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Sharks 3D Interview: Director Jean-Jacques Mantello


Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: February 17, 2005

BMZ talks to Director Jean-Jacques Mantello about his new film SHARKS 3D, an underwater giant screen experience where audiences come face-to-face with these incredible ocean predators.


Category: Interviews

Celebrated filmmaker and expert diver, Jean-Jacques Mantello, has been creating underwater 3D films throughout his career. His latest project, the large format film SHARKS 3D, explores the fascinating world of sharks in up-close, face-to-face encounters. A passionate documentary, the film reveals Mantello's dedication to the ocean and the need for the conservation of this amazing and oft-misunderstood species.

Big Movie Zone: You're known for your work in 3D films. How did you become involved in working within this genre, and what attracts you to 3D, and to Giant Screen?

Jean-Jacques Mantello: I have been working on stereoscopic films -- documentaries, fictional shorts, ride-films -- since 1990 and have directed over 30 projects in this format. Why 3D? Because my first time seeing a 3D film was an unreal experience. I loved it and felt the medium was great -- so powerful and with so much unexplored potential. With 3D, you take the audience into another dimension that is very close to reality. I love this interaction and the feeling of being right in the middle of the action. That's why I decided to make movies in stereoscopy.

BMZ: As with your first Giant Screen foray (OCEAN WONDERLAND 3D), in Sharks 3D you once again go underwater. What's particularly appealing to you about filming in the ocean? Does the fact that these 3D digital cameras do not yet work well above water play a role in the selection of your films' subject matter?

JJM: All three of us -- François Mantello (my executive producer), Gavin McKinney (my DP) and I  -- are sea lovers. Although many large format films have been made about the ocean, there are still so many aspects and elements of marine life to explore, and the 3D aspect definitely adds a new dimension.

Francois and I have worked together for nearly 20 years now. Throughout that time we always loved diving and filming was our occupation. We finally managed some years ago to find a way to turn our passion into our work. Making 3D underwater documentaries about marine conservation corresponds to what we decided to do with 3D Entertainment.

The choice of digital cameras for Sharks 3D was quite simple: IMAX cameras would almost certainly disturb sharks in their natural habitat. As these animals are notoriously and increasingly difficult to locate, track and film, the use of IMAX cameras was out of the question, hence the decision was made to shoot in HD 3D and convert it into the IMAX format. Furthermore, IMAX cameras are unfortunately very noisy and are not ideal when you have a very small window of opportunity during which to capture the shot.

BMZ: How did the idea for this film originate? What appealed to you about studying this particular animal?

JJM: For over a decade now, our director of photography, Gavin McKinney, Francois Mantello and I have filmed sharks, as we all share the same passion and fascination for these animals. They are, admittedly, the ocean's greatest predator but certainly are not the man-eating creatures people are used to hearing or reading about in the media; in fact, they are an endangered species. After doing significant research with my team, I came up with the idea in 2002 of making an IMAX theatre film devoted entirely to sharks with the specific goal in mind of changing the general public's erroneous perception of these animals. We knew this medium was the perfect means of reaching a vast audience. In Ocean Wonderland, the first documentary we made for the network of IMAX theatres on coral reefs in 2002, we already had some stunning sequences with those animals. Sharks are in great danger of extinction and when animal species disappear, our chance of survival on this planet also declines.

BMZ: There are many species of sharks -- can you tell us a bit about how you chose which sharks to focus on in this film?

JJM: Our team, as well as a number of expert divers from around the globe that were acquaintances of either Gavin McKinney's or mine, spent numerous months doing in-depth research before we finally drew up a list of species we wanted to include in the film. But the challenges were tremendous. One of the most difficult was actually finding these animals, as there are fewer and fewer of them to be found with every passing year.

Two examples: the school of hammerheads, for example, was very hard both to find and to film. However, as they are critically endangered, we were determined to include them and finally found them in Malpelo (Columbia), which is located 300 miles west of the South American continent and just north of the Galapagos and Cocos Islands. It was well worth the effort, though. The images are amazing and the sequence is stunning. I also wanted to shoot the Great White -- which has the worst image of all as a threat to man -- and show it as it really is in the water, not attacking the oft-used diver's cage or raising its head out of the water to bite the back of the boat. That does not mean that Great Whites are not dangerous and the music is there to remind you of that. Like a tiger or lion, the Great White will search for prey when hungry but it is not waiting for a human to fall overboard.

BMZ: There have been other large format films studying sharks before Sharks 3D, and there are at least two others in various stages of development. How does Sharks 3D differ from other shark films in development, and how would you differentiate it from previous films (such as ISLAND OF THE SHARKS or SEARCH FOR THE GREAT SHARKS)?

JJM: Unfortunately, I can't comment on the two other projects. Given that they are not yet completed, I haven't had the opportunity to see them. However, what I can say is that, in my opinion, Sharks 3D is very different from both Island of the Sharks and Search for the Great Sharks from a technological and storyline perspective. First of all, ours is the first shark-themed IMAX theatre film ever produced in 3D. It also really is a new and totally different experience as it's the first time that audiences will be immersed in the water for a truly memorable encounter with the world's great shark species. But perhaps more importantly, both of the aforementioned shark-related films focus much more on the species through human adventures or expeditions. As with my previous film, Ocean Wonderland 3D, Sharks 3D is a "diving experience" -- no humans, no boats, no aerial shots, just the underwater world as it really is. I think that people enjoy it because they get to live their own experience for 45 minutes instead of following divers or personalities. Also, I think we show a great diversity of sharks -- e.g., the Sand Tiger shark, Sawfish, Grey Reef shark -- as never-before-seen in any other large format shark documentary.

BMZ: What kind of dangers were there while filming these predators?

JJM: When you dive with these animals, you must always be very careful and acutely aware of the risks. You are entering a predatory world and must take certain precautions so as not to become the prey. In the case of certain species, you have to pay particularly close attention and be used to diving with them. That said, Gavin (McKinney) and I never used cages to film the sharks. For the Great White shark sequence, we actually had a cage next to us as a shelter, but never used it.

It is important to point out that, of the 400 different species of sharks, only 10 are potentially dangerous to humans. You have to be vigilant when diving and know them very well in order to accurately assess when you may be in danger.

While shooting Sharks 3D, we spent 500 hours with these animals between October 2003 and June 2004 and are all back here, safe and sound. That doesn't mean that just anybody can swim with sharks, however. Sharks are predators and it is like facing lions and tigers in the savanna, i.e., you must know what you are doing before entering that type of situation. We were never threatened while filming. However, there was a scary moment involving my executive producer and brother, Francois Mantello, though. Between two shoots, he decided to jump in the water with only a snorkel to observe some Silky Sharks that were swimming close to the surface. Quickly, between 10 and 15 of them had surrounded Francois and proceeded to hit him in the ribs while he tried to return to the boat. They had mistaken him for a wounded animal and were checking him to see if their prey was ready ... François, however, disliked the idea of being a prey so he kicked a lot and, fortunately, got back onboard safely!

BMZ: Much of the film is concerned with conservation and the re-examination of people's perceptions of sharks. What do you hope audiences take from watching film?

JJM: I sincerely hope they will see sharks differently after experiencing Sharks 3D and realize that these truly ARE endangered animals. I also hope viewers will leave behind the common misconception that sharks are just waiting for a swimmer to come by so that they can attack.

For nearly two decades the general population has feared these animals. But the reality is that sharks don't eat humans. I sincerely believe Sharks 3D makes a very strong and compelling argument for shark conservation by shedding new light on the urgent need to protect these magnificent endangered animals that are so essential to the survival of our oceans. As you know, we only protect what we love. Nobody gets upset upon hearing of the death of a shark, but when it is a dolphin or a whale, it is a disaster. We feel more of an affinity for them because they are mammals. But if my film can make people think differently and, ultimately, positively about sharks, our mission will have been successful.

The film itself doesn't provide audiences with a solution to the problem; it tries only to show sharks in their natural habitat. I also want to point out that there are, on average, 100 shark attacks a year, only 12 of which are fatal. More people die annually from bee stings. Meanwhile, humans generally slaughter 100 million sharks every year for food or sport. Given their slow reproduction cycle, these creatures are now greatly endangered. Certain species have already declined by as much as 80% in the last ten years and are well on their way to becoming extinct within the next decade.

BMZ: Jean-Michel Cousteau was involved with the creation of this film. Can you tell us about his contributions, and what it was like working with him?

JJM: Jean-Michel Cousteau is a great defender of all ocean life and is very aware of the serious threat faced by sharks. His career achievements are simply remarkable. Jean-Michel first joined our film last year as a special advisor. Then, as our collaboration and friendship strengthened, the production team decided to invite him to become our official "film ambassador." Jean-Michel, who is a great inspiration to me, is very keen to educate people to act responsibly to ensure the preservation of the world's oceans. I think you could not find a better person to work with.

BMZ: What future projects can we look forward to seeing? Do you plan to continue working in the large format medium, and if so -- anything ABOVE water?

JJM: I am currently working on two new large format projects, both of which focus on the aquatic world, my passion! I hope to see our first film released at IMAX theatres in early 2007.

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