We Make a Splash on the Set of Dolphin Tale

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Located just west of Tampa, the city of Clearwater, Florida is host to a major movie star in the unique position of playing herself in a fictionalized retelling of her own story onscreen. Unlike Eminem in 8 Mile, this star can be found at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Like Eminem she has one name: Winter.

Winter is a bottlenose dolphin, rescued off the coast of Florida and taken to this aquatic sanctuary after losing her tail in a crab trap at three months old. Left with only a stump where her tail was and having difficulty learning to swim, Winter was in serious trouble until a team of experts created a special prosthetic tail constructed of plastic and silicone. The revolutionary device saved Winter, has been applied to human combat vets with lost limbs, and inspired the Scholastic book “Winter’s Tail.”

Now filmmakers have convened on the actual locales where this dramatic story took place to tell Winter’s story in magnificent 3D titled Dolphin Tale.

“Oh, it really is an experience like none other,” says child actor Nathan Gamble (The Mist, The Dark Knight), who plays Sawyer, a boy who befriends the dolphin. “It is so cool to swim with Winter and see how she feels. She’s so strong. I didn’t even know that until I got it, that we were going to be using the real Winter, which was another exciting thing.”

Leading this major motion picture on its course is director Charles Martin Smith, who began his career as an actor in the breakout 1973 hit American Graffiti for George Lucas as the nerd Terry the Toad. Since then he’s worked under master directors such as John Carpenter (Starman), Brian De Palma (The Untouchables), and naturalist Carroll Ballard in the animal-themed Never Cry Wolf.

“It helps to know what you are up against and I have,” claims Smith. “I learned a lot about filmmaking from Carroll Ballard who did ‘Never Cry Wolf’ and I think that the man is an absolute genius. I learned so much from him and I always carry around in the back of my head, ‘What would Carroll do if he were shooting this?'”

Smith has since moved on to directing several pictures, and Dolphin Tale represents his first time working in 3D.

“Immediately I began studying up on 3D and all of that. We are really making an effort to use it in all of the sets. If you notice on this set we’ve got lots of sort of lines converging and we’re shooting in deep spaces. I wanted to use the 3D not as a gimmick to have things come out at the audience but to use it as a device to draw you in to the frame much more than having stuff come out at you.”

One of the scenes we saw shooting is a meeting in a lab between Sawyer and Dr. McCarthy, a composite inventor character played by the esteemed Morgan Freeman. In the scene there is incredible depth to the shot, which faces all the way down to the other end of the room, when viewed through polarized glasses. There are all manner of scientific gizmos on desks, various prosthetics, tubes, etc. When an actor makes an entrance or exit from the room it’s very dramatic.

Morgan holds up a prosthetic hand to the boy and says, “high five,” but between takes Nathan and Morgan seriously talk shop like any two pro actors would.

“Oh, Morgan has all these great stories about when he was younger,” says Gamble. “Because [co-star Harry Connick Jr.] was telling me he used to be on the ‘Electric Company’ and he showed me all these videos and we were laughing about him. Did you see the one where he’s taking a bath in a casket? He’s taking a bath in a coffin and we thought that was funny.”

Freeman vouches for the on-set antics, saying, “Oh, that’s Harry. He has all these different episodes of ‘Electric Company’ on his iPod. He brings them up and plays them and shows them to everybody.”

Also along for the fun is Freeman’s co-star in High Crimes and Kiss the Girls, Ashley Judd, playing Sawyer’s mother Lorraine, who was very appreciative of having a director like Smith whose experience in front of the camera helped guide his work behind it.

“He cares a lot about the performances and he gives us plenty of feedback, plenty of time,” says Judd of her director. “Really pays close attention to the subtle connective tissue that other directors overlook. He’s very organized, straightforward, pleasant and fun. Really kind. He seemed really happy to see me this morning. Maybe it does have something to do with the kids and animals but I received an especially warm reception today.”

When asked about reuniting with Judd for the third time, Freeman said, “Ashley and I – aside of having a life outside of movies, we’ve done two together – just have this nice feeling for each other. I’m always looking forward to not just seeing her, but acting with her. She’s a marvel. She’s got so many things going, she’s so powerful. Very driven lady. You know she does this other stuff? And she’s scared she’s not doing enough.”

At the actual Aquarium (CMA) the production has built an addition of a platform where Winter’s outdoor medical tank is, and it has been properly rusted and aged so you would never know it hadn’t already been there for years.

When we meet Winter as she swims around in the pool the staff are very protective of her, the keeper telling us to stand back. Winter swims with Panama, a 40-year-old dolphin who is deaf. She jumps on a floaty all the time.

“I haven’t gotten in the tank yet,” continues Judd, “but I have been around her at the aquarium. She’s lovely. It’s also fun for me to see her play on her own, really see her spirit. Isn’t it great how the stuff the production built for her they made look old so it wouldn’t look incongruous? In the film the aquarium is having a lot of funding troubles and is about to collapse, so even though we built a new tank it’s movie making magic.”

We go into a back room and meet “Robo Winter,” an animatronic dolphin created by KNB Effects’ Howard Berger for any scenes too risky for the real deal, along with a more articulated head for close-ups. There’s also an animatronic pelican named “Rufus.”

We see them shooting plates for a scene involving a small toy helicopter flying through the CMA, with real otters reacting, although they are in fact reacting to a mirror on a stick and not the actual helicopter. It’s all shot through the lenses of the two RED cameras filming in 3D.

Comments Smith, “I’ll watch it in playback in 3D and while we are setting up the shots I’ll go over to whoever our stereographer is at the time and go over and have a chat with him about what it looks like. There have been a few times when I’ve thought, ‘What the heck, lets have fun with the 3D.’ There are scenes in here, a couple of comedic set pieces and there is one where this toy helicopter gets loose at the CMA and I thought, ‘Oh well, we’ve got to have some fun with that. Got to zoom in the lenses and stuff like that.’ So there are times when we are going to use the 3D for an extra fun affect.”

“I think that children and animals can be uniquely humiliating to grown-ups,” says Judd, “but so far both of ours have behaved extremely well, with an assist from child labor laws and good union rules. (laughs) When we did the schedule and signed the contract the production also quoted Mr. Fields and said, ‘Some things may change over which we have no control. Please be as flexible as you can.’ Who can predict what happens with all these dynamics, but so far so good!”

“It’s a nice little family movie,” says Freeman, “it’s a nice feel good movie. And they’re good to do every now and then when a good one comes your way.”

Dolphin Tale will be released in 3D on September 23rd.