Publish the first study of white shark numbers at Dyer Island, the write, shoot, edit and present a film on said study in 7 days... sure.
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In 2012, I was part of a small scientific team who published the world’s first population estimate for great white sharks at Dyer Island (Gansbaai), South Africa.
Specifics about the background of this study, our findings and my involvement on a research level can be read on my dedicated Gauging The Threat page.
I had moved back to the UK at the start of 2013 while the paper underwent submission. Once it was published, I was then asked to produce a short film on the project… in 7 days, at 24 hours notice.
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
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:
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
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.
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.
This could have all gone very, very wrong.
I’m not a perfectionist. I used to be, but on far too many occasions it resulted in projects being unfinished or lacking balance in their final execution.That doesn’t mean I’ll compromise on quality, vision or avoid risk altogether, but as my priority is always a finished product of a high standard, I’ve learned to be pragmatic in how I plan and reflect upon completed work.
So while it’s impossible not to look at the final film and see countless things that could be improved or that I’d do differently, I’m mindful of the environment we were working in. Considering the limited time, available resources and technical issues we ran into a long the way, I struggle to see many ways it could’ve turned out better. It’s far from perfect, but exceeds what we’d have realistically expected from the offset and above all else, has continued to effectively educate people on the research we did, ever since.
Our work since made international news, featuring in a number of TV broadcasts that featured clips from the film itself.
With thanks to:
- Dyer Island Conservation Trust (Project host)
- Oliver Jewell (Narrator)
- Michelle Jewell (Script consultant)
- GJ Worthington (Music)