GoPros on dorsal fins: How Shark Week filmmakers tell sharks' stories
Shark Week is highly visual: Its name alone conjures up images of great white sharks breaching out of the sapphire blue waters of South Africa in slow motion. Between their impressive size and sleek design, sharks lend themselves to sight. They are the perfect subjects to be filmed, entirely photogenic.
This imagery grabbed hold of Andy Casagrande, now a long-time Shark Week filmmaker, at an early age—he grew up on Shark Week. “I’m so passionate about sharks, always have been,” Casagrande says. “I saw my first [shark] on television and never looked back.”
Today, Casagrande’s work has been featured in 27 Shark Week specials, an average of about three per year over the course of 10 years. This year alone he took part in Air Jaws: Fin of Fury, Lair of the Mega Shark, Zombie Sharks, and Great White Matrix, at times on screen, other times unseen behind the camera.
Again, visually, sharks are striking. As a filmmaker, Casagrande is especially interested in their form. “They’ve been created over millions of years and evolved into this perfect hunting creature,” Casagrande says. “They’ve got this avalanche of razor blades that they call their mouth. To me, it looks like a smile. They’re really muscle-y. They’re just handsome.”
Fearsome to some, fascinating to others, intriguing to the eye nonetheless. But the sharks can’t do all the work. Though sharks are remarkable-looking, Casagrande has to make them fit for the camera. One of the most important lessons he’s learned: Keep it interesting.
“Sharks hunt in the same way essentially that they have hunted for millions of years, but I worked in television in a number of sectors—from natural history to reality to documentary to investigative to undercover—whatever it is, the audience is what’s driving the livelihood of the network,” Casagrande explains. “Unless we capture cool, new, innovative ways of filming these animals, people aren’t going to watch.”
He explains that the best way to do so is through finding new camera angles and creating something different in the process. He’s achieved this through various means. GoPro has been especially helpful in that process as it can be attached to a human, affixed at the end of a boat, or even placed inside a shark’s mouth—it can practically go anywhere. “It gives you this whole new perspective of immersive cinematography,” Casagrande says. (Key word: immersive.)
In Great White Matrix, Casagrande recorded the hunting behavior of great white sharks using 20 GoPro cameras set up on a line, catching the predators attacking their prey through multiple angles—the result is something like a flipbook. In Lair of the Mega Shark, Casagrande attached a GoPro camera to a great white shark’s fin, allowing viewers to see the ocean’s depths through the shark’s perspective.
“It’s great to get a beautiful, slow motion, perfectly exposed, framed shot of a shark swimming from left to right,” Casagrande explains, “but to attach a camera to the shark’s fin people are like, ‘Holy s—t, I’ve never seen that before! That’s so cool!’”
As thrilling as new technologies are to nature filmmaking, Casagrande maintains that his job is not just about getting mind-blowing shot after shot. (He explains that he learned this lesson early on when he started out as a cameraman.) Rather, Casagrande aspires to tell stories, and these stories go deep.
“For me, the biggest thing is getting into the hidden life of sharks and what they’re really about, what they do when they leave the boats,” Casagrande says. “When you follow some of them around and you finally get into their soul and what they’re really about, that’s when you learn about them.”
Casagrande’s Great White Matrix airs Saturday, August 16th at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Discovery Channel.