|So, you've spent heaps of your well-earned money on a lovely underwater video set-up. You've taken your new love for a few dives and are getting used to where all the buttons and levers are and what they do. You may even have taken it on a few trips abroad. |
You've realised that shooting video is a lot easier than taking stills and youre hooked, but where can you take it from here Theres a big difference between taking a few shots of your mates on a popular shipwreck and putting together a whole film, even if its only a short one. But set your sights high enough and who knows, you could be a contender at this years Image 2001 festival.
Tell me a story
Your most important decision is probably what the film is going to be about. Its important to choose something to which you have ready access, so that you can easily spend masses of time filming it.
If youre lucky enough to live close to some diveable water, the obvious choice is your local dive site.
This might not be as dull as it seems. Think about what goes on there and build it into a story (all film-makers are story-tellers).
Your film could have a time-based storyline: A Year under Swanage Pier, A Day in the Life of Stoney Cove or Spring at St Abbs.
Another idea for a location-based story is to do a portrait of a shipwreck. Include a little of its history, the marine life that has made its home there and the divers that visit it.
If not a location-based story, how about a study of one type of creature: Sea-slugs of the British Isles, Starfish, Urchins and Featherstars of Scotland or Seals of the Farne Islands.
Yet another idea is to choose one type of habitat, such as an eel-grass bed, kelp forest or reef wall.
If youre into people as much as marine life, you might choose a human to star in your production. This could take the form of the work of a marine biologist, dive guide or even yourself.
Dont be shy about appearing in your own film. After all, its your enthusiasm for your subject that has driven you to make it, and that will come across on camera, or even in your voice if you do only the narration.
Fish cant read, but still...
Having chosen your subject, theres plenty more work to do before you jump into your dive gear. Research is essential. Read up as much as you can about your subject and make yourself an expert on it.
Then think hard about the structure of your film. Like any story, it needs a beginning, a middle and an end. How long is it going to be What shots do you already have Write out a basic outline of your film and work out a list of the shots you will need to tell your story. This is called a shooting script.
Marine wildlife around the world is infamous for not reading scripts, but its still worth writing one. If youve done your research properly, you should be able to get 80 per cent of the shots youve planned. You might get some great shots you didnt expect, as well missing some you wanted.
To give you some idea of how many shots youll need, traditional-style natural history or documentary programmes use about eight per minute, but if you want something with a faster pace you could at least double that.
The human tripod
As when taking stills, your buoyancy control needs to be exceptional when youre filming under water, whether youre diving on a coral reef or in a less-fragile marine environment.
For most shots you must keep yourself very still under water, so I dive slightly overweighted and always with ankle weights. That way I can dump all my air and glue myself to the seabed, and dont have to contend with irritating floaty fins.
That doesnt mean you cant move the camera at all, but it does mean that any movements are more steady than if you are hovering in midwater. You become, in effect, a human tripod.
This technique obviously needs to be adapted on a coral reef. Find a patch of bare sand next to the coral where you can settle down without causing any damage. When you lift off again, take care not to waft heaps of sand onto the coral. No shot is valuable enough to warrant damaging the marine environment.
You can take shots as you fin along in midwater, too. These work well on wrecks and swimming through weeds or along a reef, but you cant make a whole programme with such shots.
If youre filming big animals swimming all around you, such as dolphins or seals, then you will need to be in midwater, but the same rule about keeping yourself as steady as possible still applies.
Backsides dont win prizes
The biggest mistake made by beginners is to try to film everything they see on a dive. The camera is switched on as they leave the surface and stays on until they get back up again. Its called hosepiping, and makes for uncomfortable viewing, as it can literally leave the audience feeling seasick.
Select just two or three subjects and concentrate on filming them from a variety of angles, in close-up and as wide angles. Above all, try to find creatures doing things.
Courtship rituals, mating, fighting or eating all make more interesting viewing than animals just sitting there doing nothing or aimlessly swimming around. Many creatures will let you get closer to them when they are busy.
As with taking stills, fish are particularly difficult to get good shots of, as they tend to swim away as soon as you point the camera at them. Shots of an animals backside disappearing into the haze dont win any prizes.
Territorial fish such as eels, blennies, cuckoo wrasse or any fish guarding eggs make good subjects. The golden rule is to let your subject swim into the frame, do something, then swim out of the frame.
Unfortunately, fish dont read rulebooks any more than they do scripts, but the bit about letting your subject leave the frame is fairly easy to achieve.
Another tip: unless the conditions are incredibly clear, dont use the camera on autofocus, as it will keep trying to focus on bits in the water and will move in and out of focus, which is an annoying effect called hunting. Manually focusing takes a little longer but will give you much better results.
One final thought on shooting is that your camera can be a tool for education. Dont just film the pretty things Ð shots of rubbish on the seabed, damaged reefs or pollution are a graphic reminder of what damage is being done to the marine environment and, shown to the right people, can reinforce the work of conservation organisations.
Tune into TV
Keep up to date with your filming by logging all your tapes, including date, location, subject and time codes. That way, when you need those award-winning shots of great whites mating, youll know just where to find them.
Theres a whole array of digital editing software you can buy for a PC or laptop. With this you can input images straight from your camera and manipulate them to your hearts content, adding graphics, music and titles.
If you dont have these facilities, try your local TV station. It will have edit suites with editors you can hire by the hour, but it is expensive. Alternatively, if you have interesting footage from your local area, they might like to use it as a news item in return for doing the editing.
The shark is swimming
When it comes to writing the script for the narration, there are a few golden rules. Number one: dont describe what the viewers can see plainly for themselves.
Dont say: The bright purple and green wrasse swims backwards and forwards collecting weed for the nest because the viewer knows that. Instead go for something which is not obvious but still relevant: The male wrasse, sporting his breeding colours, takes more than two weeks to build the nest.
Theres no need to go overboard with facts and figures, just choose the most interesting points. The narration should cover only about one third of the film. Where its obvious whats happening, let the pictures do the talking.
Going into the business
If your camerawork should win you a medal at Image 2001, you might decide to take things a stage further. However much diving youve done, if you want to go professional the first thing youll need is an HSE commercial diving qualification.
The course used to be called the Part IV but is now known as HSE Scuba or Media Diver. Fort William in Scotland and Fort Bovisand on the south coast are the only two centres offering these courses, and theyre not cheap.
Jeffrey Boswall, based in Bristol, runs excellent courses in wildlife TV programme-making. These vary from a weekend to three weeks and cover the whole process. Call 01275 853418.
The BBCs Natural History Unit, also in Bristol, runs an unpaid work experience programme from two to six weeks.
Finally, be persistent. If you hear of any camera-crews working anywhere near your area, make an effort to meet them. A willing pair of hands is always useful on land, and often under water too.
You might end up lugging camera gear around for months or even years, but one day it could be you behind the camera, taking the images at which millions of TV viewers will marvel.