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Tuesday, 29 December 2009 00:00

Capturing Ocean Footage

Written by  Debra Kaufman
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Things are looking better than ever underwater. Since the first underwater camera system.

(L-R) Mako Products’ President Jordy Klein and driver Matt Staker shoot a Seadoo watercraft campaign with a camera stabilized by the Makohead Photo courtesy of Mako ProductsThings are looking better than ever underwater. Since the first underwater camera system was developed by French Scientist Louis Boutan in 1893, photographers, filmmakers and videographers have been going underwater and documenting what they find to ultimately entertain viewers. Legendary Filmmaker Jacques Cousteau took underwater shooting to the next level with his invention of the aqua-lung in the 1940s. Over the decades, Cousteau invented and created all the elements required for underwater shooting, from lighting fixtures to underwater scooters and submersibles.

As more feature films and TV productions shoot under or on the water, other manufacturers have gotten into the game by either inventing underwater gear specifically for the entertainment industry or adapting existing gear for Hollywood. P3 Update takes a look at some of  the gear you’ll need if you take your production underwater.


Housings are a must-have for anyone taking a camera under the water. The keyword here is watertight, and there’s a range of manufacturers that stand behind their robust housings. Also, the glass dome in front of the camera introduces aberrations in the image, which makes prescriptive optics another important part of housings for professional cinematographers.

Michael Hastings founded AquaVideo in Minnesota in 1981; the company later relocated to South Florida in 1984. Over the years, AquaVideo has built housings for broadcast cameras, including Betacam and DVCPRO/DVCAM. According to Hastings, the new pinnacle of AquaVideo housings is designed for the RED One camera, which was used on the Alex Proyas film Knowing and National Geographic’s Icy Killers. ”The RED One has replaced the Sony F900 and Panasonic VariCam in terms of what’s practical to use, mainly because the size is more underwater-friendly,” says Hastings. He also notes another popular underwater camera: the compact three-chip JVC-HM100. “If you’re on a budget, it gives an awful lot of bang for the buck. It’s very close to what people are getting with an F900 or VariCam.” Hastings also observes that DSLR cameras are becoming popular. “They perform well underwater,” he says. “As long as you’re shooting people and objects with a primary focus, you don’t have the artifact-ing issues, and underwater shooting is like that all the time. I will be developing housings for that market; it’s a powerful alternative.”

The Aquatica HD Wave housing is designed for the Sony HDR-XR500V and HDR-XR520V HD camcorders. Machined from a solid block of aluminum that is anodized for corrosion protection, and with an outer layer of textured, military-grade polyurethane powder paint, the Aquatica HD Wave operates to a depth of 300 feet.

This robust housing is mechanically controlled and sealed with O-rings, and controls include a touch-screen, one-push manual white balance. The wide-angle port offers a 90-degree field of view, which allows partial zooming, and with an included macro adapter, the field of view is 70 degrees with full zoom-through. The 3.2-inch LCD viewfinder is angled at 30 degrees, an optimal viewing position. Other features include manual control knobs for focus, exposure, AE shift and WB shift; a water sensor alarm with blinking LED; a flip filter arm with UR Pro blue-water color-correction filter; and a sensitive Hydrophone to capture clear underwater sound.

 On the set of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where a camera is equipped with Chapman Leonard’s Amphibian 2-Axis Remote Head Photo courtesy of Chapman Leonard

Equinox Housings is based in Michigan and offers a huge range of housings for the motion picture/TV market, including the RED One, Sony EX-1 and EX-3, the Panasonic HPS-170 and HMC-150, as well as the JVC HM-100U. “We started out as a custom shop and it’s evolved from there,” says Equinox President Ed Richards. “On the professional side, we try to include all the options, including manual and automatic focus, white balance and iris, and power for the monitors. We have E/O balk heads for video links that shoot up to the surface if they want to watch the vide on the surface.”

The company also makes optics for the housings. “They’re as good or comparable to our competitors’ optics,” notes Richards, who says Equinox housings are known for their durability, cost-effectiveness and low maintenance costs. “We make a solid product that’ll probably last longer than your camera.” The company’s housings have been used on “CSI: New York,” Mark Burnett Productions’ “Survivor: Palau,”and National Geographic and Discovery Channel productions, including “Survivorman” and “Shark Week.”

Based in San Diego, Calif., Gates Underwater Products is celebrating 40 years in the business of supplying underwater housings and optics. “What is most important for a cinematographer is that it works and works reliably,” says Gates Owner John Ellerbrock. “And everyone wants a camera that produces great images.” In addition to housings for all the currently popular cameras, including the RED One, the Sony PMW-EXI and Panasonic AJ-HPX-3700, the company specializes in prescriptive optics to correct for aberrations and distortions introduced underwater. And although most of these optics are production-level, Gates has also done some customized optics for the most popular lenses. “Once we were asked to make a camera in a housing that could be attached to a whale shark,” says Ellerbrock.

Cinematographer Andy Brandy Casagrande IV has consistently used Gates housings for his underwater work with National Geographic, Animal Planet and Discovery, which are mainly shot with Sony HD cameras. “If you’re filming great whites, you prefer the F900 because they have a lot to chew through before they get to you,” says Casagrande. “It depends on the job. The Gates housings are bulletproof. I’ve had sharks and crocs bite them, and they can’t get through.” Underwater Photographer David Ulloa has used the Panasonic HVX-200 in a Gates housing for his work for KPI Productions, which produced “MysteryQuest” for the History Channel. “We used the superwide-angle port, which does a superb job on this show and others,” says Ulloa. Cinematographer Mark Santa-Maria and his partner formed Liquid Assets TV to produce “Into the Drink,” a travel show set to air on cable in January. “We use a Sony EX-1 camera and a Gates housing,” he says. “The camera has a non-removable lens, so we need ports that are custom-developed for wide angle and macro.”

Mainly known for its stabilization products, Mako now offers the Aqua-Red, an underwater housing for the RED camera. “We developed it this year,” says John Dan, who says the housing is for sale or rent.


Camera stabilization is crucial for shooting on top of the water. The camera may roll with the waves, but when the production needs a stable picture, these are the companies that provide the technology to make that happen.

Mako Products was founded in 1954 by Underwater Cinematographer/Inventor Jordan Klein, Sr., who then marketed underwater housings and other equipment. The company began developing a stabilization device in 2001, and within two years the Makohead was a functioning product. According to Dan, the ease of mounting the Makohead, which can be used for a wide range of cameras, enables multiple camera set-ups within a shoot day. The set-up speed is enabled with Mako’s single-pin connection to either the hard-mounted threaded stud (with a Mitchell nut) or use of the included float plate. Weighing in at less than 50 pounds, the Makohead can handle camera packages up to 175 pounds, and the full range of motion is 90-degrees tilt to 260-degrees roll.

Makohead has been used on many feature films, including Miami Vice, Failure to Launch and Snakes on a Plane, and on TV shows, such as “CSI: Miami,” “JAG,” “Monster Shark” on ESPN and National Geographic’s “Split Second.”
Motion Picture Marine came out with Perfect Horizon in 1999, which later won an Academy SciTech Award in 2006. The brainchild of David Grober, a veteran marine-production coordinator who has been outfitting camera boats since 1977, Perfect Horizon is small, compact and quite light –– the 27-pound head can still handle a load capacity of 150 pounds and stabilize lenses up to 500mm. “Perfect Horizon has a Mitchell plate top,” explains Grober. “It’s what a standard tripod connects to, so you can put just about any camera on it, from Panavision and ARRI to Red and EX-1.” The versatile Perfect Horizon can be transported as checked-in luggage with a shipping weight of 75 to 100 pounds. Additionally, its rechargeable battery lasts all day, and Motion Picture Marine supplies each production with two batteries. Perfect Horizon has racked up a credit list that includes the films X-Men, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Mamma Mia!, Couples Retreat, A Perfect Getaway, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban, and TV’s “Numb3rs,” “Criminal Minds,” “Desperate Housewives” and the upcoming “Moby Dick.”


Cranes are necessary for so many camera moves, but it gets tricky when the crane has to submerge underwater. Fortunately, there’s a solution for that.

Chapman/Leonard Studio Equipment, Hollywood’s preeminent provider of camera cranes, arms, bases, dollies, pedestals and remote camera systems, now offers gear for projects shot on or in water. The Hydrascope, on a Super Hy Hy Base or Ultra CS base with Amphibian two-Axis Remote Head, is completely waterproof and can be submerged underwater. The 15-foot Hydrascope comes with a technician and Box Truck for safe storage and delivery, while the 32-foot version comes with two technicians. The new three-axis Amphibian Remote Head is also waterproof and can be submerged underwater, rotate a 360-degree pan, tilt and roll with lenses up to 10:1, and can be used with film magazines up to 1,000 feet. In addition to being waterproof, the 32-foot Hydrascope offers 360-degree rotation, easy set-up, an included 30-Volt DC Chapman/Leonard battery, Preston lens control and wheels or joystick controls.

According to Chapman/Leonard’s Christine Huenergardt, this new waterproof/submersible gear has been used on a wide range of film and TV projects, including Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (directed by Chris Columbus), Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way and “CSI: New York.” “Aside from underwater, filmmakers like to use [the Hydroscope] for rain scenes where they don’t have to completely cover the telescoping arm,” Huenergardt explains. “Water comes in many forms.”


Lighting is of great importance on all underwater shoots. Once beneath the surface, the ambient light changes the light spectrum dramatically –– and the deeper you go, the less light there is.

Green Force lighting systems, designed and manufactured by Leys, Inc., are known for their modularity: all components, including battery packs, light heads and other accessories, are interchangeable, which allows cinematographers to easily upgrade or swap out components. The battery packs are also ideal for underwater use in that they can last up to 40 hours. Specifically designed for underwater videography are Green Force Squids, a separate line that includes the company’s signature TOS (Triple O-Ring) connection for easy use with all other GreenForce battery packs and accessories. Squids are available in a dimmable HLX 30-Watt version as well as HID 50-, 150- and 250-Watt versions.The Squids are also easily mounted on most underwater camera housings.

LED lighting manufacturer Litepanels, Inc. teamed with underwater motion-picture specialist Hydro-Flex to create the Litepanels SeaSunUnderwater fixture housing series. Litepanels’ panchromatic LEDs emit a continuous spectrum of light color, which are ideal underwater where the water filters out many colors of light from the sun. Other benefits include the fixture housing’s small, lightweight form factor, low power draw and low heat generation. Rated to a depth of 100 feet, the Litepanels SeaSun fixture housings are available utilizing both Litepanels 1x1 and MicroPro fixture designs. Underwater Cinematographer Pete Romano used the Litepanels 1x1 battery pack for shooting underwater sequences on Miley Cyrus’s upcoming film The Last Song. “The staff of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta was concerned about their four whale sharks and the manta ray getting caught in cables to the surface,” says Romano, who has also used the MicroPro in the SeaSun housing for an episode of “Without a Trace.” “The Litepanels 1x1 with battery pack was the perfect solution. The buoyancy of the light in the SeaSun underwater housing and battery pack was just a couple of ounces negative in the salt water, which couldn’t have worked out better.”


Communicating while underwater might seem like an afterthought, but not if you’re trying to direct talent and crew or record their voices when they’re underwater.

Ocean Technology Systems (OTS) was honored with a national Emmy Award for a solution that allowed talent to talk real-time on camera for the TV documentary “Expedition Earth,” starring Peter Benchley and Stan Waterman. OTS President Mike Pelissier acted as the underwater sound shooter. And whether it’s a director needing to talk to underwater talent, or talent with underwater dialogue, OTS solutions have played a crucial role on several films. “On Titanic, Jim Cameron directed Leonardo DiCaprio when he was underwater,” says Pelissier. “Some filmmakers will install our system on their camera housing so they can record the talent voice on camera, or their own voices if they’re narrating. We’re always coming up with new things … and most people won’t do underwater production without [a way to communicate].”

Pelissier reports that the company’s biggest customer is the U.S. Navy, and the second-biggest client is the search-and-rescue industry. The movie business is a smaller customer, but productions that need to communicate underwater rely on OTS solutions. The company’s production credits include Lethal Weapon 4, The Italian Job and “CSI: New York.”

The future of underwater production gear is already being researched. Just as there have been developments in the past few decades, we can expect future technology to improve conditions on underwater shoots for cinematographers and directors. One possible avenue for change is coming from Sony Electronics –– with the Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab (AVLI) at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Sony is developing a set of standard camera settings and production parameters that underwater videographers can reference to achieve optimal image quality. The target is research and documentary uses, but this is only phase one. Sony says the next step will be the potential joint development of software that can be pre-loaded into future versions of Sony cameras. One thing seems certain: as Hollywood goes underwater, manufacturers are more than willing to create the solutions to make it picture perfect.

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