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One of the major stars of the newest shark horror film ‘Bait’ was always going to be the shark. The production team needed to create a believable, terrifying creature that would hold the film together.
Executive producer Chris Brown and Producer Todd Fellman worked with Grant Lehman (Animatronics Supervisor) and Steve Boyle (Makeup FX and Shark Designer) previously on the film ‘Daybreakers’, and approached them six months before filming began to start creating the shark.
Initial discussions highlighted several challenges. The shark needed to maneuver in and around aisles, leap out of the water and bite people. It needed to look and feel frightening.
In the original script, the shark was a Tiger Shark, but producer Chris Brown was relieved when the design of the shark eventually evolved into a Great White Shark.
“There’s only one shark for me,” states Brown. “It’s gotta be a Great White. When he (Steve) actually did the initial models of a Tiger Shark, it looked really friendly. It had this joker like mouth, so it appeared to be grinning! However, the shark had to be a certain length to get around the aisles. So they created a sort of hybrid shark. It’s got a Great White face but it’s about the same size as a Tiger Shark.”
Grant’s role was to develop the mechanics of the shark, while Steve was responsible for the aesthetic design. The team designed several models of the shark that could be used for different shots. States Grant: “It became quite apparent to us that we needed a few sharks to create the different effects. The first one was the swimming shark. The second was a more “hero” shark which had an elaborate mouth mechanism which created the biting shots for the attack scenes. The third shark was a ram shark, which was capable of charging through the water quickly into cars and shelves.”
One of the biggest challenges for the team was creating something that looked real. “All animatronics technicians want to try and produce the most realistic creature, animal or person possible within the time frames and skill levels of the teams available to them. We needed to take into consideration the full range of movement that a shark’s jaw has – it’s not like a single pivot, its got multiple pivots, as well as flex. We also had to work on the eyes and skin thickness to give it that really believable organic look.” said Grant.
Making the shark move was the second biggest challenge, as it was crucial that the shark swim through water. “First we sat down and talked a lot about what was going to be the best system to bring the sharks to life, we established that pneumatics was the best system, because with hydraulics you can get a leak and electrics and water work are obviously not ideal.
So we came up with this pneumatic system and we were thinking ‘how are we going to operate this?’, because it takes quite a large volume of air to operate. We had an idea to control the system using regulators. When you operate it, the regulators drive air into one side of the shark and out the other side and that’s what allowed the shark to do the movement.”
Having worked out the best way to make the shark propel through the water, the team also needed it to move very naturally the way a shark’s muscles contract when it glides and turns through the water. The team discovered a product called Festo fluid muscle which gave the shark a very fluid organic movement.
The result of a six month development time for the animatronics team was well worth it. “By the end we had a fully articulated swimming shark that could move itself through the water, to the point where our underwater cinematographer got down to look through the lens and jumped back in fright on the first day of shooting.
The shark could lunge out of the water and snap its jaws. Its eyes rolled back and the gills moved. It was definitely delivering a performance equal to any of the cast members. The shark with the ramming head was incredible in its versatility of movements and the speed at which it could move underwater,” states Grant.
On set, the various shark models were quick to set up and change. The sharks looked so realistic that some actors believed it made their roles easier to play.
Taking over where the mechanical sharks finished, Blackmagic Design were set to digitally construct articulate digital versions of the sharks needed to complete the action in the shots. Starting with the mechanical sharks as reference, the CG shark was designed for an array of tasks, from simple swimming shots, to full breaching shots required in some of the attack sequences. Modelled and rigged to the supervising animator’s specifications, the digital Great White was put through early tests to gauge the limitations of movement, and determine if its jaw and surrounding controllers would relocate muscle and mass in the shark’s jowls correctly.
Blackmagic Design also had to consider the interior of the mouth from a swim position, where the mouth is closed and the interior mouth and gullet collapse, leaving a narrow path to the gills, to its extreme open position with jaws hinging forward and lip roll exposing the interior of the gum. Furthermore, they had to design a shark mouth which could open entirely, providing optimum room for prey. The first few render tests put through Blackmagic’s pipeline had director Kimble Rendall excited about moving forward with over 40 CG shark shots.
The sharks were not just about digital technology. Mike Parsons, Blackmagic’s Head of VFX, explained: “the hardest task we had on this film is giving the sharks character.” For the visual effects team the challenge became how to show these attributes in action, both gross animation and secondary animated tics and expressions. In gross terms, they recognized that the secret was predation. The shark has to act at all times like a predator, actively and constantly consumed by the hunt.
The shark is a sneak attacker, it weighs up its prey by circling and calculating, and as Kimble and Mike Parsons discussed, sharks often swim past 30 or 40 people before selecting a victim, maybe selecting the weak or easiest meal much like a lion takes the weakest gazelle. So the primary characteristic of movement is ‘selective focus’ says Parsons. The second major characteristic of every predator is preservation of energy or conservative degrees of movement. It was necessary to remove any extraneous diversions from the purposeful motion of the killer shark. Finally, the CG environment creates mood.
The dark helps tremendously but when the shark leaves the water we have the ability to create a true sense of power and dynamic through water splashes and exposure of musculature. Psychologically, being attacked on land or boat is the worst scenario because it removes the barrier between the human world, and the shark’s domain.
Time and again shark attack survivors have likened their traumatic experience to that of the simultaneous, unexpected shock, horror, and adrenaline rush, generally associated with serious car accidents. Sound Designer Robert Mackenzie created a hands-down creepy as hell soundtrack that leads the audience to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a shark swimming, slithering and smacking it lips only inches from where they sit.
The curious thing is that in reality sharks don’t possess a larynx, so there are actually no stalking sounds ever emitted. Sharks Chi when attacking. However, the soundtrack, created by the Bait sound design team at Soundfirm Australia, and mixed at Yellow Box Studios the custom-built sound recording studio in Singapore, is so convincing that it seems completely natural and altogether terrifying when we see the sharks cruising the waters in order to get their “human on.”