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Film School - 4. Choosing Equipment

John Boyle's step-by-step guide to becoming an underwater filmmaker - Part Four: Planning your shot

If you want to produce an underwater film, even just a short clip, then you need to have a plan. Just meandering around on a dive randomly pointing your camera at whatever passes by is unlikely to produce results. It’s true that we often have no control over what might come along during a dive, or how sea creatures may behave, but having a plan can certainly stack the odds in your favour.

One of the biggest differences between shooting stills and video is that stills photographers are aiming to capture the best portrait; we are aiming to do far more than that – a series of clips each several seconds long of various creatures may all be great portraits, but that’s not what video is about. If you want people to enjoy your films, then you must tell a story that will engross them and leave them wanting more. You need to understand how to capture the images that will tell that story – it will be too late when you have surfaced and gone home. So before you get in the water you need a plan.

Generally, you need to forget the ‘dive tour’ mentality – a chain of divers swimming nose to fin behind the dive leader. You won’t get award-winning shots that way! What are you trying to achieve? Is it to take your viewers on an investigation of a wreck? Introduce them to bizarre macro critters? Film sharks, corals, schools of fish, caves... Your time underwater will be limited, so you need to get all your shots while you have the chance. Obviously certain basic planning decisions will have been made before you get in the water. Wide-angle or macro? Lights or no lights? But planning goes far beyond these initial options.

There are different ways to approach filming, depending on the subjects. Humans can be directed and plans more firmly made; with sea creatures we have no control over the situation, but sensible planning can increase the odds.

If dealing with people underwater, make sure they are extremely well briefed as to what you will be doing and what you need from them. It’s not easy to explain once you are underwater. Take, for example, just a simple and popular shot of a diver behind a sea creature such as a clownfish and anemone, so you get the diver’s eyes in their mask looking at the fish. You have to explain to your buddy the shot you are planning to achieve and agree hand signals in order that you can communicate and make it happen underwater. Once you are blowing bubbles that communication becomes far more difficult. Whether you plan that shot to the extent of some still photographers is a matter for you.

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From classes at film school to Hollywood productions, the storyboard is a favoured tool to plan a shoot. It’s a great way to plan the shots that you need to tell your story, and you can even draw it on a slate to take with you on the dive. Here’s an example storyboarding a shark-feeding dive. With a storyboard, you decide exactly what shots you want to get to create your sequence, and anyone diving with you
can also easily understand your aims.


Not all filming will be of human interactions with creatures or explorations of wrecks. You may want to focus on creatures. If so, you have to learn to work a dive site. Select a place where you will find your subject – it may not be the most spectacular site; no huge drop-off’s, walls, caves and caverns – it may be a featureless bit of sea floor, but right for you because that is where you can encounter the creature you want to film. Instead of trying to cover huge distances, settle down and study just a small sector of the site. Then when you find your subject, position yourself down current so that any sand you kick up will not drift into your shot; get your lighting adjusted and enjoy the time that you spend with the subject.

If you are aiming to film the creatures of the reef, you need to take time getting to know them, their behaviours, the rhythms of their lives. You won’t achieve this by madly dashing around the reef trying to cover as much ground as possible and snatching shots as and where you can. You need to settle down in one place with one creature and relax so that your breathing slows down. Eventually the creatures of the reef will become accustomed to your presence and gradually start behaving naturally again.

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Video is a great story-telling tool, and to tell a story you need behaviour, you need action. To get the best behaviour shots, you have to understand the creatures that you are filming. So you may end up spending a whole dive in one spot, observing one creature. The longer you spend, the more you start to understand the rhythm of that creature’s existence, and the more likely you will be to capture action shots that best tell your story. 

But there can be distractions in a human form that can destroy even the best planned shoot.

We called him Dr Death. He seemed incapable of finding a subject of his own to photograph. Instead he would roam the sea floor until he found a cameraman who had clearly found something of interest. Oblivious to his presence, you would have carefully set up your shot, gradually inching towards the subject, getting lighting and focus at the ideal settings… when in a flurry of arms and fins, he would dive kamikaze style into frame to see what you had found, strobes flashing, camera pointing in every direction, and by the time the sand cloud had cleared the subject would be long gone. So if you are in a group with a Dr Death character, add another element to your dive planning – keep as far away from him as humanly possible!

When asked I’ve often replied that you can never really plan for what happens underwater, and to an extent that is true. There is always the chance of that unexpected encounter that no amount of planning could have prepared you for. But if you are serious about producing enjoyable and watchable underwater films, then planning your shoot is as essential as a good fill of air in your tanks.

I’m going to focus on two short clips to show just how much planning needs to go into producing an interesting underwater piece.


Film star Fish 

This sequence, in a film about the clownfish industry that National Geographic is distributing for us, works because of its simplicity. We wanted to get shots of free-divers taking clownfish from the reef. However, analyse the shots and you will realise that the free-divers are actually working for the camera. You will note that the diver’s body never gets in the way of the shot; that each time the fisherman’s net is positioned so that the camera has the optimum view of what is happening; and that as he surfaces, the fisherman lets us get a clear shot of Nemo in the net. None of this happened by chance. After finding a village in Papua New Guinea where the villagers were harvesting clownfish from the reef and getting permission from their chief to film, we had to explain through translators, to people who had never even seen a television, what we were trying to achieve, and plan with them how we would best get our shots. So a sequence which you would probably not even think to comment on when watching the film, in fact, took a considerable amount of planning in order that we could get the shots to tell our story.


2 Hatching cuttlefish

This was a very specific shot that I wanted to get. Flamboyant cuttlefish lay their eggs in sheltered places under coral heads, or in old coconut shells. When the opaque eggs are ready to hatch they become transparent and the tiny perfectly formed infant inside can be seen struggling to break through the soft shell. So the dive plan was simple – when our guide had scoured the area and found eggs, Fionn and I would take it in turn lying motionless, the camera closely focused on the eggs. You can tell how tight the focus was, and how small the depth of field, if you note that we are focused on individual grains of sand on the outside of the egg.

Realising that in the time it would take to surface to change tanks all the action could happen, I also had a back-up cameraman ready to take over when I eventually ran out of air, so the camera would never leave the egg sacs. A simple plan. But also a very optimistic one – find tiny eggs at the right stage of development and hope that they would hatch in the time window that we could observe them. 

It was probably the longest dive of my life! In just over 10m of water, and without any movement, a tank lasted for approaching three hours. I was still on zero air by the time the tiny cuttlefish eventually broke from the sac… But it was a shot we had to plan to get – not one that you would be likely to chance upon if swimming randomly around the reef. As part of a five-minute short film this shot has gone viral, attracting almost a million hits to date.


Cutaways are also essential clips that you will need when you are dry and back in the editing suite. These are shots that can break up what might otherwise be a series of very similar clips. Think of them maybe as reaction shots – I prefer to call them ‘pointy shots’.

If a diver is to be part of my film, then at some stage in the dive I will take a few minutes to capture my pointy shots. I will have briefed my buddy in advance, and when the time comes in the dive I will take wide shots of them pointing in different directions, left and right, up and down. I’ll take closer clips of just their hand pointing. I’ll then take a series of facial reaction shots – eyes darting in various directions, staring, surprise… They will have been told to expect me poking the camera into their face and will know the shots that I am hoping to get, so will play along and act them out for me. 


The Author

John Boyle has been diving since he was 17 and started filming in the late 1980s. Since then he has produced more than 30 underwater films that have sold to television stations worldwide. Other projects include work for tourist boards, airlines and other corporate clients. John has won more than 30 major international awards, including an unprecedented double Palme d’Or at the Antibes Underwater Film Festival for his ‘Critter’ films.



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