Underwater Cinematography

From islands in the Pacific to the coastline of Alaska; and from the Magellan Straits to the Red Sea, giant screen audiences have toured the world's oceans through the lens of MacGillivray Freeman Films. At least one-third of their nearly two-dozen large-format films contain sequences on or in the ocean.

For Dolphins and their other underwater film projects, MacGillivray Freeman mounted the large-format camera on boat bows, sterns and masts. Film teams also mount cameras on the front of "scooters," torpedo-shaped vehicles steered by a camera operator. The scooters, which travel about three miles per hour, are narrow, so the camera can move through tighter spaces and get closer to the surface of reefs, giving audiences the feeling that they're "soaring" through the water environment. Most of the underwater camera movement in any one film, however, is accomplished by the cinematographer himself. And to the cinematographer and his crew, the large-format camera is affectionately named, "the pig."

Large-format cameras weigh 100 pounds. Filming underwater adds another 150 pounds for the camera's waterproof housing. True, filming underwater lightens the load, but the sheer bulk of the camera makes it very difficult to maneuver. Size generates momentum and currents and waves buffet the camera, making it harder to control than smaller cameras.

The film magazines, which each weigh 10 pounds, contain only three minutes of film. Greg MacGillivray, the Producer/Director of Dolphins, chose to film several of the underwater sequences in slow motion to capture the beauty of dolphin physiology and movement. This actually speeds up the film going through the camera. Instead of 24 frames per second, the film charges through the camera at 48 frames per second. A three-minute film magazine now yields just 90 seconds of action.

Those logistical nightmares are present no matter where a large-format cinematographer is shooting. Dolphins complicate everything. MacGillivray Freeman cinematographer and technology director Brad Ohlund says, "Dolphins are fast-moving, elusive animals. Filming them means you're in a situation that requires rapid deployment of the camera." Normally, large-format cinematographers use winches to get the 250-pound camera in and out of the water, but a winch is too slow for dolphin photography, so the film team built ramps on the boats to push the camera into the water.

One of the most memorable moments for cinematographer Bob Talbot was not when he photographed a beautifully poised dolphin in dramatic lighting; it was when the camera and housing slid down the boat transom, into the water, narrowly missing the waiting cinematographer's head! "I could only think...wow, wouldn't that have been a classic way for me to go," he later joked (much later).

Another challenge for the underwater film team in the Bahamas was to be in clear water with cloudless skies so there would be enough light for the scene. "We were jumping in holes between clouds," described Talbot. Fortunately, most of the cinematography for the film occurred within 30 feet of the ocean's surface. Because natural lighting extends to those depths, artificial lighting was not necessary. Dolphins would be virtually impossible to track with light beams anyway, as their movement through the water is quick and unpredictable.

Off the coast of Argentina, another experienced underwater cinematographer, Paul Atkins and his sound recordist, producer and wife Grace Atkins, declared a new-found respect for the large-format underwater camera: Miss Piggy. "Filming in the large-format is dramatically different than 16mm or 35mm," shared Grace. "The bulkiness of the format requires more than twice the cases and equipment than the smaller film formats. When you're traveling to remote locations and filming underwater, the details of the shoot become mind-numbing."

After searching twelve hours each day for wild dolphins, and battling "Miss Piggy" in 90-second increments, the crew then spends four or more hours each evening cleaning the salt and sand off of all of the equipment to prepare for the next day. Film teams followed this routine for four weeks at each location in the film. They'll all say it's worthwhile. Each underwater cinematographer knows that their exquisitely beautiful images will appear on the biggest screens in the world, immersing audiences in an environment that these cinematographers love, want to share, and have dedicated their lives to help preserve.