Great white sharks are an integral part of the ocean eco-system, protected in many parts of their world due to their vulnerable conservation status and having been recorded as migrating incredibly long-distances.
Dyer Island (off the coast of Gansbaai, South Africa), is arguably the single most important area in the world for great white sharks. Yet before 2013, no-one had ever actually calculated a population for this area, leaving global estimates to thumb sucks and educated assumption.
Which is where we came in. The Dyer Island Conservation Trust is an NGO which operates from Kleinbaai, next door to Gansbaai which itself is home to the single greatest cheesey garlic bread that one is ever likely to encounter.
I joined the team in early 2012 to essentially crunch through data so that they could complete their population estimate, the first of its kind. Once it was published, I was then asked to produce a short film on the project… in 7 days, at 24 hours notice.
The final film, made in barely a week... because stress builds character.
The Science - Establishing a population
Fins, fins and more fins
From a scientific perspective, my role on the project was to calculate the number of individual great white sharks who appeared in the area over a five year period. My instructions were simple – “Ed, sit down, shut up and count sharks”.
This was the moment I’d dreamed of since childhood.
Since 2007, the biologists at the Marine Dynamics would photograph the dorsal fin of each shark that spent a minimal amount of time at the cage diving boat. These photographs would be named, organised and saved into a central repository before being imported into a population database.
This is where I came in. I had to go through each shark fin photograph (one by one), adding them to a central database via a program called Darwin and comparing them with other fins that had already been added.
If the new fin matched one that was already in the system, it was named accordingly so that over time we would have a record of how many times each shark visited the area, during what periods etc.
I did somewhere in the region of 1,500 individual imports by the end of the project. As a result, seeing shark fins now induces panic attacks quite different to those you might normally expect.
Anyhow, this would be my first scientific publication as a co-author and on a personal level, was probably my single proudest moment since cooking a fried egg in less than an hour.
If you fancy reading the final publication: Gauging the Threat: The First Population Estimate for White Sharks in South Africa Using Photo Identification and Automated Software.
Writing the script
We’d all talked about making a film to showcase the project, but never solidified any plans to do so. After my return to the UK, I’d moronically assumed that someone else was handling this.
That remained the case until I got a phone call perhaps ten days before the actual study presentation was due at Cape Town aquarium, asking if I could write up a script asap. I knew almost every facet of the project off by heart, so doing so wasn’t too big a problem.
I made a pair of lists: one with all the scientific key-points of the project, the other with visuals I felt would be important to the story. From these I was able to quickly develop a rough skeleton of the script, after which it was simply a case of finding the correct tone.
In fairness, all this science mumbo-jumbo can very quickly go over peoples heads. I mean, personally, I absolutely love all this stuff and find it impossible not to geek out over, but even I reach a point with it where I feel like I’m part of clinical trials for a new insomnia drug. Tone of delivery plays a massive part in this.
We’d kept the language and personality reasonably informal in our last video and people responded fairly well to that:
What did we do? How did we do it? What does it mean and why does it matter?. Those are the questions that the general audience would have, so like with the above I built the language of the script to be more conversational than lecturing, feeling that this would make the content more accessible and likewise give the overall project a slightly more personable tone.
The script was submitted, enjoyed and approved, but the Trust felt it’d be best if I was there to shoot it.
So the next day – I was on a plane, watching The Dark Knight on repeat. Winner.
The right tools for the job
Hardware and software
Any videos I’d shot with the Trust previously had been on inexpensive, consumer level handy cams. They weren’t going to blow your socks off, but they did the job well enough.
However, because this project was such a big milestone for the Trust and shark research in general, I wanted more fidelity and quality in the final image. We didn’t have the time or budget to pursue a broadcast standard, but I felt that by aiming higher we’d at least reach something that was a noticeable cut above the previous shorts.
After stamping my feet and protruding my bottom lip as far as physically possible, my better half very kindly offered to loan me her Nikon D800, which she trained me on during the car trip to the airport – “Press this, twiddle that, remember to remove the lens cap, don’t drop it in the bloody ocean and for heaven’s sake eat some vegetables!”.
It was like her entire three year degree squeezed into forty minutes.
I likewise took a pair of GoPro Hero 3 Black+ Editions (moronic naming convention, just saying) for the underwater footage. Visibility in the waters surrounding Dyer Island is comparable to my bath water after a five week tour with Krupskaya, which GoPro’s can struggle with but the alternative was zerounderwater shark footage.
Yeah, not really an option for a film about sharks.
Shooting the footage
When I’m crafting a narrative, I like every medium I’m utilising to play the role of storyteller. That’s nothing particularly special, new or innovative, but it is something I make a conscious effort to remind myself of whenever undertaking a new project.
At this point we had a script and a rough idea of the scenes that would feature therein, so my next step was to establish what I was going to shoot.
If there’s one thing you can guarantee when working with nature, it’s that it does not give one solitary shit about what you need or your schedule- it’ll do what it wants, when it wants.
Considering this and the time frame I was working to, I was conscious that I might only get one chance to shoot any of the scenes I wished to feature – and that was the best case scenario.
To give myself the best possible chance of success, I mapped out all the best case scenarios for each scene, suitable alternatives and I then categorised these for the purposes of planning and visualisation:
Dyer Island and the surrounding area is as much a part of this story as the sharks themselves. From ground-level it would just look like any other fishing town, so I was desperately keen to get in the air and shoot some aerial footage. On the one hand it’d allow us to highlight some of the areas unique geographical properties and on the other – it’d look really, really cool.
Topside sharks and people
This is a story about sharks and people, so I ideally wanted to feature both in the same scene where possible. Doing so in the water was not an option, so I figured that a few clips of tourists on the cage diving boat interspersed with sharks doing their business would be a suitable alternative.
There were a few people involved with the project, all of whom I wanted to lend their voice to some section of the film. While I felt it was important to maintain a clear human connection through out, I also felt that using different voices for each section would help with pacing and variety.
Graphics and technical demonstrations
Demonstrating the technical processes and some of the numerical information would be a simple enough affair, but potentially time consuming. Some things would work well in 3D motion, while others would be better as screengrabs or illustrations, so I planned the creation of these around the shoots and the rendering of previews.
If you want people to take your shark film seriously but are likewise ready to omit any underwater footage – you’re a pratt. While my grasp of common knowledge may often seem tenuous, even I knew that underwater footage of the sharks was an absolute must and capturing as much as possible was going to be key. We couldn’t guarantee the weather, visibility or to some extent even the shark presence, so any chance to get out to sea and capture underwater footage would have to be taken.
A RELATIVELY PAINLESS PROCESS
It was a reasonably ambitious amount of content to try and shoot in the available time, but in an utterly un-characeristic turn of events… nature actually played nice!
Every day we went to see, the sharks were active. Whenever I stuck a camera in the water, the visibility wasn’t (total) crap. We had glorious sunshine and minimal winds on the day of our flight and not a single no-sea day.
Never in my experience have the elements conspired to actually be useful like this – before or since.
I even found myself with the luxury of choice between many of the shots, particularly those taken from the air which turned out much, much better than I could’ve planned.
The only letdown in respect of the footage, was my own impatience. I didn’t really take enough time to properly setup the microphones, framing or lighting on the team interviews and while they’re not abysmal, they do detract from the overall quality of execution.
C’est la vie.
Sound and music
A TRUSTED COLLABORATOR
The first short film I created for the trust featured no actual sound effects, just the narrator’s voice and a music track (more due to technical limitations than in pursuit of some ingenious creative vision).
This approach worked well, but also removed viewers from the story a little and so I was keen to make better use of sound this time around.
For the music, I turned to trusted collaborator Graham Worthington whom I’d worked with previously and whose work had already done a fantastic job of giving an audio identity to the trust.
Graham really, really pulled this one out of the bag, turning around an entire track for the film in barely four days, most of it without a confirmed run time.
Editing and Final Presentation
Once I’d shot all the footage I wanted, production of the music was underway and I’d completed recording of the narration (courtesy of co-author and sharky heart-throb, Oliver Jewell), it was time to superglue myself to a table and turn these fragmented pieces of content into an authentic, engaging work of art.
Then my laptop crashed.
These crashes would comprise random restarts, hard-drives not being recognised, Adobe Premiere files corrupting, the list goes on and with each problem solved, another would immediately follow.
Oh yes, then the battery stopped working and it only took the silghtest nudge for the power supply to disconnect. Brilliant.
I genuinely remember very little during this period, with such memories muddied by the molten, skull-rupturing rage that was charging through my circulatory system at the time.
During the three full days allocated for the production of graphics and final editing, I’d get maybe twenty minutes of work done before enduring another crash and waiting up to a couple of hours to get access again.
This was the closest I’d ever come to killing someone before having to sit through Iron Man 3, and even as we left Gansbaai to give the film its grand premier in Cape Town – it wasn’t finished.
Ha, it’s funny looking back.
Some of the key shots captured in the development of Gauging the Threat.
Alongside the aforementioned technical difficulties, the limitations of South African wireless internet also meant that I couldn’t download the final cut of the music…. because not quite enough had gone wrong yet.
The second we arrived at the aquarium, I downloaded the final music from Graham, threw it into my project timeline, increased/decreased volume levels in key areas and hit render to create the final movie just as people were walking into the room.
Literally as the last person sat down for the presentation, the final film was saved to a USB stick and handed over to our presenter.
Now was the time to get nervous.
FEEDBACK AND RESPONSE
It worked. Not a single skipped frame, dodgy audio clip or wierd, visual anomaly (besides my own face) – it just worked.
Furthermore, folks responded really well. They laughed everywhere I’d hoped, there was a rupturous (perhaps a single exaggeration) applause at the end and most importantly, the questions that followed its screening continued directly from many of the points we’d made. People were entertained by the story, informed by the study and engaged enough to keep the scientific team talking well into the night.
The study and film itself were since featured on a number of televised programs, including a short piece run by The Discovery Channel in 2016.
Fundamentally – we’d done our job, we’d done it well and I’d not killed anyone.
I’d come close.