The secrets to achieving a perfect underwater take, with Ian Seabrook
Owen Shapiro 00:00
Thank very much for having me. Welcome to Kino society into this episode we have Ian Seabrook and underwater director of photography in Motion Picture and Television industry, amassing worldwide credit such amassing worldwide credits on such productions as Batman vs Superman, Deadpool two and Jungle Cruise. Seabrook has also contributed his underwater skills to high profile documentary films, television, commercial music videos, and IMAX productions, and was awarded to double gold medals for cinematography at the 2019 Tony Awards. Welcome to a Kino society. So what do you mind telling us a little bit about your background and what attracted you to working in film?
Well, I always watched a lot of films when I was younger. I saw a lot of, you know, Lawrence of Arabia type productions when I was growing up, and it never occurred to me to work in film during that time. I mean, my interest in underwater filmmaking was probably more spurned by the Disney, the Disney nature shows that I would watch when I was younger, and also Thunderball, or any other James Bond movies, wherever they are, they will have underwater sequences. And then you know, jaws and the deep and so on and so forth. So I was a diver first before I was in the in the film industry. So, I was a stills photographer before I got into the film industry. And before I was a diver, so I kind of came in with photographic and diving backgrounds. Before I started to work in film, and I did it is it more of a journey man’s process. So I started as a unpaid intern and then worked as a clapper loader focus puller operator. When I was focused pulling, I was shooting underwater at that point. So yeah, I’ve been I’ve done all the jobs in the camera department so. Which I feel is a necessary part of the structure of the job. That way you understand all the steps involved and you’re not confused or slack jawed when problems arise.
Owen Shapiro 02:39
What was your very first job in film and how did you get?
In film in general, I think the first thing I might have worked on was the American remake of the Femme Nikita, which was called point of no return that had Bridget Fonda, in it is directed by John Badham. I was an unpaid intern on that shot down in Los Angeles, and all nights. And yeah, it was, it was a struggle to pay rent, but because you’re not making any money, but you’re, you’re working with people and you’re getting experience. So the point of that was that was the only way you could get in. The union at the time was very difficult to get in. And most of the film work in California was done through union productions. So there was some non union work happening, but not not that much. So the competition to get into the union was quite stiff. And so you had to be you have to be almost very competitive.
Owen Shapiro 03:50
How about your first job in your current position as an underwater filmmaker?
First thing I shot underwater was probably a commercial for Bud Light in 1998, and the first film I shot underwater was a Hellraiser sequel, I think it was Hellraiser, four or five, I’m not sure. And that was a car going into water and the cast trapped in the car and had to deal with one of the talent not being very comfortable in the water. And we had to shoot around that. So we had to pretend she was in the car when she really wasn’t and make her work a lot more shallow than the car actually was. She was not interested in going anything any deeper. So that was if I watched the film now, I can see you know, a bunch of faults with it. But that was the first thing I had shot so I’m not super hard on myself.
Owen Shapiro 04:56
So since she wasn’t in the car, did you use mannequin such as shooting away so that the viewers would notice.
We basically pulled the door off and bolted the door to a platform that was less, that was more shallow. And then we had her sit down as if she was still sitting in the car, and then used tighter lenses to hide the fact that there was no car there. So that’s how we did it. But if we didn’t do that we wouldn’t have made the day we wouldn’t have made the sequence it was it would have been incomplete.
Owen Shapiro 05:35
Definitely sounds like tricky make when the actress wasn’t willing to do that.
Correct. Yeah, that’s, that’s one of the more it’s one of the first things I asked when we’re doing any of this kind of work is, who is the who is the talent going into water, and then you you do your research to find out whether or not they have any experience in the water or not. Because if they’re uncomfortable or will not do any of the work required, then it’s going to be either a stunt double a body double, or you’re going to have to rewrite the sequence.
Owen Shapiro 06:10
What skills are needed for your job and what specifically do you love about it?
Well, the diving is obviously is an obvious one, but that at this point, you have to just forget your diving skills, you have to be good with your buoyancy, you can’t be struggling with your equipment. So that when you’re holding the camera and you’re composing the shot, the only thing that is going through your mind is what’s in the four corners of the frame. And at the same time, even when we were shooting with film, and I just finished shooting film on the M Night Shyamalan pitcher old when you look through the viewfinder of the camera, it’s a reflex do you find they’re not like the you know, the monitor on the Alexa or the red, you’re looking at a monitor so. Most people don’t have to only hold one eye open when they operate, but they can look with both eyes. But when we’re shooting with film camera, you know, use the eyepiece. So one of your eyes is looking through the viewfinder and the other eyes normally closed. When I shot with film cameras, I would always operate with both eyes open anyway, just so I could see what else was going on in the frame outside of the frame. If you know lighting was weird, or if we were outside in the ocean, if just whatever the situations were so that you can see what’s what’s coming at you so. I think you need a fair degree of fitness. In order to be able to swim with the camera, you need to have a medical done every year as a result just because of the licenses that I hold. But until then you have to train for that medical. So you need to also what’s a normal shooting practice is you typically don’t get out of the water you don’t get out for lunch breaks, you don’t you just stay in until the sequence is shot. Sometimes that’s been the way it’s been. For as long as I can remember, as soon as they put you into water, as soon as you get in, you pretty much don’t get out. So stamina, fitness, ability to swim with the camera, knowing your buoyancy, and also being able to swim against current and knowing what the environmental conditions of the water are. And being able to adapt and change to those. So it seems that a lot of people figure it’s it’s a lot of fun to jump into water and with the camera. And that’s and that’s all it’s involved. But it’s a lot more involved than that, though, was working on a picture with Don Burgess who shot Forrest Gump and I was we were someone someone on the set was saying, Oh, that’s a lot of fun that looks like a lot of fun, just jump in and swim around. And he he turned to them and said Actually, it’s a lot more involved than that the job is one of the more difficult jobs on set, you have to compose you have to light you have to be a grip you have to look after your own safety and the safety of others in the water. You have to constantly adjust for changing situations current whatever. And so I didn’t have to say anything he did all of it for me and you know, I it’s good that other people can recognize that. I mean, people who know they’ll get it right and he photographed although he wasn’t in the water, but he photographed probably the most realistic plane crash sequence in water which was in Castaway. Mike Thomas was the underwater cameraman on that job. So it still trumps any other not to use that word. It still is the best plane crash sequence in a water, water that I’ve that I’ve seen. Not that it’s a common sequence, but it’s very realistic. That’s really, really well done.
Owen Shapiro 10:08
Are there any big differences between working underwater and on set?
Yeah, communication is probably the foremost one. I mean, I use an underwater speaker, which many people use also, who do this job. It’s a one way system where the director can speak, and no one can answer back. So it’s like the director’s fantasy. But essentially, I have a top side feed to the to a monitor on the surface of the director can see what I’m, what I’m shooting or what I’m framing, and then that I’m connected to that. So they’re seeing they’re getting my they’re getting my video feed directly from the camera. So they’re able to communicate by watching the monitor. If they want the actor to do some a certain something or a direction of some sort or an action, then they can speak into the speaker, and everyone in the water can hear. I will usually communicate back either nodding the camera or shaking the camera, yes or no. Oftentimes, when the cast come down, to get into position, I will aim the camera at them, so that everyone can see what you know if there’s problems with their wardrobe, or they’re tangled up in the set or whatever. Sometimes as soon as they go down there’s an expectation that we’re going to roll immediately and sometimes, you know, 32nd delay, and there’s like, oh, what’s going on? And then, you know, they look on the monitor, and they can see what’s happening. So that’s why I do.
Owen Shapiro 11:39
So if you know how does how did underwater filmmaking work long, long ago, like say 50 in the 50s, or while before you could communicate using monitors before everything was much more convenient.
Yeah, well, I guess it was a lot of it was hand signals and chalkboards. And even like cave divers are still using slates that they can write on with an acetate board and the pencil, use chalk underwater, it’s obviously going to break apart. But I think they were using slates, or they were writing on, they were writing on slaves with pencils, and so on and so forth. I don’t think there was any, it was obviously a lot slower, because, you know, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. With Kirk Douglas and James Mason, there’s some underwater work on that, which I think was a separate unit, sometimes they would just send these guys off to, to shoot stuff without any direction, or they would just, you know, they would shoot it and then come back. And if it didn’t like it, the writers didn’t like it, they would go back and reshoot it again. So it’s obviously a lot more technically advanced now that the director can be there and dictate exactly what they want. And instead of I mean, we still do tandem units, or we do units whereby, you know, it’s a completely self contained underwater unit. And we’re all by ourselves. And it’s very, very minimal crew, and there’s no, there’s no director there. So you’re doing you’re directing it yourself, give you a rough mean average of what they want, and then you you hopefully capture what they want. So yeah, for sure, it would have been a lot. A lot of a longer process in the 1950s and 60s.
Owen Shapiro 13:25
How do you choose your projects?
Yeah, some of them, you know, is a combination of them coming to me. People reach out, productions reach out. Or I will get word of mouth that this particular project has some underwater work. And then I will go and try to get ahold of the line producer to or the cinematographer to see if they have anyone in mind already and if they don’t if they would like to collaborate, but a lot of it is either word of mouth or a lot of it is I’m getting contacted either through my agent or just by the productions themselves. In the case of Jumbo Cruise, they reached out to me independently. And I have just been finishing work on it chapter two. And was Yeah, just finishing that up and they reached out by email. So and then a month later, not even a month later, I was in Atlanta, having some meetings with them. But every job is different, right? So
Owen Shapiro 14:41
Are there any other filmmakers that you admire or follow?
Oh, yes. Very much admire and would love to collaborate actually with Terrence Malick one day I don’t know if that’s ever gonna happen, but and certainly Chris Nolan is is up there on that list. But Malik, for me has been a longtime longtime admiration of his work. A few of my friends have worked with him. And you know, I don’t know what he’s got in the mix these days, but you sometimes works for infrequently and then go work, you know, slam theater for three productions and in a couple of year periods. So yeah, there’s a lot I mean, I’ve done some work with Francis Lawrence who hadn’t met until I worked with him on see the apple project and just his, the way that he works and the trust that he places in me is a very enjoyable experience. And therefore it’s, you’re given a quite a lot of autonomy to create your own to create your own work within what he wants to see. So that’s also why I like working with people like Zack Snyder, and Miguel Sapochnikr did the Game of Thrones some of the Game of Thrones episodes, similar edict they may leave you alone to create instead of the other reversal that would be your being bantered about the entire time, which is never enjoyable for anybody.
Owen Shapiro 16:22
Which of your credits or projects have made you the most proud?
I mean, the film might not have been a fabulous film, but the work that we did on Batman vs. Superman. When we went to Tahiti to shoot the kryptonite rock discovery sequence, just the environment, and I love the South Pacific have been there several times that people were so wonderful, it’s so beautiful there, what we were shooting was also very free flow. I mean, we shot probably 17 different angles on what became just two shots in the film. And just the flow with which that whole production was while we were there with a reduced crew that went to Tahiti to shoot that sequence. That was one of my favorites. For sure. Working with Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd on Double Jeopardy, they were both very, very good in the water, even though they’re both inside of a car. Yeah, it’s been, you know, each show is each production is different, and the challenges of that, or also different. And, you know, when you place people in open ocean environments, versus just shoot him in a tank, it just depends on what the sequence entails. And so like, you know, working in the open ocean with squid, with the with the, you know, real with just the marine life that was swimming around us was just wonderful on that film.
Owen Shapiro 17:57
Definitely sounds like quite an experience. Take a plane trip to an entire other country just to shoot a very small portion of a movie. They definitely have a lot of money to spend, I can tell that. Yeah, yes. You are not incorrect. Which of your works is the most challenging though, was the hardest to pull off maybe?
Um, well, we did iRobot, we had two cars that were smashed together from a car accident that we’re both on my gimbal about above the water, and then they were both lowered into the water. In one car was a 14 year old girl. And then in the other car was myself and Will Smith stunt double who we were only over his shoulder. We never saw his face or anything. But, you know, you ask these questions, you know, are you comfortable? How much water work have you done so on and so forth? And you know, depending on the answer you get, you’ll say okay, well, this is either going to go one way or the other. Well, on that particular sequence, the sun personnel were not very comfortable in the water when they when the car when the car is submerged. And so the fact that there was a 14 year old girl she was a synchronized swimmer so she could hold her breath for quite a long time. So the the shot if you see the film, it starts kind of behind. It’s almost like a 180. It’s a 180 degree pan from the car where the girl is positioned to the back of a car that Will Smith is supposed to be and so just coordinating that to make sure that the girl in the car was comfortable even though there’s a lot of times the cameras panning on and off of her so she’s still holding your breath while she’s not even on camera. That takes some coordination for Sure, on Jungle Cruise, when the when Emily Blends character solves the puzzle piece, the set the the question came out that we have to raise the camera sorry, raise the set and the camera has to be attached to the set as a sets raising. So typically what you would do is you would just either bolt or bolt the camera to the set with speed rail, or the camera in the housing to the set with speed rail or, or some other method. But it became apparent when we discovered where the camera had to be that that’s not possible. So I suggested just, you know, threw it out there that I mentioned hold, I should handhold the camera, we’ll do a test and see if let’s see if we can, we can do it that way. So we did a test and it was successful. So as a result, we did you know eight more times for real. But so you’re telling you’re taking a camera and a housing with a lens that’s about 80 pounds out of the water and in the water at slightly negative so that if you were swimming with it, and you let it go, it would slowly sank. It’s not that it’s it would float or anything. So the whole point of ballast in the camera in the water so that you’re not fighting to pull it down or you’re not fighting to pull it up but to push it up, it’s supposed to be neutrally buoyant so you can, it’s no different from a steady cam or a crane or you’re just working with a balanced camera. So while holding that camera housing, while the set was being lifted up, there was a lot of water pressure pushing down on me to keep the camera stable, so you had to hold the camera for the entire time. And even when the shots finished just in the cameras out of the water, you still have to keep the shot. So that was on that film. That was that was pretty much the challenge on that job.
Owen Shapiro 21:53
What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker today?
If they’re thinking of becoming an underwater cinematographer, for sure it would be to become a diver first and foremost, and to have your diving skills dialed before you decide to attempt to get a camera. Again, it is you know, it’s a long it’s a long process, it’s not just simply a question of jumping in the water and grabbing on the camera and the housing, there’s a lot of factors involved. So if for any aspiring underwater cinematographers, I just say pay attention to your diving skills, and you know, just so much that you can forget about them. Still camera would be a good idea for you to learn a composition and how to swim with the camera. And yeah, for sure, that’s, you know, that it’s my, that’s been my journey. And that saying, that’s the journey for everyone. But that’s to me, I understand the process. I think a lot more doing it the journey one way instead of just, you know, skipping steps, but and also just while you’re diving, you know, look around and look how the light falls and look what it does in certain at certain depths or when cloud comes over, because you’re going to have to try to replicate that. So it’s just looking at a nature and and I mean, for me, I was just obsessed with it at a very early age, and I’m still obsessed with it. So it helps to to be you know, obsessed with whatever your interest or your passion is.
Owen Shapiro 23:36
You have any current projects that you’re working on?
I just finished a job for Netflix called Slumberland, which has got Jason Momoa and it should be on Netflix probably in March of next year. There will be the thai cave rescue, which is the follow up for the directors of who won the Oscar for Free Solo, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. And that is the story of the soccer team that was trapped in the cave in Thailand. That is I believe they have that in Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals. I would only assume that it’s going to be a Christmas release, but maybe it’s pushed until next year. I’m not sure. There is a new film with Tom Hanks called Finch, which I think Apple is going to release maybe in October so I shot second unit on that and don’t just shoot underwater work. I also do second unit photography as well. And there’s a new season of See on Apple and I did a little bit of underwater work for them as well. So yeah, there’s a few things coming out.
Owen Shapiro 24:56
Finally where my listeners find and connect with you.
I’m on Instagram. My Instagram handle is dorsal fin prod or just type in my my name, Ian Seabrook. I do have a website like everybody else, it’s dorsalfin.net. And then linked to that I have my second unit and surface service cinematography site, which is in Seabrook.net. I am not really on Twitter.
Owen Shapiro 25:29
That’s all for today. Don’t forget you can subscribe to Kenya society on iTunes and Spotify.