Filming Underwater


Filming underwater remains one of the toughest assignments for any professional production, whether documentary or drama. There are safety concerns involved in having crew and, possibly talent, working underwater. Documentary filmmakers often operate in remote locations, far from medical aid and, especially, decompression chambers needed to treat bends and other diving injuries. Speed is of the essence when an accident does occur. Some, like the BBC, have enlisted specialist help to develop techniques to treat these types of accidents in the field, when evacuation to a chamber would simply take too long. Natural history crews often work with potentially dangerous animals whose behaviour may be hard to predict. Serious accidents are rare. But the danger is there as proven by the death of presenter Steve Irwin.
In drama the hazards are usually different. Placing the characters in jeopardy for dramatic effect can also place people at risk for real while shooting the sequence. These may include the normal hazards of scuba diving, but also additional risks when actors or stunt people are placed in sinking vehicles ("The Bourne Supremacy") or flooding buildings ("Spooks") for example. Often the performers cannot wear diving equipment and must rely on an off camera safety diver providing air on demand. Their vision will be blurred, adding to the discomfort.
They will likely be working around a submerged set, which creates additional obstructions and entanglement hazards such as scaffolding, lighting arrays and power cables. Many experienced scuba divers would be challenged to perform under these conditions.
Dramas involving water sequences can often be more easily filmed in a studio than underwater on location. Not only is the studio environment controllable, unlike many outdoor locations, which may be subject to waves and tides for example, but risk of injury can also be reduced.
Filming can also take place around the clock. Underwater Studios is a purpose built facility for shooting scenes involving water economically, legally and safely. The studio centres on its 750000 (seven hundred and fifty thousand) gallon main filming tank. The 12 x 10 metre tank has a maximum working depth of six metres - water levels can be lowered as required. There are windows for filming through if the shot does not require the mobility of a cameraman in the water. The roof can be craned off for daylight shooting. From scuba stunt coordinators to underwater lighting gaffers, the team at Underwater Studios have the contacts to make a directors vision reality. From working on international blockbusters including "The Bourne Supremacy" to recent British horror movie, "The Reeds", to TV shows like "Spooks" and pop videos for groups including "The Stereophonics" Underwater Studios has amassed a considerable amount of success in the industry.
A new service for both amateur and professional stills and videographers is the Underwater Photography Stage, developed by Mark Koekomoer of underwater photography school and equipment retailer Ocean Optics. It's a replica coral reef designed for photographers and cameramen who needed to test or train on new equipment or wanted to practice their camera skills. Unlike many skills used by a professional camera operator, practising underwater camera techniques is tough to arrange in this country Sea conditions in Britain are often awful, with low visibility and strong currents just two problems that are hard to overcome.
Swimming pools are expensive to hire for an individual, often very dimly lit and sterile - there's nothing to film but drifting Band-Aids. For a diver at work, as an underwater cameraman is, HSE legislation also comes into play. The goal was to solve all these problems.
Each part of the set serves a purpose. Tiny model invertebrates like sea snails and seahorses let photographers work on macro techniques. The wreck helps with wide-angle skills. The multi layering of the table corals helps refine lighting ideas, especially with a roving video camera, by creating overhangs and recesses. No underwater cameraman can shoot quality hand held work without having excellent personal buoyancy skills and a carefully balanced and neutrally buoyant camera set up. The size of the set and the variation in depth encourages POV and tracking shots that test - and therefore help discover any flaws - in either the cameraman's own buoyancy control or camera equipment before arriving on set and shooting for real.
Early feedback has been excellent. Peter Scoones was the first professional to dive on the set. The Emmy award winning cameraman whose credits include "Life on Earth", "Life in the Freezer", "Sea Trek", "Great White Shark" and "Blue Planet" also designs underwater filming equipment, including rental housings for the RED. Scoones comments " an excellent facility. In a few moments I checked out a new system more thoroughly than I could achieve in a swimming pool. The simulated reef provides subjects that provide a better check on results than the test targets one would otherwise need to use. I shall certainly use the facility for equipment checking before overseas trips in the future".

Tags: iss038 | filming underwater | underwater filming | N/A
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