By Jill Heinerth When I was a young diver I recall being invited over to my neighbor Danny’s house to watch his first underwater vacation video. It was shot on a nifty High-8 camera in an oversized Ikelite housing. To this day, I have no idea how he got that massive thing to the Cayman Islands and back on a commercial airplane. Our rag-tag group of Toronto aquanauts, armed with cold six-packs and warm pizza, descended to his sunken living room and crowded onto a large, garishly green velour sectional couch. Eager to see stingrays and sharks captured by our brave, budding underwater cameraman, we anxiously anticipated a production on par with the ‘Undersea World of Jaques Cousteau’. The inviting, saturated tropical colors would refresh our dull eyes, dogged by a long grey Canadian winter. An hour into the tape, I was certain that his production was going to be longer than the vacation itself. Worse yet, I was feeling seasick. Danny had captured every single moment of his dives, including every jerky inflation of his BCD, every mask clearing and every floundering fish he found on the Grand Cayman reef. In fact, his seemingly endless video appeared to precisely mimic the darting motion of his over-enthusiastic eyeballs. While the etherial Enya soundtrack droned on, I dug out some Dramamine from my bag and opened another beer. How many tapes could he have possibly shot? Today’s technology offers divers even greater capability to stuff hours of HD footage onto tiny memory cards. Worse yet, with the proliferation of mobile devices, they can upload it to the internet and instantly share it with friends! In my ideal world, Vimeo and YouTube could do us all a favor by limiting underwater uploads to 3-5 minutes. So, how do you make an underwater video that people will want to watch? There are a few things you can study that will make you a better filmmaker. But beware, once you start down this road you may never be able to watch film and television in the same way again. Deconstructing the Edit If you watch television, you will notice that the story is constructed with lots of relatively short shots that represent different points of view. These small clips are lumped together in editing to tell a cohesive story. Using brief vignettes, the story is constructed in a way that accelerates time. Just because your dive took forty minutes to complete, does not mean the film should be 40 minutes long. The goal is to create a reel of highlights that tells a narrative that feels complete. A successful short underwater video might open with a ten second “master shot” of the boat leaving the dock with people waving. The next shot could show a series of close-ups of people assembling gear: a regulator being pressurized, an SPG showing a full tank, a quick smile from a dive buddy or a dive flag in the breeze. Next, you might insert a water-level-view of a diver jumping off the boat, followed by a team descending the line. In this short 30 second open, you have already established the boat, the divers, and the activity. People are Important You might feel like your vacation was all about your first encounter with a whale shark, but that will only hold a viewer’s attention for a brief period of time. Ultimately, stories need to have characters, and those won’t be just the type with dorsal fins. Your vacation video should include people. The viewer needs to be able to relate to the joy of diving and should feel like they could be a part of the adventure themselves. Chasing fish butts around the reef won’t be too exciting, but witnessing a diver swimming beside a fish while removing his regulator and grinning will make the audience smile, too. Edit with Motion Look for short shots that include some type of motion. If a fish turns and swims from left to right in the frame, the follow up shot could show a diver looking up or swimming right to left to give the illusion that they are swimming towards the fish. Move your camera slowly and deliberately to tilt up or pan across a reef. Reveal subjects by tilting up or down to them and then slowly track with the motion of the subject. All your motion should be intentional and slow. Frenetic camera movements will only make your audience nauseous. Don’t Edit in the Camera Your final edit will be constructed of short shots, so when you capture footage be sure to count to five after the action has passed. If you are shooting a passing manta ray, keep the camera rolling for five seconds after it leaves the frame. This editing “handle” will be important for allowing transitions, such as cross-dissolves, in the edit. You should leave a five second handle on the beginning of a shot too. Many new shooters are already thinking about the next shot and clip their footage far too tight. By leaving long tails at the beginning and end of a clip, you will gain versatility and creative freedom in the editing process. Keep it Short Your first vacation video should be under five minutes in total runtime. When you begin your project with a time in mind, you’ll be more disciplined to find the very best of your footage and construct a tight and engaging story. It’s better to leave your audience begging for more than dreading your next invitation for a post-trip video party. You get the beer, and I’ll bring the pizza!
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