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30 April 2012

The trip to Egypt as seen through the lens of Norman Lomax, Director of Photography for 'Creating the Spectacle!'

Underwater photo of two male divers assisting woman in wheelchair with goggles

Underwater Vision: Tamer and Rob assist Sue prior to filming

Back from Egypt where we spent 6 days shooting footage for ICCI 360 arena plus additional documentary material.

Wow, what an intense trip! Utterly exhausting both mentally and physically but all the effort has been worthwhile as we have captured some truly remarkable footage of Sue performing underwater.  The Red Sea was chosen because of the near guarantee of good weather conditions, good visibility in the water and because the sea temperature was just about OK for Sue to do her thing wearing the costume rather than dry suits etc. Also, the appropriate infrastructure was all in place, due to the fantastic support we received from Camel Dive Club who provided a fantastic boat and crew with two very capable dive guides with loads of experience in assisting wheelchair users. 

From a filming perspective, there were several significant challenges and questions that really couldn’t be answered until we hit the water. Everything changes when filming underwater; even the physics of how cameras focus, each metre of depth changes the colour balance, reds start to fade first until finally everything becomes blue and cold looking.  Other unknown issues such as the quantity of light at different depths would effect what resolution and depth of focus I could shoot at in terms of ISO settings – would I be able to capture this project at the highest quality possible or would we be forced to come back with something grainy? All these variables had to be managed even before starting filming.  I knew I had the best kit for the job, full frame full HD camera inside an Aquatica Housing with 7 inch Dome and extension tube matched to a fast zoom lens.  Extensive help from Cameras Underwater in Devon and Aquatica in Canada with support from Magic Filters ensured that everything was in place in theory; nevertheless, seeing is believing.

All I can say is that it all worked fantastically,  with careful white balancing every metre of depth, the colour management was fine; I was able to shoot at maximum resolution and had no focusing issues with careful selection of aperture. We simply could not have achieved technically better HD footage – after weeks of planning and research - what a relief.

When Sue started to fly her chair in open water, it quickly became obvious that I was the one who was comparatively disabled underwater…. Despite years of diving experience, I was struggling to keep up with her. Whilst Sue was cruising, I had to perform an underwater sprint whilst trying to keep the camera rock steady, utterly exhausting. Whilst Sue used hardly any air at all, as she glided free as a bird, I was going through mine at a rate of knots ! However, David Armstrong, the technical diving manager at Werner Lau came to my rescue with the loan of a hi tech carbon fibre underwater scooter. This looks like a small torpedo with a thruster at the back which you attach to yourself and get pulled through the water. We mounted the camera to the scooter and off I went – everywhere - up , down and sideways. Yep, there was a learning curve but what a great piece of kit.

For some of the shots we effectively built an underwater studio, a stage for Sue to perform on.  The parameters of the ‘stage’ were defined by curtains of bubbles and clouds of ‘smoke’.  This took a lot of planning, coordination and management from the support divers led by Rob who had to lay out a huge hose pipe which had holes punctured in it, additional air cylinders and many kilos of lead to weigh everything down.  The ‘clouds’ were generated by divers kicking up the white silty sand. Timing was everything, everybody working really hard.  Another major issue was that Sue’s aesthetic demanded that she wore sunglasses rather than a diving mask. In order for her not to flying ‘blind’, it was decided that she should wear swimming goggles behind the sunglasses. These cannot be put on until she was at performing depth because the water pressure doubles for every 10 m of depth. This can result in an ‘eye squeeze’ which can damage eyeballs. So the solution was to find a way to force air into the swimming goggles at depth in order to clear the water away from in side them. A delicate operation brilliantly devised and executed by Tamer, our extremely experienced guide from Camel Dive Club.  (Do not try this at home !)

All in all everyone really worked their socks off including Mac who was my safety diver. Shooting underwater takes so much focus and concentration, a safety diver needs to be assigned to stick close to any underwater cameraman.   Poor Mac had to work hard to ensure that he kept out of shot – difficult when I was performing an unpredictable dance of my own with Sue! 

We attempted some filming at night. Positioning five other divers in the dark was ‘interesting’. Particularly, I later learned, as I was asking them to get into a position where several hunting Scorpion fish were crawling over their hands! As I settled down to shoot I was thumped in the backside by a very aggressive fish. It was a real thump and I jumped as high as possible given that there was 15m of water above me! Soon after, the moisture alarm in the camera housing began to beep. As I rushed to the surface as fast as was safe, my heart sunk. Is this the end of our shoot, has the housing flooded? Back on the boat, I was amazed to find that the camera was safe. The alarm really was effective, now I know why it’s called a moisture alarm rather than a ‘flood’ alert. What a great piece of kit the Aquatica Housing is.

What Sue does underwater is remarkable. I knew that this trip had the potential to produce some fantastic imagery if all the variables were in place.  Due to a strong team, fantastic infrastructure ‘backup’ and technical support, my expectations have been surpassed.  Can’t wait until we can start releasing the best of the material – gonna have to be patient, I guess!