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Planning Your Underwater or Topside Video Expedition

By Steven M. Barsky

When the digital video revolution hit back in the late-90s, I was fascinated. I had always wanted to make films, but the time and expense involved seemed daunting. As a serious underwater photographer, I appreciated the power of films, but thought I would never have the opportunity to make one myself. I suddenly realized one day in 2000 that with a relatively inexpensive video camera, an underwater housing, and my Macintosh computer, I could my dream of being a filmmaker.

My first underwater video project was a 45-minute film about how to dive, capture, and prepare the California spiny lobster. Since I already had written a book on the subject, I had the basis for a script. However, I realized that with a video I could show things on camera that would be impossible to capture in stills (or not without a much thicker book).

Like anything new that I undertake, I usually go out and buy several books on the subject, read them, and then figure out how to put into practice what the author wrote. I had no class in making films, so I read everything I could get my hands on.

Since I had no experience with making videos and knew this would be an experiment, I did not want to overly invest in equipment (nor would my wife let me do so!). I purchased a Sony PC-110 video camera and an underwater housing from Light and Motion. I also knew I needed a tripod and purchased a good quality Bogen unit. Since I already owned a Macintosh, I bought Final Cut Pro software.

I started the project and it was a painful series of lessons in recording sound, lighting, etc. However, I was fortunate in that I was able to get many people to help me with my mission. One of the biggest challenges was shooting the footage of multiple lobster grabs underwater. Fortunately, I have a good friend who is a master lobster diver, Skip Dunham, and we were able to go out and shoot him capturing a full limit (7) of lobsters in one day. We had great conditions and the resulting footage was quite exciting, especially the shot of him wrestling an 8-pound lobster!

My first DVD video was entitled California Lobster Diving.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Another friend who I lean on heavily is Lance Milbrand, who is a professional underwater cameraman who has shot for Survivor, National Geographic Explorer, and Southern California Edison. Lance is a true artist with a camera, and can always tell me how to solve my video problems.

In the middle of shooting the lobster diving video, I was approached by a client, Trelleborg-Viking, who asked if I would be interested in shooting a video for them on their dry suits, which are used almost exclusively by public safety (fire and police) and commercial divers, for diving in polluted water. Of course, I was interested, but had no completed project to show them, aside from the book I had written entitled Diving in High-Risk Environments, specifically on contaminated water diving techniques. I also had written scripts for several other video projects for scuba training agencies, including the National Association of Underwater Instructors and Scuba Schools International. In my consulting business, I have written equipment manuals for Kirby Morgan diving helmets, DUI buoyancy compensators and dry suits, AquaLung regulators, as well as training manuals for three different scuba training agencies.

After cutting a demo reel of the lobster footage with narration and music, I met with two executives from Viking, Gustaf Ekberg and Richard Bauer. They liked what they saw and asked me to put together a budget and proposal for the Viking project. After submitting my proposal, they requested me to go ahead and begin preparations for shooting a 45-60 minute project for them on how their dry suits are used in extreme environments.

Realizing that the equipment I had would be inadequate for Viking's video, I upgraded my camera to a Sony PD-150 3-chip camera in a Gates housing. I also bought a heavy-duty Manfrotto professional tripod, a Sony editing deck, and a studio monitor.

A diver undergoing simulated decontamination is cleaned by fire personnel in haz-mat suits. This was a scene from the first video I shot for Trelleborg-Viking.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

At the time, I did not realize that I was in way over my head. It did not fully hit me until I showed up to shoot in Columbus, Georgia where the fire department rolled out a full dive team, a haz-mat team, several fire trucks, and paramedics. I had 38 people standing around waiting for me to tell them what to do! Fortunately, I had a well-prepared script and storyboards, so I started from page one and worked my way through three days of shooting. I subsequently shot with the NYPD dive team in New York, and the Long Beach Firefighters in California. I had no assistant with me on this project, but did have tremendous support and cooperation from every group I went to shoot.

The Viking project was a big success, and in the same year I also completed the lobster diving video. Eight years later, I am still making videos (six to date) and have had the good fortune to produce two very different video projects in the past eight months. Both required extensive shooting in the field, in very different environments, and I would like to share with you some of our experiences in preparing for and participating in these expeditions.

The Making of Diving the Far Pacific: A Taste of Chuuk (Truk) and Palau

One of the locations where I had always dreamed of diving and shooting is Chuuk Lagoon. It is an atoll in the far Pacific where the U.S. Navy ambushed the Japanese merchant fleet during World War II. With 52 known wrecks, plus a number of planes lying on the bottom of this wide lagoon, it is considered a Mecca for wreck divers. I had wanted to travel to Chuuk since I first heard about it back in the late 60s, but the time was never right, and the cost always seemed prohibitive.

Due to its remote location, diving in Chuuk is quite expensive, and getting there involves several days of travel. My wife, who is a professional marine biologist and a very accomplished diver in her own right, suggested that if we were going to travel to Chuuk, then we should also visit Palau, another one of the top diving sites in the world. Since both locations are relatively close together (although you cannot directly fly from one to the other), this seemed like a good idea. Our plan was to dive a week in Chuuk aboard a live-aboard dive boat; spend a couple of days at a resort in Palau and shoot topside there, and dive a week aboard another live-aboard in Palau. In total we would be on the road for three weeks filming.

Chuuk Lagoon is one of the premiere wreck diving locations in the world.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Prior to the trip, we read as much as we could about both locations. This was particularly important with the wrecks, because they are large and there are so many features to see on them all.

With the remoteness of both these locations, and the propensity for airlines to displace luggage, I knew that we had to carefully plan what equipment we would take, how it would be packed, and spares for every contingency. Continental Airlines is the only air carrier in this part of the world and you are stuck with their infrequent schedule with departures that occur in the middle of the night. I wanted to be able to carry or roll every piece of luggage we took so we would not be dependent on finding porters if we had to make it through an airport or hike with our equipment on our own.

Selecting Our Equipment

For shooting underwater on this trip, I wanted a compact three-chip camera, so I decided to take our PDX-10 with a Gates housingdqabwrdudfbvsf and external underwater monitor, with HID lights. I could pack all of this equipment, minus the battery pack, in a Pelican 1510 airline legal roll-aboard case. Kristine carried a small Sony camcorder in a Light and Motion housing to use both as a "prop" for when she was on camera (her presence on camera gives scale to the wrecks) and also so she could pick up available light shots in shallow water. I also lugged two spare battery packs for each camera, one for the HID lights, and two spare HID light assemblies. One HID battery pack died, and one HID light broke during the trip…

With all of the dive gear we had to carry, a tripod was out of the question, so I opted for a Manfrotto Bogen 694 (with 234RC Head) monopod, which was an excellent choice, since they are light, easy to pack, and quick to set up. Although there is no substitute for a tripod with a fluid head, the monopod is now something I also carry along on almost every shoot.

One of my big frustrations in planning for the trip was that I would not be able to shoot high-quality stills and video simultaneously. Although you can do frame grabs from HD cameras with great resolution, I wanted something better. Given the amount of gear we were dragging I did not want to also lug my Canon EOS 5D. As a compromise, we brought along a Canon SD series digital point and shoot, which took great pictures (within its limitations), even underwater in a Canon housing.

Since Kristine would be the primary person on camera, we wanted to be sure that her dive gear was attractive, distinctive, and would look good on camera. I also wanted her to have a choice of wetsuits since the dives at Chuuk would be deeper and she might want a thinner suit for diving in Palau. She had two completely different wetsuits, a dive skin, and color coordinated accessories.

Kristine Barsky is geared up and ready to go on the wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon. Kristine is a professional marine biologist.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Since Palau is known for its strong currents, we wanted to bring good signaling gear for when we were on the surface. Several years ago, a group of Japanese divers were swept away by the currents and not found until they were dead from exposure. We carried air horns, inflatable signaling devices (known as "safety sausages"), and military grade flashing marker strobes.


Diving and Traveling in the Pacific

We had outstanding conditions in Chuuk with good weather, and good to excellent visibility on the wrecks. We also had an outstanding dive guide, which makes a huge difference when you are diving in a location like this. Since you are diving in a lagoon, the visibility inside is not what you will experience on the outer walls of the atoll, where the visibility exceeds 100 feet most days. Wide-angle domes for your underwater housing (Gates WP35) are particularly recommended for diving in and around wrecks.

Diving the wrecks we saw Japanese Zero fighters, tanks, artillery guns, torpedoes, dishware, an operating room, human remains, ships' telegraphs, and other artifacts. There is so much to see on most of the wrecks it is impossible to see everything on a single dive. You could spend months in Chuuk and not see everything there is to see underwater. The marine life covering the wrecks in many cases is as interesting as the wrecks themselves. We also made a shark dive outside the lagoon that was very exciting.

Although there is a lot to see in Chuuk underwater, there is not much to do topside. We departed Chuuk the day following our final dive and traveled to Palau via Guam. Our only other gear casualty was my brand new dive gear bag. Its split zipper somewhere between Chuuk and Guam, but fortunately nothing was lost. Guam is an interesting place on its own, and we wish we had spent more time there.

Palau is truly a paradise in the tropical Pacific, and one of the most beautiful places we have been. Prior to boarding the dive boat, we spent several days exploring and filming the islands. We visited the jail where the prisoners carve elaborate "storyboards," depicting the legends of the islanders and their relationships with the sea. We also toured several local museums and the giant clam mariculture facility, where these bivalves are grown for restaurant consumption and reef restoration.

Prisoners at the jail on Palau carve these beautiful storyboards that portray the legends of the islands.
© K. Barsky. All rights reserved.

One of the highlights of Palau was chartering a helicopter to tour the islands by air. When the helicopter arrived, we were a bit taken aback, as it was probably the smallest helicopter I have ever seen and it had no doors! While the absence of doors was great for shooting unimpeded video and photos, it did leave one feeling a bit exposed. I sat in the front and had a full body harness, although the straps were rather wimpy and the buckles did not exactly click together with a very satisfying snap. What I did not realize at the time, was that Kristine in the back seat only had a waist belt which did not click and which she ended up tying in a knot! Fortunately, we had a perfect day for flying with no wind and only one small rain cloud which we flew around. I shot video and Kristine shot stills; her shot of the Seventy Islands is on the cover of the DVD we produced.

Palau is visually stunning from the air. Kristine Barsky shot this photo during a helicopter tour of the islands.
© K. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Blue Corner is one of the most famous dive sites in Palau. You can see how the reef drops off here into deep blue water.
© K. Barsky. All rights reserved.

By all accounts, underwater Palau is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. We saw sharks on almost every dive, including gray reef sharks and white tips. We also saw numerous turtles, swarms of butterfly fish, huge nudibranchs, and scores of other creatures we could not identify. We also went snorkeling in Jellyfish Lake, located within the rock islands of Palau, which is filled with thousands of jellyfish that produce no stinging sensation.

Jellyfish Lake is one of the "must-see" sights in Palau. There are thousands of jellyfish floating just below the surface.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

The currents in Palau are intense, and on one dive we actually experienced a downdraft current, where the water movement over the reef sucks you down towards the bottom of the wall. This was very disconcerting, especially as I watched our bubbles going down, rather than floating up towards the surface.

The sunsets in Palau are always spectacular.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Editing the Chuuk/Palau Video

It took me about three months to edit the video footage we took from our expedition. Unlike most of our projects, the script was written after the trip, since there was no way to know for sure what footage we would get shooting underwater.

This was the first project I shot in 16:9 format. Prior to this, I did not feel there were enough widescreen televisions in households to make this choice. Today I would not shoot in anything but this format.

We recorded our narration using a M-Audio Firewire Solo directly to a Macbook Pro using Bias Peak software. This produces very clean sound, and there are no wasted takes stored on the machine. If it's not a good take, we just don't save it. It's a much faster method than recording your narration to tape.

The final project was replicated by Duplitech in Los Angeles, and is available for sale through our website at, as well as other locations on the web and in dive stores this fall.

Updating the Viking Project

In the fall of 2007, Viking approached me again and wanted me to produce an update of the prior video I had produced for them. Since the entire project was shot in the U.S., and they are an international company, they wanted to include sequences from Europe to show how Viking suits are used elsewhere in the world.

With Viking's assistance, I made arrangements with the Viking importers in Italy and Belgium to shoot footage of their clients in the spring of 2008. Lorenzo Cervellin owns Aquatica IT, the Viking distributor and a major dive gear supplier in Italy. Lou Vandendries owns De Zeeman Pro NV and sells Viking suits as well as other gear in Belgium, Holland, and France. Both of these men gave me tremendous assistance in making our logistical arrangements for this trip.

In Italy, we planned to shoot footage of the Rome Fire Brigade and a commercial diving company in Venice, Nautilus SRL. In Belgium we would be shooting the Belgium Explosive Ordnance Disposal divers (EOD) who disarm munitions from World Wars I and II, as well as current world conflicts. In France we planned to visit INPP, the French commercial diving school for professional divers.

Gear for Europe

Even though we would not be diving in Europe, I knew that we still would need to take a good selection of equipment to be sure that we would get the footage that Viking would require.

Since the entire original project was shot with my PD-150, this was the camera I planned to use to complete the project, so that the images would have the same look and feel. I also took the PDX-10 as a second camera, so I could have Kristine shooting at alternate angles and have a back-up in case the PD-150 crashed.

As usual, I wanted to travel light, so that the two of us could carry everything we needed with us. Instead of taking large lights, I purchased a set of Litepanels lights, which proved to be outstanding. They produced excellent light, can run on a variety of power sources, and are compact. There is also no airline restriction on them since they are not Lithium Ion. They are also unbelievably rugged - I dropped one on the cement channel of the Tiber River in Rome and it never stopped working!

I was able to pack both cameras, along with microphones, matte box, wide angle adaptor, and spare batteries in a Petrol Backpack PCB-1 bag, which was airline legal, even in Europe. (I bought this bag because it will also fit my new Sony PMW-EX1)

We hand carried all of the video tapes with us in a small Tamrac bag which fit inside Kristine's carry-on. We also hand carried our shot list, slate, model releases, chargers, etc.

Shooting in Europe

Our trip was planned for three weeks starting with our arrival in Rome. We allowed for a full travel day between each location, which provided us a cushion in case flights were delayed or cancelled, or there were weather issues. Whenever we weren't shooting video of our subjects, we were shooting background footage to establish the locations. For example, in Rome, we shot the Coliseum, the Vatican, the Forum, gelato shops, statues, fountains, and other locations.

We shot establishing shots of each location where we filmed in Europe. Of course, we included the Coliseum in Rome.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Rome's Fire Brigade has a team of divers who do nothing but dive; they have no other fire fighting duties. Of all the public safety dive teams I have had the opportunity to visit, they are among the most professional I have seen. They dive with a totally encapsulated diving system including helmets that connect directly to the dry suit. They have a decontamination shower that washes the diver clean and is truly impressive in action.

This helmet is used by the divers with the Rome Fire Brigade. It is especially configured to keep any contaminants out of the breathing system.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

In Venice, Nautilus SRL and its professional divers brought in a barge and set up to dive with San Marco Square in the background. Their divers make an average of 250 dives a year each in the heavily contaminated waters surrounding the city.

Venice was a fantastic location to shoot video of both commercial divers and the local scenery.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

Although we had been originally told we would be unable to film the salvage of live ordnance in Belgium, we ended up shooting the retrieval of mortars and hand grenades from World War II. Since some of the mortars were filled with phosphorous, we were advised to start running if any of them began to smoke! It was a bit disconcerting to be standing two feet away from live mortars as the divers chipped encrusting mud away from the bodies of the mortars before they were placed in protective sleeves.

These divers are part of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team (EOD) in Belgium.
© K. Barsky. All rights reserved.
The Belgium EOD divers are familiar with weapons from all over the world. This is just a very small part of their collection of bombs waiting to be destroyed.
© K. Barsky. All rights reserved.

At INPP, the commercial diving school in Marseille, we were given the run of the school, including filming aboard their vessels and their saturation diving barge. We shot a team of diving students from India who were being trained to the strict European diving standards, using dry suits and surface-supplied diving helmets.

INPP in Marseille, France, trains commercial divers from all over the world. This student is from India.
© S. Barsky. All rights reserved.

We had no major shooting problems in Europe except that somehow I lost the eyecup for my PD-150. I also ran low on tapes, which can be very hard to find in small towns in Europe. Even in Copenhagen I was only able to find one store that sold Mini-DV tapes. You should also be aware that most hotels in Europe now use a plastic card key system that opens your door and turns the electric power on when it is installed in a separate power slot. When you leave your room, and take the card, there is no way to charge batteries while you are gone. We resorted to leaving our battery charger and batteries to recharge with the concierge at our hotels when we were out of the room.

Editing the Viking Project

Editing the Viking project has taken several months and I am not done yet, although the project will be completed by the end of September. In addition to the new footage, we also recorded new narration and have created new motion graphics using Apple's Motion (part of Final Cut Studio). Since the project was originally shot as a 4:3 video, it will be finished that way.

I am looking forward to several new projects that will be shot with my new PMW-EX1! It's exciting to be working with a camera with its capabilities! We're already planning for some new expeditions and I am making a gear list of the new equipment I will need to work in HD. It's safe to say that I will probably be in the market for a new Pelican case at the very least…

Steve and Kristine Barsky take a break during shooting in Venice, Italy.
© Martin Lundstrom. All rights reserved.

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