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  • The Trials and Tribulations of Documentary Filmmaking


    By Howard Hall - Photography by Michele Hall


    After accepting a contract to make a multimillion dollar, giant format (IMAX) film about sharks, I decided it would be wise to select a location where I had a good chance of finding some. That may seem about as logical as checking to see if a swimming pool is full before diving off the four meter board, but film producers can surprise you. I was once hired to compete in an international shark tagging competition in a location where there were no sharks. The absence of aquatic predators made this program rather dull. The following year, another TV network held a similar competition. After carefully conducted research, they chose the same location. Although sharkless, the place did boast a five star hotel with a fabulous restaurant and bar. Everybody was very comfortable and the water was entirely safe for swimming. But the resulting programs were less than satisfactory. I learned a lesson from these two productions: If you are going to make a film about sharks, go where sharks live.

    Of course, sharks live most places where the water is salty, a fact that undoubtedly inspired optimism with the producers at both of the organizations mentioned above. But finding sharks and getting close enough to film them is often not as easy as finding hamburgers at a fast food restaurant. So, I decided to be less arbitrary in choosing a location for my shark film. In fact, I chose a location where there were more sharks per cubic foot of sea water than any other place in the world-Coco Island, Costa Rica.

    Coco Island The waters around Coco are shark infested. Most of the dive sites are literally teeming with schools of Hammerheads, White-tipped Reefs, Silkies, Blacktips, Silvertips and even an occasional Whale Shark. It is simply impossible to make a dive at Coco without encountering sharks. This legendary abundance of sharks at Coco would, I hoped, offset the legendary difficulty in working with the enormously cumbersome IMAX camera system.

    The IMAX Mark II weighs about 85 pounds. When you put this camera in an underwater housing, the system becomes a 250 pound pig. The camera is loaded with 1,000 feet of 70mm film, which itself weighs ten pounds. The cost of purchasing, developing and printing this 1,000 foot film load is just more than $3,000-and it only lasts three minutes. After running the camera for three minutes, the system must be returned to the surface, hauled out of the water on a davit and reloaded. The process takes two assistant cameramen about 20 minutes.

    The shortness of the film load is only one of the many frustrating inconveniences of working with a giant format system. Swimming around with a camera system the size of a small refrigerator is about as graceful and hydrodynamic as swimming around towing a ten foot diameter parachute. If there is any current, you simply aren't going anywhere except downstream.

    Should you happen to be lucky enough to find yourself in a position to film a school of Hammerheads, you must turn the camera on and then wait five seconds before the film is running at speed. And, while it's running, the camera produces a sound not unlike a garbage disposal grinding away at an aluminum can. Most sharks don't seem to care about the noise, but Hammerheads often freak out. By the time the camera is running to speed, all I usually get on film is shark butts.

    To produce a film sequence in giant format takes approximately five fold the time and effort of producing a similar sequence in 16mm. And, for those of you who shoot video, producing a sequence in 16mm takes about four times as long as a video. To produce a simple sequence of shark behavior that would require a single dive with a video camera takes about five days of shooting IMAX. It helps to be patient when shooting giant format. It's better to be semi-comatose.

    To overcome the encumbrances of making a shark film in giant format, we scheduled copious amounts of time at Coco Island. We ran five 28 day expeditions aboard the Undersea Hunter to Coco, plus one ten day expedition to Mexico for a total of 150 days in the field. Certainly, this was a generous film production schedule even for a giant format film. But as it turned out, this opulent schedule saved my bacon.

    A White-tipped Reef Shark During the first six months of 1998, Coco Island turned in a less than stellar performance. I succeeded in diving 64 days at Coco, from February through July, without seeing one Hammerhead. This is certainly a record since normally one sees Hammerheads on every dive. It was not a record I accumulated with enthusiasm. It was like setting the record for the most teeth one could knock out with a single strike of a claw hammer.

    The absence of Hammerheads during early 1998 was owing to a meteorological phenomenon known as El Niņo. The resulting weather wreaked havoc within wilderness habitats and among wildlife filmmakers. One natural history filmmaker I know became so depressed by the catastrophe El Niņo caused his that he decided to surrender his self-respect and seek employment as a film director in Hollywood. All over the world, animals contractually scheduled to appear before wildlife cameras failed to make their curtain calls, opting instead to squander their time seeking the food, water or, in the case of marine wildlife, the water temperatures that allowed their bodies to carry on normal metabolism. At Coco, water temperatures rose from a normal average of 78°F at 130 feet to 87

    Fortunately, Island of the Sharks was always intended to be a film about the entire Coco Island marine ecosystem and not exclusively sharks. That was fortunate since even White-tipped Reef Sharks occurred at Coco in greatly reduced numbers during our first three expeditions. So, during those early trips, we concentrated on filming small, though often fascinating, animals including lobsters, Eagle Rays, Mantis Shrimp and a variety of unusual fish behaviors.

    Finally, in late July, at the beginning of our fourth expedition to Coco, El Niņo suddenly abated and overnight Coco returned to her normal, shark infested character. On our first dive of that expedition, hundreds of Hammerheads soared overhead as we drifted with our heavy IMAX camera system across the summit of the Alcyon Seamount. Pointing the camera skyward, we easily captured more than 100 sharks in a single frame. Dozens of Hammerheads attracted swarms of bright yellow Barberfish that clustered around the predators, picking off parasites and bits of damaged tissue. White-tipped Reef Sharks roamed over the reef like packs of hungry wolves. As our camera rolled, the packs of White-tippeds repeatedly pursued fish into the reef and then competed to root them out.

    High above the seamount, hundreds of Silky and Blacktip Sharks competed with Yellowfin Tuna and Bottlenose Dolphins to prey on a swarm of Green Jacks. The panicked jacks formed a dense school 30 feet in diameter that spun like a whirlwind. Four and five at a time, sharks slashed through the spinning school, causing a constant rain of fish scales to fall from the base of the living tornado. This was the Coco we had come to film.

    The two months of diving following the end of El Niņo resulted in spectacular images for our film. Nothing can possibly replace the experience of diving Coco Island. But if you can't make the trip or if you want a primer for the adventure of a lifetime, Island of the Sharks is the next best thing to being there.