by Moonah Ellison
images courtesy of RSA
Seasoned photographer Michael Muller sees the culmination of a dream (and many years of hard work, patience and perseverance) with a 2018 Tribeca Film Festival Selection Into The Now, part education tool for climate change, pollution and overfishing; part exploration of the oceans through VR.
“… . This isn’t about a product, this is about a planet. I think Mother Nature had my back from the beginning…”
Photographer Michael Muller has been shooting commercially for 30 years, starting out in the mid-80s photographing snowboarders. He then moved to Los Angeles when he was 19 and shot (and continues to shoot) commercials, advertising campaigns and magazine editorial shoots for actors, music, sports, global brands. But directing a 2018 Tribeca Film Festival official selection documentary film on experiences in ocean conservation and cage-free diving with great white sharks? Well, of course. Just another day in the life of a world class photographer.
“I’ve always made it a point to do personal projects over the course of my career,” says Muller, who also happened to shoot this issue’s cover story with Jason Clarke. “Personal projects have always been important to me for my creative outlet and just because I like doing it; there’s no pressure of a client and no money attached. It’s purely for the art and artmaking.”
Muller took a lifelong fear of sharks and turned it into a documentary called Into the Now, a stereoscopic virtual-reality experience that explores marine life and ocean conservation through Muller’s own journey of learning how to dive without protection or cages with great white sharks. Part education tool for climate change, pollution and overfishing; part exploration of the oceans through VR, the documentary (partnered with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation’s Shark and Ray Fund) premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Through a special partnership with Stanford University’s Neurology department, the project is also research on the benefits of VR for people with PTSD, anxiety and other stress disorders.
This project has been something on Muller’s mind for years. He spent four years of his childhood in Saudi Arabia right on the Persian Gulf and started diving with his first camera, a waterproof Minolta he got when he was 10. Scuba diving followed and when he moved back to the United States a few years later, Muller picked up surfing like any Cali kid would. Northern California is known for a high concentration of great whites so it’s always in the back of your head. “I saw Jaws as a kid and it had a huge impact on me,” says Muller. “I’ve always had a deep fear of sharks. Every time I’d surf I always thought ‘I’m going to get attacked by a shark.’ Sharks own underwater, they own the ocean.”
About 12 years ago, Muller was shooting a Speedo campaign with Michael Phelps and other Olympic swimmers and spending a lot of time underwater during the shooting. Then he got the bug of wanting to see a great white shark, to photograph a great white. After much discussion with his wife, she gave him a birthday gift “good for one great white trip.” Instead of just photographing the shark, Muller wanted to “light it up like I do with one my movie posters like Iron Man or The Avengers. I have to bring the studio to the shark.”
On the day of his first trip to see the great white, he’s the first person in the water at 6am and he gets in the cage. The shark comes up five minutes later out of the darkness and they lock eyes. “My life sort of changed in that moment. The fears started to melt away—not all of them, but definitely my perception of great whites started to change. I realized they’re not Jaws, they’re not this dumb mindless killing machine. On that first trip by the end I was hanging out of the cage by my waist. I had such a desire to go swim with that animal not in a cage. It’s not natural for a person to be inside of a cage looking out at things. It’s just abnormal.”
Muller and a NASA engineer he was introduced to created powerful underwater strobe lights, 1200 watts, that are now patented. Not long after that first dive, Muller went to the Galapagos to shoot an ad campaign and winds up going from being inside the cage and seeing great whites to no cage and swimming with hammerheads and other sharks. It is on this trip that Muller got educated with what is happening to the planet: Millions of sharks killed every year for fins, the disappearing Great Barrier Reef, garbage patches in the ocean the size of states. Muller decides to do something about it using his skill set. “I go, well, I’m a photographer and I’ve sold billions of dollars in movie posters and Nike so maybe I can sell sharks in a way people haven’t seen before. I had these lights and maybe people can see them under these lights. This is 11 years ago.” What followed was 30 expeditions all over the world with the lights and seven assistants plus a film crew to document it (which would eventually become Into The Now), a clothing line for Billabong, a coffee table book with Taschen Publishing, a few shows for the Travel Channel.
“I really wanted to stay true to my photography career. When VR came along two years ago, there’s no Scorsese, there’s no Spielberg in that medium. It’s really a blank canvas because no one’s really done it. I had to learn from scratch when working with VR, rewire everything you know about shooting. I didn’t go to school, I’m self-educated and I took my knowledge of the visual world that I have, the experience, and just sort of set on this journey. I created partnerships and found people. RSA [Films], my production company, got on board and produced it. But really it’s one of those things you’ve got to go out and do it.
Part of why Muller’s involved in this project is that he hopes “a little girl or a little boy watches this series and gets inspired and in ten years from now or sometime down the road finds the solution for climate change or figures out how to get the plastic out of the ocean. That’s the goal, to inspire this next generation. Kids are hooked into technology now and not going out into nature. I figured I could bring nature to them using technology.
“I truly believe when you’re doing a project…this is bigger than me. This isn’t about a product, this is about a planet. I think Mother Nature had my back from the beginning. When it comes to swimming with sharks, it’s like anything else. When you’re learning how to play tennis or golf or surf, it takes time, it takes training, and being with people who know a lot more than me obviously, and learning how to just interact with these animals. You have to put in a lot of time and energy.”