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Racing Extinction’ Sounds Alarm on Ocean’s Endangered Creatures

Image: Diver and whale

In "Racing Extinction," director Louie Psihoyos assembles a team of artists and activists on an undercover operation to expose the hidden world of endangered species and the race to protect them against extinction. Oceanic Preservation Society

"Racing Extinction," a documentary by director Louie Psihoyos, premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday. Like his previous Oscar-winning film "The Cove," the new movie focuses on the damage humankind is doing to the wild animals around us. This time the director is hoping to shine a light on all of the ocean's endangered species.

Psihoyos took some time out of his busy schedule at Sundance to talk to NBC News by phone about what went into making "Racing Extinction" and what he hopes the documentary will achieve.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you in making this documentary?

A: The whole premise of the movie was surprising to me. I brought two books with me to Sundance five years ago: "Terra," by Michael Novacek, which talked about the sixth extinction, and "A Reef in Time," by Dr. Charles Veron, which talked about how we are losing reefs all over the world because of climate change. I thought, "My God, this is the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t I think about it before?"

Q: Early on in the film you mention the 800 environmental activists who were killed over the last decade. Did that give you pause when you were planning to go undercover in the endangered species black markets?

A: I can't speak for everybody. But I know I was nervous. In "The Cove" we did a lot of undercover work, but this was different. We were like spies. We changed our identities. We were role-playing to get the confidence of sellers. That was much more nerve-wracking than "The Cove" was. When you’re facing your enemy one-on-one, you don't know what will happen if you get found out.

Q: What kind of role can a movie like this play?

A: There's so much apathy and hopelessness out there. This should be a beacon of hope. I wanted to make a movie that was inspirational. These are ordinary people doing heroic things. There’s nothing more beautiful you can do than try to save a habitat or an endangered species.

Q. What can people like me do to make a difference?

A. One thing people can do to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint is to eat more vegetarian and vegan diets. More greenhouse gases are produced by raising animals for consumption than from all the emissions from the transportation sector. You can get all the protein you need from plants and it makes total sense to cut out the middle man. It’s not just a win for the environment, it’s a win for health, too.

Watch: Endangered baby penguins hatch in San Francisco 0:18

Q: I never saw "The Cove" because I’d heard that there was a gruesome and disturbing scene in which the dolphins were killed. Was that something you tried to avoid in this film?

A: I think a lot of people didn't see "The Cove" for that reason. It was a good film, but there was a scene in it that some people couldn't stomach. This film is a lot more like "Pulp Fiction" than "Reservoir Dogs." It’s made to be a much more popular movie, one that could be shown in schools.

Q: Ultimately, what are you hoping will come from "Racing Extinction"?

A: When we made "The Cove" they were killing nearly 20,000 dolphins a year. Now we’re halfway through the season and they’ve killed less than 200. We weren’t able to shut it down completely, but we were able to drastically reduce it. I hope "Racing Extinction" creates a lot more sensitivity and that it will inspire teenagers and college students to become part of the solution. They may come up with better ideas than we have. We just cracked the surface. To be successful for me means inspiring people to action.