Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Man Who Never Shoots with His Feet on the Ground

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Man Who Never Shoots with His Feet on the Ground

Article excerpt

Cinematographer who is a specialist at shooting underwater and from a helicopter discusses some of the rather unique problems of filming under these very special conditions

For example, you don't hand-hold the camera underwater. It hand-holds you. I use a Birns & Sawyer submarine camera housing that weighs 150 lumbering pounds, with weights added. The weight isn't a disadvantage- it's made that heavy on purpose.

In strong surges or currents, that housing often saves you from being swept off the set. Even so, you can't shoot a master and then a close shot. If you cut the camera, the current will almost certainly cause a mismatch.

You have to shoot your long shot and your closeup all in one take, as you float in. And even then, you and the rig sometimes keep right on going until you bump into the actor. Since you and the rig weigh more than he does, you knock him out of the way, and keep on going out to sea!

If you're working with professionals who'll repeat the action, you can set up a cutaway close shot. But even then, neither you nor the actor knows for sure which way the water will carry. You're constantly moving. He's constantly moving. You can't be sure the close shot will match- so you cover yourself with cutaways of curious fish swimming by.

You just have to treat each scene as an independent entity. Let the swimmer enter and leave the frame every time. And you have to tell him before you start, to favor the camera. You can't quickly move around him for a better angle.

On the other hand, some of the usual disadvantages of working with nonprofessional actors are minimized underwater. They're usually proficient divers. And even if they're camera shy, it's practically impossible to swim self-consciously. They can't speak, of course. And they have masks to hide behind. And, of course, they're busy doing what they went down there to do.

Some scenes underwater can be really strange, almost as eerie as Fellini footage. On a Special called "TREASURE", I was shooting divers hunting for wrecked Spanish treasure ships, reputed to have sunk 300 years ago in the shoals off the Florida keys. The divers were using a huge vacuum cleaner machine that sucked sand up off the ocean floor, and deposited it like a rain shower all over. They were trying to uncover buried treasure. But what I saw in the viewfinder was hypnotizing.

I'd be shooting a diver three feet in front of me. The water relatively clear. Suddenly, he would vanish, right on camera. You couldn't see the individual grains of sand raining down- the water just became opaque. Then a surge would sweep away the sand, and there he'd be again, calmly working three feet in front of the lens.

To avoid the sensation of looking through a tube, I use a 5.9mm Angenieux on the Arriflex 16S, inside the housing. The wide-angle lens helps to give you the feeling of having water all around. And it helps to open up the small TV screen.

That focal length is best suited to the flowing, fluid style you have to use underwater. You can't hope to compose too tightly, anyway. Whether you like it or not, every shot is a moving shot, and unrehearsed, and unrepeatable. The wide-angle perspective goes well with the ebb and flow quality of these shots. You have to let yourself go with the surge, and see things as a fish sees them, through a fisheye lens.

For a closeup of a piece of buried treasure, for example, you can't just frame it tightly. You have to gradually creep in closer, wafting to and fro, fishlike. If you grab the seabed to steady yourself, you stir up a miniature sand storm that takes ten minutes to clear. It goes without saying that if you want a close shot down there, you have to get close. Zoom lens- what's that?

You can direct the action somewhat, with hand signals. A clenched first means "Hold it." Two fingers up means "Second take." A scissors movement with two fingers means "Get closer to the action. …

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