Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures

Expedition Team Bios
Diving Technology
Underwater HD Filming


Underwater HD Filming

Bringing the deep sea to the surface
by Emily Coven

In 1916, American brothers and undersea photography pioneers Ernest and George Williamson set out for the Bahamas to film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of the world's first commercial underwater films. This was 26 years before Jacques Cousteau would develop the Aqualung, the basis for modern scuba technology, and four decades before the invention of the neoprene wetsuit. The film was silent and shot in black and white.

dive team in clear water
The expedition team experiences great diving conditions: excellent visibility in blue, crystal clear water in the NHWI. Photo credit: Tom Ordway
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Fast-forward to 2003, to the Voyage to Kure team filming in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with all the latest in modern technology - high-definition (HD) cameras, state-of-the-art camera housings, rebreathers, suits to keep bodies and heads warm and functional. Underwater filming technology has come a long way in the past century.

What exactly does a modern-day underwater camera operator, such as Ocean Adventures' Yves Lefevre, have that the Williamson brothers did not? Just about everything.

First and foremost, the advent of HD technology has transformed underwater filming for the camera operator and underwater films for the audience. Traditional underwater film cameras allow for about 10 minutes of filming per dive, whereas HD cameras have up to an hour of film time and two hours of battery time. Instead of having mere minutes to capture life undersea, the HD camera operator now has the luxury to exercise patience, waiting for just the right scene then shooting an entire sequence as it unfolds underwater. Any nature lover knows that animals exhibit behaviors when it suits them, not when it suits the camera, so HD technology essentially opens up a whole world of animal behavior to the audience.

Jean-Michel Cousteau diving
The film team captures Jean-Michel Cousteau navigating through the tight grottos at the north end of Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Photo credit: Tom Ordway
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Underwater HD, like all HD, also results in a picture with remarkable clarity, bringing the viewer that much closer to a first-hand encounter with underwater life. In addition, the HD camera gives the filmmaker much greater control in filming under the adverse circumstances inherent to underwater filming. Among the major challenges of filming in the ocean are the variables involved in capturing an accurate picture of what the eye sees - light, color, depth and visibility. "If just one of these variables changes, it has a direct effect on the other," says Mark Gerasimenko, HD camera technician on the Kure expedition. "Go just 20 feet deeper, you have less light and less color, and the background becomes bluer and darker. HD allows us to compensate for these variables in the camera while underwater."

On the Kure expedition, the filming team captured footage using a Sony HDW-F900, an HD camera weighing only 17 pounds. The comparatively light weight of the modern camera is another great advantage over traditional film cameras, which can weigh upwards of 100 pounds. The Sony camera was housed in an Amphibicam housing, which protects the camera to a depth of 330 feet, well below the team's deepest dive on the Kure expedition. This particular housing allowed camera operators access to 16 controls, and it's made of a combination of glass and specialized plastic designed to eliminate distortion altogether - a far cry from the modified fruit jar in which Jacques Cousteau housed his camera when shooting his first film in 1943. And although the Amphibicam housing weighs quite a bit more than the camera, at 52 pounds it is still a great improvement on traditional film camera housings, which easily can weigh three times that.

filming underwater with HD cameras
Filming underwater with a high definition camera provides new creative flexibility for documentary television film production.
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The rebreather is another key to high-tech underwater filming. An HD camera with two hours of battery life would be of little use to a camera operator on an open-circuit breathing system, which allows for only an hour of dive time. Using a rebreather, divers can stay underwater for extended periods of time and capture moments that might otherwise have taken them several dives to capture - if they even captured them at all. By Jean-Michel Cousteau's estimate, the Kure expedition would have taken three months, not six weeks, had the team been using film and scuba.

The Ocean Adventures team was fortunate to be equipped with multiple cameras, but this also presented interesting logistical challenges. With multiple cameras in play, a team can film for considerably longer periods than with just one camera. Unlike filming topside, when reloading is a simple process, cameras cannot be reloaded underwater. Instead, when one camera is nearing the end of its tape, an assistant dives down with another camera and brings the first one back to the boat. Only after a camera has been removed from its housing, wiped clean, and checked for water and debris can it be reloaded, then resealed in its housing. It's yet another facet that makes filming underwater a technically complicated matter.

filming a close-up of a coral head
Matt Ferraro, expedition team diver, operates underwater lights, as a film team cinematographer, Yves Lefevre, films a close-up of a coral head using a high definition camera. Photo credit: Tom Ordway
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Developments in technology may have done wonders for the quality of underwater filming, but in the end, the most brilliant technology imaginable would be of little worth without skilled human operators. Diving is a very difficult pursuit to master, with the possibility of numerous adverse conditions, including strong currents, surges, cold water and poor visibility. Add 70 pounds of bulk (camera plus housing,) above and beyond the diving gear and weight belt used by the diver to the equation, and just staying in control can be a serious challenge. And, of course, there are no stage sets, tripods or camera stands in the ocean - camera operators must maintain both a steady hand on the camera and their own steady buoyancy in the water, all the while making instantaneous decisions about what, when and where to shoot.

When we as the audience sit back and view the final product, the closer we feel to the underwater animals, the greater a testament the film is to the synergy between the great skill of the camera operators and the remarkable advances in underwater filming technology.