Ultimate Air Jaws: The Amazing New Technology Of Shark Week

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In 2000, producer Jeff Kurr traveled to South Africa hoping to be the first to capture the incredible hunting techniques of the great white sharks that inhabit the coast. To feed on seals, the sharks have the self-taught ability to breach the water’s surface. Going airborne, the 2000-pound hunters grab their prey while lifting their bodies entirely out of the water, an amazing feat never seen on television before Shark Week’s Air Jaws captured the phenomenon ten years ago.

Working on Discovery’s Shark Week for 20 years, Kurr traveled to South Africa once again to capture these flying sharks along with shark expert Chris Fallows for Ultimate Air Jaws*, this time, armed with new HD technology. The team used the Phantom camera, a high speed camera shooting at 2,000 frames per second, to capture every detail of a shark’s breach from the water. Techland talks with Kurr about revisiting the Air Jaws series and how it feels to be the James Cameron of Shark Week.

*Catch the next airing of Ultimate Air Jaws on Discovery at 9 p.m. (ET) Wednesday as part of Shark Week 2010.

(More on TIME: A Brief History Of Shark Week)

Allie Townsend: You’ve been involved with Shark Week since the late 90s, how many episodes have you done?

Jeff Kurr: I’ve actually lost count. It’s somewhere in the high-20s I think.

AT: What is so appealing about working on this series for you?

JK: For me, Shark Week is the adventure of shooting these sharks and traveling the world. Thankfully, sharks live in exotic places that I’m able to visit. It’s about not knowing what you’re going to encounter in the water with these animals. They’re very unpredictable. Sometimes you’re seeing entirely different behaviors and sometimes, you’re the first to capture those behaviors. It’s fun. It’s awesome. It’s educational.

Jeff Kurr directing a scene with the phantom camera and crew. (Photo by: Discovery/SkyReel Aerial)

AT: Is this the third Air Jaws episode. Why did you decide to do another?

JK: We felt like it needed some updating with all the new technology that’s out now. We felt like this year, it was time to go back out and do Air Jaws again, but do it in a way that was really going to blow people away with this new technology. I’ve kind of called this episode – with apologies to James Cameron – the Avatar of shark documentaries because in the way that he used technology to create a whole new film watching experience, we’ve kind of done the same thing with Ultimate Air Jaws. We’ve used these incredible new cameras to capture flying great white sharks like they’ve never been seen before. It’s stunning. I look at these shots and I’m amazed. This isn’t CG. This isn’t animation. This is a real great white shark flying 15 feet out of the water.

AT: And it’s really impressive. The first time the episode demonstrates what the cameras can really do, they take a one second clip and expand it to a minute-long jump. What did it feel like to see that come together on film?

JK: We actually cheered on the boat when we watched that first replay because we couldn’t believe how amazing it looked. When you’re watching a shark attack a seal, or even one of our decoys, with the naked eye, it’s over so quickly your brain can’t even process it. It’s over in one second. It’s a blur. You can imagine that if the seal doesn’t see it coming, you don’t know what happened until it’s over. So, when you use a camera that shoots at 2000 frames per second, slowing the action down, you see every minute detail of the shark attack: the mouth opening up, the teeth glistening in the sun. You can literally count every tooth in the shark’s mouth. You can see the eyes roll back. It’s incredible to see this kind of detail in a 2000-pound animal while traveling at 25 miles per hour and flying that high out of the water.

AT: I can imagine this footage is really valuable in the scientific community, too. How are we learning from this?

JK: I think the advent of high speed cameras is going to allow us to look at aspects of our natural world in a new ways we haven’t thought about before. It’s actually better than seeing it in person. You see the detail, say, in the case of sharks, how they hunt and the strategies they use. You can also tell, we’ve learned by using the high speed camera, how the seal might avoid the attack. There’s a scene where Chris Fallows is on the seal sled and he was able to observe the pressure wave one of these sharks creates right before the breach. That can tip off a seal that an attack is coming. Without these high speed cameras you’d never see that. You’d never even think of that.

(More on TIME: A Closer Look A Sharks)

AT: When did you make the decision that you wanted to go after the best technology available?

JK: We knew if we were going to do another Air Jaws, we’d have to top the previous two episodes.The first two Air Jaws are really considered to be classics when it comes to Shark Week and even nature documentaries because they were the first programs to feature flying great white sharks. Air Jaws introduced the world to flying sharks.

In the ten years between the first Air Jaws and Ultimate Air Jaws, technology has increased tremendously.  I was watching The Hurt Locker, and I read a little bit about the cameras they used to film the explosion scenes. They used this camera called the Phantom, a high speed camera that records to a hard drive. It’s constantly recording and allows the camera operater to shoot in a high frame rate, which you can then slow down. It’s perfect for something like capturing every detail of an explosion – or in our case, flying sharks.

We modified the Phantom so that it would be able to shoot on the back of a rocking boat, which is no easy task. You get out there and you’re dealing with big seas, heavy waves. This is a very expensive camera setup. It costs somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000. We had to figure out a way to take a camera that is primarily used primarily on feature films into the field and capture wild life. In a sense, it’s dangerous. And it’s never been done before. I think it really raised the bar for photography, definitely for the Air Jaws series. If you go back and compare the two side by side, the difference is astounding.

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