By Don Simmons
For many filmmakers, the mystery of the deep can be intimidating, but not to those for whom the oceans, tanks and pools are their location of choice. Underwater work is a specialty like stunts, special effects or choreography. “The key to a successful water shoot is the right crew,” says Steve De Napoli, owner of America Diving and a dive master based in Lomita, Calif. Chip Matheson, another dive master and underwater technician who has worked shows ranging from The Perfect Storm to IMAX films, adds, “the most dangerous part of filming underwater is over confidence.”
Known for his deep dive work, Vince Pace, underwater DP for director Jim Cameron, is convinced that even with all the technology and big budgets, pre-planning is key to any dive. “Cameron has developed a system of using models and miniatures with lipstick cameras to rehearse the movements he wants before we go below.”
“I groan when I see people who don’t have natural underwater ability,” says Al Giddings, underwater DP for Titanic and The Abyss. “Half their underwater thoughts are the survival mode—not about the film. For it to work, you have to be comfortable underwater where 99 percent of your thought is on the shot and the other is a golden consciousness that gets you back to the top. The first safety person is the DP and the camera operator. The talent has to be able to trust us to watch out for them so they can concentrate on their job.”
Sea Hunt, the TV series that ran from 1958 to 1961, launched a craze for scuba (which stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving. “Underwater filming is no different than filming topside,” says Ricou Browning, the man who started it all by heading up the underwater filming unit. As the underwater sequence director for Never Say Never Again, he would meet nightly with the first-unit script supervisor, assistant director and often the director, Irvin Kershcher. “At night we would go over the script of what we shot that day and what we were to shoot the next. We would rehearse with cast and crew the action before we enter the water. Once in the water, if we needed to make adjustments we would just do it there on the spot.”
While the pros agree that filming in a tank allows you to control the elements, such as lighting and wave surges, the look isn’t what you get from filming in open water. “The micro-organisms of the open water are a natural filter,” says Pace.
Another frequent problem of tank filming is that what may be comfortable for an actor, swimming in wardrobe, can be downright hot for a crew. “The ideal temperature is between 85 and 87 degrees,” says De Napoli. “If you have enough days, you can rig the shots with cooler water so the crew is comfortable, then heat it up when you’re ready for photography.”
Jennifer Akana-Sturla, a USC graduate student completing her final film about a surfer, came to understand why the pros make your life easy and your film better. “I couldn’t see what Mike Prickett (Billabong Odyssey) was shooting, so I really trusted what he was getting,” she smiles. Prickett shot at a 64-frame rate instead of 24 to give the waves and the underwater sequences a smooth, beautiful look.
Underwater work is not necessarily costly if done correctly. De Napoli recalls an incident when the set builders, in order to float a ship, needed to use ballast. Instead of using sand bags they filled the bags with dirt from the parking lot. The visibility quickly became zero and they had to call in a special vacuum truck to pump out the water, costing two days and over $120,000.
But for all the problems, many people snared by the lure of underwater find it hard to do anything else. “I can’t wait to get back and do it again,” says Akana-Sturla, a tone of excitement coming to her voice—a tone that is echoed in all those who call the deep the best place in the world to work.
By Don Simmons