9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of a Shark Week Cinematographer

Andy Casagrande in Return to the Isle of Jaws
Andy Casagrande in Return to the Isle of Jaws
Discovery Channel

What is it about sharks that fascinates us so? And why would anybody ever intentionally get in the water with them? Mental Floss talked with wildlife filmmaker Andy Brandy Casagrande IV, an Emmy-winning cameraman with more than 40 Shark Week credits to his name, about the reality of working with these magnificent predators.

1. IT’S A COMPETITIVE FIELD.

Casagrande got his start as a cameraman for a research team in South Africa, but he says there's really no single path to becoming a shark cinematographer. “I get about a hundred emails a month from people who want to do what I do,” Casagrande says. “Something about sharks just captivates the world ... You get to travel to these really pristine, remote places around the world. You’re diving in amazing conditions with amazing predators.” Casagrande says the best way to get started is to literally dive in, logging hours underwater and shooting lots of footage.

2. THAT CAGE IS NOT JUST FOR SHOW.

A shark and an underwater cage
Discovery Channel

The shark-proof cage so often seen in TV specials serves a real purpose. Casagrande is well-known for diving without one, but there are times when even he prefers the security a cage can provide. “The cage protects you from sharks that might be a little more bitey than usual,” Casagrande says. “It can keep you safe from sharks that might sneak up on you, or if visibility is bad, or in the dark.”

3. SHARKS HAVE THEIR OWN PERSONALITIES.

Sharks have personalities just like people, according to Casagrande. “If you’re at a party or a bar and you see some dude that has bloody knuckles or a black eye, and he looks angry, that’s not the kind of guy you walk up to and stick your GoPro in his face," he says. "Often if a shark is all chewed up and looks like a brawler, that shark is not afraid to engage in conflict.” But many sharks are ambush predators, and so you may not see that brawler coming—which is when that cage comes in handy.

4. THERE'S ONE THING THEY'VE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO FILM.

Great white shark
iStock

For all their bulk, great whites are elusive creatures. “The holy grail for most shark filmmakers would be to capture great white sharks mating," Casagrande says. "No one’s ever witnessed it. There’s no video proof or satellite data or anything to show when, where, and how white sharks mate.” Footage of two great whites getting it on would be a huge triumph not only for filmmakers, but for scientists, who know that we need to understand animals' lives in order to help protect them.

5. THE MOST DANGEROUS PART OF A SHOOT IS GETTING THERE.

The odds of the average person getting killed by a shark are 1 in 3.8 million. Even among shark cinematographers, shark-related injury and death are extremely rare. Car crashes, on the other hand, are pretty common. “I’m leaving tomorrow to go to the Bahamas to go film tiger sharks just for fun," Casagrande told us. "If you asked your average man if you wanted to go dump a bunch of blood and bait in the water and then jump in with a dozen tiger sharks, they’d be like, ‘Are you effing crazy?’ But the reality is that driving or flying to the location is way more dangerous. I’m way more likely to get killed on my way to a shark dive than I am in the water with the sharks.”

6. SOME OF THE MOST USEFUL CAMERA EQUIPMENT IS HOME-MADE.

Off-the-shelf technology is great—Casagrande uses GoPros as well as the RED epic 5K digital camera system—but most of it has its limits. So, like many wildlife filmmakers, Casagrande has started building his own. His inventions include a "bite cam" that consists of GoPros in waterproof housing surrounded by foam and a fin cam made with buoyant foam that clamps painlessly onto a shark’s dorsal fin to provide a real shark’s-eye view. The rig is equipped with fasteners that dissolve in sea water, which eventually releases the camera from the shark's fin and allows it to bob to the surface.

7. THAT “PUNCH THE SHARK IN THE NOSE” TRICK IS A COMPLETE MYTH.

Someone, somewhere, once decided that the best way to fend off an approaching shark is to punch it in the nose. And somehow, that advice caught on. This is absolute hooey, according to Casagrande. “The reality is that sharks are pretty durable," he says. "Plus, water magnifies images. The shark’s nose might look like it’s 6 inches in front of your face, but in reality its snout is further away, and when you punch and miss its nose, your punch trajectory will go slightly downward right into the shark’s mouth. Don’t put your arm in a shark’s mouth. You generally just do not want them to be within biting range of your body. They’re unpredictable, and you never really know when one’s had a bad day.”

8. SHARKS ARE NOT MAN-EATING MONSTERS.

Your average shark just wants to eat its seal meal and be left alone. “Sharks get such a bad reputation and it’s so unwarranted it’s just bizarre," Casagrande says. "They’re really very polite and professional predators. They’re not malicious in any way. Jaws painted them as evil monsters that sought out human flesh, but the reality is that sharks want to have very little or nothing to do with us."

Sharks test their food with their mouths and, unfortunately for us, we're roughly seal-shaped. To find out if a swimming, seal-shaped animal is in fact a seal, a shark will take a bite. "If they do bite someone, it’s usually an accident," Casagrande says. "I’ve gone to parties in dark rooms with tables where I know there’s food. It looks like a piece of pizza, but maybe there’s a pretzel smashed on top of it, or some potato chips. You don’t really know what the hell it is, but you know that it’s on a table that has food. It’s most likely food, and you’re so hungry you’re going to try to eat it. Occasionally, I think sharks are in that same predicament. They know you’re something potentially edible, but it’s not as if they’re actively seeking us out.”

Want to avoid a case of mistaken identity? Steer clear of the food table. "Sharks aren’t going to jump up into your living room and eat you," Casagrande says. "The only way you get bitten by a shark is by entering their domain."

9. THEY’RE ALSO NOT OBJECTS FOR OUR AMUSEMENT.

“Every time I dive with sharks, it’s like the first time. And yes, I want to hug sharks and kiss them and tell the world how incredible they are, but they’re not toys," Casagrande says. "People need to respect them for the wild animals that they are. Don’t grab their tails or ride on their dorsal fins.” Any interaction with a wild animal, especially a stressful interaction, disrupts its life and can affect its ability to eat, migrate, or mate. If you really love sharks, you'll give them what they want: to be left in peace.

A version of this story ran in 2016.

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

iStock.com/andykazie
iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

12 Secrets of Dollar Store Employees

A dollar store in Brooklyn
A dollar store in Brooklyn
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Discount retailers have probably been around as long as commerce itself, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a string of stores began popping up in the South that shared a common element: Everything they sold was dirt-cheap. In recent years, the country has experienced a wave of frugal storefronts selling everything from stationary to seafood. Stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a rash of independently owned stores catering to the budget-conscious now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's in the U.S.

To get a better sense of the activity that surrounds these wallet-friendly outlets, Mental Floss spoke to three employees of Dollar Tree. Here’s what they had to say about stocking their shelves, fanatical customers, and why they spend so much time filling up balloons.

1. Paper goods are the best deal in stores.

You can find practically anything at dollar stores, including frozen food (more on that in a moment), toys, and cleaning products. Assortments can vary widely by store and by franchise, but according to Brenda, the store manager of a Dollar Tree in the Midwest, customers get the best deal sticking with paper products. At least, that's what employees buy most frequently. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” she says. At her store, toilet paper and the local newspaper are the top sellers. While the former is a pretty obvious necessity, newspapers at her location are typically cheaper than in other stores; the Sunday edition in particular is up to two or three dollars cheaper. (Like a lot of their inventory, the chain likely gets a tremendous discount for buying the papers in bulk.)

2. They know you won't be in the store for too long.

The exterior of a Dollar Tree store is shown from a low angle
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Dollar stores typically have little signage, few frills, and a small real estate footprint (Dollar General's is around 7300 square feet, or one-tenth the size of a Walmart). But having limited space with easily accessible items is by design—the average shopping trip for a Dollar General store is just 10 minutes. “Planning the store around fast trips is one good way to improve the fast experience many customers are looking for, while also keeping sales high by allowing customers to see many products,” says Hank, an assistant Dollar Tree store manager in Canada. Customers “tend to want to get in and out fast. They are often busy and have other plans for the day and don't want to spend too much time wandering the store.”

3. They want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt.

According to Moody’s, an earnings and credit analysis firm, Dollar General rotates its inventory on a regular basis to make customers feel like they need to buy items now in case they’re not around later—perpetuating what it calls a "treasure hunt" feel. That helps the stores compete with online retailers like Amazon, which typically maintains stock of popular products and may not provoke the same sense of urgency in buyers.

Dollar Tree’s approach is slightly different. While new inventory does arrive from suppliers, it’s not as frequently. “When we are doing the truck we get really excited when we see a new product,” Brenda says. “We only see maybe 10 to 15 new things per week out of 1500 items that are coming off of the truck, so when we get something new we immediately cut open the box and examine it.”

4. They catch a lot of shoplifters.

You can walk out of dollar stores with an armful of goods for $20, $10, or less, but that still doesn’t deter people from swiping even the cheapest targets. “The shoplifting is ridiculously rampant,” Brenda says. “We catch someone just about every day.”

Oddly enough, the price may help facilitate the theft. “The thing with the low prices is that there is no real deterrent from people stealing since none of the products have any security around them," Brenda says.

5. They recommend you skip the steak.

A steak sits on a grill
A steak purchased somewhere other than a dollar store.
iStock.com/NightAndDayImages

Shopping for frozen foods at the discount chains can be hit or miss. Some items might be OK: “I’ve had the little pie slices, the sausage and pancake bites, and the Cinnabon bites are amazing,” Brenda says. “The frozen dinners are good as well. People also love the frozen vegetables and fruit.”

But when it comes to unprocessed food, like meat or seafood, you should probably consider a visit to the local grocer instead. “I don’t eat any of the frozen fish or rib eyes because I don’t trust frozen seafood or meat that costs a dollar,” she says.

Nate, a Dollar Tree manager in Minnesota, agrees. “I would never buy the steak,” he says. “I’ve heard from more than one person that it doesn’t cook [well] and it feels like rubber.” In 2016, television affiliate WCPO in Cincinnati attempted a taste test, serving up the four-ounce $1 ribeye along with a butcher's and supermarket cut to some area firefighters. Among the responses: "I guess it was meat" and "It's not terrible."

6. Other stores use them to stock up.

When most everything is a dollar, it’s easy to see why discount chains find themselves acting as a warehouse for local small businesses. Hank says that he’s observed independent proprietors coming in to stock up on items. “There is one man who runs a convenience store and buys boxes of chocolate bars and bottles of soda,” he says. “We also get plenty of event organizers buying supplies in bulk, sometimes hundreds of items at a time.”

7. They dread the sight of Hot Wheels toy cars.

A Hot Wheels toy car is pictured
iStock.com/CTRPhotos

While many toys at dollar store locations are of suspect quality, there’s at least one bit of inventory that causes a lot of excitement in aisles. “We get a lot of the infamous 'Hot Wheels Hunters,'” Nate says, referring to collectors of the popular die-cast toy car line from Mattel. “I guess they scour the internet and find out when stores are getting shipments. I’ve had people show up a day after my 2000-piece truck [arrives] and demand I go find the one box of Hot Wheels I got so they can be the first to buy them.”

If they’re polite, Nate will try to accommodate them. Some of the nicer Hot Wheels fans even deputize themselves as de facto employees. “The one guy that is a frequent visitor will take the boxes I have and stock them neatly on the shelves while he looks for what he wants," Nate says.

8. They sell pregnancy tests. And they’re reliable.

A home pregnancy test shows a positive result
iStock.com/nazdravie

If you’re wary of the accuracy of a home pregnancy test kit that costs $1, well, you probably should be. But according to Nate, his store stocks a reliable brand. “The pregnancy tests we sell are the same ones used in most hospitals,” he says. Most all pregnancy tests detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. More expensive tests can detect lower levels earlier in a pregnancy, while cheaper tests—like the ones in dollar stores—might not register a positive until a woman is a little further along.

But they're still effective. And according to Brenda and Nate, they're also among the most-stolen items in their stores.

9. Balloons keep them aloft.

Most Dollar Tree and many other dollar store locations have a counter devoted to mylar balloons intended for birthday parties and other events. That’s because the low cost and easy storage of the un-inflated balloons makes them a very profitable endeavor. “Balloons do a ton of business for Dollar Tree,” Brenda says. “A ton. Especially for big events.”

In a given week, her store might sell 150 to 200 balloons: “If you think about it, every day is someone’s birthday, baby shower, graduation, or anniversary.”

10. They might warn you away from a bad deal.

Shoppers browse the aisles of a dollar store
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

If you’re on the fence about whether or not a dollar purchase is worthwhile, you can always ask an employee. They might tell you if it’s worth the cash. “I know that the quality of our products is not always the best and I obviously am not going to constantly bring this up to customers, but I am not afraid to give them a bit of heads up when I know a certain item is especially poor, or could be found much cheaper at a competitor,” Hank says. “I know that the company will survive without those couple sales, and I prefer to make customers happy over adding a few more dollars to the wallet of the company.”

11. The store manager is often overworked.

Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and other chains have come under fire in recent years for tasking store managers with a lot of responsibility in order to keep the costs of staffing low. According to Nate, that checks out. “In my district they are trial-running having the stores unload the semi-trucks instead of the drivers," he says. "But they won’t give us the hours to add an extra guy, which means I’m the manager on duty while being in the back of a semi throwing 1800 cases."

12. They can’t keep Donald Duck on the shelves.

Bottles of Donald Duck orange juice line a store shelf
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In stores filled with a lot of unfamiliar brands, customers like to see one recognizable face: Donald Duck’s. The Disney character is front and center on Dollar Tree’s orange juice, and his smiling bill is one of the most popular items in the stores. (The drink is produced by Citrus World, which owns the Florida’s Natural label and licenses the Donald imagery and name from Disney.) “The Donald Duck orange juice is our third most-sold item,” Brenda says. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s so popular. A lot of people stop at our store on the way to work or wherever, so it’s kind of a quick pick-up.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER