Inside OceanX Part I: Deep-Ocean Cinematography

Nature documentary cinematographer Gavin Thurston discusses the technical challenges of filming 1,000 meters underwater.

Footage courtesy of OceanX Media. 

This article is Part I of a two-part series on oceanographic cinematography for the productions of Blue Planet II and Oceans: Our Blue Planet. To read Part II, which showcases cinematography in underwater dives, click here.

“The oceans cover 70 percent of the surface of our planet. And yet, they are still the least explored part of it,” David Attenborough opens the wildly popular BBC Natural History Unit nature documentary series Blue Planet II, a sequel to the 2001 series The Blue Planet.

Wildlife presenter David Attenborough.

Star Trek declared space “the final frontier” in the mid-1960s — a decade after oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s groundbreaking Academy Award­–winning underwater documentary The Silent World premiered. But, more than 50 years later, the oceans are proving to be “the final frontier,” which Attenborough affirms in Episode 2: “We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the deepest parts of our seas.”

This is something OceanX Media is dedicated to changing.

During the four years of production involved with making Blue Planet II, the BBC sought to bring audiences to parts of the Earth never before seen: the deep sea. To achieve this feat, they partnered with OceanX, and the two also co-produced the 2018 documentary Oceans: Our Blue Planet.

OceanX employs the 56-meter vessel MV Alucia, equipped with two submersibles that can reach a depth of 1,000 meters, a helicopter used to scout wildlife and capture aerial photography, wet and dry research labs and a media room. The Alucia crew captured the first-ever footage of a giant squid in 2012, and it was then that OceanX Media founder and creative director Mark Dalio saw the significance of combining ocean research and exploration with cinematography. “[The giant squid was] something that had been so elusive and sought after, [and now we] know more about its feeding behavior, ecosystem and how it lives. Alucia was working with Discovery and NHK and an unbelievable team of scientists, and it struck me: Why not create a media operation that was much more intertwined with the scientific backbone that Alucia had?”

“The deep ocean is as challenging
to explore as space.”

Dalio cites Cousteau as a “big inspiration” because of the way the oceanographer unified “scientists and filmmakers in a way that hadn’t been done before,” which is a methodology he brought to OceanX in equally prioritizing science and filmmaking. 

OceanX Media founder and creative director Mark Dalio.

In Episode 2, “The Deep,” Attenborough narrates: “The deep ocean is as challenging to explore as space.” To this, Dalio says, “That just gives a reference to how challenging it is [to film in that environment].”

Gavin Thurston, one of the cinematographers who photographed Blue Planet II and Oceans: Our Blue Planet — whose work on Episode 2 of the BBC series earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program — echoes this: “Going from the surface of the Earth up into space is only the difference of one atmosphere’s pressure. But if you go from the surface and go underwater just 30 feet, you’ve doubled the pressure. If you get to 60 feet, it’s another atmosphere’s pressure. So, if you go to 1,000 meters — or 3,300 feet — it’s 100 times the pressure of standing on the surface of the Earth.”

He adds, “The other thing you haven’t got in space is salt water… and we know salt water is not great for equipment.”

Cinematographer Gavin Thurston.
Cinematographer Gavin Thurston.

Thurston, whose illustrious credits include The Blue PlanetPlanet EarthPlanet Earth IIHuman PlanetFrozen Planet and Our Planet, first discovered the lasting significance of photography when he captured one of his first pictures — with a Box Brownie camera — of an orca jumping out of the water. “What was amazing was, two weeks later when I went and picked up that photograph, I could show it to my mother and say, ‘I told you there’s this bloody great fish!’” he remembers. “In that one moment, for me as a 10-year-old, I put together two things. One was the amazing power of photography — that you can share moments you see. The other was there are amazing animals out there like that orca that I’d never seen before. But with that one photograph, I can combine these two things and share that moment. It’s amazing to think that, 50 years down the line, I can show you that split second when that animal was out of the water.

“One thing I love about this job is the power of the image — being able to share moments with the rest of the world.” 

OceanX’s Alucia and her two submersibles make it one of the few vessels in the world capable of capturing deep-sea imagery, but, as Dalio says, “whenever you’re filming or doing any sort of operations in the deep, inherently there are a lot of challenges that you face.” The first pressing issue in capturing footage for Blue Planet II, he continues, was that they didn’t yet have the tools and capabilities that would enable the crew to achieve the quality of image both production companies desired. “Not many camera or housing manufacturers are able to create cameras systems for a 1,000-meter submersible,” he says. For the photography captured in the submersibles, BBC and OceanX selected the Red Dragon DSMC1 due to its raw file format, but a housing was needed that would withstand traveling 1,000 meters underwater — and one didn’t exist.

Dalio (right) with OceanX Media cinematographer Ivan Agerton framing a shot with the Red Dragon DSMC1.
Dalio (right) with OceanX Media cinematographer Ivan Agerton framing a shot with the Red Dragon DSMC1.

OceanX Media partnered with Gates Underwater Products and DOER Marine to build custom deep-water housings and a new internal camera system. “Previous to this, we were using a laptop for most of the focus and zoom as well as the ISO and shutter, which presented a huge amount of challenges,” Dalio says. “[Just] imagine trying to focus with a mousepad or a touchpad as well as trying to zoom the camera.” Especially with capturing macro, he continues, “[With] the level of precision that you need, it makes the camera extremely hard to operate.

“There were a few key elements that we wanted in this benthic housing. One of them was full control of the zoom and focus with a manual controller, not through the laptop. We also wanted the ability to use a wide range of lenses — cinema and still photo.”

Thurston elaborates, “We had laptops inside the submersible that were able to communicate and change any of the camera settings, which were outside the submersible in the [Gates housings].” Of the Red system, he adds, “Nothing has come close in terms of just being able to control the camera remotely via wired control.” 

The team employed two camera setups outside of the submersibles, paired primarily with Canon 15.5–47mm and Nikon 70–180mm lenses. Both cameras were on pan-and-tilt heads, which the cinematographers operated remotely from within the submersible. 

“Between those two cameras, the idea was, in any situation, we could shoot a sequence,” Thurston explains. “Underwater, a lot of the time, you might see nothing at all. There were dives for eight hours where, apart from the odd shrimp or squid, you’d see virtually nothing. Then other dives we’d be down for an hour and come across something spectacular. But, in each scenario, we realized that we couldn’t go back down the next day and necessarily find the same creature, so we had to be able to shoot the wides and the tights and the cutaways in that same setup.”

He adds, “When you work at depth, you can’t get out of the submersible a kilometer underwater to [address a problem].” Therefore, with the two-camera setup, “If we had an issue with one camera, you’re not down there for nothing. You could carry on shooting with the other camera.”

Another cinematographer on both productions, Hugh Miller, who performed deep- and shallow-water photography and whose work also appears in Episode 2, says, “There is no magic lens for S-35 underwater; you need a few to get the shot sizes you need: a wide zoom (12–24mm), mid zoom (17–55 or 24–70mm) and the utterly unique Nikon 70–180mm. For me, that 70–180mm is probably the most important lens I use underwater. It hasn’t been made since 2005, and I’d really like an update!”

Cinematographer Hugh Miller.

“I usually use stills lenses for the close focusing capability. Working behind the dome port of a housing, you need something that is capable of focusing on the virtual image — an optical effect created by the air-dome-water interface. This image is both curved and close — something that more cinematic lenses struggle to deal with and can actively work against you,” Miller explains.

With this package, the team captured in 5.5K, which, Thurston notes, was “the smallest compression ratio” they could achieve. With the Red Dragon, he adds, “You don't shoot full resolution all the time. Your quality is affected by your frame rates, and your resolution changes your shot size.” (In this case, a crop factor of 1.30x relative to full-frame 35mm.) 

“There were two things I was lucky enough to
experience at the bottom of the ocean,
which are probably the two most extraordinary
things I’ve seen on this planet.”

Working in the submersible “is quite a mind f---,” the cinematographer candidly attests. “You’ve got two cameras, two sets of controls. Once you get below 300 meters, you’re working in complete darkness. It doesn’t matter if it’s full sunlight on the surface. As far as our eyes and the cameras are concerned, you’re in complete darkness. And as soon as you put a light on in the submersible, you ruin your night vision. Ideally, you work in complete darkness. You’re doing everything by touch, apart from monitoring the picture.”

Because screens would “flood the inside of the submersible with light,” Thurston opted for the Zacuto Gratical HD viewfinder, “which meant I had all the focus tools for my eyes” while retaining critical night vision.

The biggest obstacle with working in the dark, he adds, was having two cameras with two identical sets of kit — pan-and-tilt joysticks, focus controls, laptops, record buttons, etc. — especially with only one viewfinder. “I would frame up a shot on the 15.5mm lens with the zoom on one camera and set that recording. While that shot was running, I’d then pick up the control for the other camera and line up a macro shot and maybe pan with it. But somewhere in the dark, I’d cut the wrong camera and start the wrong camera, or I’d be panning one camera and monitoring it with the viewfinder. And the camera wouldn’t pan, and I’d realize I was panning the wrong camera.” 

To rectify the confusion, Thurston employed Velcro pads and placed the “hook” or spiked side on all elements for Camera 1. That way, “In the dark, I could feel the record button, joystick and focus control for Camera 1.

“For hours on end you’re floating around in the darkness, not seeing much at all. And then when something kicks off, you don’t want to screw it up by running the wrong camera or having the wrong focus control in your hand and looking at the other monitor.” 

Miller echoes this, stating that throughout the production of Blue Planet II and Oceans: Our Blue Planet, what was most photographically challenging was “shooting from one of Alucia’s submersibles, hundreds of meters down in the darkness of the midwater, with no reference point or depth cues of any kind.” One sequence, he says, that appears in Episode 2 and centers on Humboldt squid, was particularly difficult. “I used the full-frame, low-light Canon ME20 and a 50mm f1.2 and pulled focus on Humboldt squid racing past at speed. From a sheer focus-pulling point of view, that was likely the hardest shoot I’ve ever done.”

In addition to filming in total darkness, Thurston notes that there are a number of other considerations to photographing in the deep. While he jokes that the extent of his physical preparation for submersible shoots is walking from his bunk to eat breakfast before “climbing into a Perspex bubble, sitting down in a leather chair, being sent to the bottom of the ocean and sitting there in the dark for hours eating Toblerone and sandwiches,” he stresses that it is actually “[extremely] difficult to work underwater.”

He continues: “On the surface, you can walk somewhere, clean your lens, change lenses, adjust the lighting stand. Underwater, [you can’t do that, and] you’ve got all these additional issues of working under extreme pressures, salt water, current, the fact that you can’t see very far, and it takes time to get anywhere…. You’ve got electrics, lights, and three people in a tiny bubble.” He adds that each dive is a maximum of eight to 10 hours because of limited life support, and “There’s no toilet.”

Each submersible is equipped with outside lighting on either side of the cameras, which Thurston notes are similar to headlights on a car. With this kind of lighting, he says, “I thought it was all going to look a bit flat. Yes, it’s quite diagrammatic. You get good detail. But, artistically, it’s not inspiring. I wanted to be able to backlight. Things like a jellyfish, squid or shrimp look so much nicer if you can shine a light through it. You see all the detail and get some depth to the shot.”

The cinematographer adds that it was “lucky to be able to work with OceanX and the Alucia because they’ve got two submersibles.” While the second submersible is primarily utilized for science and as a rescue sub, it also serves as what Thurston calls “a nine-ton elaborate lighting stand” to backlight. Thurston notes that director James Cameron, who has made a number of oceanography documentaries, used a second submersible and ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) to backlight. “People have already seen beautiful images underwater,” he says. “So, we had to do it at least as well as that.”

In the event he was separated from the second submersible, Thurston asked the sub crew to build a gantry scaffold with a light roughly eight feet in front of the submersible — which was something that had never been done before. “I wanted [the rig] off axis, off the camera lens, just to be able to get some kind of modeling on what we were filming,” he explains.

The cinematographer admits that he was nervous that the reason no one had done this before was because it wouldn’t work. “I was thinking, ‘What happens if we get underwater and backlighting the particles in the water just means you don’t see anything?’ Like when you backlight smoke in a room — it shows up. And I’m thinking, ‘I’ve asked the crew to do this, and maybe we’ll get down there, turn the lights on, and it will just be a complete whiteout.’”

But, the lighting stand worked, and he was able to successfully backlight. “I was really glad that I pushed the crew to do it,” he offers. 

Thurston also utilized the second submersible to capture dynamic images from differing vantage points. One example of this was when he photographed underwater mud volcanoes in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by methane bubbles. This is one of two sequences from the BBC series for which he is proudest. “There were two things I was lucky enough to experience at the bottom of the ocean, which are probably the two most extraordinary things I’ve seen on this planet,” he says. 

The crew guided the submersibles toward the location of the mud volcanoes. The cinematographer explains: “[This area] was discovered about six or eight years ago, and it has only been seen once before by people. There’s an area of the ocean floor that is like loose silt or clay. It sits absolutely flat unless it’s disturbed. So, if you whiz over it in the submersible, you can see the surface ripple slightly. The reason it’s loose is because of a methane seep. The methane bubbles creep out of the earth, come up through that loose mud and silt and float up to the surface. When a methane bubble breaks through the surface of the mud, it drags with it a plume of mud that comes up as a big column from the ocean floor.”

The crew searched for the volcanoes over three hours and saw nothing. They were just about to give up, Thurston says, and look elsewhere when “we saw suddenly out of the ocean floor this column of mud rise up about 30- or 40–feet high. It was just extraordinary because the water was so clear down there — you kind of forget you’re underwater.”

The experience — while thrilling — was also intimidating, the cinematographer remembers, because of the uncertainty of what would happen if the submersible connected with one of these bubbles. “Since the submersible weighs nine tons, if an air bubble comes up around it, it’s not going to float in air. It’s going to sink. So, if we get caught up in one of these methane bubbles, [we wondered], ‘Are we just going to sink straight into the hole that the methane got out of?’”

He notes that methane bubbles are one theorized explanation for the disappearance of ships in the Bermuda Triangle: “If a methane bubble the size of a football at 1,000 meters comes up, as it’s rising through the water, it’s expanding. For each atmosphere’s pressure — for each 30 feet it rises — it will probably double in size. So, by the time it gets to the surface, it’s a huge bubble. If that happens to come up under your ship, you’ll just fall into that bubble.

“That was in the back of my mind when we were there, but it was just extraordinary. We were cruising around just six feet off the ocean floor — effectively flying through these columns of mud as they rose up out of the ocean floor. I got our pilot to direct the other submersible’s pilot to drive a path through [the volcanoes] so we could have some sense of scale.

“It just looked absolutely epic. I can still picture those images in my mind — just an extraordinary scene. I was proud of that. One [reason] is because we didn’t die, and two is that only two other people on the planet have probably ever seen that. And who knows when somebody will see it again.” 

His other favorite sequence involved photographing an undersea brine pool, also in the Gulf of Mexico. “Being underwater, [the experience of discovering the brine pool] was almost like finding a village pond at the bottom of the ocean,” he recalls. “It’s surrounded by a ring of mussels, and in the middle of that is this super saline solution that is heavier than normal saltwater, so it sits in this depression. 

“I got our pilots to direct the other submarine around the opposite side, so we were able to backlight this brine pool. It had this weird, misty layer on the surface where the super saline water was mixing with normal saltwater, which just looked like mist. And we could see fish and eels cruising over the surface.

“The pictures look stunning, and I’m proud of them,” he says of both sequences. “[This is] partly from a selfish point of view of experiencing those two bizarre landscapes 1,000 meters down, but also because I was able to capture those images with the luxury of two submersibles.”

Despite the lengths Thurston and the crew went to in order to capture never-before-seen images, the cinematographer says the most powerful image he captured was simple — and on land. The BBC series ends with Episode 7, “Our Blue Planet,” which focuses on the impact humans have had on the oceans and the environment and was largely photographed by Thurston. The episode specifically showcases the devastating effects that plastics have had on the oceans and wildlife, and the cinematographer says a shot of Attenborough walking along the strand line in Florida picking up plastic had the greatest emotional impact.

“It’s a simple shot — it’s a man picking up plastic. But that man is not any man. He’s probably the most respected wildlife presenter in the world. He’s got no commercial agenda — he’s not sponsored by anybody. He’s well-respected scientifically. So, to see a man like Sir David Attenborough — knighted by the Queen — who [was then] 91, who’s seen all these changes on the planet, walking on the strand line picking up plastic, was a powerful image. It’s not below him.”

“I don’t pretend that photography is
the magic bullet.... But it is a powerful
tool that works as a link between science,
public understanding and political policy.”

Thurston continues that this one shot of Attenborough, along with the presentation of Blue Planet II, has contributed to the public organizing mass beach cleanups throughout the United Kingdom. “You might have 100 people turn up, and they walk in a long line along the beach and just pick up every bit of plastic. And what they’re finding even in the short space they’ve done it over the last 10 months is each time they go out there, they’re picking up less and less.”

This is exactly what Dalio says OceanX aspires to accomplish. “What’s of the upmost importance to us is inspiring the public,” he says. He explains that the company tries to select projects that will draw the audience in with strong entertainment and production value and simultaneously educate them on how humans are affecting the planet. “Blue Planet II and the work we helped the BBC accomplish is a testament to that [mission]. It’s one of the first landmark BBC natural history documentaries to touch upon some of the [environmental] issues around oceans…. [The series enabled] people to fall in love with wildlife and the [various] creatures and showed that we need to protect the oceans.”

Thurston adds: “We share this planet. And it’s only in the last 30 or 40 years that we’ve really [acknowledged] that humans are becoming too dominating and taking more than our fair share.” Blue Planet II and Oceans: Our Blue Planet are “not just wallpaper entertainment,” he adds. “Hopefully they inspire people to become passionate about the oceans and the things that live in there and actually change our lifestyles.”

“I haven’t been to a location that is free from impact,” Miller says. “Even in the most remote open ocean locations and in the high latitudes of the poles there’s evidence of the effects everywhere…. Capturing how things are is an important first step in being able to reveal change. I wish the tools we have now were available two or three generations ago — we might not be in quite such a mess. I don’t pretend that photography is the magic bullet — that would just serve to ease my conscience. But it is a powerful tool that works as a link between science, public understanding and political policy.” 

“We could be wowing audiences with imagery
in the oceans, and particularly deep oceans,
for the next 30 or 50 years —
as long as we don’t kill everything off.”

As ocean research and cinematography advance, Dalio says, “The most exciting thing for me is this idea of inspiring the next generation to explore the oceans and to really cultivate this idea [of exploration], whether it’s going in your backyard or trying to get involved in science or even filmmaking.” This is something OceanX regularly promotes, he adds, with their original documentary shorts that go behind the scenes on these productions. “We want to not only highlight the animals, but also the scientists and production crew [and explore] what makes them tick, what makes them excited.”

To facilitate this, OceanX will soon launch the 84-meter MV Alucia2 (compared to the 56-meter Alucia), which will be equipped with production hubs designed by production designer/art director Page Buckner and an ROV capable of traveling 6,000 meters underwater that “will have a plethora of imaging capabilities.”

Dalio elaborates: “On the current vessel, everything is done off of the A-frame, which is a crane-like platform on the back of the ship. But with this new ship, we have the subs going off of the A-frame in the back, and on the side, there is a dedicated ROV hangar, which allows us to launch the ROV separate of the subs. This will also act as a camera and lighting platform to lend support to the submersible operations.” Since the ROV will be able to travel 5,000 meters farther than the submersibles, it will enable OceanX to be on the forefront of ocean research and documentation. 

Currently, OceanX is working to build camera housings for the ROV, capable of reaching 6,000 meters. 

“We’re excited to take viewers on the next wave of ocean exploration with Alucia2 and hopefully be a voice for the oceans in bringing new discoveries to the public. [We are also excited to] be able to take a wide range of great crew along, whether it’s cinematographers, production teams or scientists,” Dalio says. “Right now, we’re in the beginning stages of building a much larger program of ocean content, and we’re excited to build that team and bring them to the world.”

In July of 2019, OceanX Media announced a new partnership with BBC Natural History Unit, National Geographic and executive producer James Cameron for a global cross-platform television event with the working title of Mission OceanX. The six-episode series will premiere on National Geographic, and the first season will focus on the Indian Ocean. The aim is that Mission OceanX will become a recurring series focusing on a different ocean each season.

In looking towards the future of ocean exploration and cinematography, Thurston believes the potential is limitless, especially with new and developing technologies around submersibles, lighting, cameras and sensitivity. “We can push it a lot further,” he says. “We could be wowing audiences with imagery in the oceans, and particularly deep oceans, for the next 30 or 50 years — as long as we don’t kill everything off.” 

Blue Planet II and Oceans: Our Blue Planet employed a number of directors of photography. Those involved in Blue Planet II included Thurston, Miller, Roger Horrocks, Ted Giffords, Roger Munns, René Heuzey and Gail Jenkinson. For their work, Giffords and Munns were also nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program. Those involved in Oceans: Our Blue Planet included Thurston, Miller, Munns, Giffords, Chris Bryan, Rod Clarke, Joe Platko, John Shier, Alexander Vail, Richard Wollocombe, Alfredo Barroso, David Reichert and Daniel Zatz.

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