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Aquarium unveils TV ads

GLOBE STAFF ILLUSTRATION/ISTOCKPHOTO

After debuting its renovated 200,000-gallon ocean tank last month, the New England Aquarium is now trying to lure visitors with television ads shot with high-tech cameras that make the fish on the screen look real enough to touch.

“It’s just you, the animals, and your imagination,” said Nick Bontaites, creative director at the advertising agency Connelly Partners, which designed the ad campaign. “We landed on a creative platform and narrative that emulates the actual aquarium experience.”

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The new ads are also the first time the aquarium has gone on TV to promote itself since the 1970s, when it aired a series of commercials featuring a family touring the exhibits — and one of the children exclaiming, “I can walk like a penguin.”

Fast-forward to Thursday, when the new ads hit the airwaves.

This time, there are no people, but for the voice of a narrator over crystal-clear images of balloonfish, lionfish, and a blacknose shark as they swim and interact with other fish in the giant tank.

“For many people, it’s hard to go underwater, but going to the aquarium, it’s a wonderful experience to see the underwater world,” said Keith Ellenbogen, the underwater videographer who shot the television spots, and who has filmed and photographed sea life internationally.

The ads were “part of one big concept that excites people” to see the new exhibits.

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The ads have a high-def you-are-there quality to them, thanks to a special camera and collaboration between Ellenbogen and physicist Allan Adams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The two are friends, and after working with high-speed cameras at the school’s Edgerton Center, which specializes in scientific imaging, Adams suggested that Ellenbogen use one for the aquarium commercials.

The camera shoots 1,200 frames per second, compared to the standard movie speed of 24, allowing playback to show extreme slow motion and capture details the human eye might miss.

In aquarium terms, it means viewers are able to see a fish’s movements, down to the smallest fin flutter.

“Because it’s slowing down or exaggerating time, you see the animals move gracefully,” Adams said. “When you can see a shark’s muscle move, it’s beautiful.”

The camera, a Phantom V12, was provided by Tech Imaging in Salem, and is the kind that was used in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics to cover gymnastics and track-and-field events, according to the company’s website.

The shooting took five days, Adams said, with most of the time devoted to setting up the lighting and anticipating the animals’ actions.

“We figured out how to set up the shots so we get the behavior we want, then we start thinking about the light, the geometry. Then we just wait,” Adams said.

“The blacknose shark doesn’t know what we want. It takes some patience.”

Originally, the aquarium intended to do only online ads on local websites and poster campaigns in MBTA stations and atop Boston-area taxis, because TV campaigns were usually out of its price range. But after seeing early footage from Ellenbogen, Jane Wolfson, the aquarium’s vice president for marketing, was sold and asked him to gather more.

“We knew we wanted to do an ad basically when we saw the footage that Keith shot,” Wolfson said.

The ads cost less than $20,000 and will run through the end of September, for now.

Gail Waterhouse
can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gailwaterhouse.

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