Joseph Walker, A.S.C.
As told to Walter Blanchard
from an ASC Magazine August 1933
EVER since the release of the picture, “Beneath the Sea,” (Buy DVD) which I photographed, amateur cinematographers have asked me and written me, “How did you make those underwater shots? And how can I make 16 mm. pictures under water?” Personally, I don’t think that the first of these questions has much bearing on the second one, for in a case like this, the professional cinematographer has it all over his amateur cousin: he can have a lot of special apparatus built which the amateur couldn’t afford—and wouldn’t care to cart about with him if he had it; moreover, he can—thanks to the skill of the cutters —combine scenes made in the studio tank, out-and-out trick scenes, and bona-fide underwater stuff so intricately that even an expert can hardly say which is which when he sees the finished picture. None the less, real underwater films are possible—and very interesting.
The apparatus used in making professional underwater films varies tremendously: some of us have used a sort of diving-bell; others have used diving-suits and watertight boxes for the camera; Mack Sennett, the comedy-producer (whose hobby is fishing, you know) used an amazing contraption with the lens and movement at the bottom of a long tube, and the film-magazines, finder, motor, etc., extended to the top of the tube; while the earliest underwater films, photographed in 1916 by Carl L. Gregory, F.R.P.S., for the Williamson brothers, used the Williamson tube—a round metal chamber hung at the bottom of a long tube through which the operators descended from a boat that bore the apparatus. Surprising as it may seem, this principle is probably the best one for the amateur filmer! Don’t get the wrong idea, though—I don’t recommend going to the expense of building a Williamson tube for making a few 16 mm. shots under water! Far from it —but the basic idea of an open-topped tube, with the camera at the bottom, is ideal for the needs of the average 16 mm filmer.
Recently, in our interesting French contemporary, “Cine Amateur,” M. A. Thierry outlined such an outfit which, to my mind, fills the bill perfectly. As can be seen from the illustration, the apparatus consists of a square tube of galvanized iron, open at the top but closed solidly at the bottom. At the front, at an appropriate distance from the bottom is a glass window, made water-tight with cork or sponge-rubber gaskets. For this purpose, optical glass would be best: but it is expensive (especially as we need a goodsized window), so good, clear plate glass will do. Midway up the tube wrap a rope—or even better, solder or weld on four loops of wire rope—and from this drop a loop of rope below the end of the tube, and secure it to it a sack of rocks, to sink the tube to the proper depth. You can also put a couple of rope handles on, to aid you in aiming the tube, if you wish. At the top of the tube you can either fix a couple of loops of rope, with which to hang the affair over your shoulders, or make a swivel-clamp by which the tube can be fixed onto the side of the boat; personally, I would prefer this latter idea. All that is necessary is a U-shaped arm of ordinary pipe, with the tube pivoted between the open ends of the U, allowing the tube to be swung between them; and a similar pivot-joint at the middle of the U so that it may be “panned” as well as “tilted.” This clamp terminates in an ordinary carpenter’s clamp, so that the device can be clamped onto a boat like an outboard motor.
Now for mounting the camera! Probably the easiest way to do this is to make an L-shaped wooden piece which will drop into the tube, and mount your camera on this. The camera, of course, will sit on the short arm (or is it foot?) of the L, while the upright will serve as a handle. It should be held in place by a regular tripod-screw, the knob of which fits into a countersunk hole on the lower surface of the base-board. Above the camera is a good mirror set at a 45° angle, to serve as a finder. (After a test or two you can rule on the window of the tube lines which will give a rough approximation of the field your lens covers.)
Now, with your camera at the bottom of this tube, and you at the top, you will have to have some type of remotecontrol: just exactly what type must, of course, depend upon the camera you are using. With a Filmo, the simplest thing is to use the regular Filmo rubber-tube-and-bulb remote control; with other cameras, the electric remotecontrol made by Wm. J. Grace, of Dallas, Texas, will serve perfectly: or, if you want to build your own, you can, by simply pivoting a metal arm (a piece of “Meccano” will do for this) so that it will depress the releaselever of your camera, and attaching two strings by which the lever can be worked both ways from the top of the tube. (It will simplify working this if you run the string through eyelets at the top of the tube and on the base-board.)
In actual operation, you mount your tube, wind and focus the camera, and fix it to the wooden base-board which is lowered into the tube. Then, by leaning over and looking down the tube, you can follow your subject, and when things are right, jerk the release-string, or squeeze the bulb, as the case may be — and there you are! Since the tube is pivoted, you can pan and tilt it to follow your subject; then, when the scene is over, you can stop the camera—or, if it has run down, you can pull it up, rewind, and go on shooting.
Your exposure will depend, naturally, upon the light and water conditions; however, such a device as this does not sink the camera very far below the surface— certainly not more than three or four feet—so, granting a good day .with strong sunlight shining down into the water, and clear water, you will only need to increase your exposure by one stop over what would be normal on the surface. Filters will hardly be necessary, for in most underwater work you will find the range of visibility very limited; you will be restricted to relatively near subjects. I would recommend Super-Sensitive film for underwater work, not alone for its added speed, but also for its better color-sensitivity. Incidentally, it should be possible—under the best condition— to get some unusually interesting scenes in Kodacolor, using Super-Sensitive Kodacolor film. Dan B. Clark, A.S.C., has shown me some very interesting Kodacolor, made from a diving submarine even before the Super-Sensitive variety of color-film was available; and I have also seen some extremely fine underwater Multicolor, made for Mack Sennett by John W. Boyle, A.S.C., and Frank B. Good, A.S.C.
Theoretically speaking, the refraction of the water should be an important factor in focusing. The index of refraction of water is 1 .3—-and this should serve as a good working guide. Actually, you will find that with the short-focus lenses used in 16mm. cameras, and the relatively small stops used, this difficulty will be minimized. In every phase of the work, however—focus, exposure, etc. —you will find that since everything varies according to the individual conditions of the moment, the only sure guide is to make tests, and govern your actual scenes accordingly.