Ever since Jaws was released almost 40 years ago, the sight of fin slicing through steely cold waters has continued to terrify us. Yet while many remember the action on screen, it is the people who work behind the scenes that provide the underwater terror of sharks – whether digital or animatronic – chomping on human bait frolicking in the water.
So it goes with Shark Night 3D, the latest film from genre veteran David R. Ellis (Snakes on a Plane) where a group of college students take a vacation to a lake house in Louisiana, only to find that less than friendly locals and several man eating sharks await their company.
Bringing these predatory creatures to life were a team of special and visual effects wizards, led by special effects supervisor Matt Kutcher (Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Piranha) and visual effects supervisor Gregor Lakner (The Other Guys, The Day After Tomorrow).
With shark films practically a genre onto their own, Kutcher and Lakner had the task of not only creating credibly effects for the film, but also differentiate this shark movie from others before it.
“I tried to instil a whole new level of fear, you know?” said Kutcher. “I was hoping to at least try to even come close to a great movie like Jaws. I remember being a child, where we talked about how that movie terrified me. So I just wanted to have one second like that…I think that was kind of my goal to make one moment that scary.”
For Lakner, he had to put into consideration the new technologies which a film like Shark Night 3D has to work with. “Shark Night 3D is a stereo movie, so that changes a little bit how the film gets made and how you’re planning the story because the volume of space becomes also a component of the storytelling” said Lakner. “David Ellis and the producers really wanted to use that and have the sharks frequently come from positive space, which is the space outside of the screen. They really wanted to capitalise on that and use it in the horrible moments.”
Shark Night 3D features several different shark species in what is something of a smorgasbord of man eating predators. Lakner researched these sharks extensively in order to portray them to the best of his ability and to the limits the screenplay allowed.
“I always do extensive research before I start the projects” said Lakner. “The story happens in a Louisiana swamp in fresh water, so there is a little bit of a question on how could sharks come into fresh water and apparently it’s possible. As a matter of fact they found Bull Shark’s up stream in the Mississippi river quite far in land. That however was not so much my concern, it was more the behaviour and the look. Then with the director, we made a creative decision whether we stay true to the nature of sharks or whether we go the film way, just to tell the story and the storyline.”
“I was hoping to at least try to even come close to a great movie like Jaws. I remember being a child, where we talked about how that movie terrified me. So I just wanted to have one second like that…I think that was kind of my goal to make one moment that scary." - Matt Kutcher
It is a similar approach to work which Kutcher employs when diving into a new projects. “When I read a script whether it’s Shark Night or any movie, I try not to get involved with the story or character development, or any of that stuff” said Kutcher. “It’s not my business. I just want to add or contribute some sense of excitement or make sure I do exactly what the director wants.”
This is Kutcher’s second film with Ellis. The two previously collaborated on the infamous Snakes on a Plane, and it was a working relationship which Kutcher was happy to continue on Shark Night 3D. “He is without question my favourite director” said Kutcher. “He is just a blast to work with. He’s a real guy, you know? He comes from very humble beginnings as a stunt man and he seems to get a lot of these films, doesn’t he?”
One thing which all filmmakers dread with a film like Shark Night 3D is the daunting prospect of having to work with water, with Jaws and Water World testimonials to how working on water can lead to disaster. It is a fact not lost of Kutcher, whose experience with shooting on water has brought many a headache and also a wealth of experience.
“Water films are a pain in the ass, man” said Kutcher. “I don’t know if I’ve been fortunate or unfortunate to do 4 years of Baywatch and many water pictures, from Into the Blue to….you name the rest. We’ve done many water pictures, and what I think I tell every producer is, you know they say babies are difficult, or animals are difficult…I think water is a whole other entity when it comes to doing the movie.”
That “whole other entity” becomes even more difficult to navigate when computer technology is involved, especially for a visual effects man who needs all the tools at his disposal to make it work.
“I strongly believe that all of this visual component should at the end of the day support the story, that it’s just one additional tool to convey a story.” - Gregor Lakner
“To do water in a believable way is really complicated and that was one of the most challenging issues on this picture” said Lakner. “From the very beginning David told me that there were gonna be a few moments in which a shark jumps out of the water, kind of like you’ve seen it in waters around South Africa or in Australia where Great White jumps out of the water and catches a seal or its prey, whatever it might be.”
“However in this case it was one of the movie heroes that would get knocked off a Wave Runner” said Lakner. “So we filmed a particular shark with a slow motion camera that was able to capture pictures at 400 frames per second, and then we designed a water simulation that would go with it and we had to build a custom design machine which was able to do all of the processing.”
So now we come to the 3D in Shark Night 3D, that often utilised and scrutinised extra dimensional format which will either be cinemas saving grace or a flash in the pan. For Kutcher and Laker one thing is for certain: it will be around for some time.
“I have embraced 3D because in essence I have been asked to” said Kutcher “I’ve embraced 3D because the producers want to see it done. So I try to design shots that will come more into the camera or try to figure out some sort of thing that will look cooler in 3D.”
“But I tend to find that a well composed shot or a well composed effect works in 2D or 3D” said Kutcher. “It’s the same thing, and if I design too much for it I don’t think it does it justice. I think you just have to design the best composed shot you can and go from there.”
It is an opinion which Lakner agrees with, yet he takes the argument for 3D one step further.
“I think 3D stereo should be used whenever it’s applicable” said Lakner. “I strongly believe that all of this visual component should at the end of the day support the story, that it’s just one additional tool to convey a story.”
“I don’t believe movies that are packed with visual effects are any better than those that have strong stories, and the same goes with 3D stereo” said Lakner. “I also think that in a few years 3D stereo is gonna become the norm, it’s just that in certain shots stereo is just gonna become very shallow. Whenever it is not important, you’re just not gonna emphasis on it, but when you try to show a specific thing then you should reach for it whether it’s horror, or action, or even documentary.”