Denver Bar Association
February 2009
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Denver Attorney Counsels Animal Planet Thriller TV Series

by Andrew Laing

How’d he get THAT job?!

Violence, danger, international legal battles and treachery on the high seas: it’s all in a day’s work for Denver media and entertainment attorney, Robert Roper (pictured right).

Roper, of the Denver law firm Moye White, the past year has provided all legal counsel to production company Rivr Media in the planning and production of Animal Planet’s enthralling and controversial hit series, "Whale Wars." The seven-part series aired Friday evenings in November and December on the popular cable television network.

"Whale Wars" follows the adventures of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its confrontational and charismatic leader, Paul Watson. The show features Watson and his crew of more than 30 volunteers on a voyage to thwart Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica.

Extremely thorough and sensitive legal planning was required for the show, said Roper.

"We had to work on parallel tracks to iron out all the legal aspects involved in embedding a camera crew on the protesters’ ship — as well as considering various aspects of maritime and international law," said Roper.

At the same time, legal counsel had to negotiate the Animal Planet deal for production. The firm also drew up documents for all parties, regarding issues such as the feeding and housing of the camera crew, the role of the camera crew and a release from Sea Shepherd allowing them to film. The final agreement, negotiated by Roper, stipulated that the camera crew would be there only to record what happened and could not assist the ship’s crew in any way.

The legal preparations were so complex, Roper said, that Rivr Media’s international camera crew only managed to scramble to the assembly point one day before the ship left on its mission from Melbourne, Australia. The conservation society’s ship was named for, and inspired by, the late Steve Irwin, the world-renowned wildlife exploration icon from Animal Planet.

As the "Whale Wars" production hit stormy waters, as expected, two members of the Steve Irwin crew boarded a Japanese whaling ship. This prompted claims of piracy by the Japanese. Watson retorted with counter-claims of kidnapping. An international incident ensued, and the Japanese government lodged a formal complaint with the government of Australia.

"We had to arrange for an Australian law firm — and a fellow member of an international legal alliance — to meet with Australian police about this," said Roper. "Because of possible evidence requirements, we arranged for copies of all the video footage to be left in Melbourne." So far, the Australian government hasn’t asked for the video.

Legal complexities continued all the way through the video editing process, said Roper. Four month’s worth of video had to be edited quickly into just seven episodes. The editing process ultimately was crammed into 90 days of hard work. The firm had to be extremely careful to monitor what could be stated as fact. For example, the crew described as "harmless" the butyric acid thrown at the Japanese whaling ship. But Roper had to carefully to determine if this was a fact or merely an opinion, and make sure it was presented as such.

A veteran of many reality series, Roper said his work on "Whale Wars" was challenging, but extremely exciting — like nothing he has ever done before. Stay tuned — a sequel is in the works.

Purchase "Whale Wars" on DVD at http://animal.discovery.com, and watch the second season this summer.

Paul Watson, center, surrounded by members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society during taping of the reality television show, "Whale Wars."

Japanese whaling factory ship, the Yushin Maru #2, as seen from the deck of the Steve Irwin. Photos by Luis Ascui/Getty Images


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