As winter arrives in the southern hemisphere in June and July, millions of sardines migrate from the southern tip of South Africa north toward Mozambique and the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean. This enormous traveling shoal of fish can stretch as long as nine miles, and is so dense with sardines that from the air, it looks like a giant oil slick. But just as spectacular as the shoal itself are the predators that follow it: thousands of sharks, tens of thousands of dolphins, and hundreds of thousands of Cape Gannets, diving birds that plunge 40' to 50' into the swirling mass of fish. Meanwhile, along the shore, local residents wade or boat out into the water, scooping up as many sardines as they can in everything from dishwashing bins to buckets.
In 2006 and 2007, directors Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell, best known for the percussive stage musical Stomp, set out to capture the events surrounding this massive natural phenomenon. The resultant 40-minute 3-D Imax film, Wild Ocean - produced by Giant Screen Films and Yes/No Productions - called for four cinematographers and a range of equipment that spanned digital, 35mm, 65mm, 2-D and 3-D acquisition. To capture all the action, the production needed to have the flexibility of a run-and-gun-documentary crew, but their goal was high-resolution images worthy of a giant-screen release. "We decided to take a multipronged approach and call the best people in the field," says Reed Smoot, ASC, the lead cinematographer on the project.
Smoot, working with McNicholas, shot coastal action along 800 miles of the Indian Ocean, from Durban, South Africa all the way south to Mossel Bay, capturing a range of images of the local culture and how it is affected by the sardine run, while also handling the aerial unit and a grueling, all-night shoot aboard a fishing boat; Peter Anderson, ASC was the 3-D director of photography, working with Smoot to oversee the three-dimensional aspects of the shoot; and DJ. Roller, a director/cinematographer with extensive experience in 3-D and underwater cinematography, worked with Cresswell on the underwater work while synching their efforts with David Douglas, a director/cinematographer who specializes in giant-screen production and who shot topside footage of the migration.
Each of the units frequently worked with different cameras. Smoot primarily used two Imax Solido 15-perf 65mm 3-D rigs, each of which recorded the pair of stereo images onto two separate rolls of film; Smoot and Anderson also worked with Max Penner, using his Paradise (a.k.a. "Paracam") 3-D beamsplitter rig with two Arri 435s; and Douglas used an Imax MSM 9802 65mm 2-D camera as well as a Lockheed 65mm 3-D camera - also provided by Imax - which records both "eyes" onto a single strip of film. (Each frame covers 30 perfs, and thus a 1,000' roll of film lasts about 90 seconds.)
For the underwater work, the filmmakers considered various possibilities, including Imax's underwater system. "It's beautiful, but it's approaching the size of a Volkswagen - you need a major ship and a hoist," says Anderson. Moreover, the film loads last 3 minutes, and the camera must be taken out of the water to be reloaded. To avoid such difficulties, the production turned to Vince Pace and Pace Technologies, who provided the team with a Black Betty, a custom-built underwater version of the 3-D Fusion high-definition (HD) system that uses two customized Sony F950 cameras. Pace also provided a customized underwater SRW-1 deck, which recorded the images for both right and left eyes onto a single piece of tape, freeing up extra room for that data by shooting at a 4:2:2 bit depth rather than 4:4:4.
The two ocean-based units assigned to shoot the migration worked out of a small fishing village, Port St. John, South Africa. Each day, the crews had to make a long journey from the village into the water. "There are steep vertical cliffs that go on for hundreds of miles," remembers Roller. …