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Water Wonders

OceanFootage_shark_diverWater covers over 70 percent of the earth’s surface. These oceans, seas, rivers and lakes make some of the most spectacular and exciting locations on the planet –– and film and television producers are taking advantage of their sparkling, splashing bounty. While many ocean-oriented documentaries are shot on and under scenic waters, a surprising number of commercials, feature films, TV episodics and even reality shows are scouting the same seas.

An entire industry has evolved to create products that make these water-based shoots possible. Housings encase a camera in waterproof materials while still enabling a cinematographer to control it, and every camera needs its own housing. Stabilization gear lets filmmakers get gorgeous shots of the horizon without creating seasick audiences in movie theaters, while underwater lights illuminate dark ocean depths, and underwater communication gear lets directors call “action” and “cut” when their actors are scuba divers. P3 Update reports on the latest equipment (in alphabetical order) that productions are taking along on location shoots on or under the water.

According to AquaVideo President Michael Hastings, the company’s RED housing, which debuted a year ago, has been a popular choice. “We’ve sold 25 to 30 of them,” says Hastings. “People are using them on all kinds of projects from Discovery [Channel] for documentaries to feature films.” AquaVideo’s RED housing displaces just over 50 pounds. “[It’s] not much larger or more expensive than housings for mid-range prosumer cameras like the Sony Z1 or Panasonic HVX200,” notes Hastings.

The latest technology to come out of AquaVideo, which is located in Florida, is housings for 3D stereoscopic productions. “Right now, we’re making custom-made rigs, simple 3D housings with single-chip cameras and mirror rigs,” says Hastings. “We’re beginning to see requests for 3D.” Hastings adds that the company has been working on 3D stereoscopic projects but can’t reveal any of the details due to client confidentiality. What he can say is that he’s eagerly awaiting a RED EPIC camera. “We’ll be doing a housing for that,” he promises.

Michigan-based Equinox Video Housings has made a big push into creating housings for Canon DSLR cameras. “We’ve done 13 housings for the Canon 5D Mark II and four for the 7D,” says Director of Sales Erik Giannunzio, who’s seen a big uptick in cable productions using the popular high-res digital SLR cameras. The outdoor sports cable network Versus has used housings from Equinox for the reality-based adventure series “Travelers in Paradise” and the competition show “Ultimate Diver Challenge.”

OceanFootage_BrentSpencerFromMotionPictureMarineIn addition to Canon 5D and 7D housings, Giannunzio says the most popular professional video housings continue to be those for the RED ONE and other often-used prosumer-level cameras, like the Sony EX1. “With consumer cameras, we get 60 new ones a year,” Giannunzio reports. “With professional cameras, we usually wait a while.” That doesn’t mean that Equinox won’t accommodate a client with a request for a specific housing. “We let the customer tell us exactly what they want,” says Giannunzio. “Some people want two controls, some want six.”

At Gates Underwater Products in San Diego, Calif., President John Ellerbock says it’s been a big year for new gear. The request for housings for 3D stereoscopic filming prompted the company to create exactly that. “We’re about to launch the Panasonic 3DA1 before the end of the year,” says Ellerbock. “This is for the camera that Panasonic showed this year at NAB.” This is Gates’ first housing for a 3D camera, but it’s not the company’s first 3D project. “We’ve created cinema-grade housings for 3D but it’s for projects I can’t talk about,” says Ellerbock. “We’re always happy to customize. Our specialty is to wrap a shell around whatever you want so you can take it underwater.”

Also new is POV housing for the Panasonic AG-HMR10 and AG-HCK10, which enables HD-image quality from a distance of up to 60 feet. “It’s great for those perspective shots or when the diver is some distance away from the subject,” Ellerbock explains. “You can see a great video by clicking the ‘demo video’ button.”

Additionally, Gates plans to launch what Ellerbock calls a “revolutionary” new set of LED underwater lighting. What makes it revolutionary? “You have the light input and power of tethered lighting systems … but without the tether and in a fairly compact size,” says Ellerbock. “Each light will put out more than 7,000 lumens of light. By any measure, that’s a lot of light –– and it’s battery powered.”

It’s been a busy year for HydroFlex in El Segundo, Calif. as well. It began with the end of the hit TV show “Lost.” “This series used several of our HydroFlex Panavision XL Splash Bags and a dozen of our new 2K M1 HydroPars during production of the final episode,” says Operations Manager Matt Brown. Another big hit of 2010, the film Inception, used the HydroFlex ARRI 435 Deep Water housing. Other film-based projects that used HydroFlex gear include Battleship, shot in Hawaii with ARRI 435 Splash Bags on the HydroHead, and a POM Wonderful commercial with the 435 Deep Water housing and ARRI 235 Splash Bag.

Stereoscopic shooting has also had an impact on HydroFlex. The company built a custom housing for the 3D Camera Company (3DCC) 3D-SI Hawkeye camera system, featuring side-by-side Silicon Imaging (SI) 2K sensors, for the Oceanic Preservation Society. Director Louie Psihoyos, an Oscar winner for Best Documentary for The Cove, is using it to shoot his next documentary The Singing Planet. Also in the 3D arena, HydroFlex introduced a new underwater Litepanels 1x1 LED light that was used in Piranha 3D. For the BBC and Pierre de Lespinois' Evergreen Films production of “Walking with Dinosaurs,” HydroFlex developed a rain-cover/spray-deflector system for the Element Technica Quasar 3D rig. Handily enough, the deflector also worked well with the PACE 3D rig, and HydroFlex sent several kits (along with two RED ONE Deep Water housings) to the set of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

A HydroFlex RED ONE “RemoteAquaCam” housing was utilized on a commercial for the Georgia Aquarium, while RemoteAquaCam housings for Phantom Gold, HD or Flex cameras were used on an “extremely ambitious” Carnival Cruise Lines commercial produced in Jamaica by Anonymous Content. Housings for the Canon 5D and 7D DSLR cameras are also popular, not just for commercials but for TV shows like “Fringe,” “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: NY” and “NCIS: Los Angeles,” while the new hit series “Hawaii Five-O” uses the Sony EX3 housing for their water work.

Ultralight Control Systems, in business for 16 years, makes the lightest weight, most versatile aluminum arm systems on the market for underwater and topside use. These arms systems are the gold standard in the industry, as they’re used by more professionals than any other system. The company also offers a full line of adapters for use on housings and for every underwater strobe and video light. All adapters have a ball joint with an O-ring that greatly increases the friction forces at the joint, which keeps the arms where you put them. The arms range from 3 inches to 16 inches for all types of photography.

OceanFootage_PhotoTakenBy_BrentSpencer2Makohead is working on vibration isolators and Z axis to expand the product for use on land as well as in the water. “The Makohead holds the horizon and it does that in roll and tilt,” says John Dan in operations. “But as we found, people are trying to use the Makohead in vehicles where the up and down is becoming important. And when you get on a bumpy road, vibrations are also a problem.” Makohead has worked with Chapman/Leonard to create the vertical isolator that’s now working for off-road vehicles, helicopters and planes. Dan also reports that the company’s AquaRED underwater housing has been a hit this year, and the Remora splash housing has been busy as well. Makohead gear has been on TV’s “Deadliest Catch” (provided by Oppenheimer Cine Rentals out of Seattle, Wash.), “CSI: Miami,” numerous BBC documentaries (including “Frozen Planet”), the Warner Roadshow Studios film The Chronicles of Narnia: Invisible Army in Australia, and numerous other indie films and documentaries.

In Venice, Calif., Motion Picture Marine — which won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement for its Perfect Horizon Stabilization System — has upgraded its flagship product. President David Grober reports that he wanted to make the system easier to use and travel with. “Our continued pursuit of excellence is what’s behind the upgrade,” he explains. “We’ve knocked a couple of pounds off of it and now there are no external pieces hanging off it. You just plug it in and flip the switch and it’s on.”

With two external electronics boxes now replaced by miniaturized electronics hidden within the Perfect Horizon itself, the unit weighs about 29 pounds with a height of 8 inches. “As always, the Perfect Horizon fits in a medium pelican case and travels as standard baggage on airplanes, a real plus when you need to get somewhere fast and without the cost and worry of overnight shipping,” says Grober, who adds that the system also offers increased accuracy. The Perfect Horizon Stabilization System has most recently been used on Discovery Channel’s “Nature’s Great Events,” MTV’s reality show “The Hills” and a remake of Moby Dick.

Based in Santa Ana, Calif., Ocean Technology Systems (OTS) specializes in underwater communication systems and has worked on a number of new film/TV projects this year, including Piranha 3D. That movie was special for the company because it had a scene featuring their latest product: a full-face mask. “You need a full-face mask to talk underwater,” explains OTS President Mike Pelissier. “There were a number of masks on the market, but they were all modified for diving from something else. We built one for divers with comfort in mind and with a double seal to fit more faces.” OTS also builds its new full-face mask in a variety of colors to look sportier and give more choices to filmmakers. Other OTS projects this year include the TV shows “CSI: NY” and “Bones” and a National Geographic documentary that shot underwater in the Bahamas.

Photographers and cinematographers that want to shoot surf movies often turn to SPL Water Housings, a company in San Diego that’s been custom-crafting splash housing for the industry since 1996. CEO/Founder Sean LaBrie says the Canon 5D and 7D cameras are popular because they can do still and moving images. Unlike many housings from other manufacturers, SPL’s are not for dives. “We rate them for 15 to 20 feet max,” says LaBrie, who reports that the A Series (A is for aluminum) is its latest and best design.

One indie production that recently used SPL housings is Rumors, a surf documentary shot in rural villages throughout coastal Mexico. “They have different mounts and you can change all the lenses,” says Director/Producer Mark Kronemeyer, who also used an adapter for his Panasonic HVX200 that allowed him to use Nikon 35mm lenses. “We didn’t have a lot of time to set up,” he says. Kronemeyer also dared to affix a camera to the back of a surfboard to get some really close-up footage from the surfer’s point of view. “We put a Canon Rebel in the housing to capture when the surfer is in the tube,” he says. “We didn’t want to lose any of the expensive cameras on that.”

In the days of Jacques Cousteau, shooting underwater meant possessing a level of expertise and a range of customized gear impossible to all but a handful of filmmakers. In the years since, as cameras have democratized the acquisition of media, the providers of underwater housings and ancillary equipment have kept up with the pace. It still requires an expertise that not everyone possesses, but the bar has been lowered –– and that’s good news for all of the viewers enthralled by glimpses of towering waves or the briny deep.

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