Sony NEX-FS700 captures underwater footage for ITV swimming show

Season 2 of ITV’s celebrity diving show Splash!, featuring national icon Tom Daley and synchronised swimming troupe Aquabatix, ended its latest run on disappointing declining viewer numbers. According to press reports, British viewers may soon be heading to drier pastures, but a deep-dive into the underwater TV production reveals that Splash! was unique in many ways.

Produced by TwoFour for ITV over seven weeks, Splash! showed Olympic diving medalist Tom Daley mentoring a group of celebrities each week who then took to the boards to be judged on their dives.

All live shows were filmed at the Luton Inspire Sports Village and included live synchronised swimming routines as part of the entertainment. The show mixed topside and underwater production, a specialist task that requires expertise.

“Going underwater is essentially my commute to work,” said Stuart Keasley, underwater cameraman and co-director of Black Flag TV Ltd. “Working underwater for long durations is a massive challenge. While filming Splash!, I spent around 120 hours in the water and lost 6kg, which was not a bad thing after Christmas!”

Keasley explained that 12 cameras, sometimes more, were in constant operation on every show. “These included studio, jib, steadycam, hot heads, high speed, drop cam and shoulder mounts, all with their own specialist operators. We were just one small part of a very large team, handling all the filming under water or from the surface.” All camera feeds then fed back to the OB truck, where they were mixed on the fly to generate the show.

Physical challenges

Filming in this environment poses physical challenges first and foremost. Abiding by the health and safety regulations about diving at work, Keasley worked on scuba, breathing air in a redundant gas set-up. He wore a 5mm wetsuit in the 27 degree pool to retain body heat during the hours of filming and had to resurface regularly to hydrate and eat.

Keeping safe underwater is essential and Keasley worked in tandem with his topside partner to manage his health, process directors’ orders and offer up the best shots.

He’s keen to stress that the underwater filming aspect of the job was not improvised, describing this unique ‘wet and dry’ environment as ‘rehearsed live.’ “We really rehearsed to get it right. I did a fair amount of work with the Aquabatix girls, going to their rehearsals, looking at their choreography sheets. I also worked with the show to ensure a diver didn’t jump on my head. So I wasn’t just filming, but choreographing myself into their sequences to get the best shots whilst remaining safe and avoiding other camera shots.”

Technical challenges

On the technical side, the way light travels through water and the way water absorbs different wavelength of light is the biggest concern. “You’re going to lose at least a stop to two of light just under the water surface,” said Keasley. Red is the first colour to disappear, followed in order by the other colours on the spectrum. “If I’m 6m away from the subject, I won’t see red anymore. You must then correct colour balance either manually on the camera or by using a local light source. With Splash! however, they didn’t correct the colour balance as they liked the effect.”

Getting a camera feed from underwater to topside is another puzzler. “It’s got to be cables, you can’t run wireless through water,” said Keasley, who noted that this topside tethering impeded his movements underwater. “We ran a 30m cable from the camera to my topside partner who was looking after me and monitoring my feed. The signal was then repeated using fibre optic back to the OB truck.”

This year, the team chose a Sony NEX-FS700 in an Amphibico Genesis housing, saying it works well in low light, has good lenses and a small form factor which makes it manoeuvrable in the water as it weighs approximately 14kg dry weight in its housing.

“Last year I used another Sony model in a housing which had a dry weight of 32kg. I also do surface shots during the show and having to manage that weight while floating around and keeping the image stable was difficult and tiring.”

Lens focus is another underwater challenge, which is solved by using a dome port placed in front of the camera housing. But Splash! added another layer of complexity as Keasley was doing dropshots, tracking divers going from the 10m board into the water and then underwater. “We went super-wide on the lens and increased the hyperfocal distance to extend the depth of field. That allowed us to use the same camera above and below water.”

One may ask why it’s necessary to employ the services of a trained diver and cameraman to provide underwater shots when events like the Olympics make use of a remotely controlled PTZ camera operated from topside. Keasley  explained that the unique environment of Splash! demanded more complex, same-level shots, especially around the synchronised swimmers.

“You have to keep your eyes open because during the live shows, anything can happen when contestants perform. Despite all the preparation, the thing you cannot rehearse is what the diver does on the day. That’s the random element.”

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