Divernet

I tortured Barry Levinson, admits Sharon Stone. What, the celebrated movie director, maker of Rain Man, Diner, Good Morning Vietnam Sharon, it seems, was desperate.
I called him. I came up to his house. I acted out scenes in his living room. It was one of those two or three times in my career when I felt I had to do the movie.
The Hollywood film Sharon Stone was so anxious to appear in, now on release in Britain, is Sphere.
A mysterious wreck is discovered in the still dark waters of the South Pacific, 300 metres below the surface. Five scientists are spirited to the scene on a government mission to unravel its secrets.
As they disappear onto the silent ocean floor through the moon pool hatchway of their underwater habitat, they are deafened by the sound of their own breathing. Guided by the dim light from their helmets and a few handheld torches, they venture further and further into the unknown. Suddenly, out of the darkness emerges something beyond any of their wildest imaginations.
It may not sound like your run- of-the-mill wreck-dive, but Sharon Stone and Dustin Hoffman are hardly your run-of-the-mill scientists.
The film is based on a story by best-selling author Michael Crichton about the discovery and exploration of a giant submerged spaceship.
In the film, the scientists live in a habitat on the ocean floor, and wear special diving gear to explore the alien craft. They come across a mysterious sphere with a seductive intelligence that is capable of playing curious tricks on the mind.
Sharon Stone plays biochemist Dr Beth Halperin. She shares a past with Dr Norman Goodman, the psychologist played by Dustin Hoffman who is summoned to the scene by the US Government.
The pair are joined by a team of specialists led by Barnes (Peter Coyote), including the sceptical mathematician Harry Adams (Samuel L Jackson), and Ted Fielding, played by Liev Schreiber.
Because much of the film takes place underwater, it was essential to ensure that every member of the cast was a confident diver before shooting began. This meant putting Sharon, Dustin and the rest of the crew through a full training programme, which was not as straightforward as it might sound.
No sooner had the stars mastered the dos and donts of sport diving than they were expected to perform their lines fully kitted up with a sophisticated underwater communication system and a specially designed helmeted suit weighing 80kg out of the water.
Kris Newman from Independent Scuba in California and his partner Jean Pierce were responsible for the training. We took the cast first through scuba and then helmet training, says Kris. We modelled the helmet training on a progressive evolutionary type of session, first in a swimming pool and then in the giant tanks where we would actually be filming.
It took two weeks of daily sessions for the actors to feel comfortable in their gear despite their enthusiasm to learn, and the fact that some of the cast already had some scuba experience.
Dustin Hoffman absolutely blew me away from the first day of training, says Kris. After two or three hours of working out in the water, which can be very tiring, he gets out of the pool and pops off about 20 straight-arm pull-ups!
Sharon And Sharon Stone had no doubts about whether or not she was prepared to take on the diving challenge. She was so taken by the concept of the film that she was prepared to take a massive cut in salary - two-thirds, in fact - to secure the role. She agrees, however, that the reality of acting underwater did not always match up to the image. It was frighteningly real. I cant say it was miserable because they did their very best to make us comfortable.
But, she says: There is one scene when a pipe in the habitat breaks and all this water shoots out. That day the heater had broken and it came out like ice. We had to shoot the scene over and over again from different angles - it was a nightmare.
The cameramen had towels and they were rubbing me down to try and keep me warm, but it was so cold I was having a hard time talking.
Relying on her male colleagues to help her through the hard times was not an option. What they did was try to make me do everything first. I had to be the tough, together one or they wouldnt do it, so no matter what, I had to try to keep it together.
Samuel L Jackson (John Travoltas buddy in Pulp Fiction) might not wholly agree with Sharons claim. A champion swimmer in college, he says he had always been as passionate about his swimming as he had about his acting, but that was before he tried scuba.
Its a total blast for me to be able to go down and stay underwater for 45 minutes, he says. Once we were inside the tanks with the helmets and suits, I felt totally at ease - so much so that I think I slept down there one day for about half an hour!
The film was shot at Mare Island Naval Base in Northern California, in a huge building housing five large tanks custom-made from steel and concrete. Each one held up to a million gallons of water heated to 36*C, and a sophisticated filtration process was used instead of chlorine to prevent discomfort for the actors during their long hours underwater.
The bottoms of the tanks were laid with sand to resemble the ocean floor, and the sides were sculpted into rock formations. Marine creatures were added to the film by the special effects team, with a brief from Levinson to keep things as realistic as possible.
If we tried to sell him on some supernatural stuff, hed throw books of deep-sea dwelling creatures on the table and say: Theyre scarier than any movie monster Ive ever seen - and he was right, says visual effects supervisor Jeffrey Okun.
The art department was charged with helping to construct the moon-pool that leads in and out of the habitat, as well as the 15m coral cave and working airlock that leads into the spacecraft entrance.
The logistics of the set may have been impressive, but they did not make for a comfortable working environment. You are in this big tank and inside the tank is the set and inside the set are caves and other little rooms and once you get all the way inside and are locked in, its overwhelming, says Sharon.
The divers suits were designed by Diving Systems International, the maker of Kirby Morgan diving gear, with the help of costume designer Gloria Greshem and underwater suit designer Bev Morgan. It took six months to come up with a product that could fulfil all the technical requirements and yet portray the right image.
The result was a revolutionary suit including a helmet with enlarged front and side ports. This, say the film-makers, allowed greater visibility for actors and cameras than any other helmet previously developed for either movie or commercial use.
Because the gear was needed for use in and out of the water, two sets of identical suits had to be made. The in-water set included a 36kg backpack containing two 15cu m cylinders connected by a manifold with a J-valve on one of the tanks.
The breathing system was a special first and second stage set up using compressed filtered air.
The intricate plumbing, supplied by DECA Diving, allowed for the bottles to be filled while in use underwater, and a low-pressure plug-in system meant that an actor or safety diver could hook up to another bottle at any time.
But the technical wizardry did not end there. The dry set of gear consisted of a dummy helmet and a backpack weighing only 9kg, containing batteries and computer fans to blow air down the hoses and onto the actors faces to keep them cool under the lights. The new technology incorporated into the helmets breathing and comms systems also allowed actors quieter breathing and clearer communications than had previously been possible.
Dialogue could be directly recorded during the filming rather than being looped in at a later stage.
As scenes were being shot, the directors could watch and direct the action at the surface using video monitors and a through-water wireless communications system supplied by Ocean Technologies Systems (OTS).
The production of the film might sound like a technological feat, but Michael Crichton insists: In the end, Sphere is not about technology. Its about people. As author and producer, his driving force was the idea of a highly intelligent group of people isolated on the ocean floor, and the ways in which they start to manifest their typically human flaws.
Theres nothing more isolated than being 1000 feet underwater, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and all the surface ships have left, says Crichton.
Absolutely - can anyone think of a worse diving nightmare