“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Rat’s wise words to Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” are the inspiration for our latest blog as we dive into the unique challenges, very real dangers and beautifully cinematic results of filming in, on and above the wet stuff.
Maker’s first taste of salty brine was that of the Cornish Sea in 2012 as we got under the wet-suited skin of cold water surf hero and all-round zen master Neil Erskine for Finisterre. Since then we’ve shot in a lake in Malaga, swimming pools in Shoreham-by-Sea, Manchester and Bogota, aboard a fishing trawler off the coast off Brixham and evaded Cape Town’s great whites.
Maker’s MD Thea: “One of the things we enjoyed exploring in our first foray into shooting in and around water was that special connection between humans and nature. Whether it be an intimate moment between mother and son or using the power of the sea to great dramatic effect, it’s interesting to see how we can use the magic of water to say something about a character or a relationship. Cinematically, it’s also one of the most visually arresting elements – the way it moves, the colours and textures and how reflections work – there is so much scope for us as filmmakers to create something memorable.”
Here, we free-dive into this filmmaking specialism with the team behind our Cannes Lion and double Clio awarded film “The Attack” for AstraZeneca: The Frog Squad’s Marine Coordinator Jason Martin; award-winning DOP Terence Maritz and Director / Aquatic Legend Carl Prechezer.
Tip 1: Plan, Plan, Plan – Safety & Time
The first priority is rigorous planning for everyone’s safety combined with realistic planning of what a crew can achieve within the environment’s parameters. Carl speaks from the director’s point of view: “It’s a completely different environment that affects people in a completely different way than it affects them on land. For an actor it’s a very physical experience and there’s a whole new level of safety involved so it’s like having this big additional set of considerations on top of what you usually consider as a director working with actors. People get exhausted very quickly, you have to make sure they don’t get cold and make sure they’re hydrated. And you have to do that in such a way that they’re not spending all their time thinking about that and none of their time thinking about acting. That’s why it’s all about the planning – because you have to make them very aware of everything before they get in the water without freaking them out. So there’s a higher level of trust as well.”
Jason adds that these safety factors make realistic scheduling of your shoot and wise appropriation of your budget even more important to stand a chance of covering off the shots that you need: “Shooting on the water takes time, and time is money and visa versa. You need to spend money to save money – a shoot that doesn’t allow for proper marine support ends up scrambling to make their day rather than spending the money on the boats and personnel and getting the shots you want in time on time.”
Even with detailed planning you are at Poseidon’s mercy – as Terence embellishes on shooting a scene for a feature film: “Let’s call the scene ’Swimmer in Ocean’. The camera crew are filming from the safety of the shore. The actor swims out beyond the surf – to the backline. The safety boat tracks with the swimmer keeping a good distance, making sure there are no dangers lurking below surface. All’s going really well and then suddenly the safety boat gets caught on the inside of the surf line and before anything can be done it’s smashed by a large wave. It capsizes in the surf. The lifesavers are quick to recover the boat which is now in shallow water and its crew and our actor are brought to safety.
The director shouts… “Did you get the shot?”!
Tip 2: Plan Some More – Locations & Weather
The plurality of locations is important here – either to achieve a particular aesthetic or as a practical back-up to keep the shoot turning over when things go against you. “Often you need a choice of location to achieve the shots needed – creatively and logistically.” says Terence, while Jason adds: “Be realistic about the end result, too often producers see something on TV or a film and then will come to location and want the same result in 2-3 days. A good example is always surfing, they’ll see shots from shows like ‘Endless Summer’ that took 6-10 months to shoot and want the same result in 1 day. They will also then insist the shots happen close by so you can’t go to the best surf spot for the weather on the day. In this scenario you will never find the result you looking for.”
Carl adds: “On The Attack we did exactly what a feature film would do – shot some in a tank (or in our case a sea water pool), some in a swimming pool and some at sea because unless you have a lot of time you cannot film everything at sea and guarantee you’ll get it done. It’s all about the expertise – you have to have lived through those difficult moments to know.”
One key factor that governs any water shoot and may define your location options is the weather. Carl: “The risk assessment at sea is unlike any other risk assessment. If the weather does this, the risk is this, the weather does that it’s a different risk. It’s like all these variables and if one of those variables changes you’ve got a new problem.”
Maker’s Exec Producer Luke: “We carried out our tech recce for our Cape Town sea shoot on the Friday morning before our Monday sunrise shoot. Due to the direction and strength of the wind coming into the bay it was lashing the sea towards our intended camera positions with furious gusto. Instead of the required calm water for our character’s morning swim, it looked like he would be there to end it all! We lined-up a back-up location on the other side of the bay, requiring an overhaul of the schedule, and then spent the weekend feverishly updating our wind tracking app. On the Sunday evening the wind direction changed in our favour and as the sun rose on our first morning of filming there was “only” the sharks to worry about.”
Luke continues: “In the sequel to The Attack, it was important to the storyline of The Engine that the boat was shown in choppy waters. Within a 2 day shoot window it was impossible to guarantee the sea conditions so we used some filmmaking magic to help heighten the dramatic effect. As well as directing the boat against the waves we also used key drone shots, close ups, camera movement and sound design to help build a sense of jeopardy.”
Tip 3 – Specialist Team
An essential part of producing a water shoot is securing the right people for the job. Luke: “Whether it’s an underwater camera op who must be female because the subject matter is a 100 woman skinny dip or you need to squeeze a camera crew onto a working fishing trawler, achieving the shots you want in a safe way requires the right people with the right experience and expertise. Specialist knowledge is invaluable.”
As far as shooting at sea goes, Frog Squad’s Jason adds: “The marine crew are the go between for all the departments on set you need to make the movie. Experience is everything – the right crew on the right day at the right location all comes back to the producer who puts it together. Hire a marine coordinator, one who has experience in filmmaking not just a boat or dive operator. Knowing how it works not only saves you time and money, it insures the crew and gear are looked after. The marine film environment is a unique speciality – there’s many who think they’ve got what it takes to do it, but there’s not many who can.”
However, their capabilities do know some bounds. “I’ve had directors ask me to move oil rigs out of shot – or tankers! We once had a whale come on set and I was asked if we had an animal wrangler to make it move along!”
Tip 4 – The Right Equipment
Specialist kit is of course needed for specialist conditions – as Terence says “a successful water shoot hinges on the technical support and making use of the best equipment for the job”.
In a certain 1975 thriller Sheriff Brody famously says “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Filmed largely on the water, the equipment for ‘Jaws’ was housed on a barge nicknamed the USS Garage Sale. Thanks to budget limitations (no stranger ourselves…) they only had a single support boat to help keep it steady – a task the small craft was not up to. This became an in-joke on set – a catchphrase used by cast and crew whenever something went wrong.
There is a shared lesson here. You may not need bigger boats per se, but you certainly need appropriately equipped ones – along with underwater and floating camera equipment, drones and support vessels.
But in the end it’s all worth it and the results from a water shoot can be breathtaking, enabling you to create emotive and powerful cinematic content that simply can’t be emulated on dry land. Here’s to the next time we take the plunge!