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Deep Sea Filming: The Perils and Pearls of Making Underwater IMAX Docs

By Howard Hall

Howard and Michelle Hall

If someone were to hold a competition to create the most difficult motion picture format for capturing wildlife behavior, it is hard to imagine a more creative entry than 15/70 (IMAX). Having directed two underwater 15/70 films (one of which was produced by my wife, Michele) and been underwater DP on several others, I know what it is like to be bludgeoned by the cumbersome 15/70 format. But the inherent handicap a wildlife filmmaker assumes when working in 15/70 is one reason why I keep coming back for more. I love making underwater IMAX films because it is so hard.

One must relish challenges to enjoy working underwater with a 15/70 camera. The IMAX Mark II camera in an underwater housing weighs over 250 pounds. This weight creates significant limitations when choosing a boat from which to dive. Boats that seem spacious when working in television formats suddenly become impossibly small when loaded with an underwater 15/70 production package and crew. The launching and recovering of the underwater camera system becomes a major logistical concern when choosing a boat.

Underwater, the 250-pound camera system becomes neutrally buoyant. Though seemingly weightless, it still retains 250 pounds of mass and has a great deal of surface area. When swimming the camera, a strong diver can generate only two speeds: painfully slow and slower. Pursuing marine creatures like whales, sharks, and manta rays becomes almost laughable.

Factor in the minimal amount of current, and the situation can become impossible. Even if two divers manage to pull the camera into shooting position against a quarter-knot current, the cameraman will often find that holding that position long enough to take a shot extremely difficult. While making the MacGillivray Freeman film, Coral Reef Adventure, our Fijian dive guide often beckoned us across the reef toward a subject she had discovered, only to be disappointed when the film crew gave up after swimming for fifteen minutes against an almost imperceptible current. We’ve experimented with increasing the system’s mobility by attaching diver propulsion vehicles to the camera housing. Though this succeeded in propelling the camera to shooting locations faster, it also resulted in a camera system that was unwieldy once we arrived at the sites, unless disassembled for each shot.

The problems created by mild currents are secondary to those created by surge, the back and forth movement of seawater created by passing waves. The shallower the bottom, the stronger the surge for a given wave size. In mild surge it often becomes impossible for a cameraman to hold an underwater 15/70 camera still. The director must either accept the back and forth movement of the image, or else put the camera on a tripod—an impractical option, usually, for filming moving subjects, but since surge will often propel a moving subject back and forth in synchrony with a hand-held camera, the movement can be acceptable. For stationary subjects, however, a tripod becomes very useful, if not absolutely necessary. Our underwater tripod weighs about 70 pounds, but even that amount of weight is often not enough to stabilize the camera in mild surge. For most situations, we find it necessary to add 20 pounds of additional lead to each tripod leg, which still might not be enough. Once, while making the IMAX 3D film Into the Deep, one of the two-inch-diameter aluminum tripod legs sheared in half as surge pressed against the camera housing.

Water movement is not the only reason to use a tripod underwater. Though most underwater 15/70 film is shot using the 30mm full-frame fisheye lens, longer lenses can be useful for varying perspectives. Depth of field, when using lenses with focal lengths longer than 50mm, makes critical focus nearly impossible to maintain unless the camera is locked down. And even though the 30mm is a fisheye in the 15/70 format, it still has much more limited depth of field than wide-angle lenses used for smaller formats.

Once the camera is mounted on the tripod, the next step in the set-up process is to bring in artificial light—a staple of most large-format underwater films. Lighting set-ups needn’t be brighter than for other formats, but they do need to be much wider. The 30mm lens covers 180 degrees corner to corner. Lighting a scene without making the use of artificial light obvious means spreading the light over an enormous frame. Battery lights are not going to get the job done. Artificial light must be powered by surface generators and supplied via cable.

Once the complete camera package is set up and ready, all that remains is for the marine life to perform on cue. It almost seems logical that with tens of thousands of dollars being spent per day to make the marine wilderness look beautiful, there should be some form of divine incentive for a cleaner fish to clean its host while the camera is running. It has been my experience, however, that no matter how many bushels of hundred dollar bills a director pours into the sea in an attempt to get simple wildlife behavior, the marine life doesn’t just don’t care. In fact, there seems to be something about descending upon wildlife with a 70-pound tripod, 60 pounds of weight, a 250-pound camera, 2,000 watts of artificial light, and a half dozen scuba divers that inhibits natural marine life behavior. Nevertheless, sometimes, through divine intervention or simple dumb luck, the creatures begin to perform as if we—and all our equipment—were not there. During these rare moments, a 15/70 cameraman has the opportunity to capture something really special on film—providing he can do it in three minutes!

Most 15/70 cameras operate using a 1,000-foot load, which runs through the camera in only three minutes, making the filming of animal behavior extraordinarily difficult. But despite the short camera run-time and the cumbersome equipment, the most frustrating obstacle in the process is noise. When running, the IMAX Mark II camera in an underwater housing sounds like a lawn mower with a bad bearing. When marine animals hear it, they usually do one of two things. They either stop whatever fascinating behavior in which they may have been engaged and begin staring at the camera or, more frequently, they turn and bolt away as if pursued by a giant squid. Since the camera takes approximately four seconds to ramp up to speed, my editors are often presented with literally miles of 70mm footage displaying little more than retreating animals.

We have tried incorporating modifications to our underwater system in efforts to minimize the sound problem, but an acceptable solution continues to elude us. Many marine creatures, especially sharks, are sensitive to sound. While making Island of the Sharks, I often found myself surrounded by spectacular hammerhead schools numbering more than 100 sharks. When I pressed the run switch the sharks would invariably retreat into the gloom just before the camera came up to speed.

As difficult as it may be to work with the underwater IMAX Mark II system, it’s a cakewalk compared to the IMAX 3D system, which weighs in at about 1,500 pounds. The logistical problems associated with a camera system that heavy multiply geometrically. Most dive boats have neither the deck space nor the lifting capacity for handling so large a system. Operating out of skiffs becomes impossible and this limits access to key dive sites. Filming in conditions of even mild surge and current becomes not only difficult but also dangerous. When surge shifts a 1,500-pound camera system, you don’t want to be between it and the reef.

Despite the problems, limitations and frustrations of working underwater in the 15/70 format, I love the technical challenge of making something so absurdly impractical work underwater, and I’ve learned to laugh with my crew over our failures. And I will never tire of basking in the beauty of wildlife scenes I have captured as they are projected on a screen 80 feet high.


Howard Hall has directed such large format films as Into the Deep for IMAX Films, Island of the Sharks for NOVA Large Format Films and Coral Reef Adventure for MacGillivray Freeman Films. He also shot The Living Sea and Journey Into Amazing Cave, for MacGillivrary Freeman.