Breaking the Surface: Filming in a Submerged World

Film allows us to experience different worlds which we might otherwise never see in our daily lives. From the cultures, conditions and situations of other people, wildlife or places in documentaries, to fictional narratives composed by skilled writers which are then visualized through cinema, these different worlds on the surface alone are astounding.

As such, when we get to immerse ourselves in scenes captured underwater, it feels like an entirely different planet.

Films have come a long way from merely having aquatic props and backgrounds hinting at underwater scenes, to now having actual underwater filming and convincing computer generated graphics.

Perhaps it is reasonable to say that no matter what the weather during filming, be it through a sand storm, a blizzard, typhoons or any time of the day (or night), as long as it’s above surface, filming in such conditions are possible.

When it comes to filming underwater, however, there are additional considerations, and notable risks (lack of oxygen being first and foremost).

Filming in submerged scenes requires the camera operator to be a certified SCUBA diver. Being knowledgeable of the very basics of SCUBA diving is essential. This not only minimizes the risks of being underwater for a time, but also benefits the filming process.

For longer periods of filming underwater, closed circuit rebreathers, self-contained dive units that recycle breathed air, are usually present. Actors also need training for such endeavors; an example would be the lead actor in the Harry Potter franchise, in the Goblet of Fire, who trained for around six months before acting underwater. These days, things look impressive with the aid of special effects, but the best way to make someone look as though they are underwater is to get them to do exactly that: be underwater.

Underwater Filming 63_work-Whisper-shoot-Joel-best-500

In most cases, enormous water tanks are utilized, especially in filming underwater scenes that require controlled environments. It’s less dangerous for the cast and the crew. Numerous films and film franchise like Jaws, Titanic, Free Willy, and Harry Potter used water tanks in the filming process.

Water conditions are rigidly controlled, temperature and chlorine levels especially, to allow longer shooting periods. There are also instances wherein filming is done beneath actual bodies of water, which underwater wildlife documentaries filmmakers do for channels such as The National Geographic or The Discovery Channel. 

In those cases, it is important that everyone involved understands the specific underwater environment. It can be challenging to keep focus on filming itself when also remaining wary of sinking or floating, colliding with corals or dangerous rocks, or of course, fish swimming by.

Taking everything into consideration may be overwhelming, but camera operators must remain calm, moving slowly underwater and comfortably underwater. Assisted lighting makes things clearer, which is essential when filming underwater – especially when getting deeper.

Colors change when underwater in the sense that water absorbs color at different rates, based on depth and water type (tropical, temperate, and so on). Such color issues underwater can be compensated for easily: either by using a color filter for the camera, usually red; or by using underwater lights. Lights aren’t necessary for shallow or clear tropical waters, whereas filters are used on a case to case basis.

More and more underwater videographers are using HID (High-intensity Discharge) lights with greater effect compared to conventional halogen lights. For energy-efficiency, LEDs are popular due to their battery life and their color effects. At depth, most divers use small halogen lights. These are however unsuitable for video work as halogens produce concentrated and focused beams.

When lighting considerations alone seem complex, imagine the intricacies of filming underwater overall!

Similar to taking videos above surface, different conditions affect the colors that can be captured, more so underwater. White balance is very important for adjusting to depth change. For sharper images, though auto focus may provide its usual assistance, manual focus is best; the reason being that other elements floating in front of the lens like silt, dust or other aquatic life may drift by and get sensed by the auto focus function.

All such things mentioned and possible, we cannot forget the very equipment that makes the capture of these underwater visuals possible: the underwater camera housing.

There are hundreds, thousands of cameras on the market, yet only a relative few underwater housings exist. Generally, there are camera housings which are mechanical or digital, and there are housings which combine both.

Mechanical housings have buttons and pins that go through the hard casing to physically push buttons and turn switches on the camera. Digital camera housings tap into a digital port on the camera and operate all the camera functions from a digital control panel on the housing.

Though the housing can be the most expensive item to invest in, it is certainly the most important, for it will protect the camera from hazardous elements in the underwater environment.

Whether one is really interested in underwater videography or simply looking to begin, it might be best to first decide on what kind of camera housing to choose and then follow it up with a compatible camera. Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each setup can be a deciding factor on choosing what camera will fit your filmmaking style. Some features for consideration include: Access to all controls, Depth Rating, Support for fiber optic connection, Materials used (for the housing), Size, Underwater buoyancy, Type of port mounting, Leak alarms, and so on.

In the long run, no matter the brands or the equipment used in filming underwater, the final output is always what matters. This entirely depends on the creativity and intuition of the one holding the camera, submerged in a world which is vast, beautiful, and enormously unexplored.

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SineScreen is an international film magazine that celebrates the craft of cinema. Printed copies of the magazine are available in printed format during film festivals covered by us.

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