Swimming with the Sharks
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 6 (June 2005)

Swimming with the Sharks

The ability to surround audiences with larger-than-life 3D sharks might sound like a recipe for an underwater horror movie, but frightening viewers à la Jaws was not the intent of the filmmakers when producing Sharks 3D: A Close Encounter with the Lions and Tigers of the Ocean. Rather, this new IMAX film from 3D Entertainment was designed to communicate the passion shared by director Jean-Jacques Mantello, his brother and executive producer Francois Mantello, and director of photography Gavin McKinney for these great ocean predators.

To this end, Sharks 3D allows audiences to “experience” sharks in their natural element. And through the high-definition filmic encounter made possible through newly invented digital technology, the trio hopes to generate admiration and sympathy for these feared fish, many of which are actually endangered. This is because approximately 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year for food and sport.

In fact, Sharks 3D is the second underwater-themed IMAX offering from the 3D Entertainment team, which also made Ocean Wonderland 3D, a trip through coral reefs that is “narrated” by a sea turtle. Released in 2003, Ocean Wonderland 3D was the first stereoscopic large-format film to be shot entirely in digital 3D high-definition format. And it continues to play in IMAX theaters worldwide, having grossed $17 million to date.

A grey reef shark was one of several species that 3D Entertainment was able to film in digital 3D high-definition format for the IMAX movie Sharks 3D.

Sharks 3D, presented by Jean-Michel Cousteau in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Programme, premiered in Las Vegas early this year and is now being shown at IMAX theaters around the world.

The 42-minute documentary (narrated by the same friendly sea turtle from the first film) was shot over a period of nine months in offshore locations in Mexico, Columbia, Egypt, South Africa, Mozambique, and French Polynesia. Nearly 500 diving hours were required to complete the film, which takes place entirely underwater, among the fishes-and among hammerhead, whale, and great white sharks.

Although filming underwater in 3D has its own set of challenges-many of which Mantello’s team already encountered during the making of Ocean Wonderland 3D-filming sharks made matters more difficult still. That’s because sharks, unlike coral reefs, are constantly on the move, and, therefore, difficult to locate and shoot. Moreover, some species have become so rare that the film crew couldn’t locate them at all. And of course, the divers had to take special care because they were filming some of the world’s largest and fiercest predators.

Using a typical IMAX camera-which weighs about 200 pounds, takes 17 minutes to load, and shoots only three minutes of film at a time-was out of the question for underwater shooting. Another disadvantage of the camera is that it is so noisy, it would have disturbed the sharks. Instead, for both Ocean Wonderland 3D and Sharks 3D, the crew opted to use a pair of Sony HDW-900 cameras, which weigh less than 100 pounds each and can handle up to 45 minutes of film at a time. The two cameras-one to film the “left-eye” image and the other the “right-eye” image, for stereoscopy-were placed side by side in a waterproof camera housing designed by Mantello.

Nevertheless, this setup still weighed 300 pounds. So for the first movie and the early part of the second one, the crew moved the camera rigging in and out of the water with a crane. Partway through Sharks 3D filming, however, Mantello contrived a new camera housing that weighed less than 150 pounds, cameras included. This far more portable rigging could be ferried on a rubber dinghy to an area where the sharks were, providing the speed and flexibility the filmmakers needed to shoot their fast-moving targets. A custom workstation with two Apple Cinema 23-inch monitors onboard the ship let the crew view their undersea HD footage immediately, and also cut it in real time.

Using a proprietary postproduction process, the 3D Entertainment group was able to film the sharks in 2k-resolution HD format, and output it at 4 k-resolution.

The HD format provided an excellent solution to the problem of shooting underwater, although transforming the footage to IMAX format was a shark-size challenge. “HD is 2k resolution; IMAX is 4 k,” explains Mantello. “If you just ‘blow up’ the images to the higher resolution, it doesn’t look good.” To overcome this issue, 3D Entertainment used a proprietary process in postproduction to enhance each frame of the film so that it would look suitably crisp and rich in IMAX format.

Still, concedes Mantello, the quality is not quite that of a film shot in IMAX from the get-go: The HD-to-IMAX converted imagery is a bit less sharp and a bit more grainy. “People working in the IMAX business will notice a difference,” he says, “but most others will not.” In fact, the team was nervous about image quality when it first shot Ocean Wonderland 3D, he recalls. But filmgoers surveyed at previews before the film’s general release responded favorably to specific questions about image quality, so Mantello decided the trade-off was more than worth it. In fact, he notes, many divers have remarked that the lighting and imagery of both films reproduces accurately what an underwater world looks like to them.

The stereoscopic images, in HDCAM tape format, were stored and edited using hard disks, workstations, and editing and data management software in a configuration customized by 3D Entertainment. Then, using Celco’s Fury Digital Film Recorder, the team performed color corrections and several visual corrections, such as vertical adjustments, before the HD-format film was output to the 65mm IMAX film format. According to Mantello, Celco’s new Advanced CRT Imaging technology made this output process far quicker for Sharks 3D than for Ocean Wonderland 3D-eight seconds per frame as opposed to the 20 seconds per frame that it took previously.

Although the sharks were hard to find at times, they were less difficult and less temperamental to photograph than some movie stars. In fact, the divers did not use any cages, though one was kept nearby while they shot the great white sharks. The closest a crew member got to being harmed was when Mantello’s brother Francois found himself surrounded by a group of silky sharks that prodded him to see if he might be likely prey, but he escaped unharmed.

The sharks themselves provided the greatest satisfaction, and the greatest disappointment, of making the film, comments Mantello. Among the highlights for him was finding and filming whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean. Though whale sharks can measure up to 50 feet long, these water giants are gentle and generally tolerate, and seemingly enjoy, being near divers. But while being close to the whale sharks was exciting for the group, filming them was nerve-racking because of their sheer size, says Mantello.

Getting an entire whale shark into a frame was hard enough (cameramen used a wide-angle lens), but having them “pop” in 3D was downright worrisome to the filmmaker. In fact, getting any large object to work in stereo is difficult. “If you look at a mountain, for example, it doesn’t look 3D,” Mantello says. “If it’s far enough away for you to see the whole mountain, it looks flat.” That’s why small, close-up objects work best in stereoscopy. However, by shooting the whale shark from a variety of distances and angles, then choosing the footage that worked best, Mantello was able to present the whale sharks in 3D, which he cites as probably the most satisfying technical achievement of the film.

A grey reef shark approaches the group underwater. Despite being in such close proximity to many of these predators, the divers were threatened only once during the filming.

Conversely, a major disappointment was the fact that the Sharks 3D crew was unable to locate tiger sharks, which Mantello had planned to include in the film. “It is sad,” he says, “because if we were not able to locate any, that means it’s likely that there aren’t that many out there.”

If viewers are as moved by Sharks 3D as its makers hope, perhaps the tiger sharks’ plight will become less desperate, as Mantello hopes that people who see the movie will be motivated to protect the ocean and its inhabitants-even, and especially, those as formidable as sharks.

A custom-designed housing unit reduced the weight of the underwater camera setup, thereby enabling the crew to keep pace with the sharks.

Jenny Donelan, a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World, can be reached at jdonelan@adelphia.net.