How do you show irrefutable proof that the world’s coral reefs are rapidly dying due to climate change?
Director Jeff Orlowski’s feature Chasing Coral follows an impassioned team of activists who create a special underwater time-lapse camera to document the bleaching of coral around the planet. As for the other gear needed to capture the film’s gorgeous—and devastating—visuals, Orlowski and his cinematographer Andrew Ackerman show it all off here.
A. Nauticam NA-DCES Underwater Housing
This beast kept our RED camera safe and sound underwater. It has a vacuum seal and corresponding alarm light that will go off if the vacuum seal is breached. (Luckily we never needed this feature.) Nauticam’s customer service is second to none. They have shipped parts all over the world for us.
B. RED Epic Dragon
One of the goals for the film was to make the underwater footage feel as immersive and cinematic as possible. With RED, we could shoot stunning slow-motion 6K footage underwater. The ability to shoot RAW was also very important for color correction—color correcting underwater footage is notoriously difficult because light progressively loses color underwater.
C. RED Mini-Mag 512GB
This was the largest memory for the RED camera at the time of the purchase and we needed every gigabyte. We typically went on hour-long dives when shooting, but every once in a while we would push two or three hours underwater at a time, and the extra memory was key in those situations.
D. Nauticam Zoom and Focus Lens Gears
These gears get attached to their corresponding lenses to allow the camera operator to manually zoom and focus underwater. Do not forget to put these on before you hop in the water.
E. Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM Lens
This was a great wider zoom lens for underwater. We typically shot with two cameras underwater—one would use this lens, and another would use the 24-70mm.
F. Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM Lens
Along with this being a very versatile topside lens, we found the extra depth of field to be invaluable underwater. Most underwater footage is either extreme wide fisheye footage, or extreme macro. We enjoyed giving underwater subjects and wildlife more of a depth of field.
G. RED Cables
Bring extra! We almost had one of these cables break. On our more remote and distant shoots we had to be obsessive about spare gear because often we were away from easy Amazon delivery, living on boats and islands with no Wi-Fi or cell service.
H. RED 5” LCD Touchscreen
As much as we would have enjoyed having a seven-inch screen instead of a five-inch, it wouldn’t have fit in the underwater housing.
I. Keldan 8X Compact LED Video Dive Light
These are some of the most powerful lights on the market. It is shocking how much light and color is lost at depth. We needed the biggest and softest lights we could find, and these did the trick.
J. Hex Wrench Set
All underwater equipment—film and scuba—requires hex wrenches. Don’t go anywhere without this.
K. Leatherman Bit Kit
This should be on every DP’s list—it is a life-saver, considering all the different types of screws we end up using to get our rig underwater.
L. Zen 230mm Nauticam N120 Superdome
We prefer to use glass domes over acrylic because of their image quality and longevity.
M. Vacuum seal pump
This pump seals the underwater housing and makes it much less likely to flood. It is the stress ball of the underwater world: Putting a RED underwater can induce anxiety, and this little pump (and that green light on the back of the housing) make you feel a whole lot better.
N. Tusa Dive Watch
It is easy, shooting underwater, to forget about the diving aspects of what you are doing, i.e. your air consumption and depth. Having a computer on your wrist instead of your waist makes a big difference in how often you are monitoring your status.
O. Assorted Nauticam Arms and Clamps
These let you mount the lights at different lengths and arrangements on the housing.
Underwater Timelapse Rig
One of the big visual devices in Chasing Coral is underwater time-lapses. To shoot these, we ended up manually shooting time-lapses over a long period of time using the RED. Manually shooting time-lapses meant going to the exact same spot and taking three minutes of video of the exact same frame every day for months. Between our two teams, we ended up having more a hundred different sites and would spend two to four hours underwater every day capturing them. We would get to one site, align our camera to match the frame from the first day, shoot for three minutes, and then get all the gear and move to the next site. – Andrew Ackerman
P. Manfrotto 055 Tripod Legs
When shooting time-lapse photography, stability is key, especially because we were shooting video instead of photos. We found this tripod to be a good mix of lightness, durability and compactness. This is not an underwater tripod, but did very well in that role. The key was to wash it thoroughly after every single use. Diving every day for months on end can make you complacent with taking care of gear, but metal and salt do not play well together.
Q. Ritchie W-50 WetNotes
This waterproof notebook allowed us to communicate to each other, and also take notes of the different time-lapse sites and what we saw changing.
R. Reference Photos
We carried these laminated photos of each site with us. A huge challenge was being able to replicate the exact same camera angle every day. These photos were very helpful for lining up the sides of the shot.
S. Aqua Lung 5mm Echozip Ergo Boots
Good wetsuit boots! Often we would be shooting in very small spaces, so wearing fins wasn’t always a good thing. They make it easier to swim, yes, but also make it easier to kick coral and disturb sand. I would often ditch the fins and walk around on the bottom of the sea floor when traveling from site to site. It makes you feel like you are on the moon—which is awesome.
T. Innovative Scuba Concepts Aluminum Underwater Laser Pointer
As with the reference photos, this laser pointer was key in helping line up our shots exactly. We would attach these to the RED housing or the tripod legs, pointing at three different axes, and then line them up with different features at each site.
U. Dive Weights
Even though the Nauticam RED housing weighs around 60 pounds above water, underwater it is almost neutrally buoyant. We would bring tons of extra weight to make it as heavy as possible while shooting manual time-lapses. There was almost always a current and often a surge, which made holding a huge housing perfectly still on a tripod very difficult. The more weight, the easier to stay down and stay still. MM
Chasing Coral opened in theaters, and is available for streaming, starting July 14, 2017, courtesy of Netflix. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue.
Top image: Jeff Orlowski (L) and Zack Rago, who spearheaded the invention of the underwater time-lapse camera used to document coral reefs. Courtesy of Netflix.