The art of making movies
SOME DIVERS USE THEIR CAMERAS only for video clips, the moving equivalent of a snapshot. Often these clips get no further than being viewed on the LCD of the camera, never to be seen again.
Others want to produce something more ambitious, in the form of a viewable programme.
Whether you shoot on a giant Panavision 70 camera, an expensive high-definition Red Epic or a modest little GoPro, the basic rules of shooting scenes that can be bolted together to form something that is viewable remain the same.
Each segment of footage, every moment that you record, should be considered as an important brick in the architecture of the final programme.
A traditional feature-film director such as David Lean, with a background as a film editor, only ever shot exactly what he needed to fulfil the script. You may prefer to shoot everything that moves and a lot that doesn’t.
Under water, we rarely have a script to follow and so are left shooting opportunistically. However, a little forethought can go a long way to getting shots that can be stitched together later in a sensible way.
Still pictures can stand alone. Movies rely on the shot shown before and the one after. It’s a sequence.
Tell a Story
I gained my filming experience making television commercials. They rarely lasted more than 30 seconds on screen but they had a beginning, a middle and an end, and getting all that into a short time-frame was a great discipline.
Look for an opening shot that will grab the attention of the viewer, something dramatic in-between, and a killer shot that will bring your programme to a satisfying conclusion.
Consider Attention Spans
TV commercials not only have to keep the viewer engaged but must stand up to repetition. Bear in mind that your viewers may not be as engaged with your subject matter as you are, and consider 20 minutes to be the longest time they’re likely to watch your production before making their excuses to leave.
It Never Happened
A movie is a sequence of events recorded and joined together to form an event that never actually happened. The key element is that these segments must fit together in a believable way.
Feature-film productions employ people specifically to check on continuity. Even so, enough continuity bloomers find their way onto the screen to keep outtakes programme-makers happy.
Under water, we have to think in terms of continuity of lighting, which is mainly dictated by the time of day.
Also, if we feature divers in a sequence shot over more than one dive, they need to be wearing the same kit in exactly the same way. Inserting a shot from night into a broad-daylight sequence will never look right.
Keep the Camera Still
The subject moves and the camera remains still. That’s often more easily said than done under water, but professional film-makers go to extraordinary lengths to keep their cameras steady while the action goes on in front of them.
Ironically, the latest generation of little action cameras are harder to keep steady while recording.
However, unless you are jumping off the top of a mountain and your viewer is intrigued to see the expected moment of impact, a wobbly image will simply make the video more difficult to view, and in some cases may even make your viewers sick!
Wide, Middle, Close-up
Gather the shots that will become useful when it comes to constructing your movie. Shoot a wide establishing shot, a middle-distance action shot and a close-up of each subject. You’ll be amazed how useful the material you’ve collected will be when it comes to assembling a production.
Let Your Subject Go
Following an animal as it moves is seductive when you are there, but don’t do it for too long. It gets boring to watch. Let the animal move into frame, follow it for a bit and then let it clear the frame. This will give you the moments in which to cut from one shot to the next.
Don’t Cross the Line
A cardinal rule on land is to imagine that there is a line down the middle of the path your moving subject takes. Never cross that line with your camera, or it will look as if your subject has changed direction and gone back the other way.
Less crucial with underwater subjects, “crossing the line” often gives the impression that the video has more than one subject – and that can make the action busy.
Build the Story
A still picture has to tell the whole story at a glance, but a moving picture adds time-scale.
You can build a picture of your subject by joining together lots of shots.
This is fortunate, because it’s very hard to get a satisfactory wide-angle image that is well lit, thanks to the limitations of underwater lighting.
Instead, you can build by joining together lots of close-ups, so that the light you take with you will have a full effect, and give you some decent colour in your subject.
There was a moment in Jaws when Roy Scheider, playing the police chief, thinks he sees the shark. Spielberg dollies in with the camera while zooming out with the lens. The effect is to keep the actor’s head the same size but change the perspective. His nose grows out and his ear pin back.
It’s a classic moment of cinema, but if it was used more than once it would simply become a cliché.
If you get an idea for a clever piece of trickery, use it once only and maintain its value.
Increasing the camera frame rate from the viewed 25 frames per second gives a slow-motion effect.
This smoothes down the action and is especially useful with fast-moving underwater subjects. It’s almost standard procedure with underwater wildlife films.
A cut-away is a shot that allows the editor to cut from the main action for a moment, and comes in very useful when constructing awkward sequences. The effect is to imply that these animals so recorded are bystanders to the main action.
Luckily, you can use almost any underwater subject as a cut-away, but it’s important that the camera is steady if these shots are to be inserted into a moving camera sequence.
Once you start editing your material, be ruthless. The cutting-room floor is as important as the retained material.
Choose the essence of the action. Keep it brief. Keep your audience wanting more, not less.
When you have a lot of footage, the cameraman can become too emotionally attached to it. That’s why movies are traditionally edited by people who were not present at the shooting stage.
Never Show Your Rushes
The term “rushes” was applied to the print from the raw camera material that was rushed from the lab to the studio viewing theatres for directors to see what they’d got.
Today, we can conveniently play back the video footage.
A cardinal rule was never to show the rushes to anyone not directly involved in the shooting. People will only remember the off-cuts. So only ever show an audience your finished production.
You’d be rather upset if someone broadcast your film without your permission, so don’t use the work of other artists as a soundtrack to your movie. Enya or Daft Punk might take offence if they discovered that you’d done that.
Use the non-copyrighted music that is available cheaply from music libraries, or record your own if you are able.
I know you think your movie is only for home use but who knows what the future will hold Everything gets onto the Internet nowadays.
“Not another video of blue fish!” I can just hear the groans of my friends from my early days of underwater video-making.
Light under water is filtered so that only the shorter blue wavelengths penetrate much more than a few metres from the surface. So if you are shooting anywhere other than the shallows, where a colour-correction filter over the lens will work, you’ll need some independent lighting to give you a full spectrum of colour.
Video lights need to give a wide and perfectly even spread of light. Two will make it easier, and give less-harsh shadows.
These lights can be mounted on a rig that holds the camera, and although some of these little cameras are tiny in the extreme, mounting them onto a larger rig, perhaps with grips and mounting-points for lights, will help you to achieve a steadier operating position.
Lights that are popular on account of their small dimensions are the Light & Motion Sola family, but plenty of alternatives are available.
Light gets filtered by water so that, however bright your lamp, it won’t be effective for any subject much more than 2m away.
Although you can get lamps of up to 10,000 lumens output, there’s little point in getting anything brighter than 2000, and lamps of 500 lumens output appear to work just as well.
Extending telescopic poles on which you can mount a little camera are becoming popular. They allow a diver to get the extreme close-up of what may be a slightly daunting animal without needing to get too close up and personal. At the same time, a small sedentary animal will not be scared off by the massive dark shape of a diver looming over it.
One manufacturer, Hugyfot, offers a robust housing for the tiny GoPro camera that can be mounted on the end of a pole with a 2.5m-long feed cable to a separate monitor at the operator’s end.
Avoid head-mounted cameras under water. The material they produce is usually very wobbly, disfigured by exhaled bubbles and otherwise of use only to a coroner’s investigation.
Even some keen underwater stills photographers have been seen recently experimenting with tripods.
Video-editing software is required to put your shots together to make a programme on your home computer or laptop before you can start giving out DVDs to your friends.
Adobe Premier Pro CS6, Final Cut Pro, Premier Elements 9, Apple iMovie, Corel VideoStudio Pro X4, Cyberlink Power Director 9 Deluxe, Microsoft Live Movie Maker, Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD, the list is endless, but you will need software of some sort and the computer to run it on. Start by consulting your camera manual for the recommended software.
Moving-image cameras can be divided into five distinct groups:
Pure Video Cameras
Rapidly becoming the sole domain of professional film-makers, this sector is dominated by the brands Sony and RED. Their cameras can shoot high-definition material of broadcast quality. RED has recently cut its prices in two.
RED EPIC-M BRAIN
RESOLUTIONS inc. 5120 x 2700 @ 48fps and 2048 x 1080 @ 120fps
MAX RECORDING TIME Solid-state (n/a)
PRICE (ex lenses & housing) £16,000 approx
SONY NEX-FS 100
RESOLUTIONS inc. 1920 x 1080 @ 50fps and 25fps
MAX RECORDING TIME 510min
PRICE (ex lenses & housing) £4000 approx
Compacts are relatively inexpensive in a proprietary acrylic housing, and most of them will shoot short video clips.
They make a great aide memoire, although their immediacy may be more seductive than the quality. It all depends on the camera concerned.
Some high-end compacts are equipped to shoot HD video.
SONY DSC RX100 VIDEO
FORMATS AVCHD (H264) and MP4
RESOLUTIONS 1920 x 1080 HD @ 50fps and 1440 x 1080 @ 25fps
MAX RECORDING TIME 29min
PRICE (ex housing) £475 approx
CANON G1X VIDEO
FORMAT MOV (H264)
RESOLUTION 1920 x 1080 HD @ 25fps
MAX RECORDING TIME 29min
PRICE (ex housing) £450 approx
DSLRs and System Compacts
Many digital single-lens-reflex cameras can now shoot video at the flick of a switch, and many can shoot material of a quality that is acceptable to the BBC for broadcast.
This is why you might see professional underwater wildlife photographers using top-end cameras from Canon and Nikon in underwater housings.
As such they are put into “live view” mode and are used in exactly the same way as modern mirror-less cameras that take interchangeable lenses, viewing the image on the LCD.
Some have an HDMI take-off to allow use of a separate image monitor.
NIKON D800 VIDEO
FORMATS MPEG-4 and H.264 (compressed using B-frame data or bypassed using HDMI port)
RESOLUTIONS 8inc. 1280 x 720 @ 60, 50, 30 and 25fps (1920 x 1080 and 640 x 424)
MAX RECORDING TIME 29min
PRICE (ex lenses and housing) £2000 approx
PANASONIC LUMIX GX1 VIDEO
FORMATS AVCHD and MP4
RESOLUTIONS inc. 1920 x 1080 @ 50fps and 1920 x 1080 @ 25fps
MAX RECORDING TIME 29min
PRICE with 14-42 lens (ex housing) £500 approx
The GoPro range of HD cameras is the unassailable brand-leader in this field at the moment, although other cameras such as the Liquid Image Ego, the Contour, the Drift, the JVC Maxx and the Sony Action Cam HDR-AS15 have recently rushed to join this fast-growing segment of the market.
Most recently Polaroid has introduced a range of three action cameras, although these are depth-limited.
All these tiny units allow programme-makers to position cameras in places that would formerly have been impossible.
Even BBC Wildlife programme- makers are employing their tiny size and almost “disposable cost” to get shots that would otherwise be out of the question (see this month’s My Favourite Kit, with Andy Torbet).
The iPhone and its Android competitors can all shoot movie sequences, and underwater housings are rapidly becoming available for them.
As with the video clips obtained with lower-end compact digital cameras, clips from phones make a great souvenir but are not yet up to making programmes.
However, the world of technology is fast-moving, so watch this space.
IPHONE 5 64GB
RESOLUTION 1080 @ 30fps
MAX RECORDING TIME n/a
PRICE (ex housing) £529
There was a time when anybody with a camera under water was in a minority. Now it’s the majority, and small video cameras are forging ahead.
The problem arises when a group of camera-wielding divers come across a single subject that interests all of them.
Witness the big groups of divers at Lembeh surrounding a poor, lonely hairy frogfish.
At least with still images, people take their picture and move on. But a 30-second take with a video camera does take half a minute.
Increasingly you’ll see groups of video-makers surrounding a solitary animal such as a roosting turtle, running their cameras, recording video and waiting for the animal to do something interesting. What it usually decides on is a bolt for safety.
Small cameras also make the underwater photographer more nimble, and give him the chance to steam into a situation without giving it any thought first. Some bad underwater behaviour can result.
In Sipadan, Malaysia’s only truly oceanic island, there is now talk of banning all but professionally credited photographers in response to this problem. Further popular and endangered diving environments might follow suit.
The answer to all this is not to dive in a photo/video-oriented group. Dive centres and liveaboards might have problems coming to terms with this, but I see a return to more traditional intimate buddy diving in the future.
Underwater paparazzi, you have been warned!