Black Fish Documentary Analysis

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Blackfish2013, Gabriella Cowperthwaite

ContextBlackfish is a 2013 animal captivity and cooperate documentary detailing the renowned marine theme park SeaWorld.The film was made in the aftermath of a trainer fatality: the death of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 sparked an OSHA lawsuit that revolutionised the marine mammal performance industry by prohibiting trainers from entering pools. The film has sparked much controversy and debate; animal activists are demanding the park be shut down, whilst SeaWorld officials have counteracted their claims with promotional campaigns.

What can i learn from the Documentary?The reason I decided to analyse this documentary is because it is effective at putting across a point of view to the audience and swaying them to a certain opinion; this has been shown in SeaWorld profit margins, which have fallen considerably after the documentary broadcast.I also chose this because it uses actuality footage effectively to create a coherent narrative, as well as using extracts from interviews to create a narration rather than just an added voice over; this provides for a unique and more engaging documentary. For my documentary, i will seriously consider the use of editing in the film, as this will help me to put across my argument to the audience.

Title SequenceThe documentary begins with a real life audio recording of 2x911 calls, with an inter-title used to set the context of the date and location. This sets a dark tone for the rest of the documentary as well as introduces the focal theme of Bracheau's death.The dark background of the text graphic connotes the idea of the ocean, with the glimmering text representing the killer whale; this connotes mystery surrounding their true strength and their lifestyle, as we are unsure of how they truly feel in captivity (Barthes Codes of Engima)The phone calls cuts to home video footage of a whale performing a trick, with a positive and celebratory tone conveyed; this creates a binary opposition ( Strauss) with the serious nature of the phone call, connoting how the fantasy world of SeaWorld shows shrouds the dark activities behind the scenes.

InterviewsInterviews with experts are a key aspect of Blackfish; Cowperthwaite uses ex-SeaWorld trainers to provide experiences about their careers in order to construct the argument that having orcas in captivity is wrong,The frame employs the rule of third to construct the shot in a way that fully represents the subject; The interviews use a mid shot, close-up and extreme-close up of the subject. The shot switches to a closer shot as the subjects word become more dramatic/important to the argument, enforcing the issue via the Hypodermic Needle Theory.The interviews often cut to actuality footage that supports the content of the interview, such as when Carol Ray is recounting the story of a mother loosing her calf; this makes the content of the interview more believable and helps keep the audiences attention.

NarrationDespite being an expository documentary, Blackfish does not employ the Voice of God. Instead, the narration is built up using the dialogue from interviews.This is important in enforcing Cowperthwaites argument, as the words being spoken are truthful and straight from the mouths of the experts, rather than being influenced by the film makers. This could be seen as a form of Cinema Verite.The narration is further backed up by accompanying dialogue with supporting, graphic images that reinforce the issue via semiotics. For example, when John Hargrove is talking about whale-on-whale attacks, footage of a whale bleeding from the side is shown, appealing to both the audiences auditory and visual responses.

Actuality FootageActuality footage is further used to enforce the argument about Orca captivity; using Cinema Verite conveys the truth about Sea Worlds agenda by displaying raw, amateur footage.Fig. 3, 4, and 5 show tourist's video footage capturing captive Orca attacks in order to exemplify to the audience how aggressive captive Orcas can be; this footage is intriguing and shocking for an audience, leaving a lasting impression that attempts to sway their viewpoint.Fig. 1shows footage of a past news report prior to Brancheaus death; by featuring footage of the deceased, the audience feel sympathy for the trainers death, causing them to subconsciously take her side and seek the reason why she has died in employment. Cowperthwaite provides this to them by constructing an argument about Seaworld.


Sound/MusicBlackfish employs the use of Aural signifiers when Tilikum is mentioned; this creates an association for the audience regarding the whale, causing them to feel a mixture of fear/anxiety. The soundtrack varies between a score that is deep and malicious in tone, to tracks that are postive and upbeat.The deep track is sued during serious situations where critical content and options are made about SeaWorld and Orca captivity, while the positive music is used during positive representation of the whales. This creates Binary Opposition between the beautiful animals and the cruel captivity.

GraphicsBlackfish makes use of a number of animations in order to satisfy the audiences visual needs when actual footage is not available/suitable. In Fig. 4, an animation is used to represent Seaworld Head Trainer Kelly Clarke giving testimony at an OSHA trial; by using text and not showing her face, Cowperthwaite constructs a persona around the trainer that she is vindictive and uncaring, causing the audience to take a negative view on her.The graphics using text help to reinforce the words that are being said in the narration to the audience; putting things in black and white text is an effective method for affirming the opinion of the viewer.Fig. 5 illustrates how the killer orca, Tilikum, has a huge bloodline through Seaworld; this intimidates the audience, as they contemplate the rising aggression and the potential future deaths at the park.


EditingBinary opposition (Levi Strauss)is used explicitly throughout the documentary; this can be after the recount of the wild orcas capture, where an appreciation of wild orcas is shown, as seen in the above images. The juxtaposition of shots is used to emphasise the fact that wild Orcas are beautiful and intelligent creatures; it is captivity that causes them to be violent and aggressive.Binary opposition is also used when a sign about how Captivity Kills is juxtaposed with the footage of Shamu dolls; this emphasise show so much money has been made via the cruel and vicious treatment of Orcas.

How does blackfish build up an argument?

1. After the initial recounts of Branches death, the audience are shown positive images of Orcas at sea world, with recollections of the Ex-Trainers first days at the park; This creates a positive light/mood about the whales.2. These recounts are used to gradually introduce the deceased Dawn Brancheau, where she is presented in as heroic figure. News extracts and interviews are used to criticise what happened to Brancheau, beginning to criticise SeaWorld.3. This is backed up by a recount of an Orca capture, featuring an emotional interview; this content sways to the audience to view SeaWorld as a cruel organisation. The whale Tilikum is directly introduced.

How does blackfish build up an argument?

4. A recount of Tilikums life begins, exploring he reason he killed Brancheau. This is not a criticism of the whale, but instead of the people who captured and trained him; this is an important part of building up sympathy for the whale.5. More actuality footage is used that shows SeaWorld being deceptive and cruel towards Orcas in captivity. Showing actual footage counties to sway the audience to the argument.6. Positive, emotive footage of whales in the wild and Orcas being cute is contrasted with the negativity, to emphasis what captivity has done to these whales; this continues to divert the blame away from the animal onto the captors.

How does blackfish build up an argument?

7. Case studies/recounts of other near fatalities at SeaWorld are presented; this shows that Tilikum is not the only case of Orca brutality, and helps to keep the audience engaged by shocking them. Actuality footage further increases the suspense. 8. A passage about the death of an Orca trainer at another park (Loro Parque) is then shown to illustrate that the problem is not exclusive to SeaWorld; The message that Orca captivity is wrong is continuously communicated to the audience.9. The tourist video of the last show Brancheau ever performed is shown to create further sympathy for Dawn; this enlightens the audience to exactly how she died and the reasons behind this, engaging them into the brutality of the event.

How does blackfish build up an argument?

10. The news reports and cover ups of the incident are then put forward to illustrate SeaWorlds corporate greed; After all the footage they have beens shown, this is the last piece of evidence put forward that convinces the audience that SeaWorld should be shutdown, and all Orcas released.11. The documentary is summed up by an insight into Brancheaus legacy charity and an emotive scene in which the trainers interviewed in the film see wild Orcas first hand. This summarises the fact the whole documentary is about honouring Dawns death, as well as the beauty of Orcas. From the point of view of Blackfish, the best way to do this is to release the Orcas and shutdown Seaworld.

DeceptionWhilst the majority of Blackfishs content is true, there are some instances of deception within the film.For example, in the top image, the trainer is presented as being one of the ex-trainers providing an interview in the film, when in fact the trainer in the footage is current seaworld employee. This may be considered unethical. Furth