Interview with Florence Sala, Head of International Distribution & Marketing at ARTE France Développement, director Laurent Ballesta about 700 Sharks, which has been nominated for an Export Awards 2021 in the documentary category.   

Florence Sala

The Interview

TV France: Who is Laurent Ballesta? 

Florence Sala: Laurent Ballesta is a biologist, diver and underwater photographer. The author of 13 books dedicated to underwater photography, he has published in numerous French and international magazines. He co-wrote 700 Sharks and led the Gombessa expedition, which involved 3,000 hours of night-time dives over four years to study the nighttime hunting habits of the grey shark.  

TV France: Diving alone, in the middle of a shiver of sharks seems a little crazy! What gave you the idea? 

Laurent Ballesta

Laurent Ballesta: In 2017, we were in groups of up to nine divers including five cameramen, so the notion that I was diving “alone” is relative! Even in 2014, during our first trip to Fakarava during which I did a 24-hour dive, my colleagues took turns during the night holding the light over me so that I could see as much as possible the whole time. It’s true that during the nighttime dives that first year, we were not exactly at ease; we were quite worried about the dangers of such dives which had never been done before. But we were fascinated by what we would discover and curious to see more. We had to take our time and go on multiple dives over four years to get comfortable in the middle of a group of sharks. Once that was the case, we finally felt we could observe them with rigor and regularity. That was when I realized that we could actually manipulate them thanks to a well-known technique called catalepsy, which is a sensorial overload that puts the sharks in a state of temporary lethargy when you grab the tail and turn the shark onto its back. I thought that we could use this “circus trick” as part of a scientific protocol in order to place acoustic trackers on them so that we could follow their movements, their travel cycles, and prove the existence of social behavior that we had until then only intuited. 

TV France: What were the specificities of this shoot?  

Laurent Ballesta: Its duration! Three missions over three years preceded the expedition of 2017 and the specific “night of 700 sharks” shoot. We had to learn to assess danger, respect certain distances, and avoid certain movements. We also had to take the time to try out filming with different cameras. We mustn’t forget that we were working on something that had never been observed before, despite the large number of divers in Polynesia. We had to do everything from scratch in those first years! In total, my colleagues and I racked up more than 3,000 hours of dive time at the same site. I think that, sometimes, the key to a productive adventure is to repeat routines. We repeated the same dive every day, and particularly every night, doing the same descent into the ocean, then the same drift down the channel that links the ocean with the lagoon where the grey sharks gather to hunt in a group. I quickly realized that we had to multiply the number of operators used as the hunting period is quite short, the current is strong, and the predatory scenes happen so quickly that they are easily missed by the human eye. We needed as many cameras as possible at the same time.   

TV France: Beyond the physical requirements of the shoot, this turned out to be an extraordinary technical exploit…    

Laurent Ballesta: It all started with oceanographic techniques; we mapped the site using a multibeam sonar device and we used acoustic cameras (a sort of directional sonar that creates a monochrome image). We also used systems equipped with acoustic receivers and transmitters to track to movements of the group of sharks over the course of a year. During the actual filming we had to be innovative and use Phantom cameras that allow you to take videos with up to 1,000 images per second. This is the only way to see hunting scenes properly as they happen extremely quickly and take place right in front of the camera lens. This requires incredibly quick reflexes – something which Yanick Gentil has; he was the operator using this high-speed camera, which was adapted to work underwater. Finally, we had the idea of using the bullet time shot technique, firstly to get an idea of how the sharks use their space during a group attack, but also to create action shots worthy of The Matrix, but that we used for a nature documentary! This was no easy feat. Imagine us putting in place an arch of 4 meters in diameter carrying 32 cameras that has to be moved underwater by swimming, all while hoping that the sharks “take the bait” and hunt their prey in the middle of the structure. Again, it took a lot of diving hours to get the shots we wanted.   

TV France: To what extent was this documentary also a human adventure?      

Laurent Ballesta: It all started with oceanographic techniques; we mapped the site using a multibeam sonar device and we used acoustic cameras (a sort of directional sonar that creates a monochrome image). We also used systems equipped with acoustic receivers and transmitters to track to movements of the group of sharks over the course of a year. During the actual filming we had to be innovative and use Phantom cameras that allow you to take videos with up to 1,000 images per second. This is the only way to see hunting scenes properly as they happen extremely quickly and take place right in front of the camera lens. This requires incredibly quick reflexes – something which Yanick Gentil has; he was the operator using this high-speed camera, which was adapted to work underwater. Finally, we had the idea of using the bullet time shot technique, firstly to get an idea of how the sharks use their space during a group attack, but also to create action shots worthy of The Matrix, but that we used for a nature documentary! This was no easy feat. Imagine us putting in place an arch of 4 meters in diameter carrying 32 cameras that has to be moved underwater by swimming, all while hoping that the sharks “take the bait” and hunt their prey in the middle of the structure. Again, it took a lot of diving hours to get the shots we wanted.   

It was definitely a human adventure, because behind the production of this film there were exploration and scientific projects that would have been worthwhile even in the absence of a camera! The first questions I ask myself before starting a project are not about the film’s scenario but rather: Is there a true scientific mystery to solve? How can we overcome the diving challenges to achieve it? Will we bring back original nature footage? When the answers to these three questions satisfy me, I know we have the beginnings of a pertinent expedition and an interesting film. But perhaps the real human adventure is the work we do ahead of filming, sometimes for several years, in order to be sure of these three components: scientific mystery, diving challenge, unique footage. “700 sharks in one night” was the fourth Gombessa expedition I had led in five years. Previously, there had been the quest for the coelacanths in South Africa (known locally as Gombessa, the name that I kept for further expeditions), then the mystery of the reproduction of the grouper fish, and the deep reefs of the Antarctic. Since 700, there have been Planète Méditerranée (Mediterranean Planet)Les mystères du Mont Lapérouse (The Mysteries of Mont La Pérouse) and Le feu de la Méditerranée (Fire under the Mediterranean Sea). Maybe the real human adventure is also the long-term nature of these different projects, the creation of a team or at least a team spirit to maintain excitement for new diving challenges to resolve new mysteries of the underwater world.  

TV France: How have international buyers reacted to the program?  

Florence Sala: International buyers quickly realized the film had strong potential in various countries’ markets. They were immediately taken with the film and the technical and scientific challenges it raised. National Geographic was so enthusiastic that it was the first to broadcast the documentary on its channels. This movie has worldwide appeal. 

TV France: The collaboration between Le Cinquième Rêve and ARTE is productive, indeed! 

Florence Sala: The collaboration between ARTE Distribution and Cinquième Rêve was very fruitful because it was thought out beforehand. Hand-in-hand work pre-production between the producer and the distributor gave the film real international scope; it also helped us gather the necessary elements to make it a global phenomenon.