Monday, April 14, 2008

Three cheeky monkeys, one crocodile

Just got back from the Darwin premiere of Black Water, not a film about rogue security agencies in Iraq but rather a crocodile thriller set in the Northern Territory. As you can imagine, the crocodile featured in the film wasn't interested in tea and biscuits with the cast. It is the latest in a series of movies about killer crocodiles, but I reckon this was easily the best. Of course I may be slightly biased because I did a lot of work on the crocodile sequences for the movie!

The film is loosely based on a couple of actual crocodile attacks that occurred in the NT, but they are used as a premise to set up the situation. You might call it a situation horror film: what would you do if you were stuck up a tree surrounded by water containing an unfeasibly hungry crocodile? It's an interesting premise because it plays upon your fears: not knowing where the crocodile is, nor what its motives are, and not really knowing what to do. And although the crocodile behaviour ends up being a little unrealistic by the end of the movie, it was certainly effective. Of course, I'm a sucker for films that take their time to establish atmosphere. I'm not a fan of most modern "horror" films that mistakenly believe that gore is a substitute for generating tension, and in that sense Black Water is quite old-fashioned.

We ended up doing most of the crocodile effect shots for the film, and I was intrigued because the director wanted to use real crocodiles instead of CGI. Perhaps that was a question of budget (Black Water cost $1.2 million Australian dollars) but it turned out for the best - there's no question that the effects look an order of magnitude better and more convincing than any CGI beast, because the crocodile was in control of its movement and not a computer animator. I've long been frustrated by how crocodile effects have been handled in movies, so what better way to show how it should be done than turn to the experts themselves - saltwater crocodiles. Our job was to get footage of the crocodiles doing what was in the script!

Most of this was simpler than you might think if you use the right approach - understand each individual crocodile, know what its strengths are, and encourage it to perform the right behaviour. It's a case of working around the animal, and adapting to what it wants to do. Of course, the director had such a low budget that we had to cut a few corners. One sequence involving a crocodile climbing into a boat could have been done by training the crocodile - something we've done several times in the past - but that takes time. Instead we had to improvise, encouraging the crocodile to run down a bank into the boat rather than climb over the side. And getting it out again? Why, just tip the boat! With a bit of creative editing it ended up looking quite convincing.

In fact, the end result looks so convincing that I've seen reviewers who couldn't tell whether we were using real crocodiles, CGI or models. Of course, the actors were mostly acting against a blue screen so that the crocodiles could be digitally inserted later, but it's real croc behaviour on screen and not an animator's idea of croc behaviour. A lot of these techniques come from years of working on natural history films where you need to understand the animals in order to know how, when and where to film them.

Things didn't always go to plan, though. The director wanted a specific shot of a crocodile launching itself towards camera left, jaws opening. We knew the crocodile that would deliver this shot, so we used a chicken to entice him towards us. The camera was housed in a protective case which was suspended near the chicken. I did warn the camera operator not to get too close to the head or the casing might get bitten. Too late. The crocodile took one look at the chicken, then one look at the white camera housing that was twice the size, and figured it would go for what must have looked like an enormous chicken! Crunch! The croc punctured the housing in several places and dragged it off its mount into the water. Fortunately the camera operator whipped it out of the water by its cable before the crocodile could find the soft, chewy centre. Scratch one very expensive casing, but it did get them a far better shot that ended up in the film.

Black Water has already opening theatrically in the UK, and it's available in the US on DVD, and finally now opening in Australia theatrically. It's definitely worth watching if you want to see real crocodiles on the big screen.

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