"We're here because of the most amazing animal,
and friend, that I've ever known."
Dolphins and humans have always shared an intriguing symbiosis despite the natural divide of land and water. Their gentle spirits, smiling expressions and undeniable intelligence captivate us, and dolphins, likewise, seem drawn to the people who venture in or onto the oceans they call home…sometimes to their own detriment. Throughout the years, there have been many tales of dolphins saving the lives of people. In the feature film "Dolphin Tale," a few dedicated humans join together to return the favor.
Director Charles Martin Smith offers, "One of the larger themes of the film is that we--people, animals, nature--are all in this together. We are part of an overall community that extends beyond our human family, and I think the movie speaks to that in a meaningful and entertaining way, with both humor and heart."
The film's star, Harry Connick, Jr., who worked closely with dolphins in his role, notes, "When you look at a dolphin, you know there is a connection. You can see the intelligence in their eyes; it's almost as if they can look right through us. I felt that the whole time I was making this movie."
"Dolphin Tale" has its origins in a story that would be almost impossible to believe if it weren't true. In December 2005, a fisherman in Florida happened on a baby dolphin that had become entangled in the ropes of a crab trap, cutting off the circulation to her tail. Critically injured, the young animal was transported to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), where she eventually lost her tail altogether, increasing the odds against her survival. However, the people working 24/7 to help Winter--as the dolphin was named--were determined to defy those odds, and Winter's own will to live trumped all the cards she'd been dealt. Her miraculous recovery was due, in large part, to an ingenious prosthetic tail. It is held on via a revolutionary sleeve made out of a super-soft, flexible, durable material, dubbed "Winter's Gel," which not only saved her life but has since changed the lives of physically challenged people around the world.
It wasn't long before the media became aware of the events unfolding in Florida, which is how the story came to the attention of producer Richard Ingber. He recalls, "I was watching morning television when a piece about Winter came on that stopped me in my tracks. I was completely caught up in it and immediately realized the potential for a great family film that would be appealing to audiences of any age."
Ingber, who is Alcon Entertainment's President of Marketing and makes his producing debut on "Dolphin Tale," continues, "I started doing my homework and learning everything I could about Winter. One of the things I found so amazing is that there were many times she could have given up, but she survived challenge after challenge."
Producer Andrew A. Kosove says, "'Dolphin Tale' is about overcoming adversity, about persistence, and about courage--qualities that human beings can relate to at a very core level. What makes it even more special is that those qualities are seen through the experiences of an animal."
"Andrew and I have always gravitated to these kinds of inspirational movies," adds producer Broderick Johnson. "From 'My Dog Skip' to 'The Blind Side' and now 'Dolphin Tale'…these are stories that lift people up. When you hear about Winter--and especially when you meet her--it's a life-affirming experience, regardless of your age or background or circumstance. We wanted to capture that feeling in the movie."
Bringing Winter's story to the screen involved an amalgam of fact and fiction. Screenwriter Noam Dromi clarifies, "Researching the true story, Richard Ingber and I saw how many elements would translate cinematically but felt we needed to anchor it in the emotional context of the dolphin's relationships with people. Who better to exemplify that than a young boy? Seeing Winter through the eyes of children gives us that sense of wonder."
The filmmakers also enlisted screenwriter Karen Janszen, who is no stranger to animal-centric films, having previously worked on the screenplays for "Duma" and "Free Willy 2." She reveals that she also had a very personal window onto a child's perspective of Winter's story. "I thought about my daughter, who loves dolphins the way some little girls love puppies or horses. And I've always been fascinated by their obvious intelligence and empathetic nature; there is something magical and mysterious about dolphins and their underwater world. Watching and listening to them, you have to ask: what would they say if they could actually communicate with us?"
To helm "Dolphin Tale," the producers chose Charles Martin Smith, who has a particular appreciation for nature that dates back to his role in the acclaimed drama "Never Cry Wolf." He later demonstrated an affinity for working with both children and animals as the director of the family hit "Air Bud."
Ingber states, "From the first meeting, we knew Charles was the perfect person to takes the reins. He shared our vision; he immediately got that Winter's story was very heartwarming but, at the same time, a lot of fun."
"As soon as I heard about Winter, I just knew I had to do this film," Smith says. "I thought it was delightful and very much the kind of movie I'm interested in making. I also loved the idea of approaching it from a child's point of view because children and animals have a kind of innocence and purity, and I really wanted to emphasize that bond."
Additionally, as Dromi points out, "It was equally important to include adult characters, some of whom are composites of the real people who rallied together to save Winter. Their knowledge and wisdom and broader perspective of life really informs the story."
Janszen notes, "We wanted to show the remarkably strong relationship Winter fostered with people, who saw her as a sentient, feeling and intelligent being, worthy of the enormous time and energy required to help her. She pushed the humans around her to reach higher and be better…for her and for one another."
In addition to Connick, the multi-generational cast of "Dolphin Tale" includes award-winning actors Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman, as well as young stars Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff.
Playing the title role--as only she could--is Winter herself. Smith recounts, "When we were prepping, there was the obvious question of how to depict Winter. Because of the distinctive side-to-side wiggle that she developed to swim, which is also integral to the story, the best solution was to use the real Winter. That also meant filming on location at her home at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, called Clearwater Marine Hospital in the movie. The results were above and beyond our expectations."
Before Winter could make her film debut, the production needed the cooperation of her real-life "family" at CMA, which came with certain ground rules. The CEO of the Aquarium, David Yates, confirms, "I had many conversations with Charles and the producers because, first and foremost, I had to protect Winter; we wanted it to be a positive experience for her. They also had to understand who we are and what we're about because they were pretty much going to be dropping into the middle of our operations, and we had to make sure we didn't, in any way, put any of our animals at risk. From day one, they all said, 'This is your call; whatever you say is how it's going to be done.' It turned out to be a fantastic partnership."
Protecting Winter, as well as the other animals who call CMA home, was also imperative to the filmmakers. Johnson attests, "In certain scenes, we incorporated some CGI and animatronics because Winter's safety came first. But, whenever possible, what you're seeing is her because the true essence of this amazing animal could only be conveyed by Winter herself."
The filmmakers made another important decision to better capture Winter's habitat on the screen. Says Smith, "There are two environments in this movie: one on land and another underwater. I wanted a way to pull people into that second world, so we decided to shoot the film in 3D. In the opening sequence, where we meet Winter swimming free in the ocean with her pod, it gives you the sense of gliding through the water with the dolphins. The ability to share that with audiences was the main benefit of 3D. And I tried to recreate that feeling later in the movie, when Sawyer swims with Winter."
Kosove adds, "I think one of the best things about this film is that moviegoers can meet and fall in love with Winter, as we all did."
"We're all her mom."
Without exception, the human cast of "Dolphin Tale" did fall in love with their aquatic co-star. Connick says, "It's an extraordinary sensation to be so close to such a majestic animal. And there's something else that sets this dolphin apart--maybe it's what she went through or the fact that she survived when others wouldn't have, but it's a privilege just being around her." Read more
"We can't make her want to live.
She's gonna have to do that part on her own."
In the weeks leading up to "Dolphin Tale" principal photography, the staff at CMA practiced with Winter to get her ready for her close-up. Although she has had a number of news media cameras pointed at her over the years, a longstanding movie production is another matter, so they brought in mock cameras, lights and boom mics to help acclimate her to the equipment.
Richard Ingber emphasizes, "One thing we knew going in was that Winter is not an actor. She is not a captive animal that is trained to perform. She's been through so much in her life already, so we had to be respectful of that and of her." Read more
"It wasn't realistic to save Winter in the first place.
But you did it."
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium already had the most important element of the film in place: Winter. However, the production team had their work cut out to make the rescue facility--which had been converted from a sewage treatment plant--into a film-friendly location. "It wasn't the most photogenic place," Smith acknowledges. "Our production designer, Michael Corenblith, did a terrific job converting the hospital into a viable set for the film, and we had so much support from the people at the Aquarium."
One of the main modifications was the construction of two circular outdoor pools at the Aquarium: a forty-foot diameter, nine-foot deep pool, which is at deck level; and a smaller twenty-foot diameter, four-foot deep above-ground pool, where we initially see Winter being nursed. Unlike most temporary film sets, the new pools were built to be permanent additions to CMA.
Corenblith remarks, "With few exceptions, movie scenery exists only for those moments that the cameras are rolling, but I have the pleasure of knowing we created something that will not only benefit Winter but all the other animals, for years to come."
In fact, the additions to CMA proved their worth even before the film company left town. On the night of the "Dolphin Tale" wrap party, an orphaned baby dolphin was found, not far from Clearwater, exactly five years and one day after Winter was rescued. Because of the new pools built for the film, CMA had the space to give the dolphin--named Hope--a new home and a new friend…Winter.
Yates states, "The pools are already allowing us to expand our work. It's life-changing for our mission to rehab more animals and educate more people about them."
Given the nature of the film, there are pivotal moments that take place underwater. To film beneath the surface of the pools, as well as in the ocean, a special waterproof casing was used to protect the 3D camera. The camera operator for those scenes was Peter Zuccarini, who has filmed underwater sequences all over the world, for both feature films and documentaries.
The outdoor placement of the pools triggered certain modifications to the set, in order to provide the mandated shade for Winter from the Florida sun, and to enable cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub to better control and filter the ever-shifting daylight. Lindenlaub and Corenblith collaborated to devise a complex system of tensile membrane structures that, Corenblith says, "were designed to look like repurposed sails, given that both Clay and Reed Haskett are both longtime sailors."
The triangular sails had different levels of opacity, allowing them either to block or merely diffuse the sunlight. They could also be furled or unfurled and positioned as needed for each scene.
From a visual perspective, Lindenlaub notes, "They created another dimension against the blue sky, which was great for the 3D cameras."
The sky was not the only thing that was blue. "Going in, the entire Aquarium was very blue," Lindenlaub nods. "So you either have to embrace the blue or repaint. We decided to leave the exterior as it was and just repaint the interior."
Smith and Corenblith chose a misty shade of green that would offer just enough change from the blues while maintaining the organic hues appropriate to the location.
Color was also utilized by both Corenblith and costume designer Hope Hanafin to underscore Sawyer's story arc. Corenblith explains, "We framed it so that he moves from a terrestrial palette of browns, greens and grays to a more vibrant world, dominated by cool aquatic tones."
Hanafin describes, "At the start of the film, Sawyer's clothes are pale and somewhat monotone--predominantly tan, beige and olive. Then, as he starts spending time in the magical world of the aquarium, there is a different kind of energy. The color picks up and continues to intensify as the story progresses."
Hanafin dressed Clay, Hazel and Reed Haskett in the casual, versatile clothes of people who spend their lives in and on the water. By contrast, Morgan Freeman's Dr. McCarthy wears long-sleeved, button-down shirts and slacks. The costume designer reveals, "It was Morgan's idea to wear a bowtie, but it's a clip-on because they're easier and more mechanical, which would interest his character."
Corenblith drew another contrast between the suburban residence where Sawyer's family lives and the houseboat that is home to the Hasketts. Docked outside the marine hospital, the houseboat was constructed on two barges welded together and comes complete with its own crow's nest. Corenblith says, "Charles wanted the houseboat to be a bit fanciful…the fulfillment of every boy's dream." Like the two new pools, the houseboat has become a permanent addition to CMA.
The interior of CMA had some space constraints that made it unfeasible to use for the scenes in the aquarium's large main lobby and exhibit hall. Instead, the two-story set was constructed from the ground up in a nearby warehouse that was converted into a soundstage. The hall is filled with reminders of the wonders of the deep, including a replica of a full-size whale skeleton that looms overhead. The visual effects team, led by Robert Monroe, turned the hall's large observation windows into an underwater view of the dolphins swimming by.
It is in the aquarium's main hall where a little girl named Margaret--who relates to Winter in a special way--gives Sawyer the idea of how to save the Clearwater Marine Hospital…and Winter.
The festive "Save Winter Day" sequence was filmed on the nearby docks, where hundreds of local extras showed up to fill the stands and cheer for the unique dolphin who is beloved by the local community.
"We felt so welcomed in Clearwater," says Smith. "Everybody knows Winter there, and they wanted to be part of telling her story and putting her optimistic message out into the world."
The director concludes, "I hope audiences come away from this film being entertained, but also inspired by the notion that 'If Winter can, I can.'"
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