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Natural History DP Mark Shelley Uses FUJINON PL Zoom to Capture the Dramatic Rescue of ‘Otter 501’

The breathtaking Monterey Bay Coastline is the setting for a natural history film documenting the rescue of Otter 501 – a sea otter pup found clinging to life on the beach after being separated from her mother.  

Cameras follow Otter 501 as she’s taken to the Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) facility at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where a specially trained team will introduce a surrogate sea otter mother to raise the pup until she’s ready to be released back into the wild. She was called Otter 501 because she was the 501st sea otter admitted to SORAC. Through Otter 501’s ordeal and survival, viewers gain a better understanding of the threats sea otters face in the wild, including, great white sharks, and a host of diseases and toxins coming from human actions.

One mission of this feature film is to raise awareness of the plight of the Southern sea otter, a threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Because of these protections, the Otter 501 boats could not get very close to the marine mammals, making the long zoom lenses a crucial production asset.

Natural history Director of Photography (DP) Mark Shelley and his production crew used FUJINON 2/3” format Premier Series zoom lenses to capture rare footage of sea otters in their natural habitat off the California coast. They were also used to document Otter 501’s experience at SORAC and her triumphant return to the sea.

“Our FUJINON lenses did a phenomenal job in extreme conditions,” said Shelley, who is president of his own production company, Sea Studios. “When you’re capturing wildlife footage, you don’t have the luxury of setting up the perfect shot. To capture this footage, we were continually framing, zooming, and focusing the shots, trying to predict how and where the sea otters would swim. Our FUJINON zooms captured extremely sharp, crisp images, with no aberrations or flaws – despite the salt water, sea spray, and other challenges.”

The story of Otter 501 is seen through the eyes of a young woman named Katie who embarks on an adventure after college that takes her to Monterey where she discovers the sea otter pup stranded on the beach. In a departure from conventional wildlife documentaries, Katie conveys the story by speaking into the webcam on her laptop as she blogs about her experience.  

Picture quality was of critical concern to the production team, which included DP Mark Shelley, producer Josh Rosen, director Bob Talbot, cameraman Ernie Kovacs, and editor Shirley Gutierrez, because the film will be projected on large theatrical screens. However, the storyline required that the super sharp digital HD footage be interspersed with Katie’s prosumer and webcam footage—an effect that DP Shelley said worked extremely well.  

According to Otter 501 project manager Arlene Burns, “A variety of video vignettes and short films were also produced as part of an extensive social media campaign that will help promote the movie. Among the videos that we hope will go viral are: a short piece showing how Katie learned to roll a kayak in the surf, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Otter 501.”   

FUJINON lenses were used on Panasonic Varicam and Sony CineAlta cameras. The Varicam and F900 employed a FUJINON HA13x4.5 super-wide lens for underwater and top-side production. An extended-range, yet portable HA25x16.5 lens was used for top-side production. A Sony F950 with a HA42x9.7 FUJINON lens was used in a Cineflex gyro-stabilized housing that was extended from the side of a boat using a jib-arm.  

Shelley added, “The customer support we received from Fujinon’s Western Manager Chuck Lee was invaluable. He is a true supporter of natural history production.”

Production, which began in January 2011, involved 16-hour days, six days a week over many months in all types of weather and lighting conditions.  

Otter 501 was funded by the National Science Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and investor Clint Jones. It is slated for release in first quarter 2012 to cinemas and aquariums nationwide.