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Art of filming in studio water tanks

Underwater filmingUnderwater filming is a complex endeavour that requires specialist crew and equipment, and extensive planning to ensure safety, as well as a studio that has the most suitable underwater facilities. 

One of the most challenging aspects of underwater filming is time restrictions. These depend fully on the amount of time camera operators are allowed to be in the water, something which depends on conditions such as the temperature of the water.

An hour of underwater filming is quite long – a standard day for the camera crew might consist of four one-hour shifts.

Moreover, crucial elements such as timing and lighting need to be meticulously planned. Sets should not stay underwater for longer than a couple of days as the materials get weaker the longer they stay submerged. 

Sets need to be carefully constructed using the correct materials so that they stay intact underwater – aluminium and lexan (a type of specialist polycarbonate sheeting) work better than steel and wood. Marine-grade plywood is preferred to regular plywood, while stainless steel and galvanised bolts are ideal for making rigs. 

Ian Seabrook is an underwater DoP whose credits include Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Disney’s upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. He explains to KFTV that all actors filming underwater scenes are required to undertake Scuba training, but there are still those who struggle holding their breath, or indeed are water-phobic from the start. 

Seabrook worked on the 2007 Viking action drama Pathfinder, which was the first production to ever use underwater sync-sound dialogue, with an actor syncing his facial movement using audio cues from an underwater loudspeaker.

Fear the Walking Dead Baja Studios dinghy

David William McDonald is also a DoP and camera operator who worked on Fear the Walking Dead (pictured above), a spinoff of the hugely successful cable drama The Walking Dead. Fear the Walking Dead was filmed using water tanks and dry facilities at Baja Studios in northern Mexico, which was originally developed for James Cameron’s Titanic in the late 90s.

McDonald clarifies that camera operators need to make sure they have the right lens filters and ensure light settings are correct before locking the camera into a special underwater housing. Colours also appear differently underwater so the camera operator needs to set a range of different sensors ahead of time to compensate for the effect of the water on the colour spectrum.

Baja Studios has also hosted Robert Redford’s ocean-based survival drama All Is Lost (pictured below) and the recent remake of Point Break. The tanks are filled with both fresh and salt water and are regularly treated with chlorine and filtrated to ensure the water isn’t contaminated by the filmmaking process. Additionally, props and equipment that are used in the water need to be thoroughly cleaned before submersion.

Crews need to bring their own specialist equipment, but the studios provide certified technicians to run the tanks and to monitor the filtration system and all of the tanks’ essential components.  

All is Lost at Baja Studios

Elsewhere in the world there are only a few studios around the world that provide underwater filming facilities and services. Tim Burton’s upcoming Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was filmed at Pinewood Studios near London on the Underwater Stage, the first permanent water tank in Europe, and at the facility’s Paddock Tank. These facilities have previously been used for an array of high-profile films as diverse as Bond movie Skyfall, Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy Grimsby and Kevin Costner’s action thriller Criminal. 

Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios now offers a Horizon Water Tank which recently hosted survival thriller 47 Meters Down, the story of two sisters trapped in a stricken shark cage on the bottom of the ocean. The tank is nearly 61,000 sq ft and offers natural ocean horizons, blue screen capabilities and a fully-equipped diving and marine unit, all of which makes it the most advanced water tank in the world.

Back in Europe, upcoming action movie The Lake has Luc Besson as a producer and filmed underwater scenes at Malta’s Mediterranean Film Studios to tell the story of soldiers finding treasure on a lake bed in war-torn Bosnia of the mid-1990s.

The ShallowsOn the other side of the world, Village Roadshow Studios on Australia’s famous Gold Coast now has the largest water tank in Australia at nearly 13,000 sq ft. The facility has hosted Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Dwayne Johnson’s San Andreas and Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Upcoming horror The Shallows (pictured left) is the latest international feature to use the studio’s underwater facilities to tell the story of an injured surfer hunted by a man-eating shark. 

“The studios are a dry-hire facility but there are very specialised local crew based on the Gold Coast that have filmed in the water tanks for nearly 20 years and there would be no need for any international production to bring in underwater crew as we have them based on the Gold Coast,” says Lynne Benzie, president of Village Roadshow Studios, in comments to KFTV. 

“We also have local special effects technicians that have extensive knowledge of the tanks which the majority of international productions have used due to their experience.”

Benzie adds that one of the biggest challenges that the studios face is ensuring that the productions paint the tanks in the right colour, as it changes with the depth of water. Each tank is distinct and can create different looks, but if the colour or the type of paint is incorrect the tank will need to be drained and repainted – a tedious and costly procedure. 

James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar sequels are reportedly set partly in alien oceans. Cameron and his team developed innovative 3D cameras specifically for the first Avatar and his team will be the first to feature performance capture technology for underwater production, again using hardware that is being developed specifically for the shoot. Filming will be based at Stone Street Studios in Wellington, with location filming also likely.


Underwater diving image: David Wlliam McDonald. Fear the Walking Dead image: Richard Foreman / AMC Film Holdings. All Is Lost image: Richard Foreman Jr. The Shallows image: Sony


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