Prior to beginning this project, we had several of the same misconceptions about the garbage patches that many people still have today. When you think of a garbage patch, you envision something with considerable mass, like a densely packed island of large plastic objects. In reality it’s worse. There are millions of pieces of micro-plastic that float on the top two to three meters of the ocean’s surface that span across every major ocean on the planet. During early morning shoots, we would watch plastic wash up along Bermuda’s shoreline, covered in algae with fish bites taken out of it, indicating that the plastic had been swirling in the ocean’s currents for decades. Witnessing the volume of trash we saw wash up on the shores during our short stay in Bermuda left a big impact on us as we imagined that this is happening in many beaches all over the world.

Were there any production challenges that you encountered?

Like most nature and ocean-based productions, our biggest challenge was weather. We needed to film on a calm ocean surface to see the micro-plastics, and underwater to capture the wildlife. The stormy days outweighed the sunny ones three to one, so when the weather was nice we had to move quickly, diligently, and hope that we were in the right place at the right time. When you’re dealing with natural elements and wildlife, you can’t always check everything off your shot list. Luckily, we had a few clear days when we were able to get the humpback whale footage and many of the other underwater sequences.

What do you hope happens after someone watches your piece?

The objective of the film was to create awareness about the rapidly growing issue of plastic pollution and to inspire people to make small changes to their lifestyle that can have an impact on the problem. By refusing single-use plastics whenever possible, we are each making a choice to reduce the amount of waste we produce and work together to preserve our planet for generations to come.

National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase

The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.

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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Rachel Link curates content for National Geographic's Short Film Showcase. Each week she features films from talented creators that span a range of topics. She hopes that this work will inspire viewers to explore the world around them and encourages filmmakers to keep pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling.