Were the Dolphins Fake?

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Mark Peters, an avid fisherman from Martinez, California, recently posted a spectacular underwater video of a school of dolphins on Vimeo, and within a week, it went totally viral. After garnering more than 600K views in three days on Vimeo alone, "The Blue" has been featured on Good Morning America, CBS news, The Today Show and various other media outlets. The 4-minute film, shot on a goPro Hero2 and encased in a special housing, shows surprisingly crisp footage of dolphins trailing a boat while Mr. Peters and his colleagues fished for albacore. Mr. Peters says the dolphins followed them for about 15 minutes.

Viewers either were completely amazed by the quality of the footage or questioned its authenticity, arguing that CGI made the dolphins come alive.

"Tell me a movie that looks as real as my footage that used CGI. I don't even think Avatar looks as real as my footage," he told Creativity. "I mean they spent millions of dollars. At first I was flattered but now I'm just tired of the comments."

Mr. Peters says that many things contributed to the videos' quality. The GoPro Hero 2 camera he used is known for its HD resolution. But instead of using a curved lens, Mr. Peters replaced it with a flat lens that he says works better for underwater filming.

The curved lens is "a very wide angle lens. There's something about when you put it in water, that curvature distorts the image a bit. Makes it kind of blurry." Additionally, they were fishing up to 20 miles off the coast of Santa Cruz, in clearer water, and used a clear housing for the camera; this all aided in the videos clarity.

"I made the housing clear that most of its invisible. I think the dolphins were intrigued by it. They were looking into it. When they're there, their eye is looking inside the camera," he said.

His intended audience was an online fishing forum. With up to 10,000 people in the forum, he was expecting to only reach 800-1000 views. Although he didn't intend to have any commercial gain from the video, Mr. Peters says he's looking into stock photo and image companies like Footage Search and iStock Photo to help license the footage.

And, if you're not willing to take Mr. Peters' word for it, we asked two visual effects experts, Framestore's William Bartlett and The Mill's Angus Kneale, to weigh in on the video's authenticity:

William Bartlett, Head of 2D Commercials, Framestore
William Bartlett has worked for more than a decade at international effects shop Framestore, and has supervised visual effects for a range of well-known projects, including the Cannes Grand-Prix winning Guinness' "noitulovE," the recent adidas' "Impossible Field" spot and the opening titles for "Casino Royale."

There is nothing I can see in that footage to tell me it is fake. However, that, of course, does not mean it is definitely real. We have all been to the cinema and seen plenty of things which look photographically convincing but we know cannot possibly have been created without an army of VFX artists.

My guess is it is real, mainly because it looks real but also because....
1. Dolphins do that. I have seen plenty of excellent footage on many BBC natural history documentaries of similar things.

2. If it was fake it would represent a lot or work done to a very, very high standard. Very difficult to track, lots of bubbles to replace over the top, huge amount of animation and very subtle lighting.

3. Nothing impossible happens. I think if you were going to spend such a long time creating this in a computer you would be too tempted to add in some movement that was more amazing, more choreographed and probably more anthropomorphic.

4. Why make it so long? If you [knew] it was not real why would you bother making it that long as it would be so much work, and if you made it half the length, it would be equally impressive.

Angus Kneale, Executive Creative Director, The Mill
Angus Kneale has had a hand in a slew of notable projects--from creating their effects to directing them. Just a few: Barclaycard's "Rollercoaster," Hummer's "Big Race," Skittles' "Touch."

This is a great clip, first it was Go Pro's attached to weather balloons floating into space and now they are being dragged behind deep sea fishing boats. Classic.

I say the footage is legitimate. The reason it looks fake at first viewing is because of a few factors listed below.

A: The camera is traveling underwater at a speed and angle that we have never seen before.

B: The Dolphins look very similar to one another and at first glance they look repeated however under closer scrutiny they are all unique.

C: Everything is in focus and sharp. This is due to the wide angle lens of the Go Pro and the size of the CMOS sensor.

D: The camera is remarkably smooth for something that is being dragged behind a speedboat-- this is down to a well-shaped and balanced housing.

E: [It's] stranger than fiction-- like the footage from planet earth, when you have not seen something like this before it captivates you. It is just a really great shot.

This behavior from dolphins is common. We just have not seen this perspective before. They often swim in pods and interact with boats.

I might be completely wrong but this would be an enormous amount of work to do digitally for no obvious reason or benefit.

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