Home of Professional Cinematography since 1996

Underwater Filming

Published : 28th August 2003


Hi all,

Can anybody help me with detailed information regarding underwater filming?

I will thank you in advance for your thoughts...

Yours Sincerely,

David Walpole

Cinematographer
Australian CML Moderator
Perth Australia



David,

Can you be a little more specific. There are a lot of facets to filming underwater: what format - film or tape? How deep? Natural History or dramatic? Each one requires different equipment and disciplines.

Primary is safety. Don't attempt anything beyond a pool unless you are an experienced diver. I am an experienced diver and shoot a lot of underwater, but I still have one guy down there with me whose sole job is to keep me out of trouble.

Marty Mullin
DP
Los Angeles



David Walpole wrote:

>Can anybody help me with detailed information regarding underwater >filming?

One of the best people in the world to talk to mate lives in the next state to you.

Malcolm Ludgate A.C.S.
Hallett Cove,
South Australia.

Its was Malcolm who took the Imax under Antarctica and he has a lifetime of experience beating off sharks and a host of other useful skills.

Top guy, despite being half fish and he comes highly recommended !

Kindest Regards

Laurie K. Gilbert s.o.c.
Motion Picture Director of Photography
HD Electronic Cinematographer
Global Web Site  www.limage.tv



Another DOP with extensive experience in this specialist area is Mike May in Hawaii

Kindest Regards

Laurie K. Gilbert s.o.c.
Motion Picture Director of Photography



Marty Mullin wrote

>Natural History or dramatic? Each one requires different equipment and >disciplines.

Actually it is the Natural History area that is of interest..."Water World" was not on my schedule.

Yours Sincerely,

David Walpole

Cinematographer
Australian CML Moderator
Perth Australia



Dear David,

Before meetings or shooting I generally send to producers a tongue and cheek fact sheet on underwater filming .

Most if not all of them have found it informative and funny (amazing, producers with a sense of humour, a bit like sharks with a babysitting nature). I have been working on an Underwater filming book for the past two years, since the information on the various manuals is very sparse and limited.

What people tend to forget is that working underwater is very unforgiving, it's a multitasked activity combined to an already multitasking profession like film making.

So, bearing in mind who is directed to, here it is:

Underwater filming : Facts and Fiction

A survival guide for Producers seen from the other side, few feet under.

1/- Are your thoughts as deep as your dives?

This old divers saying applies to film production: think deeply before doing anything. When it comes to underwater, you are not supposed to be there in the first place. So the first rule compared to a dry shoot is ³multiply everything by three: money, people and time².

2/- Underwater Camera Operators are like mermaids, they do not exist.

There are only Underwater Cameramen. It’s lonely down there and you have to take light readings and judge the light on your own. Not just operate. Without considering the years of operating that you do not want to be reminded of.

3/- Don’t be reckless:

Cutting corners will always result in a serious accident, bailing out in diving is indeed an option but often with serious consequences. If the Underwater Cameraman ask you for a Paramedic on standby, an Underwater Focus Puller and a Housing assistant... get them! He’ll be grateful and he¹ll stay longer in the water, as well as having somebody to blame when things go wrong.

4/- I rather not pull focus as I operate, have you ever looked through the porthole of the viewfinder? Apart that housing and camera weigh nearly 50kg/110lb, you are breathing gas, fining, keeping neutral and watching out for the skipper throwing the anchor at you.

Yes, one cannot avoid having a Housing assistant, unless you want me to get out of the water, dripping everywhere and shortcutting the camera electronics as I open the housing to change batteries, reload, change lenses, clean etc. Unless you want me to go and get dry before I do that. I won¹t be long... have we agreed overtime? Would you expect a DoP on a normal shoot to reload the camera or pull focus?

5/- Water and electricity mix really well, how often do you blow dry your hair while having a bath? An underwater electrician and gaffer must be HSE or properly qualified, (like the rest of the Underwater unit in the UK and other parts of the world) meaning they must have a training ticket equal to a commercial diver. Is shocking how many people do not realise how dangerous it can be when lights are used in or around water, electrifying really.

6/- Equipment for underwater usually weighs three times its dry equivalent.

Do not cut down the number of people needed, you will regret it heavily. Mind the slippery surface as you chat on your mobile.

7/- There’s only one reliable camera for Underwater filming, the ARRI III.

Doesn’t have much electronics, it’s well built and takes moisture well...ok, even a splash. Just do tell the rental company.

Make sure you are insured: most producers indemnity policy do not cover underwater filming (read the small print).

8/- The best Underwater housing at the moment is still the Hydroflex, built like a tank, designed by the best UW cameraman, Pete Romano. (I doubt anyone can disagree on this) It’s very safe to shoot with and never lets you down. Just do not use it as a crash housing.

A Hydroflex housing costs around £90,000.00. A crash housing about £2,300.00. Pace also make some excellent housings.

9/- Just because you might have had few diving lessons in the Red Sea doesn¹t mean that you are a diver, it just says that you got wet few times. So do babies. Ask before doing something that you might regret deeply. We are not watching the coral and looking for stingrays, we are working.

10/- Sharks are not dangerous, bees are. The most dangerous animal I have ever encountered Underwater was another diver who said he’s done it before.

11/- You don’t breath Oxygen underwater, just air. Then there’s Nitrox, Trimix, Heli-air and so on. You do not want me to get technical do you? Well, I dive a re-breather, closed circuit. No bubbles, no mistakes allowed.

12/- Deeper doesn¹t necessarily mean better, nevertheless remember that you can perforate your eardrum or injure yourself even in a swimming pool.

13/- Safety divers are not riggers, or camera assistants. They are safety divers and they are in the water to look after us working. If they do something else they get distracted or tired, not what you want when there’s an emergency (an unconscious gaffer weighs a ton).

14/- Make sure that you have an hydrophone in the water, so the director can let me know what he/she wants, and especially when the camera should be rolling.

15/- Divers need to pee, among other calls of nature. Allow a bit more time for a loo break, wetsuits get sticky, dry-suits are a nightmare. Water, even warm, its one of the best cooling agents (they use it to cool down nuclear reactors don’t they?) so give us a break and a coffee every now and again.

Have you ever noticed how your fingers turn funny if you stay too long in the bath? And you are just relaxing. Imagine working.

16/- Make sure there are plenty of towels for the divers and dry wipes for the camera.

17/- Breathing on SCUBA dehydrates you quite a lot, increasing the risk of blood clotting and other unpleasant effects. I know we are in the water, but make sure there is plenty of water to drink available.

18/- Do not call cylinders ³bottles².

There’s a lot to Underwater when it comes to props and set and performing in the drink. Ask the underwater cameraman well before the shoot, I have seen sets coming apart after few minutes underwater because they have used the wrong glue. Or ask Spielberg what he thinks of animatronics sharks. There¹s also the ³Waterworld² budget for you to have a look.

19/- Allow plenty of time for taking the camera out of the housing, reloading or changing lens or speed, sealing the housing it’s not a quick job, if not done properly can be a very expensive mistake.

20/- Allow for tests, you do not want to discover problems once few feet down and about to turn over.

21/- Do not smoke. High pressure oxygen is highly combustible (it’s used for welding you know....).

22/- The Diving Supervisor supervises and can shut down the entire operation. He is responsible for the divers lives and he’s your best ally. If he tells you it cannot be done you should listen to him.

23/- Make sure that you check and ask about locations, studios or pools. Ask the underwater cameraman, not the skipper and the local diving instructor. You are probably asking the wrong questions anyway. Unless we are talking money obviously.

24/- Shooting on 16mm will cost you as shooting on 35mm. Nobody believes it till the bills come.

25/- Video works nicely, shame that will cost you as much as 16mm. Unless you are after a ³wedding feel².

26/- There is only few good studios around for filming underwater: Action.. The others are not for filming.

27/- All underwater cameramen are good, some are better than others. But they all do it because they love it (they would be crazy otherwise). ³Dry² cameramen who say they can do it or tech divers who say they have shot with cameras before are the equivalent of a mine at sea: once in the water they are dangerous. You wouldn¹t believe how many times I was called to re-shoot someone¹s else flop.

28/- Filming underwater is bloody hard work. Next time you are swimming in a pool take few things in with you and see how difficult it is to move them around or keep them in place. That¹s why NASA trains astronauts in a pool. The problem is that when you become good you make it look easy.

I love the water but like Groucho Marx said to a couple who had eleven children ³ I like my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth once and a while." In other words, give people in the water plenty of breaks.

29/- Underwater filming is great and you should relax and enjoy it.

Have fun.

30/- Most fact sheets like this are a complete waste of time: you still know nothing but now you think you do. Sorry. And one last piece of wisdom from Navy days: stilt happens.

Disclaimer: I do not work for Hydroflex, Pace or other companies

Franz Pagot GBCT MBKS BAFTA
Director of Photography/Underwater Cameraman
http://www.franzpagot.com



Laurie K. Gilbert wrote

> One of the best people in the world to talk to mate lives in the next State

I second that. Malcolm's a top bloke and a real pro. Well familiar with the Aussie safety rules and regs for underwater shoots. Also knows where to spend the money and where to save it.

Mike Theobald
Driving Force Films,
Adelaide, Australia



David -

I do mainly cold water, N.E. States diving. There are divers with cameras, and there are cinematographers who dive. They are NOT the same thing.

Your dive skills MUST BE IMMACULATE and completely second nature. It is very easy to find yourself drifting steadily down in the water column because you are concentrating on what you are seeing through the view finder.

I only have one comment that I didn't see posted here before - make very good friends with a local guide or expert and scout, scout, scout - then scout and test some more. There is nothing more exasperating than wanting footage of a certain critter - then blowing your diving budget because you can't find the XYZ fish. I have a friend who is an expert and well known U/W Cinematographer. When he comes to our neck of the woods to dive freshwater quarries - he take me along because I know the location better than he does. (and it doesn't hurt that I know his gear too!)

We recently shot tests for a short feature whose producer wanted that "murky bay" look. Told them that murky means you can't see your subjects. Because we shot tests, they ended up in Florida because just like we told them, but they had to see it for themselves.

Would have cost them a fortune to show up with a full crew and learn that. They even wanted to put an actress in 65-70 degree water for hours without an exposure suit. Try that yourself. After 5 hours, I was damn glad I was diving dry and no one was laughing at me anymore for being overdressed.

There are some great comments here and you are very well advised to listen to them. Shooting underwater is no picnic - but it can be awesome fun.

Mark Myers

S.R. Productions
Lancaster, PA 17602
www.SR-Pro.com



Mark Myers wrote :

> Shooting underwater is no picnic - but it can be awesome fun.

I would like to thank everyone for the information & advice that has been offered.

This information will most definitely been heeded, and if there is anything else that you or anybody can add I would be only to happy to take that on board...excuse the pun please.

Thanks again...

Yours Sincerely,

David Walpole

Cinematographer
Australian CML Moderator
Perth Australia