Wildlife on the Big Screen

Australia now produces more than one-third of the world’s IMAX films. Cinematographers Jon Shaw, Nick Robinson, Richard Fitzpatrick ACS and Casper Mazzotti are pioneers in a resurgence of wildlife filmmaking. 

By Samuel Chen.

Imagine being in a dinghy surrounded by croc-infested waters, with two other cinematographers. 

It’s been a long day, the air is thick and humid, and the tropical sun still bites. You have a 3D rig with two Red Helium cameras and a beam splitter mounted to the front of the boat. Your mind is numb from trying to interpret the depth chart formulas, which help set the interocular distance between the lenses. You ease over to a big croc you’ve been watching for a few days. One of the cinematographers lowers a Polecam off the side of the boat. You drift up alongside him. You know him. You remember his temperament and how he moves. You hold your focus. You settle yourself for the shot. Then. Bang! 

In a scene from 'Australia- Return of the Crocodile', a saltwater crocodile hatchling emerges from his egg IMAGE Wild Pacific Media
In a scene from ‘Australia: Return of the Crocodile’, a saltwater crocodile hatchling emerges from his egg – IMAGE Wild Pacific Media

Jon had a funny moment, when the croc ran away with his housing and camera,” says cinematographer Nick Robinson. “We had a good laugh following it around the billabong while it had a RED in its mouth. We had to try and get the thing back!” This was Australia: Return of the Crocodile, their first IMAX Film. 

Rewind two years. Getting work for most wildlife cinematographers is tough. For the last twenty years budgets for blue-chip wildlife films have been reduced to an all-time low. This is on the back of the emergence of pay-per-view models, the preference of broadcasters to play Planet Earth re-runs; and a perception that blue-chip wildlife documentaries are not cost-effective often contrary to their ratings. 

Its been hard with the shift to pay television models, where people are offering you $50-80,000 to make a film. You’re never going to make anything good with that kind of money,” Robinson says. “The last couple of years, it was really difficult. I am not seeing any wildlife films. Those $600-700,000 films, they’re rare as hen’s teeth, I don’t know if any one is making them. 

This dire state of the wildlife filmmaking industry is what prompted Robinson, along with Casper Mazzotti at Wild Pacific Media, to look abroad for opportunities to produce an IMAX film. 

A scene from 'Turtle Odyssey' - DOP Jon Shaw
A scene from ‘Turtle Odyssey’ – DOP Jon Shaw

Historically, IMAX productions have been monopolised by US-based companies, and producers outside this jurisdiction have been unable to compete with the production costs. In the last two years, two key developments changed the landscape: digital 8K full format cameras emerged, which met the resolution of the traditional 70mm IMAX film, significantly reducing production costs; and Australian wildlife companies have been able to realise the 40% Screen Australia Producer Offset Rebates for IMAX productions. 

Securing enough investment, Robinson and Mazzotti teamed up with Jon Shaw for the underwater cinematography and David Gross from Definition Films. Shaw is the AACTA Award-winning and Emmy Award-nominated cinematographer behind Life on the Reef (2015). Their first IMAX project together Australia: Return of the Crocodile was a big risk, but they backed their visual storytelling to wow audiences (and distributors).

“The distributors know their market, and they just want to sell films. They didn’t think our film would be that successful but it’s doing really well because it had an unusual amount of soul for an IMAX film. Theatres have responded very well to it,” Robinson says. 

Set in the ‘Top End’ of Australia, Australia: Return of the Crocodile follows the life story of a saltwater crocodile and takes the audience deep into its world. Narrated by the late Balang TE Lewis, Aboriginal Elder from the Arnhem Land region, the film invites the viewer to connect with Australia’s unique Indigenous culture, environment and wildlife. 

Editor and Cinamatographer Caspar Mazzotti operates the 3D Red camera rig - PHOTO Wild Pacific Media
Editor and Cinamatographer Caspar Mazzotti operates the 3D Red camera rig – PHOTO Wild Pacific Media

Cinematically, the three cinematographers had to adapt their television wildlife expertise into a new medium… 3D IMAX. Some of the fundamentals were similar, such as having an understanding of animal behaviour, patience, and a tenacity to work in the wild (which includes moments like trying to retrieve your RED back from the jaws of a crocodile). Shooting in 3D for the giant screen, however, still tested them. 

When you’re first shooting 3D, it’s difficult. When you’re a wildlife photographer it goes against everything that you want to do,” Shaw mentions. “Filming wildlife is unpredictable and very reactive photography. For television, you can use a long lens and bang off shots but with 3D everything you shoot is wide; wider than 40mm. The equipment is big, heavy and difficult to move around, so it is hard to be reactive. This meant we needed to pick subjects that were easy to predict, or we knew their behaviour was going to happen at a set time or a certain place.

For the topside part of the shoot, Robinson, Mazzotti and Shaw used a 3D Rig with two RED Heliums and a beam splitter. Robinson explains, “The camera is heavy and hard to move around, so unless you can move to the animals, it’s a real problem. We chose the crocodile because we could mount the 3D rig on the front of a boat and drive it around. It really is an annoying piece of kit that we’ve had to build. It weighs about fifty kilograms and takes up the whole back of the ute. But it’s still a lot smaller than the old IMAX cameras.

The physical size of the screen posed a few challenges for their cinematic approach. Shaw chimes in with a few tips, “The shots need to be held steady for a really long time to be useable because any kind of movement is exacerbated by the giant screen. When you shoot for an average length of 5-7 seconds on television, for IMAX it’s sitting at 10-15 seconds.

Aerial view of Arnhem Land at dawn - IMAGE Wild Pacific Media
Aerial view of Arnhem Land at dawn – IMAGE Wild Pacific Media

The subject doesn’t want to break frame,” Shaw continues, “because if it breaks frame you lose the illusion of 3D. It’s tricky. It comes down to knowing your subject, but also a fair bit of luck. In the end, the animal does what it wants to do.

Jon was also the underwater cinematographer for Turtle Odyssey, and shot the film across a number of locations, including the Philippines, Hawaii, Tonga and Australia (Great Barrier Reef and Lady Elliott Island). Narrated by Russell Crowe, essentially the story was about a green sea turtle called Bungee who goes off on an adventure, gets older, finds love, and has more baby turtles. 

IMAX films are 25 to 50 minutes long, so you don’t have that much time to tell a big complex story,” Shaw says. “When I first thought of IMAX, I thought of these big cinematic epics. But, in actual reality what sells and does well are kid’s stories, you want to keep it very safe, being careful to not include sex and violence with the animals.

Shaw was suitably impressed with his underwater rig, compared to the traditional IMAX 3D film rig and housing, which weighs just shy of 600 kilograms. The digital setup included two Red 8K Heliums side-by-side, with one inverted, and a Gates housing with Nikonos lenses. With the Red 960GB Mini-Mags allowing for ninety minutes of footage, and a rebreather as part of his scuba diving kit, Shaw could spend two hours below the surface per dive, capturing animal behaviour. 

Saltwater Estuarine Crocodile, Northern Territory, in a scene from 'Australia- Retrun of the Crocodile' - PHOTO Wild Pacific Media
Saltwater Estuarine Crocodile, Northern Territory, in a scene from ‘Australia: Return of the Crocodile’ – PHOTO Wild Pacific Media

This rig works well in very specific situations, such as clear water and a big subject. But as soon as you have anything too close in the foreground or too far in the background you blow that bit of budget.” Shaw mentions. 

Also,” Shaw continues, “if you have any particles in the water, which is pretty common, this can mess up the 3D shot. We actually got involved in some post 3D convert stuff, which Dave Gross from Definition Films was heavily involved in. Looking at some of the final rushes and prints, the technology has come on. It’s actually very hard to pick the difference between the post-converted footage and the natively shot 3D.

With Australia now producing one-third of the world’s IMAX films, Turtle Odyssey and Australia: Return of the Crocodile have helped pave the way for other IMAX films to be produced and filmed by Australian cinematographers. Collectively, the trio of cinematographers also filmed Sealions: Life by Whisker, and Richard Fitzpatrick ACS recently filmed Great Barrier Reef (Biopixels/December Media). Other, non-wildlife films that have been produced, include Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia with Robinson, Mazzotti and cinematographer Earle Dressner ACS behind the lens.

In asking Mazzotti “Why take on all this?” he responded, “We are environmental filmmakers, that’s why we do this, we are trying to change the world. It’s a vital role. Most city kids don’t have any contact with the wild world, so inspiring them to care is important. The more urbanised society becomes, the less in touch with nature people become. If kids don’t have wildlife films, I don’t know where they are going to get that information.”

Director and Cinematographer Nick Robinson operates the RED 3D camera rig - PHOTO Wild Pacific Media
Director and Cinematographer Nick Robinson operates the RED 3D camera rig – PHOTO Wild Pacific Media

And, what of the crocodile in Australia: Return of the Crocodile that ran off with Jon’s RED on a Polecam? Just go see the film. 

Samuel Chen is an award-winning cinematographer based in Brisbane, Australia, who won the Gold Award in the Ron Taylor AM ACS Wildlife/Nature category in 2016 for his film Kangaroo Island: Life on the Edge.

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