Millions of years in the making, underground caves sustain delicate ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity. In this film, explorers of the vast cave networks in the southern United States explain the importance of preserving these subterranean worlds. Director Drew Perlmutter spoke with me about his love of caving and some of the unique challenges he encountered on the shoot.
Are you a caver, and if so, how long have you been caving?
Funny story, actually … So, previous to making this film, I had no caving experience whatsoever. Caving was something I had always had a fascination with, so I jumped at the chance to learn with this film. The tricky thing was that I only had a total of six weeks to make this film—two weeks for preproduction, two weeks for production, and two weeks for [postproduction]. So during the two weeks of preproduction, besides planning and logistics, I spent many days learning how to climb rope in a 30-foot tree. The next week, once production began, I was rappelling and climbing out of caves as deep as 265 feet. During the two-week period of filming, I visited 12 different caves. So, to answer the question: I would like to think of myself as such, at least an honorary caver.
What do you love most about the sport?
Where do I begin? I could probably talk so much about this one, but I’ll try and keep it simple. What really made me fall in love with caving was the raw sense of adventure and exploration. A typical caving day would start with waking up at about 6 a.m. and driving for a few hours through the forests to reach the trailhead. From there, it was hiking a few miles up the side of a mountain, following topographical maps or old logging roads. Upon reaching the cave, it was [time] to either rig and begin rappelling, or continue hiking into the underground. I’ve never really experienced anything close to what these two weeks of filming gave me—the strenuous hikes, the long days, the incredible payoff of being on rope halfway down a pit cave and looking around to find light rays.
How did you find out about this particular cave system, and what inspired your piece? This film was made in partnership with the Southeastern Cave Conservancy (http://www.scci.org). It’s an organization that is dedicated to cave acquisition, conservation, and management. With their support I was trained, educated, and inspired to create a film that not only showcases the beauty of caves but also their environmental importance.
Were there any surprising challenges you encountered along the way?
Again, where do I begin? I have a long laundry list of challenges I encountered. First off, I had to learn how to cave from having no prior experience. What could be harder than that? Well, learning to make a movie in a cave is a close second. There’s no easy way to get equipment into a cave … and there’s no clean way to do it, either. Getting the equipment down to the bottom of a pit cave was relatively easy, climbing back up with a 30-pound drone case attached to my hip wasn’t. Neither was crawling on my hands and knees with a backpack full of camera gear, barely able to fit through tight passes. Also, lighting—I mean, caves are pitch-black. Try making a film in complete darkness. So because of that, we had gear bags specifically dedicated to holding our LEDs and power. That was another challenge, making sure to bring all the storage, equipment, and power we would need for a full day, then all of our caving equipment. And on top of that enough snacks and drinks, et cetera. Long story short, there was so much gear. Some days we would have extra cavers just to help with gear alone.
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