Piranha 3D is an original story born in the fertile imaginations of French Producer Greg Levasseur and Director Alex Aja, who co-authored the script. It was their first collaboration with American Cinematographer John Leonetti, ASC, and their first experience on a 3D production.
Most contemporary 3D films are produced with two digital cameras side by side on a rig. However, after consulting with Lenny Lipton, a 3D technology guru, and seeing scenes from Titanic, Singing in the Rain and King Kong converted to 3D during postproduction, Levasseur, Aja and Leonetti decided to follow a counter-culture path. The filmmakers produced Piranha 3D in 35mm anamorphic format in 2.4:1 aspect ratio. The edited film was then converted to 3D format during postproduction for both practical and aesthetic reasons. “Alex really wanted to produce the story that he and Greg dreamed up in anamorphic format,” says Leonetti. “I agreed with him that it has a special feeling.”
Leonetti explains that anamorphic lenses enabled them to film scenes on the lake while keeping mountains in the background in focus. This required the latitude film offers for recording depth of field with details in the darkest and brightest areas. The DP points out that covering scenes with two digital cameras on a rig would have limited their maneuverability, which was an important part of the film’s visual grammar.
Production was scheduled for the summer of 2009 when daytime temperatures were expected to soar as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Leonetti explains that the heat would have caused problems if they were shooting with digital cameras. “Reading the script reminded me that the scariest moments in Jaws occurred at sea level,” he says. “We planned to shoot many scenes on the surface of the lake.”
Leonetti and Aja decided to bring Pete Zuccarini, an experienced underwater cinematographer, onboard. Zuccarini has earned more than 30 credits shooting underwater scenes for films that include the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Terminator Salvation. “Pete shot scenes on and in the lake and also in an underwater tank we built that held two million gallons of water,” Leonetti says. “We decided to shoot underwater scenes in Super 35 film format, using Cooke S4 lenses, which gave us both more depth of field and tighter focuses on close-ups. The use of two different widescreen film formats is transparent to the audience.” FotoKem in Los Angeles processed the tests filmed during preproduction.
Piranha 3D’s opening sequence starts with a lone fisherman on a boat in the middle of a lake, and Actor Richard Dreyfuss was cast for that cameo role. The setting is serene and picturesque with gently rippling water, mountains and forests in the background, and a deep-blue sky dotted with drifting white clouds. The fisherman also sings the title theme from Jaws, which gives audiences a subliminal clue that something ominous is about to happen. The fisherman then pulls a string of beer bottles from the lake, opens one for a sip then puts it down just as a fish takes the bait. As the fisherman pulls the fish out of the water, his open beer falls into the lake. The camera follows the bottle as it sinks, and there’s a subtle visual and audio tremor when it hits the bottom. A fissure then opens under the lake and water pours into the hole. There’s a quick cutaway to a shot looking down on the boat, which begins rocking on the swirling water. As the fisherman desperately tries to keep his balance, he falls into the lake and sinks out of sight. Another quick dissolve leads to the camera looking down on a calm lake and empty boat. Suddenly, a hand of bare bones pops out of the water, and the Piranha 3D title flashes on-screen.