Waterworld: The Best Underwater Cinematographers featuring Ian Seabrook, CSC
May 3, 2022

by Pauline Rogers, International Cinematographers Guild

Water. It has a magnetic pull. Some people have to live near it. Some are deathly afraid of it. But everyone is fascinated by its natural power and beauty. And no matter the project, the lure of this uncontrollable world lends something exciting to any story. But capturing underwater images, in any body of water, requires unique and singular talent. The camera operator has to be in top physical shape, of course, but they also have to be fearless and creative in an environment that is unpredictable at best. To learn more about this specialized craft, ICG Magazine reached out to several top underwater specialists to hear about the risks (and rewards) of this watery world.

Ian Seabrook, SOC, CSC (The Rescue, Finch, Jungle Cruise) entered the industry as an unpaid intern. Then, with a longtime practice in underwater stills photography, he called one of the industry’s most acclaimed water shooters, Pete Romano, ASC, and the company he founded: Hydroflex. Romano, who saw Seabrook’s natural gifts for the genre, eventually brought him in to assist on films like Insomnia and Nestle Water. As Seabrook, whose work on the critically acclaimed documentary The Rescue set new boundaries for underwater capture, describes: “Narrative [feature] work can differ from television regarding the content, script and time frame allotted to tell the story. Television, historically, has had less time and money to be able to achieve the scale of the work of a feature, although this has evolved to the point where some television or streaming projects have similar budgets. And I love that work.” Years ago, Seabrook recounts, “I worked on a dolphin documentary, which explored the spiritual connection between dolphins and humans,” he continues. “Unfortunately, the director/producer hadn’t researched the subject fully, and due to the lack of preparation, we had to resort to hitching rides with different charters in The Bahamas and Bimini. To get the shots we needed, during one shoot day, I asked the captain to drop me off, alone, in the middle of the ocean, and motioned for the boat to depart, so the engines would not prevent the dolphins from interacting. Once alone, I rolled the Super 16-millimeter camera in short, concise bursts so that the sound of the motor whirling would attract the dolphins. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a pod! I captured some wonderful footage of the dolphins in their natural environment.” Narrative work also fascinates Seabrook and challenges him to think quickly. For M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, Seabrook’s task was to capture two characters having to escape the island they were trapped on through a coral reef tunnel. The stars had to swim through 60 feet of continuous tunnel sets at Pinewood Studios in the Dominican Republic. “While there were escape [route] holes and air pockets built into the set, and successive takes had been completed, during one particular take an actor got disoriented and missed the escape hole,” Seabrook recalls. “Still shooting, I reached up, grabbed him and pulled him towards the escape hole directly behind me, guiding him to the air pocket. “After some gasps, he regained his composure,” Seabrook adds, “and, making sure he was okay, I told the 1st AD that some reorientation was in order. I got him a mask and air source, and we went back into the tunnels, ran drills, and then removed the air source and then the mask. Safety of the talent in the water is always of paramount importance; and as the first line of defense, it is part of the job to make that happen.”

David McDonald (The Outer Banks, American Horror Story, Lone Star 911) made his connection with all things water – and the entertainment industry – through living in Hawaii, a love of surfing and editing casting tapes. He became a film loader for a commercial house and joined Local 600, rising up through the ranks. “The Phantom tech I had been working with asked if I had ever shot underwater,” says McDonald, who wrote a loving [ICG Magazine March 2015] tribute to veteran water shooter Sonny Miller. “And I said ‘yes.’ So, we prepped a Phantom package in an underwater housing for a surf commercial. When we showed up at the location, the tide and wave heights differed from when the land DP and director had scouted. I had a wetsuit. By the end of the day of shooting, I had found my niche.” Today, McDonald employs the “Yellow Box” on major features and commercials, using his custom UW housing, often with ALEXA Mini, RED DSMC2, and RED Komodo and prime lenses. “For an upcoming feature with a major star, we had to shoot some open ocean sequences with shore-break night exteriors,” he explains. “It was a military training exercise. So the Yellow Box was the right housing with ALEXA Mini and ARRI Primes. “Waves and tide in the Pacific Ocean change the distance to shore, and the current,” he adds. With these environments, McDonald pulls his own focus in low-light night conditions. “In this surf shoot, the director, DP, talent, and I discussed the shot. After that, I would swim out and get the shot, then come back to shore and open the housing plug-in for playback and review. I was lucky to have Local 600 DP Evans Brown in the water with me. He was impressively robust and lasted all night in the cold water, with me looking over my shoulder at the monitor. So, again, with collaboration, anything is doable – it’s always a team effort.” McDonald recently had an interesting challenge – a commercial for Netflix’s hit series American Horror Story, Season 10. “It was daytime on stage at Warner Bros,” he recounts. “That’s right, underwater on a stage! The theme was a two-part double feature – Vampires/Aliens. A three-day shoot with lots of action and camera toys on two stages with two DP’s and four camera crews. My team was DP Chris J. Robertson, with underwater camera support from 1st AC Erin Zingale and 2nd AC Russell Miller. The logistics were to shoot all sequences in a 4-foot-deep, 20 foot diamater above-ground pool. Sequences required in our storyboards were 12-foot fake plastic shark teeth with push-in closeups of Vampire Bro and Alien Bro. In addition, we had various B-roll of bubbles, light ray elements, and anything else we could think up or get the agency to approve. I enjoy the free flow of this kind of work – especially when you have people who are open for coverage and options.” Occasionally, McDonald adds, coverage can go in the opposite direction. “It’s my position as a skilled waterman/cameraman to interrupt what is and is not possible based on simple physics and ocean conditions,” he notes. “Like for a recent sports drink commercial for DripDrop that required shots of a female underwater welder in open ocean in the Santa Barbara area. Production had land cameras and coverage of the nearby coastline and had scouted their spot to shoot. For my spot, I requested a rock or reef bed and kelp forest options if possible. “What I got was a kelp forest on sandbar with extremely low visibility,” he continues, “and a 4-to6-foot swell surge. The director wanted a wide establishing shot, yet the poor underwater visibility made that limited. I shot many different close-up variations on the first underwater pass, with the saving grace being the orange light pops from the underwater fire. I cued my underwater welder to perform short on/off blasts with the torch followed by Morse code-type blasts, via hand signals that we had earlier established topside. After we surfaced, I talked to the director and DP and explained the water dynamics with the swell surge and visibility issue, and the problem was solved. They loved the tight shots.”

Braden Haggerty is a unique addition to this mix. The Vancouver, Canada-based Local 669 member trained as both an underwater and surface camera assistant before working as an underwater operator for Robert McLachlan, ASC, on Millennium. She was also fortunate to meet Pete Romano early on in her career. He has been a mentor and go-to source when she has a question – and, of course, the supplier of her favorite housing through Romano’s company, Hydroflex. Haggerty is upfront about being a woman in this specialty. “We might be a little more hesitant to wing it,” she muses. “We want to be sure we know what we are doing before we take a job. But, being in a specialty, I earned a lot of respect early on as most directors and DP’s have never done underwater. They are completely relying on you to answer a lot of their questions. Although I’ve always had that respect, even if I was new to the job; now, I head out knowing exactly what I want to do and how to do it, which is respect that goes with experience.” An early job that Haggerty calls “fun” was with Daryn Okada, ASC, on Lake Placid. She started as the assistant, but then the main underwater DP couldn’t finish, and she got the upgrade. “The biggest challenge was working with a less than perfect underwater housing [not Hydroflex] that was hard to see an image through, and the snapping turtle that I was told could tear your arm off – so careful does it,” she recounts. Now an underwater veteran, Haggerty has weathered changes. “I think the biggest thing is digital,” she adds, “as you know exactly what you’ve got. Before, it was hard to gauge focus and exposure with everything always moving and no references. You don’t have the same marking abilities like on a surface set. Same with exposure. Now the DP can see exactly what is happening with exposure and focus instantly, which has made a complicated process much easier in many ways. Haggerty’s most recent job on Apple TV +’s Pachinko (lensed by Florian Hoffmeister, BSC) required her to figure out how to get a young actress to swim to the bottom of the ocean. “Sometimes the biggest challenges are how to build something that is accessible for the talent,” she explains. “I feel very strongly about creating an underwater world where we can work with the actual actors. This is what a story is about, and if we can see them, it’s beautiful. “In Pachinko, we were able to build something deep but have a raised section that the actress, who was nine years old, could reach,” she continues. “The art department showed me references to the Korean sea. In one of them, I noticed a deeper ocean bottom but a large rock that brought that bottom up higher. The art department went with that, and it was stunning. “The next challenge,” she continues, “was training a nine-year-old girl with very little water experience to do the shot in one night. I have a colleague who has done miracles with talent of all ages, and she got the young actress – who did not speak English – to swim across the tank, do her action at the final spot, and then come up happy as a clam. This makes my job shooting so much easier, as I am allotted the time to choreograph a beautiful shot using the actual actress. No hiding her face. The sequence came out amazing.”

Peter Manno is in an enviable – and fun – position. He started in the industry as a loader/2nd AC via Andrew Fischer and, after a few years, met an aspiring underwater camera operator named Pete Zuccarini. “One day, Pete invited me to assist him on a Visa Card commercial,” Manno remembers. “The location was a ferro-cement shipwreck out on the Great Bahama Bank, and our camera platform was a dive boat called the Ocean Explorer. Working with Pete and waterman James York sold me. It was about coordination in the positioning of the Ocean Explorer with multiple anchors over the set, the running and placement of lights in open water, the choreography of the action, and the preparation of camera gear and people in an uncontrolled environment.” The partnership with Zuccarini stuck, as Manno now assists the experienced water DP on such large franchise films as Avatar 2, Get Christie Love, and xXx: Return of Xander Cage, even slipping into the operator’s role when called upon. Manno says he loves the unique challenges water capture presents. “Proficiency in maintaining neutral buoyancy is critical,” he describes. “Contact with surfaces or an errant fin kick can degrade water quality. It is especially important when focus pulling without the use of lens motors and a remote system. “There is a kind of choreography between assistant and operator,” Manno adds, “and a need to anticipate directional changes – left and right, up and down, maybe a roll. As an underwater focus puller, you want to be careful not to have too much physical input on the camera housing but, at the same time, keep close contact to make focus adjustments. Depending on the environment, other considerations are overhead obstructions or marine life. You are another set of eyes looking out for your operator, who may miss something outside their peripheral, which is reduced by the dive mask.” Manno says there’s a Zen art to assisting and operating that’s very different from surface capture. “Getting the camera back to the surface, over to the beach to dry off and open the housing, all the while being vigilant not to let one drop enter,” he adds, “is unique to underwater shooting – one drop is all it will take for the lens port to fog upright. Then you have to close the gate safely to ensure no leaks and head back to the water. The advent of digital media has liberated us to be less focused on managing film consumption as an ill-timed reload potentially disrupts a rhythm in workflow or prolongs an actor’s exposure to the elements.”

For Jamie Alac, SOC, born in the surfing paradise of Perth, Western Australia (and a now 10-year resident of Los Angeles), the ocean and surf has been his life since he was two years old. Alac started working with traditional operators before meeting Romano, who mentored him in the ways of water filming, Hollywood style. Today, using the Hydroflex RAC MK5, Alac is in constant demand for such episodic series as The Lincoln Lawyer, The Orville, Bel-Air, Euphoria, 9-1-1, and more. He loves it, even if television has its own set of challenges. “These shows sometimes don’t have a separate water unit,” Alac explains, “so you often don’t have a lot of time for the water scenes. Let’s say you’re shooting a scene where an actor must fall into a pool. Production will almost always schedule this as the last shot of the day since their hair, makeup and wardrobe will be ruined once they get wet. At the end of a long working day, everyone wants to get out of there as soon as possible, and Production wants to avoid overtime costs. So, you’re on your A-game all the time.” What also interests Alac is the challenge of controlling light underwater. “When shooting in natural light,” he adds, “typically the magic hours around sunrise/sunset are best for above water. But for below water, it’s a different story. Overhead light between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. is often ugly above water, but it can work well underwater, especially if you want a sunbeam of the ‘God ray’ effect. Of course, water visibility plays a big role in what you see on the screen, too, especially in Southern California.” Alac says another challenge of shooting underwater is hiding backlight. “We often shoot from the bottom, looking up at our talent and with wide- to medium-angle lenses,” he continues, “so the correct placement of your backlight is crucial so that the stand and lamp are not seen. Easy to do when shooting above water – but difficult to do below.” For Alac, the most important thing with underwater lighting is safety. “Making sure all your lights are connected to a GFCI is essential, and the units underwater and the lamps near the water.” Alac will take on any kind of water capture, but his first love remains surfing. “It’s a high-risk/high-reward situation,” he explains. “Especially when the waves get bigger. Swimming out with a 25-pound housing, fighting against currents, waiting for the right wave, and being in the perfect position for the surfer to connect with you on the wave gets your blood pumping,” he describes. “Having your camera six inches away from a surfer as they ride past you is a rush! Thankfully, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great surfers and stunt people, which makes my job easier.” For all of these top-conditioned, uniquely talented water enthusiasts, syncing their thoughts with those of their DP’s and directors, before strapping on their gear, is a technical given. The real art (and thrill) of the craft, they all insist, is jumping into the shot, where the many variable elements can either help you or fight you. The payoff to such a consistently challenging and uncontrollable landscape is the undeniable beauty the world of water affords, bringing imagery and stories to audiences the world over, to which only a select few camera members can lay claim.