White balance just the start
”WHITE BALANCE, WHITE BALANCE, WHITE BALANCE, don’t forget about your white balance!” Three days into an underwater filming and media course run by Deborah Metcalfe of Blue Eye FX Productions, white balance has become so much of a mantra that I’m even dreaming about it.
And what a difference it makes!
The prospect of recording my underwater experiences on film has always been an exciting one, but when it came to developing skills I had hit my ceiling and was keen to learn more.
The aspiring underwater stills photographer is spoilt for choice when it comes to courses. Given that many affordable consumer digital cameras now offer HD video capability, not to mention the increasing popularity of cameras such as the Go-Pro Hero, I was surprised to find a relative dearth of courses that encompassed not only the art of filming under water, but also technical post-production aspects.
I’m guessing that many divers fall into the same category as me – hours of footage of questionable quality that never sees the light of day!
Having recently shot and edited some topside footage for a work project, I was keen to start working some of my underwater footage into a presentable format. A chance conversation with a friend led me to Blue Eye FX Productions, which seemed to offer exactly what I was looking for.
I headed for Egypt with hours of what I thought was half-decent underwater footage, filmed on my trusty Canon Legria in matching Canon acrylic housing.
Once in Sharm, a quick look at Deborah’s footage confirmed that I had a lot to learn, and getting white balance sorted was only the start of it!
The first surprise came even before getting into the water. Trying to lift the Gates housing provided was almost comical! It is massive and heavy, and preparing it is not simply a case of lubricating an O-ring and closing the housing, as I had done with my Legria.
There were myriad buttons, levers and O-rings to clean and lubricate, but at least once it was done that was it for the next few days.
I staggered to the water’s edge, wondering how I would manage diving with this monster contraption under water, let alone operate all the knobs and levers and get anything like presentable footage.
I was also very aware that I had the best part of £10,000-worth of someone else’s kit in my hands, and was responsible for its safe return!
I jumped in with a mental checklist of staggering proportions. Tap the housing for signs of any bubbles that may indicate leakage: check. Remove the lens cap and make sure it’s tied onto the BC: check.
Waft any bubbles away from the lens: check. Wait, I forgot the obvious: make sure the housing itself is attached to my BC – doh!
Remove the neoprene viewfinder cover: check. No, hang on a minute, where’s it gone Ah, there it is, floating away from me; quick lunge for it and stuff it in my wetsuit sleeve. Phew!
Now where was I Ah yes, make sure that the red filter is in position: check. Switch the camera on: check. ”Ready to descend” shouts Deborah’s partner Jon.
”Er, I think so.”
I needn’t have worried. Once under water the camera is almost neutrally buoyant, and
I had the reassurance of Jon being with me.
Now what’s that weird hand signal he’s giving me Ah yes, check that white balance!
I SOON REALISED that there is far more to underwater film-making than meets the eye! All the while I am thinking ”white balance”,
I need to have my film editor’s head on. What would make a nice opening shot Am I close enough to the subject Am I shooting with the sun behind me Is my shadow obscuring the subject
Do I have enough close-up footage to add interest Am I breathing out slowly through my nose to avoid scaring the fish Have I filmed enough cutaways
Before I knew it, the hour was over. To say I was pleased with the results of my first foray with the Sony Z1 inside the monster Gates housing would be an understatement. That simple but constant checking and adjustment of white balance rewarded me with rich, saturated, vibrant colours, no matter what the depth, and although my general camerawork left a lot to be desired, the first day’s footage consigned much of my existing material to the bin.
It was a rather smug diver who sat down to review the footage that evening – until I was told: ”OK, I want you to produce a three-minute clip with music, ready to post online tomorrow”!
It was at this stage that I realised that the underwater filming was the easy bit. After a very steep learning curve, I was hacking away at footage in Final Cut Pro and learning about the importance of establishing shots (footage that sets the scene for what is to come), cutaways, close-ups and point-of-view footage. All are vital for a film to ”tell a story”.
When we view visual media, the film-makers and producers have worked tirelessly to incorporate these elements, yet our brains don’t really register their work.
However, if these elements are absent, things look very odd indeed.
Trying to edit my first clips highlighted just how inadequate much of my footage was, and the task of trying to produce a watchable clip was extremely educational in terms of knowing what I needed to film on future dives, from which angles I needed to film, when to fill the frame, when to pull back, when to use zoom etc.
My next task was to add background music.
I foolishly thought that this would simply be a case of selecting some suitably moody and calming music to match the serenity of the underwater world. Wrong again!
Get the right shots under water and they can be made to fit the music; film willy-nilly with no thought of the final product, and it seems no amount of editing can force film and music to come together.
Again I learned this the hard way, and after three days of non-stop filming and editing
I had learnt more than I could possibly have thought possible about underwater filming and production.
Even when I thought I had ”got it”, some of my dives just didn’t work in terms of editing the footage post-dive, as that essential ”story” hadn’t been there in my mind during the dive. Back to the drawing board!
But this just enhanced my determination to get it right on the next dive. Taking this demanding but thoroughly rewarding and enjoyable course re-energised my passion for taking the camera on every dive, while diving with a clear purpose in mind makes viewing the underwater world all the more absorbing and fascinating.
Will I remortgage the house and buy a Gates housing, top-drawer camera and professional editing software No, and the reason relates to lessons learned on this course.
If you use a milk bottle as a lens, disappointment is guaranteed, so a certain investment in decent kit is always needed, but I soon realised that it’s not so much the quality or brand of camera, lens and housing that matter, but whether the person behind it knows what he or she is doing with the kit.
THAT’S WHY THE BLUE EYE FX MEDIA course was such an eye-opener for me. Had I jumped in with the Sony and used it with my previous level of knowledge, I can safely say that my results would have been no better than those obtained with my existing set-up.
Yet after three short but intensive days, I was amazed at some of the results I was getting. By the start of day three I had edited, produced and posted online two presentable short clips.
Throw in Deborah and Jon’s wonderful hospitality and their luxurious Palm Villa accommodation, logistical and dive support from the Four Seasons Hotel and Sinai Blue Dive School, and I can’t think of a better way to learn the dark art of underwater filming and film production.
Just don’t even think about coming out of the water without having sorted your white balance if Deborah is around!
See Phil’s results at vimeo.com/68840805, 68840806, 69070446, 69080714 and 69312671. The five-day Blue Eye FX Productions Media course in conjunction with the Four Seasons Hotel and Sinai Blue Dive Centre costs £145 a day if you bring camera, housing and laptop, £195 if these have to be provided. Each day runs from 8am to 7pm. A week’s diving package costs £225.