The Diving Camera- The Story of the Evolution of Underwater Cinematography in India
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]here there is a will, there is a way. The story of Underwater Film Services is quite like this adage. With minimal infrastructure and maximum effort, the team at Underwater Film Services has tapped and revolutionised the untouched prospects of underwater filming in India in less than a decade. Pandolin spoke to the founder, trainer and chief coordinator, Anees Adenwala, to know about the aims, objectives and dreams of this high-profile institution.
What encouraged you to pioneer this field in India? We hear you are the first person to practice underwater filming in India.
Yes, kind of. Before I went diving, I was into advertising. In Lakshadweep, I ran Prahlad Kakkar’s diving school for nine years. When I moved back to Bombay, I didn’t really know what else to do besides diving and ad films. The transition happened when Prahlad suggested that we do underwater shoots. It worked well and was easy too because we were production people as well as diving instructors. So shooting underwater worked brilliantly. In 2004, we formed a company called Underwater Film Services. Initially, Prahlad too was a part of it. Now I have my own unit, which is called Underwater Film Services. Priya normally works with me on the shoots. If she’s not available then there’s another team of DOPs that I suggest.
Priya too learnt diving from me. Her batch was my first as an instructor. It worked very well. At first, we only had Vikas Sivaraman. Now we have six diving DOPs. That gives us options. Plus we’ve got other things coming in.
We generally shoot on 35 mm film. Now, we’re going to start shooting on Red Epic, 5D Mk II, 7D and 5D Mk III. I’ve shot a lot of documentaries underwater. We keep doing that on and off. We do lots of ad work, feature films, and music videos, etc. I have also done a lot of work for Kingfisher’s Model Hunt and Calendar Hunt. At these Kingfisher events, they have underwater tasks for aspiring models. We lead the women underwater, help them perform and do the shoot. I am not a trained DOP, but I can shoot. If we were working on a feature film or an ad film, I’d rather have a trained DOP do the shoot while I looked after actor safety and production.
How do you approach the enterprise of filming actors underwater? How do you handle actors who don’t know how to swim?
My first question to any producer is whether he has casted? If they say yes, I ask them if their actors can swim. If they say that not all of them can, I take whoever cannot swim through scuba lessons. I train them by the sequences they have to perform. I have the underwater script with me at all times, and I remember it to the T. Therefore, I know exactly what the actors need to do. Eventually all actors become extremely happy and comfortable because they don’t believe what they are doing. They have great fun down there, breathing from my tank, readying for the shot, coming in front of the camera, performing. When they get out of air and need me, I go over, get them air, and then get them out of the frame. That’s how it works. I’ve got equipment, which is customised for diving actors so that they don’t need to be with scuba equipment when they are performing. That way they can be away from me and still breathe from my tank. My hoses are really long so that the actors could breathe even when I’m out of the frame.
Where could our readers get to know about what you and your team do in detail?
People should have a look at our website http://ufsindia.net or visit our Facebook page. These have got our reel. They’ve got videos of the work we do. They’ve also got behind the scenes footage. They could enlighten those interested about how people engaged in underwater filming work. A layman would wonder and ask how an actor can hold his breath for a long time in water. Well, in reality, he doesn’t. He breathes compressed air using specialised equipment as he acts underwater. It just seems on the screen that he is suspended in water for an extended period of time, holding his breath. So yes, there’s a lot to know out there.
Where did you do your underwater training? Do you still train and educate commoners about the underwater world at some forum?
I learnt diving in Lakshadweep and then I did my instructor course in Mauritius. After I came back to India as a CMAS instructor, I crossed over to PADI. Now I am a PADI instructor too. I am affiliated to both these top-level global diving federations.
We do courses in Bombay in another company called Orca Dive Club. There we teach people in the pool in four sessions. They do the theory part in Bombay, there’s an exam, and then we travel to a destination to complete the certification. It’s got nothing to do with shooting underwater. It’s all about being underwater, teaching people, letting them enjoy marine life, and coming back safe. It’s what you would call a dive trip.
Do you think the awareness about underwater explorations and filmmaking has increased in India in recent times?
The awareness has increased for sure. As a result, I have worked on big films like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. I trained actors for it in Bombay. We then shot it in Spain and Egypt. For Talaash, I had to teach Aamir how to swim. He loved the sessions. Being a perfectionist, he insisted upon more number of sessions. After I did those with him, he loved it even more. Unfortunately, there was an issue with the pool. So they had to go and shoot one sequence in England. He was just happy to be in water and do what was required there too. One day he called up from London and expressed his happiness over having trained with me. At the end of it all, that was my reward. It’s not the money that matters as much as the way people are with you because of the experience you have given them.
What would you say to those who are going crazy out there to go out and shoot underwater
You have to be a DOP first. Then it is an easy transition where you learn scuba and then adapt one to the other. If you are not a DOP and you still want to become an underwater DOP, then you have to first learn how to dive. You would also need to do an underwater cinematographer’s course. Then it would work well for you. This course would be a basic course on videography for starting up. You could take it from there.
The way it works is this. If I’m going to give you a digital video camera in your hand, as opposed to an Arry 3 underwater, it’s a huge ballgame. You need to understand what you’re going to use and deal with. For 35 mm cameras, we have focus pullers underwater who mark the focus and work it all out. But if you’re doing a video using a digital camera, it’s all there on your little monitor. You need to just roll your camera and shoot. Shooting video underwater, therefore, is no big deal as long as you understand what you are doing and have an editing sense. You need to be aware of giving the editors a blank space before you cut a video.
For example, you are doing an underwater marine-life documentary video and have a Manta Ray enter your frame. You need to put in a blank space so that the manta enters. You then track with the Manta, continue tracking, and finally let him exit your frame. By giving that blank space you help the editors in their cutting process. You need to be thinking of the ultimate footage at the editing table. At the end of the day, when you put it all together, and have a video with music, titles, etc. for a documentary, it doesn’t work if you are lacking in that crucial editing sense and an understanding of composition. You surely need to have those two things to be a good underwater cinematographer.
People who are interested could start in Bombay in a pool with us. You could do four sessions in a pool, get accustomed to breathing under water, and do the theory that helps you understand all that goes on in your body as you breathe compressed air underwater. Once you get accustomed to diving well, you could take a camera and shoot. I would never give a person a camera in his or her hand when they are learning how to dive because they would worry about themselves and fumble with the device. As these cameras are very expensive, those handling them should be trained enough so that they could be at ease about themselves and just be bothered about the camera equipment and the footage.
I would recommend that you be at least rescue level capable. Then you do your speciality course in videography and photography underwater. Then take a camera and shoot. When you are doing a course, you are given a camera anyway. And by that time you are equipped enough to understand the logistics and the importance of safety. For me, safety is priority. Even if the actor is in frame, the camera is rolling, and the cinematographer feels that he can take the shot, I will not allow it to proceed if I’m not sure of the actor’s safety. I will enter the frame and spoil it if I don’t feel that the actor’s not doing fine. I don’t want an actor to come up later and say, look, you know, it doesn’t work like this. I’m dealing intensely with actor safety at all times.
Would you recommend Lakshadweep to someone?
Unfortunately, Lakshadweep at the moment is not in the best of shapes. All its diving operators, who were all private parties, have been asked to leave. Now, the local administration wants to run the diving-centers themselves. So now, the local boys and girls would be teaching people how to dive. I don’t know what quality they are looking at, but it doesn’t seem safe to me. At CMAS we were trained really well to ensure that top quality divers were produced. For me, therefore, quality diving is important as opposed to just charging the client, getting him to superficially understand underwater, breathe a little, and get on with the course. That doesn’t work for me. I am quite strict because of the hard-core military kind of strict CMAS training that I have received. Because we were dealing with guests and clients who did not know how to dive at all, we did ease the whole diving process a little bit. But we kept everything firmly in control and safe. One had to be strict in a place like Lakshadweep because there were no decompression chambers anywhere there. In case of an accident, you’d have been done for. Touchwood! Till date, I’ve not had any accidents although I’ve been diving since 95 because I have kept it really safe. At the end of the day, safety comes first. Even in a pool. People can drown in a bathtub. Therefore, I’d rather keep it safe.