“Dark Tide” behind the scenes at the Pinewood Underwater Stage

June 03, 2012

Whilst working on Dark Tide last summer I had the opportunity to work on set at the famous U-stage at Pinewood (a vast 20m x 10m x 6m underwater tank that has been the stand-in for the ocean on many movies and commercials). There were some pick-up shots required that involved some tricky interaction between the actors and the shark. I was there under the supervision of Ian Noe to provide post-viz for director John Stockwell, and was working alongside lead animator Johnno Symmonds (pictured below posing with his coffee).

The movie primarily used footage that was shot in South Africa with real sharks, but there were several scenes where actors had to physically touch, interact with and be attacked by the creatures. For these shots we used actors in the underwater tank and composited a CG shark that had to cut seamlessly in with the rest of the footage.

Pixomondo had created pre-viz for the shots, but translating that on set had its challenges. The main problem that became apparent was that you are trying to direct three people to interact with a shark that doesn’t exist, and there was no easy way of using a stand-in for eye lines. The creature was circling around them, and everyone had to understand where it was at any given time so that the timing of their actions synched up. If you were doing creature work on dry land it would a common solution to have a physical stand-in for the CG (a person or prop that gives everyone something to look at), but the speed that a shark moves makes this an impossible prospect. We did use a suspended buoy for a shot where Halle Berry’s character (being doubled by free-diver who could hold her breath longer than I though possible by any human!) had to push the shark away, but mostly the actors just had imagine where the shark was based on the shouted instructions. Add to this the fact that you are floating underwater as opposed to standing on land – this gives an extra dimension to where the creature can be in relation to you (coming from below as well as the sides and above). The final problem is communication – your actors and crew are all in SCUBA gear (so cannot speak) and have to remain submerged between takes, and the director has to monitor everything from dry land and give his instructions. Its a lot more difficult to explain how the shark is moving through shot if you cant just run on to the set and point – everything has to be communicated with speech through underwater speakers.

We set up our laptops and devised a system of capturing the live monitor feed that was coming from the underwater cameras to the “dry” crew. After each shot was finished, I would capture the new footage and Johnno would take the animation that had been created for the pre-viz and tweak it to match. This would be play-blasted out and I would slap comp the animation and plate and cut it in to the sequence. We could then quickly identify if there problems with timing that meant the footage was un-usable. This proved to be an invaluable process – there were a couple of shots that needed to be retaken as the timing would have been impossible to make work in the edit. As we just had the U-stage for one day it was imperative that everything we shot was right, and without the post-viz process we would not have identified these problems until it was too late to re-shoot them.

I love any chance to work on set for films – most of my job involves sitting in dark rooms creating things on the computer, so its great to be present when the “real” physical side of things is created. I was blown away by the underwater filming team and how slick they had the operation down. Underwater DoP Mike Valentine had an amazing system of communicating between his submerged crew and the first AD (his wife Francoise) – she could speak to everyone via the underwater speakers and Mike would reply with sign language through the camera feed. He speaks more about his underwater work here.
It’s always great to get to be at Pinewood – so much history of film making there. After finishing work for the day, Johnno and I couldn’t resist going to pose in front of the 007 stage and generally act like excited kids.

One Response to "“Dark Tide” behind the scenes at the Pinewood Underwater Stage"

Just finished watching the film, which had no plot whatsoever but had fabulous underwater shark and diving scenes! Thanks for this “behind-the-scenes” look at your part in it!

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