The Underwater Accident Scene

In the film there is a accident when the divers, brothers Knut and Petter, make a test dive at 1,000 feet beneath the surface.

We shot this scene in four locations in three different countries. The interiors in the pressure chambers were shot in our studio/warehouse in Uddevalla, Sweden; the wide exteriors in Silfra, Iceland with stunt divers; and the close-up underwater footage in our pool in Itzehoe, Germany. The command center scenes on the dive ship were shot on the ship Belos in Karlskrona, Sweden. The Iceland part—where we shot the wide underwater stuff—was a “shoot within the shoot,” organized by our Finnish co-production company Matila Röhr and serviced by Pegasus Pictures in Iceland. Every dive was only 22 minutes. Every night we could only do two dives. In total we had nine nights and 18 dives, with each dive costing $25,000.

Swedish underwater DP and underwater housing designer, Eric Börjesson, had just built a new underwater house for the ARRI Alexa that we could control from the surface with a power supply unit (plus remote focus and f-stop). Scanning the market, we decided that his underwater house was the best on the planet and Eric came onboard as a tech.

Our underwater operator, Teemu Liakka, has done a lot of documentary work, and he had a very cool way of getting “two shots in one take.” By this I mean: On the sea bottom (where the accident takes place in the film), we started with a two-shot of the divers entering the habitat. Suddenly a fish swims by, and Teemu would leave the actors and follow the fish. Of course we had to do another take for this, but I love when a operator has the balls to steal a shot like that. A crew needs to be orchestrated and encouraged so they feel safe and good. Then they can surprise a DP with the most lovely surprises.

The wide shots were shot in the crack between the American and European continents. The two continents are going in opposite directions and we had about 400 earthquakes in our first week in Iceland. It did affect the visibility a bit, but we could and had to continue shooting. There is a glacier 50 kilometers away from Silfra. When the ice falls off the edge of the glacier it melts, and over more than 30 years, the water is filtered through lava sand before it reaches the crack where we shot. The water temperature in the crack is 34°F or 2°C. Visual effects later removed one of the walls in the crack so that it looks like the diving bell hovers just parallel to a giant wall.

Commercial offshore divers dive in hot water suits in the North Sea. Without heating, they would quickly freeze to death. We could not afford having hot water running in our vintage ’70s neoprene suits, so our stunt divers had breathing gas coming through the umbilical, but no hot water. One night on set in Iceland, I asked Ville Leskinen, stunt diver for actor Aksel Hennie, how he avoided getting hypothermia diving in a vintage wetsuit from the ’70s with no heating. Ville said, “We get hypothermia all the time. You just have to get used to it.”

We could not transport the replica diving bell that we shot in Sweden and Norway, so a new replica had to be built in Iceland. For some reason the painter in Reykavik did not sandblast the aluminum parts – he only painted them. So when the bell was lowered into the freezing cold pristine waters of Silfra, pieces of white paint started peeling off. This was a huge mistake. Silfra is a holy place in Iceland, almost like Stonehenge in the UK. Most mornings we were in all the leading newspapers, the television networks, and were even discussed twice in the Icelandic Parliament while we were shooting. Every morning after wrap, we had to send six divers out to try and clean the lake. I feared that we would lose our location… but for some reason they didn’t kick us out.

While we were in Iceland, the rest of the crew was prepping the tank shots in Itzehoe, Hamburg, Germany. The diving bell and habitat were transported there. We had a spend in the Hamburg region but that region has no tank for filming. During the tech scout, gaffer Sascha Wolfram, key grip Jonathan Lee, and I had, by luck, found a communal pool on a down day that had the minimum measurements that we needed (19 feet deep and 65 feet by 65 feet on the surface).

Around the pool, we had riggers built a huge tent. Inside we had all our gear and light rig, and from a 150-ton crane we lifted the diving bell and habitat into the pool. Of course we shot this in the winter and it was an outside pool, so we had to fill the pool with hot water delivered by trucks. The cost for heating the pool from scratch would have been much higher. Once the hot water was in the pool we could manage to keep it heated.

Erik Skjoldbjærg and set designer Karl Juliusson on-location in Itzehoe Schwimmbad, Germany. In the background the habitat is being lifted into our tent from a 150-ton crane

Erik Skjoldbjærg and set designer Karl Juliusson on location in Itzehoe, Schwimmbad, Germany. In the background, the habitat is being lifted into a tent by a 150-ton crane

In the accident scene, the divers enter a habitat where divers dry-weld pipelines together. Once inside the water-filled habitat, the water is blown out with a gas mix (the same gas mix that the divers breathe through their umbilicals) so that the divers can weld in a dry environment. Welding pipelines has to be done dry for quality purposes. In this scene, a “pig” (a sort of sturdy balloon that the divers inflate inside the pipeline to stop water from coming in through the pipeline) malfunctions, severely injuring one of the divers.

The pool was filled with fresh water, which we let “rest” for a week before we started rigging, so that the micro bubbles came out. Try to have as few people in the water or in contact with the water, and shoot the wide stuff first, as micro bubbles build up over time and will ruin wider shots. Visibility is very limited after a couple of days, so if you have a wide shot at the end of the first week it will not match the clearest water in the world. In close-ups, you can cheat. Replace the water or change tank or let the water rest for a couple of days to get clearer water again.

This scene was shot in the pool in Itzehoe. To capture this in-camera, we lowered the habitat into the pool with our 150-foot crane so the actors were underwater inside the habitat. The brothers are underwater and they put the pigs into both pipelines. They pump gas into both pigs to seal the pipeline opening so no water can rush through the pipeline. Once the pigs were in place and full of gas, we lifted the habitat up as the camera was rolling. This created the illusion that the habitat (which, in the film, is standing on the sea bottom) is drying out as water rushes out through the floor.

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Danish sound effects coordinator Hummer Hojmark and the team attached multiple firehoses inside the pipeline so that when the pig exploded, the water would rush in with full force, at the same time as we started to lower the habitat into the pool. This way, we had both the force and pressure of the fire hoses, plus the aid of all the water in the pool. Inside the habitat, Teemu operated the underwater housed camera. We also used a black-and-white underwater surveillance camera attached to the ceiling (the surveillance camera footage was used as a witness camera that the dive masters in the dive boat above watch as they lead the divers). I was standing on top of the habitat operating a handheld Alexa to get a short shot of a cracked dive mask. We also took one side off the habitat to cover the action from the side.

In the scene, Knut smashes his helmet and stops breathing. Petter removes his mask in an air pocket in the now water-filled habitat and tries to give him first aid. When Knut does not respond to the help, he puts his helmet on Knut. Then he dives without a mask and drags his lifeless brother with him through the water lock of the habitat and up to the diving bell. The part when Petter pushes his brother through the water lock and out of the habitat was shot in the tank in Germany. The wide shot where Petter swims without a mask up to the bell with his brother was shot in Iceland with the stunt team.

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Stunt diver Ville swam down from the bell in the freezing water with a very small air bottle attached to his mouth. As he reached the bottom where stunt diver Tyyne Laaksonen (doubling for Knut) was waiting, he dropped the small air bottle, grabbed “Knut,” and then swam up to the bell without mask and air. It must have been very painful to expose the skin to water that cold.

We also did a composition in the pool for the reverse frontal shot so we could see Petter’s face as he was swimming towards the bell. This was done in the blackened pool in Germany (with molton fabric) and Petter was later rotoscoped out and put into a background plate from Iceland.

Director Erik Skjoldbjærg, left, looks at a pickup shot of the pig (balloon) that causes the accident in the film

Director Erik Skjoldbjærg, left, looks at a pickup shot of the pig (balloon) that causes the accident in the film

When the above picture was taken, the shoot had already wrapped the day before and we were out of money. The crew had left, but we still needed some inserts. The crew on this last day consisted of myself, Erik and our two lead actors, Aksel Hennie and André Eriksen. I rented the cheapest camera I could find (an old RED One) and we stayed one extra day to do the inserts.

On any film, you are very dependent on your crew. The harder the shoot, the better crew you need in order to over achieve your dreams. In the best cases, prep is like a honeymoon. Then, as the crew starts the project, the special atmosphere you create is a solid base that the project stands on. This takes a lot of energy and time, but it’s worth it. Because when shit hits the fan, your crew will pay you back in sweat. If you are arrogant, they will not walk the extra mile for you. MM

Pioneer Tech Specs:

Cameras: ARRI Alexa Studio, ARRI Alexa M, Cathode Ray Video Camera
Lenses: Kowa primes, Super Balthar primes, Cooke Speed Panchro primes, Cooke Classic 25-250mm, Cooke 20-60mm
Lighting: Tungsten, daylight, underwater lights
Color Grading: Mats Holmgren / The Chimney Pot


Pioneer opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and on VOD and iTunes, on Friday, December 5, 2014, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

All images courtesy of Jallo Faber.



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