Focus: how to capture the underwater world?

Focus: how to capture the underwater world?

05 March 2024
Tags :
underwater world
Denis Lagrange French director and director of photography Denis Lagrange

French director and director of photography Denis Lagrange, specialized in filming in marine and underwater environments, explains the challenges of his career combining passion, technology, safety, environmentalism and a yearning for adventure.

How did you come to specialize in marine and underwater filming?

I took my first underwater picture when I was 10 years old. I was living in French Polynesia at the time, my mother had passed on the photography bug to me. The location where I took this shot is called Rangiroa, a magnificent Tahitian lagoon. Back in mainland France, I kept the diving bug and validated all my diplomas. However, my studies led me elsewhere. In 1999, I resigned from a management controller position to move to this treasured lagoon in Tahiti. I had secretly sworn to myself that one day I would return there to combine my two passions, diving and photography. A friend had just opened a diving club there and he offered me to make travel videos for tourists. So I bought myself a small camera, a computer, a transcoder to adapt the format of my images and suit clients who came from all over the world, and I left. Rangiroa was then very well-known for the number of sharks living in its water. I am lucky enough to have done my military service as a diver in Martinique and to have had access to state-of-the-art camera equipment. Already at the time, the first closed-circuit rebreather systems allowed the diver not to produce bubbles. It is worth noting that no marine animal blows bubbles unless it feels attacked. If you can avoid doing this yourself, you can approach marine mammals more easily. I was one of the first to know how to use this type of equipment correctly. Very quickly, I was contacted by film crews.

As director of photography, I assist productions to shoot underwater, in particular by providing them with the appropriate equipment (underwater housings, lighting, boats, etc.). At the same time, I also manage the executive production of the shoots.

How would you define this field of activity?

Still today, I have the feeling that marine and underwater images remain a niche. You need to know how to communicate with sponsors who don't necessarily know all the relevant parameters. And this entirely makes sense. I've often heard: ‘What you can do on land, you can’t do underwater!’ My role is precisely to innovate and propose solutions, to invent tools. Several years ago, I created my own filming company, Aloha production, based in French Polynesia. I have a boat specially equipped for filming with the possibility of launching at water level, climbing onto the cabin to spot whales or attaching hoists to launch fifteen-kilo housings…

What is the expertise you provide to film crews?

As director of photography, I assist productions to shoot underwater, in particular by providing them with suitable equipment such as underwater housings – I have ten of them – but also lighting and boats. At the same time, I also manage the executive production of the shoots (animal documentaries, fiction, advertising, etc.). Production companies contact me and explain to me what images they want. I then manage logistics: hotel bookings, organization of various transfers, request for filming permits... In Polynesia, for example, specific authorizations are required to film some protected species... And sometimes, when filming requires aerial shots, you need to find the right pilots, those who observe the safety rules…

How do you work concretely?

I work differently on animal documentaries than on fiction. When it comes to wildlife documentaries, the production does not always send technicians on site and they let me take care of the shots with a storyboard as a basis or, sometimes, a simple description of the sequences… It’s up to me to bring together a team based on the budget and workload. Many of my clients are english-speaking; I work in collaboration with the producer who is in charge of both the direction and the production.

How many people do you work with on a documentary?

It depends. For example, I have just completed a series of five shoots spread over two years... Each time, the teams were made up of a captain, a safety supervisor, a diver and myself. For massive-budget shoots, productions send their own teams to the location... But generally speaking, in Polynesia or the south of France, I try to take on local technicians.

I’ve often heard: ‘What you can do on land, you can’t do underwater!’ My role is precisely to innovate and propose solutions, to invent tools.

Can you tell us more about your experience fiction-wise?

I often work on small sequences in which a character falls into the water or swims on the surface... It seems quite simple on paper, but it actually requires a good knowledge of various technical and optical parameters. Imagine a sequence in which actors are speaking with half of their body underwater... If you use a "splash bag", a waterproof bag inside which you put the camera, the camera lens will be placed in front of a flat optical glass in order to have as little distorsion as possible in the water. However, moving the camera towards the surface necessarily leads to a change in focal length. Underwater, the lens focal length is multiplied by 1.3. Visually, the proportions of the actor's body will therefore change between the part in the open air and the part in the water. To avoid deformation, you need to use a dome in a case. But here again, another problem can emerge: sharpness. If I focus on the face, the rest of the body will be blurry... So I need to adapt my dome accordingly. Filming in a marine or underwater environment means having to plan everything. Improvisation should be avoided as much as possible upstream. It’s only after securing technical aspects that you can allow yourself more room for manoeuvre.

How do you manage weather conditions?

As executive producer, I always make sure I have backup locations. For example, filming in the south of France requires anticipating wind direction. You cannot film in the same place with an east wind or mistral at the risk of having almost zero visibility. Especially since your authorization request will be managed by the town hall or the ONF (National Forestry Office) depending on where you are filming.

Do you work exclusively in natural settings?

No, I actually work more in studios than in nature. It's not necessarily simpler. It’s primarily a matter of budget. I recently shot an advertisement in a specially-adapted pool in Bulgaria. The teams had built the set of an apartment in the basin. For this movie, I used three underwater units and it was fortunate that I was equipped with more than one camera; each change of lens would have otherwise required me to systematically remove the camera from the housing, check for dust, etc., a considerable waste of time.

Safety always comes first.

What about safety on set?

Safety always comes first. Ultimately, there are very few accidents that occur in the water. Problems arise if you haven't paid enough attention to ship traffic. I systematically hire someone who is responsible for supervising the safety of the team. Even in a studio, you need someone in charge who can tell you at any time how many people are in the water, make sure that the legs supporting the lighting are secure... I am used to working with the same technicians. We have a similar approach to the craft.

How have environmental considerations changed your perspective on the profession?

Everything is connected: safety, respect for the environment, the quality of the images… When I am reading in a scenario “Mr. Whatshisname jumps from the boat’’, from these few words I am already thinking of the setting where the jump can take place, of the place where I will drop anchor in order to preserve the seabed... My boat is checked very regularly to avoid oil leaks and prevent water pollution. Underwater pictures are not complicated as such, but all the rest around is... Currently, I am setting up a green background system backlit by a wall of LEDs to significantly reduce electricity usage. Our profession is constantly evolving.

Denis Lagrange is a member of the AFC (French association of directors of photography).