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Behind the effects in Shark Night 3D
[Wed 12/09/2012 10:19:07]
By Sam Dallas
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #143 (Oct-Nov 2011).
The shark is not working. The shark is not working. The repeated phrase that echoed around the waters of Martha’s Vineyard during the filming of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws almost 40 years ago.
Massive production problems led to budget over-runs and the project was more than 100 days over schedule. As a result, the young filmmaker thought his career was over. Far from it – his head was far above water.
Fast forward to today and the classic film is still seen as the ultimate shark movie.
“The work on Jaws was an incredible achievement. Jaws is a classic... you’re not going to outdo it or out-top it,” shark animatronics expert Walt Conti tells IF from Los Angeles. “The tension and the suspense is built through brilliant editing and sound design and if you actually look at what the shark is doing – he’s not doing these acrobatic, energetic motions but the editing really pulls you in.”
Getting the shark to perform such acrobatic, energetic motions that these “killers of the deep” undertake is available to today’s filmmakers – and was crucial in Shark Night 3D.
While still being respectful to Jaws, Conti – who was the animatronics effects supervisor on the upcoming thrill-ride – says comparing the practical effects was like comparing a Ford Model T to a Ferrari: it’s completely different.
“A shark is a combination of very stealthy movement and then incredible bursts of energy and power and you have to capture that power to convey the shark convincingly,” Conti, who also founded effects company Edge Innovations, says. “We’re able to create these really powerful, energetic machines.”
Creating these powerful “machines” is nothing new for Conti, who has worked on “creature features” such as Deep Blue Sea, Anaconda, Free Willy and received an Academy Award nomination for The Perfect Storm.
But Shark Night 3D provided an extra element of intrigue for the LA-based filmmaker as great white sharks were not the only species involved. The variety of sharks – great whites, hammerheads, bull sharks, tigers, makos – made the script stand out.
Conti and his team of about 16 created two great whites – one for general swimming (self-contained that swam on its own like a model airplane, but underwater) and one for attack scenes – as well as a hammerhead shark. The white pointers were about 11-and-a-half feet weighing about 900 pounds (serviced by a 250 horsepower engine), whereas the hammerhead was about 12 foot long and weighed about 1000 pounds.
“The idea was not to do these huge Hollywood sharks – outlandish sizes; it was really meant to create very realistic sharks that could exist in these little lakes. It was really about literally replicating as close as possible the average aggressive great white shark and hammerhead,” says the Stanford University engineering/design graduate.
The latter proved to be the main challenge during filming – as it wasn’t shot in a studio tank – like the great whites – but an actual lake.
“Whenever you leave the confines of a studio tank, you’re at the mercy of the environment,” Conti says.
After consultation with marine biologists, an original sculpture was created with clay. Teeth were cast from real sharks – the great white came from San Francisco and the hammerhead came from Australia. Conti and his team painted the skin and built the different parts until it all came together. The sharks took about seven months to complete. “These things live or die by detail,” Conti adds.
During shooting (which lasted up to two weeks), about 8-9 members of his team were working with the shark. Several divers positioned the predator prior to each take, monitored it during scenes. When needed, there were 2-3 people controlling the shark with joysticks and a keyboard. Conti explains manoeuvring the “hellraisers of the sea” with a joystick was basically undertaking a live performance due to the controllers working together – otherwise the result would be a “spastic shark”.
The other sharks in the film were all CGI, added during post-production. Conti believes using both animatronics and visual effects was critical in ensuring the final product was perfect. It was something director David R. Ellis (Snakes On A Plane) took on board early – and he knew what had to be CGI and what had to be “physical”.
“It’s really impossible to beat having the real shark there. But even more than that, the director can direct both characters – you can imagine he can direct the shark to perform and the actress to perform.
“The Jaws shark was built on this huge platform with big rigs – if you change your mind on a shot, you have to take two days to re-rig; so we try to create sharks that you can, on the moment, say ‘I want to do this, I want to do that’ and just react like you would staging an actor.”
When “puppeteering” the shark, the director can instruct the shark to be more aggressive or more “cunning”.
How does that compare with visual effects?
“You’re basically saying ‘well imagine there’s a shark’ – and everyone has a different imagination of what that’s doing at that moment. And so you drag the performance out of the actor but six months later you’re trying to fit the shark to that performance but you can’t go back to change the actress so you’re basically directing each one on their own as opposed to directing literally.”
The film veteran says with animatronics you also have what’s known as “happy accidents” – sequences that turn out even better than you had imagined.
“They end up being some of the best sequences. And if you’re just doing visual effects, you don’t have those moments. You basically have to plan everything and execute it, almost like an animated film.”
But he’s not downplaying the role of visual effects as they are just as important in a film like this, in order to produce the most realistic project possible.
“The mechanical sharks have limitations – they’re not good at doing acrobatic things,” Conti concedes. “And sharks do these incredible snap-turns – where they’re going in one direction and then they do this 180 [degree] u-turn…I call them like chomp and run shots or snatch and run shots.”
Combining both, you have realistic hunters of the deep.