The Austin Chronicle

SXSW Eco 2015: Racing Extinction

By Richard Whittaker, October 7, 2015, 9:00am, Newsdesk

"The worst thing you can do for the environment is make a film about it." When director Louie Psihoyos says this about his new documentary Racing Extinction, he's talking about his carbon footprint. But those emissions were necessary to tell a tale of imminent global environmental threat.

In 2010, Psihoyos won an Oscar for his film The Cove, which focused on the dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, Japan. His follow-up extends beyond one mass cull in one location to take a holistic, global view. The figures are staggering: a 40% decline in phytoplankton populations, 90% of sharks gone, and an extinction rate 1,000 times higher than it should be. The world is going quiet as the song of species after species goes silent. His new film, which screens at SXSW Eco, Wednesday, Oct. 7, posits that the world is on the brink of the sixth mass extinction event, but this time it's not an asteroid to blame, or big volcanic explosions. It's people.

Producer Olivia Ahnemann first met Psihoyos in 2006. He had just returned from shooting undercover footage for The Cove, she said, "and they were in the edit room, a group of people who had never made a film before." She came on board to handle day-to-day post-production duties, but it was a different story with Racing Extinction. Starting with the second shoot in August 2011, she did every task that comes under the title of producer: field work, hiring writers and editors, liaising with financiers, even finessing the associated publicity and education campaigns.

After all, this isn't just a standard documentary. For Psihoyos and crew, this is a global warning siren. Ahnemann said, "First of all, Louie views this subject matter as the biggest story of our time, and he's a very big, creative thinker. So the way that we tackled it, because it's so hard to get your arms around because it's so big, was to really focus on the emotional element."

The story may seem huge, but the examples are immediate and emotional: the last known surviving frog of a near-extinct species; a manta ray, struggling for life on the end of a hunter's harpoon; a nurse shark, its fins severed for soup, dying at the bottom of the ocean. "It is depressing, there's no way of denying it," Ahnemann said. The pace of production, and the simple mechanics of making the film, would be distracting, "but then every now and again you'd hear a story or see a scene, and the sense of desperation hits you again."

Yet bleak as the prognosis can be, the fight is still important. As noted ecologist and primatologist Jane Goodall tells the camera, "If we lose all hope, there is no hope." For every depressing moment, there's the story of how the Empire State Building is now one of the greenest structures in New York, or how driver Leilani Munter brought electric cars to the racetrack, or how former shark fishers are now shark tour guides.

It's also a fight that never ends. That's reflected in the film, which has added a major coda since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. On Aug. 1, the production brought the streets of Manhattan to a halt as residents watched a massive son et lumière production on the side of some of NYC's most iconic buildings, including the Empire State and the UN Headquarters.

According to Ahnemann, the seed was planted in 2012, when Psihoyos met audiovisual expert (and former Brian Jonestown Massacre guitarist) Travis Threlkel of San Francisco's Obscura Digital. She said, "They had this idea that you could stop people in their tracks in an unexpected place and have them pay attention to these beautiful creatures." Three years later, they pulled off exactly that, to enthralling results. Ahnemann said, "It gave a voice to all these creatures."

Racing Extinction screens at SXSW Eco, 7:30pm, Oct. 7, at the Alamo Ritz, 320 E. Sixth. It will receive its broadcast debut at 9pm Eastern, Dec. 2 on Discovery. Find out more about the film at

SXSW Eco 2015 runs Oct. 5-7 at the Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez. More info at

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