Oceans doco reveals dangers to sea creatures

Oceans is a French documentary in production that showcases the wonder and spectacle of life in the all the world’s oceans. It also tells the story of how man is wantonly destroying the ocean ecosystem by overfishing, whaling and pumping sewage and waste into it.

Filming recently took place in Queensland and a number of animatronic sea creatures had to be created for the production.

The documentary has been made by Galatee productions, which has also made award winning films, such as Microcosmos, Winged Migration and Himalaya. The company has been filming its epic documentary Oceans for the last four years.

Galatee’s film is an epic love letter to the Oceans of the world, yet they wanted some of the sequences to detail humanity’s impact on the ocean environment, such as long line fishing, whaling, dolphin massacres, shark finning and drift-netting.

"They came to Australia to investigate filming opportunities."  says creature effects consultant Greg McKee. "They had apparently been close to awarding the sequences to a european animatronics team but the producers became aware of my previous work on both Babe films and expertise in creating marine animal special effects, including both animatronics and CGI. I’ve worked on projects that needed diverse effects, such as the ocean going full-size humpback whale for Ocean Girl; replica full sized model Orcas and a CGI Orca for Killers in Eden; CGI sharks and dolphins and I was also involved in the creative development of the Orca scene of Happy Feet."

The producers had a documentary filmmaking ethos where they preferred everything to be captured "real" and "in camera" rather than added in post, and so they favoured the use of animatronic models rather than computer graphics.

McKee contacted a number of highly trusted colleagues he had collaborated with on marine projects in the past and on behalf of the producers asked them to bid on the various sea creatures. He was ecstatic that the two colleagues who had made the winning bids, Paul Trefry and John Cox, also had a similar strong concern for conservation issues outside of their special effects work and would be highly motivated and dedicated to produce accurate and lifelike synthetic creatures.

Galatee’s Australian production coordinator Andrew Harcourt from OMD had worked on the Flipper TV series, so he had access to partial bodied and full sized animatronic dolphins from that project, as well as some that had been made by Jason Baird.

Andrew was confident that in turbulent bloody water with energetic editing the existing dolphin models would be able to fulfill the requirements of the dolphin massacre scene.

For the Long Line, Shark Finning and Driftnet sequences, a number of creatures had to be constructed from scratch.

In Sydney, Paul Trefry’s Creature NFX Workshop had won bids favourable to the producers and Paul was contracted to produce six of the species of the creatures needed for the production.

In Queensland John Cox produced a silicone replica loggerhead turtle based on the version he produced for Nim’s Island but with extensive new reference from Queensland museums and scientists.

In Sydney Paul and Greg collected a wealth of image and anatomical reference for the creatures that Creature NFX Workshop was going to build.

Matt Ward built the mechanisms for two blue sharks, and Dan Carlisle assisted and worked on the electronics. They also built an eagle ray, californian sea-lion, broadbill swordfish, sperm whale calf and a collection of amputated shark fins.

The Creature NFX Workshop’s team of sculptors, including Miyeoh, Gustavo, Warren and Matt Rowe, set to work.  Paul orchestrated all the details of the creatures’ construction, choosing materials and techniques, refining details and solving all manner of complex issues that arise when a complex lifelike robot is required to function autonomously in open ocean.  With Matt Rowe, they also worked on developing a durable iridescent paint finish for the silicone skinned creatures that could endure a hammering on board real fishing boats rolling about at sea, with less than gentle handling getting in and out of water by deck hands. Greg would visit regularly to check on progress and would brainstorm with Paul’s crew any issues that arose.

Paul runs a fast, tight and fun ship and so the work progressed at a lightning pace, even though more than six creatures were being worked on simultaneously. "We had regular visits from the producers and a "making of" documentary crew. The production’s resident marine zoologists were most impressed by our dedication to detail and accuracy."

The workshop’s most spectacular piece was the full size sperm whale calf at over five metres long, which was based on templates generated from meticulous video frame analysis taken from HD wildlife footage.

Most of the sperm whale was created out of painted fibreglass, rather than silicone used on the other creatures. So a ragging technique of building up the finish in detailed layers was applied that could be visible through each successive layer as they were employed.  We also added a final overall sprayed mist coat. A highly detailed finish was necessary for realism once the diffuse scattered underwater light had reduced visible colour range and contrast.

The final pieces from all vendors were spectacular and astoundingly realistic.

Filming on a rolling sea is not for everyone, especially after a greasy lunch, but the Creature NFX team says that few things are as rewarding as having real sea creatures, such as humpback whales, come up in open ocean to inspect your work and give their snorts of approval. And even with the very tight budgets on documentary features, there is a satisfaction and peace of mind to think that you are doing your part to help educate and hopefully help save the world.

The crew think: "That’s a satisfaction money can’t buy"