Photographing A Marine Movie Star

This is a very special post. It’s not everyday that you have the opportunity to use your skills to help promote an event that has taken the world by storm. Just as a heads up, this is a long post. I might suggest getting a cup of coffee or whatever your choice of beverage is and settle in for a bit. My opinion is that this will be worth your time. Be sure to click on the photos to see a bigger version.

A couple of weeks ago, my mother bought DolphinTale on DVD. As with all of the other DVDs that we own, we look forward to watching it and hoping that it was worth the hard earned cash. My mother watched the movie and gave it to my wife and I to watch. I was truly inspired by these events and I had thought that someday I would research the facility to see if I might be able to photograph it. A week later, my wife being the proactive type, had found the facility and they were open for tours.

Last Sunday we all piled into the Expedition and made our way up to Clearwater, Florida. We are fortunate enough to live about two hours away so this makes a great day trip. We put the address in Lola (our Garmin) and she told us how to get there. It gets a little hairy going through downtown, but that is to be expected going through a downtown metropolitan area. We found the facility and we weren’t ready for what unfolded in front of us. I thought we had taken a wrong turn and ended up at Disney’s parking lot. The main parking lot was full so we followed the signs to an auxiliary parking lot that was about a block away. After we got parked, I loaded up my gear and we started walking back to the facility. As for the gear, I wanted to travel light. For my main lens, I fitted my camera with a 18mm-200mm. I also took my 24mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4 prime lenses. Anytime I hear the words “aquarium” in the location, this indicates a low light situation. Also, these primes are light and compact so they don’t take up much room in my pockets.

As we made our way onto the property, we were greeted with the official sign of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

 We’re Here! – Spencer Pullen © 2012

We found our way to the ticket area and they have many options available. We choose the combo deal where you can tour the aquarium itself and the off site prop house for $19.95. After we received our tickets, we walked along the building and I passed what was really the turning point for Sawyer (the 11 year old boy in the movie) and Winter herself, the side door. This might sound like a “what?” moment. On the door is still says “No Entrance, Staff Only”. In the movie, Sawyer pulled on the door and by luck it was unlocked.

 Where it all started. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

I was a mad house. I think everyone in Florida showed up on this particular day to see the star, Winter. First and foremost, we wanted to see Winter, just like the thousands of other folks. We made our way through the masses and found the general area where she was going to be. They were getting ready to put on an educational program so I found a spot towards the back where it wasn’t so crowded as I was able to get up next to the railing. The event was taking place in an open area where direct sun was coming in. This was a great thing as I was going to be able to use my 18mm-200mm with out any loss of light issues. I set the camera up in manual mode and figured out a good exposure. I waited for the program to start and I was ready to get some great action photos. They brought out a dolphin named Hope. As they were working with her, they were explaining what they eat and all around great general dolphin information.

I found Hope. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

After the demonstration, I was on the hunt for Winter. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time and this was such an occasion. I looked down just below me and there she was.

 Winter, the marine star of DolphinTale. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

She was quite playful and didn’t seem to have any trouble maneuvering around in the water. I was surprised that she didn’t have her prosthetic tail on though. It was mentioned that her tail is now only used when she has her physical therapy. As I continued to shoot, she seemed to be quite a ham. She came right over next to where I standing and started posing. I had the camera on continuous high speed and I shot until I get ran over by the heard of people that realized what was happening at my end of the pool. Here is one of my favorites that I took. She is smiling at me and asking if I got her close up.

 Close up of Winter. She was asking if I got her good side. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Since I was over run by hoards of rude people, I decided to wander around and see what other attractions there were. As I went outside, I came upon the recovery pool that they had Winter in for the movie. The water was crystal clear and seemed to be empty at first. As I looked over the edge, a Loggerhead turtle was swimming around. However, he seemed to be more bottoms up and he was very interested in what was going on down below.

 Winter’s recovery pool. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

I followed the stairs that went down next to the recovery pool and I came upon a room where they had filmed some of the underwater scenes. The first window that I came upon was about three feet by three feet square. I was amazed at the color and clarity. There wasn’t any distortion anywhere and this is where Bailey, the turtle was looking. A staff member explained that this is what they call “3D Glass”. It’s a special material that they installed for the movie so they could film in high def without any distortion. The cost for this square piece of glass….$20,000. Twenty grand to a major film studio is like me finding a penny in Walmart’s parking lot. There was so much light that I was still able to use my 18mm-200mm lens. Apparently, all of the animals like big cameras as they were all hamming it up at the windows.

 Bailey, the Loggerhead turtle. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

The staff then explained that around the corner was the same setup only it had “2D Glass”. This piece of glass was only a mere $2,000. This was mainly for viewing what was going on in the tank. I went over to the other side and after a few seconds, guess who showed up? Bailey. I guess he wanted to make sure that I got his good side as well.

 Bailey, THE HAM! – Spencer Pullen © 2012

These photos at the low web res don’t really do them justice. On the original high res RAW files, you can really see the difference in clarity between the two windows. I think that will be the new thing that they will be selling in pet stores, high def aquariums.

As we made our way around the rest of the facility, we also saw otters and stingrays. Like all great attractions, we ended up in the gift shop. They have all kinds of shirts, stuffed Winters, magnets and more, available for sale. Having enough of the crowds, I decided to go outside and see what else would be worth photographing. On the side of the facility they had the houseboat that was used in the movie. The first couple of photos I took, I noticed that I had a pylon in the middle of the frame, so I walked around to the other side and there was a clear shot. This was taken in the middle of the day, which is always a challenge. I bracketed a few exposures and hoped for the best. When I loaded the photos on the workstation, I was amazed how well they came out. Dark paneling with dark shadows makes for a very difficult situation to get detail. You will also see in the photograph on the top of the boat is one of the overlooks that the kids used. Later, you will see the other one in the prop house.

 The houseboat where everyone relaxed. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

At this point we had seen everything at the aquarium and we were going to head over to the prop house. The good news was that included with our ticket purchase was a trolley ride that was going to take us over and back. I was all for having someone else drive through the downtown traffic. After a short ten minute ride over, we were there. Once we entered the prop house, we were asked to stand in front of a green screen. We politely declined and kept moving as this is another tourist trap. They have really put some money and resources into this attraction. It was clean, open and best of all, not crowded. Since this is a low light environment, I switched to my 24mm f/2.8 and started to see what was of interest. One of the first props that I came upon was the rope with the buoy attached that Winter got her tail caught up in. On the wall was the corresponding scene from the movie and information that further explained what part each of these props supported in the movie.

The start of Winter’s trouble – Spencer Pullen © 2012

There is one scene in the movie where a hurricane came along and did some major damage to the aquarium. In this photo, this is one of the signs that were used in that scene. To create the wind and rain, they set up fans and airboats with pipes of water to simulate a hurricane. I took a straight photo at first, however with the spotlight on part of the sign, this made it more difficult to get an even exposure. I decided to try my pop up flash. I try and avoid the pop up flash like the plague, but it was going to have to work as that is all I had with me. Being at ISO 1600 and f/2.8 I actually had enough oomph from my flash. I shot at 1/125 of a second, which was to expose for the part that was being lit by the spotlight. I also powered down the flash to 1/8 power to help balance the flash to ambient ratio. Considering what I had to work with, I was pretty happy with the results, as it doesn’t stand out as “just another flash photo”.

 The original Clearwater Marine Hospital sign – Spencer Pullen © 2012

There are many different kinds of props located around the prop house. There were the clothes that the cast members wore, the bicycles that the kids used and the evolution of the different kinds of tails that they tried on Winter. There was one that was in a special glass box. This is one that finally worked for her.

 Winter’s prosthetic tail – Spencer Pullen © 2012

A short distance away was a replica of the workspace that Morgan Freeman was working at in the movie. I photographed this the same way as the sign. I basically balanced the flash with the ambient and dragged the shutter.

 The prosthetic workshop – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Around the corner was another overlook that looks like the one on the houseboat. This one was used with a green screen to film additional scenes.

 Overlook for the green screen – Spencer Pullen © 2012

In one of the rooms was a complete replica of Sawyer’s home. Everything is exactly the same, right down to the magazines and how they are laid out on the coffee table. It’s amazing how they can take something like this and make it look like the scene was shot in a whole house.

 Sawyer’s Home – Spencer Pullen © 2012

The last photo is Sawyer’s workshop. In the scenes of the movie, you see him working on his RC helicopters. This was photographed with flash as well.

 Sawyer’s Workshop – Spencer Pullen © 2012

When you are finished touring the prop house you are exited through…..the gift shop. They had many of the same items as in the aquarium, but at least here you are able to shop without being ran over. We boarded the trolley and headed back over to the aquarium to pick up our car.

Over all, it was a great day. I would recommend if you plan on going, that you might want to try a weekday instead of a weekend day. I would hope that there would be less folks there. It looks as if they are starting some new construction so I’m sure that they are going to add additional attractions to see. I had a feeling that they weren’t ready for the overnight success that they encountered. I’m sure that during this period of growing pains, that the system will be tweaked further and be an even better experience in the future. Would I go again? You bet ya.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Spencer – great shots, good info on the pop-up flash and lighting. Am having company soon and I think this would be a very interesting place to take them.
    Thanks for the info. Very interesting. Ginny

  2. Interesting read and nice images, thanks for sharing

  3. What a fantastic opportunity. Thanks for sharing a good story and wonderful low light photography. Great picture of Winter as well.

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