Underwater Adventures

Above Photo: Pushing a Hydroflex RAC the ‘hard way’ through the water with Shay Mitchell for Pretty Little Liars. Photo courtesy of Ian S. Takahashi

By Ian S. Takahashi, SOC

2:00 a.m. I sit inside a car suspended just above 233,000 gallons of water by a Champion Crane. Dive mask on, air tank in the footwell, I go through the scene beats and DP notes…then, “Three…two…one…action!” and the car sinks into the water as our talent, Guillermo Diaz escapes from the trunk of the car and into the back seat. Holding his breath and fighting for his life (acting), while our safety team, Katie Rowe and Pete Turner, are just out of frame keeping watch. “CUT!”–and the car rises out of the water again. The cold wind cuts through my wetsuit. I hold back shivers as Daryn Okada, ASC gives notes for the next take. To my left, David Sammons, SOC is set to go again, underwater tech/1st AC Peter Lee gives me the thumbs up. I am wet, cold, breathing air from a bottle, and couldn’t be happier. Scandal, Season 6.

Why underwater?

I’ve always loved being underwater, floating weightless and observing, so to be able to do that for a living, is a dream come true. Plus, people, in general, do not spend much time in the water paying attention, observing the world down there, so it gives us a level of freedom for telling stories. If you think about it, most people’s idea of ‘underwater’ comes from either a swimming pool, top-down snorkeling, or from movies!

The Path

Like everything in this industry, I think you can pick a general direction, but there isn’t a real “one path” to achieving your goals. I knew that I wanted to shoot underwater, and that I wanted to learn from the “big boys (and women).” I’m happy with what I have been able to do so far, and the fact that the SOC published this, means that it didn’t all go wrong.

The Start

My grandfather had been a photographer in General Patton’s United States Army Signal Corps, and my father had worked in documentaries while in graduate school. They both went on to having careers in other fields, and accomplished what they had set out to.

I, on the other hand, liked to swim around in pools, and I liked to shoot pictures of things. It was not until my senior year in college that I realized I wanted to combine them. The catalyst was when operator Mike Thomas came to visit a class I was taking, and spoke about his underwater work on Thin Red Line, Truman Show, Cast Away, and other projects he had worked on, that I realized an underwater camera operator/DP was an actual job. Mike was generous enough to give me his phone number and take my calls for the next 13 years. In fact, he still does.

So this being my goal, I put some friends together, we all chipped in, and called up Hydroflex. We rented an ARRI 35-3 housing and some lights, and shot a short film that was half underwater, including underwater greenscreen. With the help of the legendary Phil Bowen, and my future wife, Corinna (loading film), we got through it and learned a lot. It looked good enough to book me a job later that year.

I moved to Los Angeles, and went to Hydroflex seeking an internship, but a young man named Loren Elkins had filled that position a few weeks earlier. Loren is now arguably the best water tech out there, and one of my most trusted teammates, when he isn’t working with Pete Romano, ASC, of course.

So, with that path gone, I looked for another one. Mike Thomas brought me in as camera intern under John Toll, ASC and for months I learned just how little I actually knew (an important step) and how incredible John and his team are. This was an important part of my career path, because it immediately set the bar much, much higher. Learning good habits and techniques is priceless. Side note, John’s first words to me were “Hi. Don’t f*** up.” Words I still try to live by today.

The Techniques

The work operating underwater is basically hand-held in three dimensions. You can swim up, down, left, right, forward, backward and combinations of those. A properly trimmed housing, with a good operator can float through the water, creating moves akin to a dolly, crane, or Steadicam, but all of that, takes practice. Separating your body movement from your arms and hands so you can isolate the camera, is easier said than done. If you can’t do this well you will end up seeing each kick stroke translated into camera movement. Even stopping needs a special technique, so that you can bring 80 pounds of camera and housing to rest in water. Right now, think about how to swim backwards then stop, all while maintaining a frame that doesn’t show any movement, and compensating for talent’s depth changes.

A big factor is buoyancy. Do I want to be neutral and use my breath to control small depth correction? Should I use a float-rig, and if so, manually inflate or hook to my tank? Jacket style BCD (what does this mean) or back-inflate? Should the camera be negative? Nose heavy? Nose buoyant? Overall buoyant? Should I personally be negative? Buoyant? Neutral? Camera neutral and myself negative? Camera negative me neutral? Camera buoyant and myself buoyant? All these choices affect the way that you and the camera move through the water, which therefore affects the shot and your operating. Understanding the housings, their dome versus flat port, versus MegaDome, versus ‘Takahashi Mega-Flat-Port,’ and how everything affects everything else is just one part of the job. Being able to quickly move through these configurations, keeps the attention off of you and your team, and allows you to do the best job without a certain someone looking at their watch, and then at you.

Choosing the right housing for the job is also critical, as they all react to the water differently. Different designs mean different weight distribution, and different hydrodynamics affecting how the housing moves through the water in multiple directions. Water doesn’t compress, so if talent jumps into a pool, or if someone throws a car at you, it will first create waves that will move the camera, then they’ll hit the wall and come back. So you may think that your small housing will be the best choice for a small body of water, but it’s probably not. I’d take the Hydroflex RAC-MKV, as its size and shape will be pushed around less by that water movement. Think of operating your phone, hand-held on a windy day, versus putting an Alexa on your shoulder—big difference.

Inside the Supona wreck in Bimini with freediver, Valentine Thomas; gaffer, Jimmy Lyons; and key grip, Paul Womack shooting a feature for the Meza Brothers on Hydroflex RAC-MKV. Photo by Marc Wostak

The Diving Certification Question

For some reason the question I get asked the most is, “Do you need to be a certified scuba diver?” The answer is, “Yes.” You should actually be a pretty fantastic diver. It should be natural for you by this point. Just learning to control your depth, body position, etc. is sort of like walking, so would you hire a hand-held camera operator who isn’t good at walking?
Your marine team should also all be great divers, as we do the same work as the “dry” crews, but underwater, placing lights, building trusses and rigging. Inflate your BCD before you are handed a shot-bag or stand so it doesn’t take you straight to the bottom, then deflate your BCD before you let go…so you don’t go straight back to the surface. Little things like that make a big difference.

The Gear

Diving gear…for me, less is more. In a tank, I’m usually in my suit, weight belt and a Hookah line. No BCD, no whistle, no computer, no dive-line, nothing to get in the way. Just me and the camera, and a way to breath, usually. When that’s not an option, I have been lucky to work with the team at Ocean Management Systems (OMS) and love their modular, and incredibly well made gear. Comfortable and durable. [Some repetition] My gear gets used all day, rinsed and dried in hotel showers or docks, or worse–thrown into a bag, sometimes still wet, then shipped to another location and used again. Like all of us, it needs to arrive and do its job without a fuss. Sometimes I’ll go from the water to the airport, and then straight to the next set with the gear still wet. Nothing quite like climbing into wetsuit in Los Angeles that is still soaked with North Carolina water.

Another World

Underwater is a different world. Light and weights react differently, and therefore photographing and working underwater is different. I find that my job isn’t just to show up and operate, but to work with the DP to facilitate their vision being translated underwater. One example, when one amazing DP/ASC I worked with wanted sun rays coming through the water, but wasn’t seeing them. I mentioned, quietly, that those rays are caused by the water refocusing the light into beams, so smaller point-sources make it easier to achieve. Those 3x side-by-side 18ks became 1x18k and 3x Xenons and we were good to go. The DP was happy, production was happy, and Ian was useful.

The Team

Hire the best people, and let them do their jobs. I have a very short list of names I call on for my water team. People I trust to watch my back, who will speak up when they need to, and handle their own departments. This job is dangerous, and that trust extends to our own lives, and the future of our own families. That trust needs to be there.

Short Stories

We were shooting in the Long Beach Harbor, lost all visibility in the water, and had to shoot John Hurt throwing objects into the water at us. The current was tumbling us around, and I had my face in the monitor looking for anything that could tell me where I was. The sun? A shadow of a boat? Bubbles indicated which way was up. The safety diver stayed near me, would look at his compass, then grab my waist and point me in the general direction we wanted to be in. Somehow we got a few takes.
We were shooting Queen of the South in Dallas for DP, John Brawley and our first shot was me jumping backwards into the pool with the camera, with just my mask, ear plugs, and weights, as automatic gunfire erupts and I slowly sink to the bottom, shells falling around me. As I landed on the bottom, Dallas police dive team commander, Terry Varden shoves a regulator into my mouth so I can breathe again, then I whip pan right to catch someone diving in.

On The Last Ship we did a three-minute take, starting on a CU and pulling back to reveal underwater mines. One minute in, my Hookah line tangled in some fake kelp, so I spat it out and kept going. I followed one of the divers around a mine and landed in a CU for a one-minute hold for top-side dialogue, while I hovered mid-water, kicking as I was weighted negative. I realized that I needed to breath soon, and that’s when a hand reached around and shoved a regulator into my mouth, he pushed the button to clear it, and hovered next to me until we heard, “Cut! Moving on!’ I spat the regulator out, gave him a thumbs up, and swam to the surface to talk to Peter Weller, our director. Trust that your safety team is on their game.

Finally, one of my favorite moments was seeing a safety diver’s face, who will remain nameless, when his job became letting Beyoncé sit in his lap while he held onto the sides of the tank so she could be comfortable while talking to our director, Jonas Akerlund between takes. By the way, she was amazing

Ian S. Takahashi, SOC
Ian S. Takahashi, SOC was born and raised in the Napa Valley of California where he worked under director, Francis Ford Coppola before moving to Los Angeles, and he interned under John Toll, ASC.

Ian concentrates on underwater work, and benefited from a long mentor relationship with Mike Thomas, and a later introduction to Pete Romano, ASC. His underwater credits include; The Last Ship, True Detective, Scandal, Pretty Little Liars, Masters of Sex, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Kate Upton, Nike, Corona, and features: Swiss Army Man, Neon Demon, All I See is You, and The Layover. Ian just completed projects for directors, Marc Forster and Joe Wright.

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