Leading production figures shared their insights and anecdotes about underwater filming in our Zoom Talk on 28 September.
The discussion covered a lot of ground, including the importance of preparation; costs and logistics of shooting underwater compared with above water; tank vs open water filming; new technology available; handling actors; and diving regulations and requirements.
Our panelists were: Wim Michiels, head of LITES Studios Belgium; Katie-Marie Goodwright, managing director, KMG Management; Bolívar Sánchez, marine and dive co-ordinator, Diving Services/Pinewood Dominican Republic; and Steve Smithwick, underwater production designer, Steve Smithwick [SS] Scenery Ltd.
The Talk was sponsored by LITES Studios Belgium
Katie-Marie Goodwright, KMG Management, kicked off the discussion by emphasising that productions need to factor in the amount of time and money it takes to film underwater.
“It costs a lot more and it takes a lot more,” she says. “Productions understanding that is really important. You need more people, there’s more safety [elements].”
From a talent perspective, LITES Studios’ Wim Michiels said actors’ training is essential and prepping is paramount for any water-based shoot.
“The actor has to perform under water or on the water… we can have any technique, but if the actor cannot perform then we don’t have anything, so [training] is very important,” he says.
At Michiel’s Lites Studio facility they have an average of 12-25 crew in the water. Half of the crew is wet and half is dry. But while Michiel might host the “same numbers for that of a normal crew”, Steve Smithwick, SS Scenery Ltd insists that in the water, productions should only have the people that need to be there.
“There’s always lots of people who want to get in but what you really need are technicians who do their job, then you need dry people to feed them. So I think it’s more people than on a dry shoot because you do have to double up.
“All departments are like that — you have to be a diver, but you have to be a good technician,” he adds.
Bolívar Sánchez, Diving Services DR says the first elements he addresses are cast and safety. So they will assign one dive instructor/master to a cast member and try to maintain that partnership in order that a rapport is developed and ensures effective communication throughout the project. The dynamics change, however, when it concerns underwater work.
“A lot of the crew aren’t divers,” he reveals. “You can't work from the water if you’re not a diver, unless it’s surface work or a bit of breath holding. We only allow certified scuba divers to go under. So when the job moves under water, a lot of departments rely on the scuba diving team to assist in some of the jobs.”
A lot of rehearsal time is integral to the safety and quality of an open water shoot, says Sanchez. “We ask for days and weeks of rehearsing because we have to break a sequence into tiny steps.
“For me, the most important question we ask is 'it’s not what you want to shoot, but how do you want to shoot?'”
This ensures enough time for Sanchez to run through the process of logistics, for instance, where everybody is going to be at any given time.
Michiels agrees that advance communication with productions is key to the success and safety of a shoot. So his first job is to explain the difficulties and estimated prep time of a production.
For Smithwick, tank shoots “wins on everything” in terms of its “safety and predictability”.
“You’re in and out in a day [on a tank shoot],” he says. “If you’re on a boat, it’s like you’re a sailor - so you only have what you’ve got with you. You have to be a problem solver.”
In addition to weather, “backups and alternatives” are additional factors that Smithwick has to consider on an open water shoot. He explains that “years ago, producers had weather insurance which meant they could have a few days to spread their shoot.
Whereas now, you have to specify how many days shooting you’re doing on, and if you’ve got three days and the visibility is gone, it’s quite difficult… you need a more forgiving schedule. You can predict things in a tank and control things.”
On knowing where to shoot, Smithwick believes it is best to steer the production creatively. Referring to a recent example where a production wanted to do a recreation of a mine rescue, they wanted a whole tunnel flooded and insisted they wanted 30 metres with 40 people in and didn’t want to break it up. Unable to fulfil the request, the scene had to be re-written, he admits.
“We can do amazing things, but you have to be realistic.”
Sanchez says when crew travel to Dominican Republic to shoot, they rely on the company’s knowledge of the different beaches and aspects of the ocean.
For instance, DR has the Caribbean Ocean on one side and has the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. “Those two bodies of water are conducive to different [filming elements] and they have a different look, water colour and visibility — so that’s something we navigate.”
Sanchez adds however, that “difficult requests are part of the day-to-day job”. “We’re dragging props, changing props, breaking boats… right now I have a request to put a bigger boat on a beach that has a foot and a half of water. It’s that kind of stuff you have to navigate and always be polite in your explanation if something doesn’t fit.”
The consensus among panelists is that camera housings have gotten smaller and more manageable. Sanchez also notes how he’s now able to attach smaller cameras to underwater scooters which enables them to travel faster.
Michiels agrees the smaller cameras benefit dynamic movements. “When an actor takes a last bubble of air, we need a small camera to capture that.”
Finally, Michiels reveals requests are coming in for virtual water stages which will see an LED wall behind a water surface. Though expensive, he says, it is definitely on the horizon for LITES Studios.