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.

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.

AT: How much waiting around did you do in order to capture these sharks?

JK: Sometimes you can go two weeks and not see a single shark. That’s exactly what happened to us. We were sitting in our hotel rooms everyday, nervously watching the clock and hoping that something will change. Sharks are really unpredictable. They come and go and no one really knows why. We spent two weeks with our crew and cameras waiting, and hoping the sharks would return. You just have to be ready when they do come back. Ironically, on the very last day of filming we had some of the best shark breaches we were able to capture.

(More on TIME: Why We Swim With Sharks)

When you are filming, you’ll often have to wait for hours at a time, but with the camera on your shoulder in focus, rolling and ready to go. Once the breach has happened, it’s very difficult to predict. Obviously, it’s very difficult for a seal to predict, so for a human on a boat it’s nearly impossible. You often have to wait a few hours with a heavy camera on your shoulder.  And, out of every breach that you see on the program, we probably missed three or four.

AT: Tell me a bit about the Seal Eye camera. It’s your own design?

JK: Yes. With help from a noted Hollywood prop maker, Eddie Paul, we sat down and designed this camera. The idea of the Seal Eye is to see what one of these attacks looks like from underwater. That tells us what these sharks are doing while they’re stalking the seals prior to an attack. The Seal Eye was towed behind the boat and we towed a decoy behind that. We were able to monitor the camera and see the sharks down below the decoy. We could actually see them looking up and launching these attacks from under water.

We really got a sense of the acceleration these sharks have. With two or three flicks of the tail, they’re going from a slow cruise to 25 miles an hour or more. That’s enough momentum to get them airborne. In a second’s time, they’re 35-feet deep to the surface. How these seals can escape that? It boggles the mind. Seal Eye also tells us a lot about how efficient these animals are as hunters. Research has shown that great whites are some of the most efficient hunters in nature. They’re more efficient than lions or cheetahs or any other terrestrial animal.

AT: The scene where Chris lures the sharks with his kayak is really intense. I’d be terrified. Where were you for that shot?

JK: We shot that over the course of several days. A few times, I was in the helicopter. I remember looking down and seeing these white sharks that were right underneath the kayak in the water. They were as big as the kayak, in some cases bigger. For me, it was unbelievably scary. I wouldn’t do it because I know that white sharks have a tendency to attack kayaks under the right circumstances, but Chris was convinced that the white sharks wouldn’t attack him.

It was really his mission, being a white shark advocate, to show the world that white sharks are not just going to rush in and attack for no reason. He felt like if he was just calmly paddling around and the sharks came over and investigated him, that he didn’t have anything to worry about. I as a producer, was extremely nervous the entire time. I kept yelling out to him when I was on the boat which was a few hundred yards away, “Maybe that’s enough Chris. I think we can come in now.” And he’d just tell me that it was fine that the sharks were “mellow.” He has a way of reading the sharks and knowing what they’re behaviors are. But the point of that scene is really not to be a daredevil, but to illustrate that white sharks can coexist close to people without there being a bloodbath. We were kayaking just beyond the surf zone in the middle of tourist season in South Africa. I don’t think many tourists know that there are doezens of white sharsk just a few yards away from them. If they did, I’m sure some of them might not be in the water.

(More on Techland: Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus. For Real!)

AT: Is there still more of the Air Jaws story you’d still like to tell, even after this episode?

JK: I do think there is another. I can’t reveal what it is, but I definitely think there is another Air Jaws to be filmed. The reason to doing this Air Jaws was really to show the breaches with the new technology, but the other reason was because the story had changed. In the original Air Jaws, it was all about sharks eating seals at Seal Island. But when we originally filmed it in 2000, we had no idea that they were traveling all the way from Seal Island, which is way off shore, to the beach – right outside the surf zone where the people are. We wanted to investigate why these sharks moving from seal colonies. Why on earth would they leave this smorgasbord of seals and move to where the people are? And do people have a reason to be scared? That was one of the reasons we wanted to do Ultimate Air Jaws, was to investigate this migration.

AT: There will be a lot of pressure for the next episode. You’ll have to release it in 3D in order for it to top this one.

JK: You said it, I didn’t.

AT: We really should see Shark Week in 3D.

JK: I agree. Let’s call Discovery right now and tell them.

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