Underwater cinematographers face different sets of challenges than their land-based counterparts. Most people might imagine that dangerous animals or murky conditions are the biggest problems an underwater camera operator might have to deal with, but there are many other variables that complicate underwater shots. In fact, some aspects of underwater cinematography escape even the director or director of photography on the surface. Tom Boyd, a graduate of the Film degree program and a 2013 Full Sail Hall of Fame Inductee, explained to us some of the challenges of underwater shooting. As a seasoned underwater cinematographer and diver, Tom often acts as a consultant as well as a camera operator when working on Hollywood commercials, feature films, and documentaries.
Keeping Objects Out of a Shot
When shooting underwater, keeping certain things out of shots is just as important for realism as getting a quality shot. “I have to be careful, depending on the lens, because we usually use wide lenses in the water,” says Tom. “So I have to watch myself to make sure I don’t inadvertently show my fins.” This can be challenging in underwater scenes with a lot of action – such as a fight scene – but that’s where Tom’s technical diver training comes in. He uses different types of “finning” or even swims backward when necessary. Bubbles can also be a problem: “Sometimes I have to hold my breath for a certain shot.” Other items that must stay out of shots are cords, used for powering communication units that enable Tom to communicate with the crew on land or connecting the camera to the surface for remote operation.
The way the light bends in water, also known as light refraction, is a factor that surface photographers don’t always understand. Especially for scenes that involve splashdowns into the water, light refraction is an important consideration. “They want to see all the action from underwater, but then they also want to get that fall-in, where [the actors] fall into the water, so you’ve got to be really ready,” says Tom. To capture a splashdown, the camera must be tilted in a more downward position than the surface crew expects. Tom’s understanding of exactly where to point the camera comes from years of experience as the underwater operator on Fear Factor. “That was the best training ground for the unexpected underwater,” says Tom. “After years of doing that, I knew where people were going to fall in, I knew what was going to happen. It trained me for that kind of stuff.”
Humans can sometimes be more unpredictable than animals, says Boyd. Some people are uncomfortable in the water, which can pose problems. And athletes, though skilled swimmers, are usually less consistent in their actions than seasoned actors. Another human factor to consider: people are susceptible to the conditions. Especially in ocean shots, water temperature can be an issue for actors. “I just did a commercial with a girl, [and] they just wanted her on a surfboard,” says Tom. “They had everybody else in wetsuits, and she was just in a bikini and a rash guard. So she had no thermal protection, and she’s freezing to death after 20 minutes. You kind of have to usurp the powers that be, and say, ‘She’s cold – we’ve got to get her in,’ and take a break.”
Physical Challenges and Buoyancy
Ocean shots near the surface can be challenging in certain locations. “When I shot A Single Man, we were in waves. Colin Firth and the other actor were in motion. We were in Malibu, and we had to deal with the ocean,” says Tom. “Just getting the camera out sometimes is challenge enough. If we’re dealing with waves in California, when the waves pick up, you get these steep faces. Now you’ve got a hundred pound camera, and then you have to swim through the surf. That’s the physical challenge.”
Getting shots underwater also means that Tom must operate as an underwater steady-cam. As a highly experienced diver, Tom has mastered neutral buoyancy, something that inexperienced divers struggle to attain. “Sometimes you have shots where you have to be floating mid-water in a mid-water column, and you’ve got to be steady. You cannot be drifting up, drifting down. Most new divers, it takes them about 50 dives before they’re really starting to get the hang of it,” says Tom. “You try to move so that it’s natural. You don’t want the audience to realize there’s a camera there.”