How They Did It: Shooting the Underwater Sequences in Norweigian Diving Thriller Pioneer

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Jallo Faber, DP of Norwegian deep-sea diving thriller Pioneer, plumbs the depths of underwater cinematography in this comprehensive look behind the scenes of the stylishly shot feature.

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Under director Erik Skjoldbjærg (Insomnia, Nokas, Prozac Nation), Pioneer was a very technically challenging film to make with a small budget. As a DP, it was a dream project.

Set in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Pioneer is based on real events that took place in the North Sea and in pressure chambers, labs, and ships in Norway.  The film follows the troubles and adventures faced by a team of Norwegian deep-sea divers, looking for a way to secure Norway’s newfound oil supply from previously unknown depths. In the setting of the film, mankind has never before set foot at such depths, and Norway is not yet industrialized enough to invent the technology to retrieve the oil. In the years to come, Norway became the richest country in the world, as a result of the diving feats the film depicts (some of which play out at depths of up to 1,500 feet below the surface of the North Sea).

Finding the Location

Everything in Norway today is new and shiny, so shooting a period piece is hard. For a very long time, we looked for a harbor for the deep-sea research center [portrayed in the film]. We could not do this in Bergen, Norway (the real-life location), so instead we found and used Uddevalla, an industrial harbor belonging to a wharf in southwestern Sweden that had been closed since 1982. It was as if no one had set foot in this huge harbor in 30 years. In an empty warehouse, set designer Karl Juliusson and his team built a large research center full of pressure tanks and with a training pool. It resembles a space station when you see it in the film.

New Picture (30)

Key grip Jonathan Lee and 1st AC Kalle Rasmussen prepare a traveling shot through the pressure chambers where actor Aksel Hennie is floating in a pool. (This shot did not make the edit.)

We combined shots of the harbor in Uddevalla with exteriors in Bergen, where we found a civilian harbor that was just about to be remodeled. Bergen has a very specific topography—the whole city is on a mountain that falls into the Atlantic—so there was no way of cheating and shooting a different city as Bergen. The audience wouldn’t buy that. Later in production, we continued north from Bergen to the small town of Alver, which has small deserted roads and fjords surrounded by huge mountains.

Defining the Look

Erik and I did a lot of preparation. We did a shot list for every scene, and investigated all the technicalities of deep-sea diving. We also made a long list of keywords that was to be our desired visual language. It was no more than an A4-sized page—almost childish in its simplicity—but it was the key to every frame, every scene.

One of the ideas was “Endless/End” or “Infinity/Death.” We wanted the underwater scenes to be endless in visibility, just like in space. The idea of “space” also echoes what the Norwegians call the triumph of the deep-sea diving technology in the ’70s – they jokingly refer to it as “Norway’s moon landing.” (In reality, it takes one week to be pressurized to 1,640 feet, and decompression takes three weeks. So a trip to 1,600 feet underwater would take much longer then than going to the moon and back.)

For reference, we looked at all the diving movies we could find. James Cameron’s The Abyss was the most obvious, and the first one we flicked through. But funnily enough, we found most of our inspiration from Ridley Scott’s Alien. Alien relates to physical space in a very interesting way. We also loved the idea, in Alien, to depict the everyday in space; “truck drivers in space.”

Underwater Visibility Tests

With deep-sea diving gear you wear a helmet and a hot water suit, heated with water from the surface. The hose (called “the umbilical”) that is connected to the diving bell supports the diver with air (or a mix of gases, as normal air would drown the diver as it becomes a liquid at great depths).

In order to physically understand what the divers experience underwater, the Pioneer crew did a test dive with deep-sea diving gear in Bergen at the Deep-Sea Diving Training Center. We were pressurized to 150 feet in a diving bell and then lowered down to 150 feet. Once at the bottom, we put our helmets on, opened the hatch, got out, and walked around. Visibility was about 15 feet, not at all exciting, but it was good training.

In order to realize our visual direction about “space,” we investigated all the tanks in the world. There was one in Malta where we couldn’t get more than 50 feet of visibility—not good enough; plus we could never afford the tank. Perhaps we could use a dock and some chemicals to get clear water? We tried that too, but visibility never reached any interesting lengths. Plus using tons of chemicals wasn’t very environmentally friendly. Could we shoot it in the Red Sea? No, light attracts fish. There’s hardly any life at the bottom of the North Sea. Especially no exotic fish.

Stunt diver Ville Leskinen dives without hoodie in Silfra just before he drops his breathing tank and mask

Stunt diver Ville Leskinen dives without hoodie in Silfra just before he drops his breathing tank and mask

Finally, a researcher found a location: Silfra, Iceland, which has some of the clearest water in the world. And no fish! The location was very remote. We weren’t allowed to tow anything in by combustion engines. We had to pull everything by hand and rowboats: all the lights, platforms, rigs and gear. In Silfra, we shot all the wide underwater shots with our executive producer Marko Röhr’s crew of Finnish stunt divers.

Film vs. Digital

As Pioneer is set in the late ’70s, it looked natural to shoot it on 35mm film. That said, we knew very early that we did want to shoot the underwater scenes digitally so we could avoid reloads. There was a shoot in the mid-’80s in Norway called Dykket (The Dive), and the 1st AC on that film had gotten neurological brain damage from going up and down for reloads. So we were confident in choosing digital for all the underwater stuff.

After that, I had a hard time convincing the producers that we needed to shoot film on the surface! So it all became digital.

(I still have a hard time understanding why we moviemakers are shooting digital. There is a tonality in the skin that no digital camera captures. Things land directly on a neg. With digital, even though it might be super well-shot on the best camera, you always struggle with lips, skin tones and ears. Working with my grader, Mats Holmgren at Chimney Stockholm, we did some early tests on film, Pro Res 444 and ARRI Raw. We found out that anamorphic 500 ASA stock underexposed two stops (2000 ASA!) looked much better then Alexa Raw at 1600 ASA. And with film, you almost never have to key in the grade. You can just work in primary. The whole grading process is very fast compared to digital. So I claim that it is just as expensive to shoot digital as film.)

Our set designer, Karl Juliusson, provided so much dirt in all our sets that the Alexa had to eat something organic all the time. To add organic dirt, I shot parts of Pioneer on my old sets of Super Balthars, Cooke Speed Panchros and my two vintage Cooke Zooms (20-60mm and 25-250mm). We also used Zeiss Ultra Primes and Zeiss 2.1 lenses. The Balthars were pushed to tremendous stress and broke all the time. One day, toward the end of the shoot, we only had a 20mm and a 75mm. All the other lenses were in England for repair! We also used Dior stockings on the back of some lenses at times. We did anything to get away from the perfect Alexa look.

Above, from left to right: David A Jörgensen, Paco Didlaukies (best boy), Aksel Hennie (lead actor), Andre Eriksen and Wes Bentley pumping iron between takes in the pressure chamber.

(L-R) David A Jörgensen, best boy Paco Didlaukies, actors Aksel Hennie, Andre Eriksen and Wes Bentley pumping iron between takes in the pressure chamber

Besides the comfort of not having to reload the underwater camera, there was one great thing with going digital: The pressure chambers were so small. In the pressure chamber (a cylinder of steel that measures 15 feet and has a diameter of six feet where the divers live, eat and sleep), we had four actors and two bunk beds, one boom operator, our best boy, me operating the camera, and the 1st AC. It got very hot and humid in there, and as soon as we cut and opened a hatch, it instantly became ice cold. Erik and I had decided that the film plane always had to be inside the chamber. And for the weeks inside the tanks, we were lucky to have the Alexa M. Even though the Alexa M is not so much smaller than the Alexa, those few inches meant everything to us inside the tanks.

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