Sharkwater Extinction depicts beauty and tragedy

Quebec cinematographer Will Allen on filming the misunderstood mammals and the tragic end of the activist director who loved them.

Rob Stewart films a lemon shark

Think of the thing you’re the most obsessed with in the world; Rob Stewart liked sharks more than that. His 2006 film Sharkwater was dedicated to the preservation of sharks as well as a direct attempt to engender change in terms of policy regarding sharks, which are often cast aside and abused due to negative portrayal in the media. Sharkwater was, as far as Canadian documentaries go, a huge hit — it won over 30 awards worldwide and was followed in 2012 by Revolution, a documentary that took a broader look at the impending environmental collapse.

Stewart was working on a follow-up to Sharkwater in 2017. The crew was shooting a scene in Florida in which he and another diver went down into the ruins of the Queen of Nassau when Stewart dove down and never came back up. His body was found days later; he had suffered hypoxia during the dive and drowned. The team behind Sharkwater: Extinction rallied together and finished Rob Stewart’s last statement to the world — one that ends with that fateful dive in Florida.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, I caught up with Will Allen, the Eastern Townships-based cinematographer and photographer who was one of the cinematographers who worked on the project. (Allen is also, I found out later, part owner of the Burgundy Lion and Bishop & Bagg.) Allen specializes in underwater photography and more specifically in filming sharks, though that specialization does mean he’s had to branch out over time.

Rob Stewart’s dive suit. Photo by Will Allen

“The most time I’ve spent underwater is about three hours,” he explains. “You’ve gotta love being underwater to do something like that; most people don’t like putting their face underwater for 30 seconds. I love that world, I really can’t get enough of it. Rebreathers, also, are dead quiet. Fish can usually hear the bubbles of a traditional scuba, so they’ll take off. If you jump in on a shipwreck off the coast of Florida with regular scuba gear, you’ll scare 90 per cent of the wildlife away before you even see it.”

Sharkwater: Extinction is obviously a loaded and intense film if you already know what it deals with, but something that I found particularly striking is its underwater photography. The footage is so crystal-clear that it becomes surreal; the sharks barely appear to be floating in water at all.

“We’re using very hi-def cameras,” says Allen. “The technology improves every year. Now, we’re using 8K cameras and shooting in 6K, where typically you’re watching 1K. 1080p is what most broadcasts are, although now we’re moving into 4K. I was shooting way above that — almost IMAX quality, as far as digital goes. Rob also had a very interesting vision for how he wanted to portray any wildlife we were filming. We got along because we had the same idea. We weren’t trying to make anything look menacing — we wanted people to love what we were filming.”

An attempt to reclaim or soften the idea of the shark is at the centre of Sharkwater: Extinction. Short of turning them into cuddly anthropomorphic critters, the film completely shies away from any of the inherent clichés that come with putting sharks on screen. Even ostensibly sympathetic television documentaries will play with the Jaws motif, but not Rob Stewart.

“A lot of people are afraid of sharks,” says Allen. “You ask a kid who’s never even see the ocean what his biggest fear is, half the time they say sharks because Hollywood portrays them as villains.”

Allen pulls out his phone and shows me a picture from the set that Stewart took of him getting up close and personal with a hammerhead shark who could not look more disinterested by his human visitor.

“We shot a lot of the underwater stuff at a high frame rate, because we wanted people to really notice. That was his vision. Things go by fast. That happened very quickly, but we shot it at 240 frames a second .Typically, you’re watching something at 24 frames a second. The idea was to slow this down and show people that this isn’t a menacing creature. They have no interest in us — they’re curious, maybe, but they’re beautiful. And they’re evolutionarily perfect — they’ve been this way for millions of years. ”

The final product is credited to Rob Stewart even if he wasn’t around to finish it. I bring up that I imagine that, like anyone else who does a job with some level of danger to it, there must have been a contingency plan in place if something were to go wrong.

“There’s always an element of risk,” says Allen. “We always try to take a calculated risk in order to get a lot of the stuff that we want to film to show people what’s going on. His last dive — I guarantee he had calculated what was going on. It’s just that sometimes it’s out of our control. Yeah, there’s emergency things you can do… but I’ve been diving since I was 15 years old and I’m 38 now. I’ve had close calls diving, I’ve had to save myself out of situations, I’ve had people save me… You dive with buddies so that you can help each other if something goes wrong, but you never know. You could be driving down the road and someone next to you is texting and turns into you. You never, ever know. I don’t believe anyone should not try and do something extraordinary because they’re worried about the what-ifs. Rob was very much like that.” ■

Sharkwater: Extinction opens in theatres on Oct. 19