The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Shallows: Dangerous Waters

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Labiano reel in a taut seaside thriller.

Photos by Vince Valitutti, courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Labiano have their nets cast for summer moviegoers with the shark-themed feature The Shallows, an aquatic nail-biter sure to make ocean bathers think twice before going even ankle-deep in the water. The thriller stars Blake Lively as Nancy, a Texas surfer on safari in Mexico. Her idyllic trip takes a terrifying turn, however, when a great white shark attacks her and a couple of fellow surfers at an isolated beach. She ends up stranded on a rock 200 yards from shore, with the determined shark circling her as the tide rises.

Longtime collaborators on commercials, Collet-Serra and fellow Spaniard Labiano previously teamed on the soccer drama Goal II: Living the Dream and the Liam Neeson action movies Unknown and Non-Stop. “There’s a chemistry between Jaume and me that works,” Labiano tells AC from Spain, where he is shooting the crime drama El Guardián Invisible with director Fernando González Molina. “Jaume is very respectful and smart. He listens and he’s a hard worker, and together we try to reach a different goal in every movie.”

Whenever a great white is involved, comparisons to Jaws (shot by Bill Butler, ASC; AC March ’75) are inevitable, but the filmmakers downplay any resemblance. “Jaws is not only the best shark movie, but one of the best movies, period,” Collet-Serra says. “Our movie is a mostly one-character, one-location, survivalist thriller in which we want to capture reality.”

Regarding the decision to employ CG for The Shallows’ deadly creature, Labiano notes, “We couldn’t have done it with a mechanical shark. We were on a tight [40-day] schedule and couldn’t wait on mechanics. For most of the time, Blake was the only actor onscreen; she’s in nearly every shot in this difficult situation with the water and waves and rocks. That was enough to put up with.”

The art department, headed by production designer Hugh Bateup, created a shark sculpture as the basis for the digital creature that was ultimately produced by Sweden’s Important Looking Pirates (ILP), who had impressed the filmmakers with the sharks they’d provided for Kon-Tiki (shot by Geir Hartly Andreassen, FSF). Due to the tight turnaround for an estimated 1,100 visual-effects shots, ILP shared the animation load with Scanline VFX.

The production did use partial shark models to give Lively something to react to and to create ripples in the water. “It takes a lot of time for a visual-effects house to calculate and generate water displacement, so they asked us to provide as many live elements as possible to reduce the volume in postproduction,” Collet-Serra explains.

After four weeks of prep, principal photography began in Australia on Oct. 28, 2015 — and wrapped before Christmas. Lord Howe Island provided turquoise water and rocky, verdant landscapes for establishing shots, while Queensland’s Village Roadshow Studios offered large water tanks where 80 percent of the movie was shot; the main tank was surrounded by bluescreens four containers high, arranged in a horseshoe configuration optimized for backlighting. “When you’re shooting in the ocean on boats, the tides make it very hard to control anything,” Labiano says, “so we planned out how we’d reproduce [that realistic ambience] on a tank set. We storyboarded the whole movie and mostly followed those boards. We also shot the locations 360 degrees on plates at every time of day, so when we went to the tank, we knew the position of the sunlight.”

The crew ran two cameras, manned by A-operator Marc Spicer and B-operator Simon Christidis, ACS, the latter of whom also served as underwater cinematographer in the tanks and ocean. Much of the above-water tank work was captured on Arri Alexa XT Plus and M units on a pair of cranes. The Alexa Mini was often used for handheld and for some underwater work.

An Alexa XT M on a Supertechno 50 was used for overhead shots that show Nancy looking around the rock as the shark circles. “Since the XT M’s main camera body is separate from the head, it allowed faster reloading of cards and [adjusting of] settings without having to bring the crane down,” notes digital-imaging technician Pete Harrow. Additionally, a handheld Alexa Mini allowed Spicer to get up close with Lively on the rock. The Mini recorded ProRes Log C to 256GB CFast 2.0 memory cards, while the XT Plus and M recorded ArriRaw Open Gate to 512GB Codex XR Capture Drives.

Labiano is no stranger to the XT system, having used it on Pierre Morel’s feature The Gunman (AC April ’15). “On that film, we used the whole sensor and anamorphic lenses,” he explains. “But on The Shallows, we wanted to get really close to the actor, so we used spherical lenses and only part of the sensor so it was easier to shoot and more flexible.”

Meanwhile, the movie was Collet-Serra’s first feature not shot on film. “There was no other choice,” the director says. “If it had been on film, I would still be there shooting. It was so easy handling the Alexa cameras. We could shoot for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. When we were on the ocean, if a cloud came by, we’d wait and not cut. Shooting on film, you would have to cut, bring the camera back, dry it and reload.”

The main underwater system, dubbed “the Beast” and weighing 198 pounds, featured an XT Plus in Christidis’ custom housing; it was sometimes mounted to an underwater scooter for shark POVs and high-speed plate shots. The lighter “Little Girl” housed a Mini for surf sequences and could also function as a C camera when occasions arose to shoot upwards from the water surface. The “Little Cousin” could take either a Mini or an XT M — crane-mounted with a HydroFlex HydroHead — and could track Lively from under- to above-water during swimming sequences, with no droplets in the frame thanks to the Wetport lens port developed by Christidis. The in-and-out-of-water shots proved particularly tricky for 1st ACs Chris Child (A camera) and Ronald Coe (B), and 2nd ACs Bradley Andrew (A) and Zachary Peel-McGregor (B). 

To establish the setting as an island paradise in The Shallows’ early scenes, a Red Epic Dragon, recording RedCode Raw files at 120 fps and 150 fps, captured slow-motion beauty shots of the surf and of Nancy on the beach. A GoPro Hero4 Black was sometimes used to capture the actress’ dialogue atop the rock and some underwater shots on the HydroHead, while a Sony Xperia smartphone recorded a video conversation between Nancy and her family before the attack.

Labiano cites the Leica Summilux-C lenses — which were used on all of the Arri and Red cameras — as a major discovery on the shoot. “They were fantastic on every level,” he enthuses. “They have a creamy look and handled latitude and sunlight very well.” He primarily shot with 21mm, 29mm and 40mm focal lengths, with ND filters to reduce the sun’s intensity. A 16mm was used for shots from the shark’s POV.

The sun provided the movie’s predominant lighting motivation, which required careful planning to match light between the location and the studio while shooting in the early morning, late afternoon and night. Gaffer Mick O’Brien, best boy Craig Perkins and rigging gaffer Craig Clark had a full HMI kit on the island; location shots were lit if the weather necessitated it, but the crew relied mostly on overhead 20'x20' Ultrabounce, black side down, and unbleached muslin for negative fill and the desired beauty look.


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