Inside OceanX Part II: Underwater Filming and Lighting

Nature documentary cinematographer Hugh Miller and dive safety officer/camera operator Steve Hudson provide an in-depth look at underwater dives and filming in extreme locations.

Footage courtesy of OceanX Media. 

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

“The deep ocean around Antarctica is just as blank to us now as it was 100 years ago,” scientist and deep-sea explorer Jon Copley says in a documentary short that is part of Our Blue Planet, a joint venture between OceanX Media and BBC Earth. The video, which won the 2019 Social Video Webby Award for Education and Discovery and was directed by OceanX Media founder and creative director Mark Dalio, chronicles as Copley becomes the first scientist to descend 1,000 meters into the Antarctic Ocean during production of the BBC Natural History Unit series Blue Planet II.

Copley continues: “But, [if] you reach into the unknown, you are going to come back with something that you didn’t have before.”

This is the mission of OceanX Media — to combine groundbreaking scientific discovery with stunning and provocative cinematography. “Those two [elements] are quite important,” says Dalio, who cites oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and BBC documentaries as lifelong sources of inspiration. “The science alone [that is being conducted on our vessels] is unbelievable and fantastic, but it is much more powerful when you give it a voice that can reach millions of people around the world.”

OceanX Media founder and creative director Mark Dalio with cinematographer Ivan Agerton framing a shot.
OceanX dive safety officer Steve Hudson.

OceanX dive safety officer Steve Hudson (affectionately called “Scuba Steve”), who also serves as a camera operator, attests: “The creative and scientific collaborations are often mutually beneficial. The production team gains valuable insight into the behavior of a subject or environment from the scientist(s), and the science team members benefit from access to high-quality video/stills to aid their research.”

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. According to Dalio, OceanX’s equal prioritization and seamless integration of science and filmmaking makes Alucia one of the few vessels in the world capable of capturing cinematic-quality images in the deep sea and in other extreme environments. “The integration of media into the workflow and the lifeblood of the ship [makes our vessel in demand],” Dalio says. “We have more capabilities than others in terms of the camera equipment as well as the knowledge of the staff that we have on the ship and the use of our two submersibles.” (For more information on Alucia’s submersibles, read Part I, here.)

Since its inception, OceanX has partnered with numerous production companies, including PBS on the Nova episode “Creatures of Light”; National Geographic on Years of Living Dangerously; and BBC Earth on Great Barrier Reef (2015), among other projects. During the four years of production on Blue Planet II and Oceans: Our Blue Planet, Alucia traveled to numerous oceans and extreme environments, including Chile, Costa Rica, Gulf of Mexico and Antarctica.

Hugh Miller, one of the cinematographers on both productions, who photographed deep-water sequences within the submersible as well as shallow-water sequences as a diver, says a shot he captured of Alucia’s submersible in Antarctica “alongside the great submerged walls of a tabular iceberg” was one of the most effective shots he photographed for the documentary and series. “Having the sub alongside the ice was great for scale comparison, and a spiraling, descending shot gave a good sense of how overwhelming that environment is. There’s nothing below you except a blue void, but over your shoulder there’s this enormous mass of ice that’s almost alive. It's moving, melting, fizzing and occasionally emitting huge body shaking bangs like claps of thunder as internal fissures give way under immense strain.”

The cinematographer, who has a background in marine biology and whose credits include Frozen Planet, Life, Life Story, Desert Seas, Wild Arabia and Africa, captured the sequence as a diver in the Arctic water. Hudson, who has more than 20 years of diving experience and has performed dives on every continent, is responsible for all scuba and rebreather diving operations on Alucia and ensures the safety of Miller, other cinematographers and camera operators and the rest of the dive crew on such shoots. His credits include Before the Flood, Mission Galapagos, Great Barrier Reef (2015) and Our Big Blue Backyard.

Cinematographer Hugh Miller.
Cinematographer Hugh Miller.

“The preparation starts a long time before you actually make the physical journey to an environment such as Antarctica,” Hudson says. “I had previously worked in Antarctica, so I somewhat knew what was going to be encountered. [But], Alucia had not operated in these locations previously, so special equipment was ordered. [This included] specific scuba regulators that are adapted for use in the extreme cold, dry suits and thermal undergarments for exposure protection, as well as additional small dive cylinders filled with argon gas, which provides better heat retention inside the divers’ dry suit, compared to regular air.”

Hudson emphasizes that “you are somewhat on your own in a location like this, without the ability to ‘order in’ or ‘pick up’ a replacement item, so having redundancy and more redundancy with dive equipment and camera equipment is paramount for the success of the shoot. You must be able to work around equipment failures to continue your work.”

The next consideration, he continues, is understanding the experience level of the divers involved. On the Antarctica shoot, for example, Hudson needed to know how many dives they had done in extremely cold water; if they had previously worked in, around and under ice; and if they had previous experience with large predators, such as leopard seals. He also had to identify the diving level of difficulty for each shoot, including diving depth, duration and conditions. 

“You have to evaluate the conditions, sea state, weather, wind, current, etc. prior to and during each and every dive, making prudent safety decisions based on the changing conditions, which occur very rapidly in Antarctica. Time of day is also an important consideration. Deciding if it is prudent to do a late dusk dive prior to sunset for a particular look of shot(s) means that, if in the unlikely event a diver isn’t located immediately after the dive by the support boat(s), then the chances of finding them at night is remote. 

Hudson during a night dive.
Hudson during a night dive.

“For locations such as Antarctica and other challenging dive locations where the conditions are sometimes difficult, being an experienced and competent diver is even more imperative. This is not always the case if filming in shallow, tropical locations where very good camera operators without a great deal of dive expertise can still achieve good results in favorable conditions,” Hudson explains. “However, in my opinion, the diving side of the job needs to be second nature when the shoot is in an advanced underwater environment so that you are able to concentrate almost solely on the viewfinder and the diving is almost automatic.”

But, Hudson adds, “I tend to want as few people in the water as possible during a shoot. The more divers in the water, the more bubbles [if using scuba rather than a rebreather], the greater the chance of following a subject [in your viewfinder] and suddenly getting a dirty frame with someone entering shot. This is particularly true when filming fast-moving and dynamic action, such as bait balls [a compact school of small fish] or megafauna, where you are often turning and constantly changing your position in the water and reacting to what the subject is allowing you to film. It is easier when shooting macro life, where you have your camera set up on a tripod and facing in one direction, focused on a small, concentrated area of reef, waiting for your subject to appear. Here, it matters less having divers behind you.

“In my opinion and experience, it works better alternating camera operators and dive teams. So, when team A exits the water, team B is ready to enter, and so on. This way you get maximum coverage on the site without the chance of spoiling each other’s shot by inadvertently swimming into it. Teams that work well together often discuss with the other members as they come out of the water — they can advise on what they achieved on their dive. Stating, ‘We got this, but didn’t get enough of that,’ for example, allows you then to enter for your dive and concentrate on the ‘missing’ shots from the sequence. Ultimately, the sequence and shots are the most important thing. Yes, it’s nice to get them yourself, but as long as the team is successful, and the producer and post team are happy, that’s all that matters.” 

In terms of the most pressing safety concerns for dives, Hudson says, “The obvious one is, of course, cold, as well as potential leaks or water ingress into the divers’ dry suit, which is designed to keep the diver completely dry from the neck down. This can range from a small leak in a dry (waterproof) glove to a major leak in the entire suit. [A small leak is] extremely uncomfortable, even if it is only a small amount of water. This can chill the diver very quickly and end a dive early, [especially] in these water temperatures. If it is a catastrophic leak in the suit, it can be extremely dangerous, as your suit basically begins filling with water and you become not only dangerously cold, very quickly, but the effect on the divers’ buoyancy — or lack of it — can be potentially fatal. The diver would have to drop their weights and inflate their BCD [Buoyancy Control Device] but may still struggle for adequate positive buoyancy.”

He adds that “this is of particular importance when diving in the open ocean,” such as on the shoot around icebergs that Miller photographed, where “the sea floor is several hundred meters/feet below us.” 

But, Hudson is quick to note, the idea that underwater filming is inherently dangerous is a misconception. “Those in my profession conduct thousands of dives throughout their careers — often without ever having any serious incidents. This is mainly due to diligence and preparation by the team prior to the shoot and during the dives.”

Once the team begins diving operations, Hudson says, “it is not dissimilar to [filming in] other, more forgiving, locations. The general plan is to start slow, having a relatively easy introductory dive where the diver’s equipment and all the cameras are tested to ensure everything is working as it should. [After that, the divers move on] to the more advanced and filming-orientated dives where you need to be able to concentrate on the subject matter. Obviously, pre-dive checks of equipment and cameras are even more necessary in such an extreme environment.”

Of the physical demands of the work, Hudson attests, “Certainly, in destinations where there are extremely strong currents and difficult surface conditions and you do three, four or five dives a day pushing a large camera housing through the water, I would be lying if I didn’t say it’s exhausting work. This requires a reasonable degree of physical fitness to do it day after day.” 

Beyond generally “trying to maintain good physical health,” Hudson says that he endeavors “to get a decent amount of rest, drink a huge quantity of water to stay hydrated — which helps to avoid decompression illness — and, just as importantly, look after my ears. 

“There are a huge number of microscopic parasites in water, particularly in very warm tropical seas. Ear infections are not uncommon in the industry. I do my best to ensure I look after my ears, rinsing them with fresh water and ensuring they dry out between dives or at the end of the day’s filming. A painful ear infection can stop a shoot in its tracks.”

Miller adds: “We haven’t evolved well for the ocean, obviously, so constant immersion wreaks havoc on the body. You’re dealing with decompression issues and repeated exposure to high partial pressures of oxygen…. There’s an awful lot to think about in addition to the cinematography when you’re working underwater.”

One of those considerations is safety outside of the water as well. Alucia polar expedition leader Martin Enckell — whose father worked with Cousteau aboard RV Calypso — also assumes a tremendous amount of responsibility, especially, he says in an OceanX interview, “When things start to go wrong or the weather creeps in. You have snowstorms, katabatic winds, icebergs start to move, fog rolls in [and] you lose all bearings around you.” 

Dalio describes one particularly harrowing moment in Antarctica during production on Blue Planet II. Enckell and cinematographer Ted Giffords were dropped off via helicopter onto sea ice to bring the camera eye-level with sea lions. (Giffords, along with Roger Munns, received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program for their work on Episode 1, “One Planet,” of the BBC series.) “It seemed like everything was going fine,” Dalio shares, but shortly after the two started walking, Enckell fell through several inches of ice — up to his knee. “[That moment] was very scary,” Dalio remembers. But, they soon discovered, the ice was several feet thick. The first layer was thinner, softer and slushy. Below that was more solid ice. “Once we realized that we were all safe,” Dalio says, “we just kept on trekking along” to capture the desired footage.

“The environment is in control,” Enckell emphasizes. Because of this, it’s a requirement that the filmmakers be flexible. “Wildlife filming is unpredictable,” Miller attests. “Conditions, weather, currents and other factors can have a huge impact on you when you are in the field. Often plans need to change and stories are rewritten in the field to work with the conditions presented.”

Hudson adds: “The underwater environment and, of course, marine life can change extremely quickly. You can enter for a dive and the conditions both on the surface and underwater can be ideal, but they can rapidly deteriorate to a point where you have to make a call to abort and end the dive.”

Other times, conditions change in a serendipitous way. “Once in a while, something will start happening on a shoot where the dynamic of the story changes, and you can’t ignore the unexpected happening that is occurring in front of you. On these rare occasions, the unexpected stories or characters can become the main focus of the story.” 

While Miller reports that a team of producers and researchers determine a shoot’s objectives and logistics, Hudson relays that he often performs advanced location scouting to gain a better understanding of the underwater environment as well as potential challenges and opportunities of the area. Once on location, Hudson continues, the shoot “will often be dictated by the sequence(s) the production wants, with the exact location on the reef/rocks being agreed upon by the producer and camera operators after an exploratory dive to scope the area out.”

Adds Miller: “My role is to figure out how to make the stories they’ve envisioned a reality — how best to capture their vision.”

The production employed Red Dragon DSMC1 cameras with custom Gates Underwater Products deep-water housings, paired primarily with Nikon and Sigma ART stills lenses. “Each shoot will require its own specific and often bespoke set up. I might need to adapt existing equipment or design and build totally new kit to achieve the aims of the shoot,” Miller explains. “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 macro,” which, Miller states, “is probably the most important lens I use underwater.

“For documentary filming, my preference is for some kind of zoom. It’s important to be able to work different shot sizes quickly to create a sequence — even if this is at a compromise to pure optical quality.”

The ability to work at speed is important because, as Hudson says, “animal behavior is beyond your control and can be a challenging and sometimes frustrating goal to capture — sometimes taking hours, days or weeks to achieve.” Miller emphasizes: “You’ve spent days waiting for something to happen — you may only get one chance. You’ve got to tell the story.”

While the team primarily enlisted handheld Orcalight SeaWolf lights as well as Keldan lights for time-lapse work, both Miller and Hudson agree that zero lighting is best. “My default position is never light unless you really have to,” Miller states. “If you do, use another diver to light offboard for you — make it natural.” Hudson concurs: “I’m a great believer in shooting with natural light — without lights, if at all possible — especially on large marine life that is fast moving. I prefer the more uniform look of the image (even if slightly darker than I may like) compared to a portion of the shot having the subject well lit, then perhaps over-lit and then under-lit as the animals move in and out of frame and closer and further away from your lights.” 

Miller continues: “Good lighting is challenging. Generally, the lights are going to be DC-powered and hand-carried. There are times when a surface-powered light might be used, but the difficulty of getting a boat exactly over a location and keeping it in place to run a cable to the light means that this is a rare kind of setup. So, lights are hand-carried, which means they are battery-powered, and that becomes a limiting factor — not to mention vastly increases the number of specialist batteries you have to get to location.” And due to air travel/shipment restrictions, this is an increasingly difficult thing to do.

Adds Hudson: “In an ideal world, you may never actually have or want your lights attached to your camera at all, but [instead] have an independent light source shone by your buddy/safety diver/lighting assistant. This approach certainly helps when lighting wide scenes and large subjects, and, of course, for backlighting scenes. However, it does take considerable coordination between the camera operator and the lighting assistant so that the team remains at an agreed upon distance from each other and the subject matter.”

Miller elaborates, “You need good divers who understand lighting to hold lights mid-water or set them up on tripods if that’s more useful. Using multiple lights is time-consuming as you have to swim around and reset and then get back to the camera to see what it looks like.” 

To achieve these more complicated setups, the cinematographer explains that the team relies on underwater communication devices, “but, even they are challenging as they often garble your words, and the detailed meaning of what you’re saying is lost.”   

Hudson shares that he performs a large amount of filming dives with OceanX dive master Walter “Bubby” Pavlo, who acts as Hudson’s lighting assistant and safety diver. “After years of being in the water — and on land — together, we generally do not need to communicate that much to each other. He knows what shot I’m trying to compose, and I know he will position with the lights where I would like them.

“However, it can be very different when working with people you are not familiar with, and you have to thoroughly review what the objective of the dive is prior to entering the water. And then, once in, communicate very clearly with hand signals. This is of particular importance when you have a broad shot list and you are working not only with marine life, but also divers on-camera. Directing their movements and actions in the water — by hand signal, so the dive runs smoothly — and [ensuring] time is utilized well is definitely something that comes with experience and sometimes requires patience.”

But, Hudson reports, “For many people, having a completely independent diver lighting for you is simply not possible. When this is the case, having your lights on long arms (I prefer using x2 11” arms plus the clamps for connecting to the housing and the lights on each side of the setup) will allow you enough distance from the lens to avoid disturbing the image while still lighting the subject well. The advantage of having lights on your own housing setup is, obviously, you are the one looking through the viewfinder, so you can see the image and where the lights need to be positioned or the power either increased or decreased. Changing this yourself definitely avoids additional communication with another diver.”

Miller further explains that lighting determinations are also made based on the natural habitat of the subject. “For some years, I’ve often questioned the wisdom of shining bright white lights onto animals and then expecting to film natural behavior, especially if that behavior normally happened in very low light or darkness,” he says. “I commissioned a very powerful underwater light that emitted InfraRed, but I had it tuned to produce most of its IR just beyond our visual range so that, whilst it wouldn’t be visible, it also wouldn’t be absorbed by the water as quickly as most normal IR lights that have a longer wavelength.”   

The cinematographer employed this light on a popular Blue Planet II sequence involving a Sand Striker worm (previously referred to as a Bobbit worm) — a creature that many news sources claimed “terrified” viewers. The sequence, which appears in Episode 3, “Coral Reefs,” showcases a meter-long, carnivorous worm that hides in sand and snatches unsuspecting prey with its jaws. “The Sand Striker worm wouldn’t tolerate white light — or even red light — at any level that we could film by,” Miller recalls. “Previously, Sand Striker worms have been filmed under white light at other locations, but they are poorly studied, and it could be that [those Sand Striker worms were a] different species to the ones we were filming. With my special IR light, the Sand Striker carried on as if it was dark, and so did the fish [the Sand Striker preyed upon] that entered into the illuminated area. I was working in complete darkness on the seabed — only able to see what was going on through the camera’s monitor. It was a fascinating first insight into the undisturbed underwater world at night.” 

This sequence, along with a day portion that depicts bream fish banding together to blow the sand away from the Sand Striker and expose the predator, is Miller’s personal favorite. “It was great behavior that had only been seen once before by one person! I was astonished when it happened in front of me — not once, but several times.” 

Bream fish blow sand away to expose the Sand Striker worm.
Bream fish blow sand away to expose the Sand Striker worm.

These moments, he adds, of capturing a behavior rarely or never before seen or known to science “are the ones that years later you remember. And it’s what makes all the hard work worthwhile. Sometimes you might recognize it at the time, but, often, you’re so immersed in completing the sequence that the realization of what you’ve witnessed comes later.”

Hudson corroborates this: “You are, of course, working and concentrating on everything that is happening — not just your diving and well-being in the water, but the battery life of the camera, card time left, framing, focusing, aperture, shot list, etc. I find myself often exiting the water and slightly underselling the dive and what was experienced and filmed, perhaps knowing I didn’t get everything I wanted on that dive — always wanting another or different shot.”

While the filmmakers note that a dive will have the same objectives as other forms of documentary filmmaking — including the “must-have” and “nice-to-have” shots — Hudson says, “In the water, even utilizing technology such as rebreathers, which allow extended time below the surface, your ability to get the shot is dependent on your time constraints of breathing gas and nitrogen absorption.” 

And it’s because of this, he continues, as well as the physical demands of these shoots, that it is disheartening when one of these shots doesn’t make it into a final cut. “Perhaps one of the most frustrating — but also understandable — parts of the job is when a ‘favorite’ shot is cut in postproduction and doesn’t make it into a show. The editor, of course, knows what they want and the flow of the sequence, and, importantly, has no attachment to any particular shot over any other. However, you as the camera operator might have worked incredibly hard for that one shot, stayed in the water when cold, far longer to get it, swam harder than you might have liked against a current to get it, etc. So, in your mind, it’s a good shot and you know how hard you worked to get it, only for it to not make the cut and something else you thought wasn’t worthy of going in does. This, however, is the business and you have to accept it with a smile and a shrug.”

In terms of the emotions of the work — such as watching a Sand Striker worm snag and drag a fish to its death in front of his viewfinder — Miller says that remaining an objective witness can be hard. “It’s impossible for me not to empathize, and that often doesn’t feel great. The only way I can remain objective is to make sure I’m not influencing the outcome — to minimize my presence by using rebreathers, moving slowly, staying inconspicuous and not getting too close. Ideally, it should be as if you’re not there. That’s not always possible, but it’s my aim, and in that way, I know that what I’m photographing is natural behavior.”

And capturing this behavior is, as Copley said, reaching into the unknown and coming back with something that wasn’t had (or known) before. For Miller, this part of the job is “genuinely thrilling and uplifting!”

For aspiring underwater filmmakers, Hudson offers: “Cherish the opportunities that you get underwater, no matter where they may occur. Yes, it’s a thrill to be on location in an exotic destination such as Palau, the Galapagos Islands or Antarctica capturing wonderful imagery. However, everywhere has its own unique subjects or experiences that you can enjoy and share with others.” 

Blue Planet II and Oceans: Our Blue Planet employed a number of directors of photography. Those involved in Blue Planet II included Miller, Gavin Thurston, Roger Horrocks, Ted Giffords, Roger Munns, René Heuzey and Gail Jenkinson. Those involved in Oceans: Our Blue Planet included Miller, Thurston, Giffords, Munns, Chris Bryan, Rod Clarke, Joe Platko, John Shier, Alexander Vail, Richard Wollocombe, Alfredo Barroso, David Reichert and Daniel Zatz.

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