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The Making of Shark Night 3D, Part 3: When Sharks Attack

The film’s other stars are the uncannily realistic sharks that anchor some of Shark Night 3-D’s most heart-stopping scenes. Walt Conti and Edge Innovations, the Bay Area-based specialists who have provided life-like sea creatures to the movies since the Free Willy films, created the animatronic creatures that terrorize the cast.
“Walt and his company make the best animatronic sharks on this planet,” says production designer Jaymes Hinkle. “Their movements are fluid and virtually identical to the way real sharks move.”

Conti has studied his subjects extensively. “Sharks are incredible machines in real life,” Conti says. “They usually swim slowly but when they snap, they have a lot of energy. We had to capture that energy to make it believable.”
He and his team built multiple animatronic sharks to capture different elements of real sharks and their movements. “Some were made for swimming gracefully and others were made to attack,” he says. “By combining different versions of the sharks, we were able to create all kinds of action. Some are computer controlled and we can carefully choreograph the jaws and head. Others are much more free-form, so we can play with them, fly them like a model airplane, really.”

The animatronics team focused on the film’s two most spectacular scenes: a desperate battle with a hammerhead shark, which was shot half underwater and half topside, and the climactic confrontation between Sara, Nick and a ravenous great white. “Our sharks ranged from 10 to 12 feet,” Conti says. “They weighed about 700 pounds. The great white had a 250-horsepower engine behind him and was designed to attack very aggressively.”

The craftsmen who fabricated the sharks began with an original sculpture done in clay used to make molds, Conti explains. They worked closely with marine biologists to build the most authentic-looking sharks possible.

“We painted the skin and built the different parts, until all the elements came together to create something that looks entirely natural,” he says. “It's the details like the pores and the texture of the skin that create a realistic feel. We also searched all over the world to find actual skulls that matched the size of the sharks we made and cast the teeth from real sharks. The hammerhead skull was found in Australia. The great white came from San Francisco.”

Bringing massive predators to life for the attack scenes required up to nine people working together. Several divers positioned the shark prior to each take, monitored it during the scenes and retrieved it when the scenes were complete. On dry land, operators sat at a keyboard or used joysticks to animate the sharks. “Using a joystick is like a live performance,” says Conti. “It gets tricky, because you may have two or three people working different joysticks. If it’s not coordinated, you get a really spastic shark, so it becomes about creating a live performance.”

Facing the eerily realistic giants was a nerve-wracking task for the actors. “When I was underwater, I could barely see,” says Milligan. “Then I would hear this little veep, veep and this thing would come swimming at me, looking just like a real shark. It was terrifying. When we got into the lake, we worked with the hammerhead, which was vicious. This thing was thrashing in the water and it was cutting us up. I got all kinds of scrapes, all kinds of bad, bad juju all over my arms from working with the sharks and doing all the stunts.”

Walls, who goes nose to nose with the hammerhead, notes that the sharks are built to scale, evoking an almost instinctive reaction as they approach. “They move with the essence of a real shark,” he says. “The first time I got into the water with this larger-than-life creature shaking and moving in my face, coming to bite me, I did feel like I was about to experience a real shark attack. It is surreal to see this thing in your face with real teeth and those cold eyes.”
Conti sympathizes with the actors, “It's tough not being scared when that thing is inches away from you,” he says. “It is terrifying. And without a mask, all you can see is blurry images coming at you.”

The art and craft of animatronics has evolved enormously since the classic 1970s underwater epic, Jaws, say Conti. “It was amazing for its time. But if you look at it now, it’s like a Model T compared to a Ferrari. We’re using aerospace and other kinds of high technology that let us do some really specific moves. There are so many incredible scenes. We've got Sara in the cage with the shark attacking. It looks like something on Discovery. You see the shark, you see Sara, and you've captured it all in one shot. I think that was David’s intent of using these animatronics. There’s just no cheating.”

In addition to animatronics, the filmmakers had other methods at their disposal to bring the sinister killers of the deep to the screen. “Matt Kutcher, our special effects coordinator, built several types of shark pieces,” says Hinkle. “When we needed a fin cutting through the water, we used a remote-controlled element that he created. We had other fins mounted in front of the camera on high-speed boats. He fabricated other items to portray the movement of the water below and above the surface.

“In addition, Gregor Lakner, our visual effects supervisor, came in later and added CGI elements, including several species of sharks,” Hinkle continues. “Of the six species of sharks used in different sequences, two were animatronic and Gregor created the rest.”

“One of the best things about working with David Ellis on this film was that he understood all of these different concepts,” says Hinkle. “He understood immediately what needed to be animatronic, what needed to be CGI, what needed to be a physical prop and why.”

Shark Night 3-D offers another twist on the shark genre: the action is set in and around a lake. Most of the film was shot on Caddo Lake, a bucolic body of water that straddles the Louisiana-Texas state line, about 25 miles northwest of Shreveport. Its relative isolation and proximity to Shreveport, which has hosted dozens of Hollywood productions including Battle: Los Angeles, Mr. Brooks and the upcoming Straw Dogs, gave the filmmakers access to everything they were looking for. “We went to Shreveport because it had great lakes and great locations and a great tax rebate program,” says Ellis. “They also have a great water tank there that was used for The Guardian.”

Actress Katherine McPhee fell in love with the area’s natural beauty. “It’s just gorgeous,” she says. “I'm from California, born and raised. We have nothing like this. The cypress trees covered in that gorgeous moss are amazing. I tried to pull off some of the moss but someone yelled at me and said that that was illegal. People had been stealing the moss to put on their own trees.”

The cast also appreciated the city’s nightlife, great food and classic Southern hospitality. “We were going out to restaurants and clubs every night,” says Paxton. “We went roller skating. We went to the shooting range. We explored the whole town. I even went to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I loved Louisiana so much that by the end of the trip, I was looking at property.”
Production designer Jaymes Hinkle says Caddo Lake was the perfect location, but finding a lake house appropriate for Sara’s wealthy upbringing proved more challenging. “So much of our film takes place down in the dock area and along the water’s edge,” he notes. “The house is always there in the distance, so it had to be right.”

Once they found a house that met most of their requirements, Hinkle and his team covered up its original brick façade to give it “a little bit of a Cape Cod, beachy feel.” They also added a mock second story to make it more imposing. “We made a sort of a back lot for the filming of Shark Night 3-D by adding all the little elements. The interior was completely redecorated. We wanted it to give the impression that Sara brings a sense of entitlement, a sense of having come to somewhere very, very special when she brings her friends to her island retreat for a weekend.”

Director David Ellis hopes audiences will feel the same way when they’re watching the film. Despite the challenges of shooting a 3-D action thriller in and around water, he says the outcome was well worth it. “It took a little more time than it would on land, but it worked out really well for us. It’s a fun movie; I can’t wait till it comes out.”
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