Underwater adventures

How 4K recording can revolutionise documentaries on marine life
A still shot from the footage recorded by Maxwell and Beecham.
A still shot from the footage recorded by Maxwell and Beecham.

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Digital Studio caught up with specialist underwater cameramen Charles Maxwell, owner of Underwater Video Services SA, and Dan Beecham, to discuss the spectacular 4K marine wildlife footage ‘Sony F55 Underwater Shoot’. Maxwell and Beecham explain how the film was made, the complexities of shooting underwater, and how to get the best from 4K.

DS: What is the biggest challenge of filming this type of underwater footage?
One of the biggest challenges lies in getting the correct conditions you require for shooting underwater. You need good visibility and safe surface working conditions. With the weather conditions we can experience here in South Africa, you have to be constantly on stand-by, waiting for the right conditions and react quickly when the conditions are right.

DS: What made the Sony F55 stand out for this project / your company?
When we made the decision to buy a 4K camera together, it was a daunting decision. We made the decision based on a number of reasons, including what the hire markets here in Cape Town require and the fact that we can get support from our local Sony dealers here in the event of there being any issues with the camera.

Features such as the camera’s great dynamic range, global shutter, ND filters, XLR inputs and the option to shoot XAVC at 4K or 4K RAW and 2K XAVC simultaneously were also important features for us.

DS: Why does the RAW footage make such a difference? Is that the maximum resolution?
We shoot all of our stock footage in 4K RAW, unless we specifically need to shoot at higher frame rates to capture behaviour. Shooting RAW affords us huge flexibility in post-production.

Not have to worry about setting white balance is a huge advantage for underwater work and the dynamic range of the F55 allows us to capture a wider spectrum of highlights and lowlights than ever before, which for many underwater subjects can be really important.

DS: Was this footage shot in Cine EI mode? If so, what difference did this make to the final film?
We almost always shoot in Cine EI mode. It affords us the most flexibility in post.

DS: How much post production work was done on the film? Was colour grading etc used mainly to allow the viewer to see what you saw?
We use Sony RAW viewer for doing initial adjustments to RAW footage and exporting ProRes files for editing if required. A high level of post-production is standard these days when shooting RAW or doing an offline / online type workflow. Adjustments to RAW footage in grading allow us to get our footage looking closer to what we actually see underwater than ever before.

DS: Was the sheer volume of RAW data a hindrance in terms of the time you could spend on one shoot? What is the max time you can shoot in RAW on an F55?
So far, we have not found the file sizes produced when shooting RAW to be too much of an issue. It has forced us to shoot more selectively than we may otherwise have done with traditional video work, but this I see as a good thing a lot of the time. If there is any inconvenience, it is outweighed by the advantages of having the full flexibility of the RAW material.

With our 512GB AXSM cards, we can shoot around 30 minutes of RAW footage at 60fps, or 60 minutes at 30fps. On longer shoots in remote locations, we have the option to shoot XAVC and so produce far smaller file sizes.

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DB: Tell me about the advantages of Gates Underwater Housing and Tokina 11-16mm lens with MTF Services adapter.
Our underwater housing was built by Gates Underwater Products of San Diego. People are often shocked when they first start looking into the costs involved in underwater housings, but for us this is par for the course - I wouldn’t want to put my beloved F55 in a sub-standard product.

Gates’ optics are second-to-none, and this is essential. There’s no point having such a fantastic camera and lens stuck behind sub-standard optics, degrading the image. Gates have also worked hard to make the housing as versatile as possible. We can shoot with or without the R5 RAW recorder and with larger batteries to give us longer run times.

We use a few different lenses underwater, but our main workhorse has so far been the Tokina 11-16mm. Wide-angle lenses are important in underwater work — we use them all the time as underwater you have to remain close to your subject, if you back away you shoot through more water, degrading the image. One of the golden rules in underwater work is “get as close as you can, then get closer”. Much of our work is with large animals, so again wide angles are really important for us.

DB: Are there any issue with cameras overheating underwater?
We have not had any issues with the camera over-heating underwater per-se, but we have had a few issues with condensation. This can be the case with any camera and housing system however.

DB: How was it handling the cameras underwater?
The Gates housing is built so that you can trim the buoyancy underwater by adding or removing small lead weights to different points on the housing (depending on how you have the camera set-up). We have our housing set to be ever-so slightly negatively buoyant, so moving the camera around underwater and keeping it steady is very easy.

DB: Were you surprised by the results?
We were surprised by the results from the F55 in terms of just how much flexibly we get from the RAW footage. Having used other 4K camera systems, this was a really pleasant surprise.

DB: Where and when will this footage be shown? Will it form part of a series or documentary film? Who commissioned the shoot?
Our stock footage library is a constantly on-going project, our clients include major footage libraries and TV networks such as Discovery, Nat Geo and NHK. Other footage that we have shot with the F55 is also being used in the upcoming BBC series ‘SHARK’ and has also been used in a range of commercials and feature films.

DB: What is the difference between RAW and S-LOG footage? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of recording in S-LOG in this instance?
We have the option to shoot the camera in S-LOG using XAVC is required – the advantage being smaller files sizes which may be required when on longer shoots in remote locations. If exposure is handled correctly when using S-LOG we are still able to retain the great dynamic range of the camera, but do not get to retain flexibility such as being able to set white balance in post. Shooting S-LOG really just requires a different mind-set to shooting with RAW.

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Get to know
Charles Maxwell is an underwater cinematographer living in Cape Town, South Africa. He has been diving for over 40 years and began his career in underwater filming in 1987. Maxwell specialises in documentary films about sharks, whales, dolphins and the Cape fur seals that are abundant in the cold water near Cape Town.

Charles was a 2002 Primetime Emmy Award winner in the category Outstanding Cinematography for work done for The Blue Planet: Seas of Life, produced by the BBC / Discovery Channel.

Dan Beecham is a freelance filmmaker specialising in shooting underwater and in remote locations. Much of his work has been focused on natural history sequences, expeditions, research projects and remote, often relatively unexplored diving locations.

Maxwell and Beecham co-own and operate a Sony F55 in Gates underwater housing.

KIT LIST
• Sony F55 & AXSR5 RAW recorder
• Gates Underwater Housing
• Tokina 11-16mm lens with MTF Services adapter

WORKFLOW
• RAW and XAVC material converted to ProRes using Sony RAW Viewer then edited in Adobe Premier Pro CC

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