A Day in the Life of…An Underwater Actress
By Gemma Smith
The sport of diving always reminds me of an oak tree: there is the main trunk from which everything else grows, but there are also hundreds of branches reaching out in all directions, eager to be independent and different. This is exactly how diving is! From the main interest we all have in our underwater world there are a never-ending variety of new branches to go off and explore, and something new to learn, enthuse or inspire everyone, regardless of age, gender, or experience. I don’t think it is possible for anyone to ever be bored as a diver! In this series I want to explore some of the many possible careers and paths available to those of us lucky enough to have access to the many oceans, lakes, rivers and waterways on our planet, and in this article I’ll take a closer look into the life of an underwater actress, and in particular what it is like to work on an underwater filming project.
The Birth of Dive Odyssey
Sometimes I question my sanity. I really do. It’s the middle of winter with just a few weeks left until Christmas. A couple months back, if I would have imagined life at this time, I’d see myself sitting at home in front of a roaring fire. There would be piles of chocolate and holiday food around me, and I would generally be enjoying some festive cheer. The life of someone working full time in the diving industry tends to involve long hours and lots of physical work. We take our breaks as and when we can, and Christmas is one of the few times of the year where we can totally stop. Where am I though? Well, I’m not at home in front of a fire, and there is a distinct lack of chocolate and Christmas cake. I’m in Finland. In the middle of December. And I’m getting ready for one of the most unusual dive projects I’ve ever been involved in.
If you had asked me a while back if I’d ever thought of being an actress, my answer would be a resounding ‘NO’! My sister was the accomplished actress in the family, starring in school plays right from a youngster all the way through her teenage years. I couldn’t imagine anything worse! No, l was more than happy to leave that side of things to the professionals. I would never agree to act…would I?
Sometimes someone comes up with an idea that is so crazy and unique that you know that you just have to do it. In this case, for me, there was no question in my mind. Janne Suhonen, along with Antti Apunen, is one-half of the legendary Scandinavian ‘Divers of the Dark’ filming team. For years I had admired their work. From the iconic shots of Ojamo Mine in their homeland of Finland to their French cave diving series of films and photographs to their masterpiece of a book showcasing the Molnar Janos cave in Budapest; as far as I was concerned their work was unrivaled. Having had the chance to meet them several years back at a dive conference we had struck up a friendship. So when Janne contacted me about being involved in his next project I immediately said yes. This was a dream come true for me. I’d done lots of underwater modeling for photographs before, so I wasn’t worried. I mean, it was modeling I’d be doing right? Well, kind of. I would indeed be in front of a camera….but he was making an underwater movie and I’d be one of the actors.
We all love diving, of course, we do. However, even the most zealous dive enthusiast has to grudgingly concede that as a spectator sport it is lacking slightly. Janne dreamed of changing that. Inspired by the classic movies such as Blade Runner, 2001 – A Space Odyssey, and of course James Cameron’s own underwater masterpiece The Abyss, his idea was to make an underwater sci-fi movie of sorts. Nothing even comes close to the otherworldly feel and sense of the unknown of outer space as the underwater world does, so why not combine the two? Diving needs to have a fun as well as a serious side. After all, isn’t this element of escapism one reason we all started this sport in the first place? And from this seed of an idea, the concept for the movie ‘Dive Odyssey’ was born.
A project of this size is never easy from a logistics point of view. Between arranging all the gear and gas, the timings and schedules of various elements, and trying to bring together a motley crew of international divers from various corners of the globe all at the same time, Janne did not have an easy task on his hands. The plan from the outset was to have the film split into three distinct phases, with this first phase being filmed at the famous Ojamo Mine just outside Helsinki. It’s late one evening in December when the British contingent, myself among them, arrive to start filming. Everyone on the project has been handpicked for a certain role. TV presenter and full-time adventurer Andy Torbet and I are the two ‘actors’, we have multiple cameramen and a lighting crew, as well as surface support for when we are in water. Most of the team have worked together before, and we are all friends and colleagues. This is just as well, as Janne’s plan is by no means simple, as we are about to discover…
With the international team now assembled, it is our chance to hear for the first time in full Janne’s dream and vision for his film. The story will have no words or spoken voice. It will rely totally on the ambience, evocative lighting, the stunning underwater scenery and locations, and specially composed music to tell the narrative. Detailing the meeting between an earthly human Explorer meeting an otherworldly underwater ‘Being’, it will follow their subsequent journey together. The location for phase one of the shoot would be without a doubt the most dramatic. Filming and working at depths of up to 80m/260ft in temperatures of 1-2 degrees Celsius/34-36 degrees Fahrenheit for hours at a time, the whole team would be equipped with CCRs, not to mention plenty of thermals and heated vests! Andy and I even had special custom-made gear for the roles; he as the ‘Being’ in a steel grey colour scheme, and I as the human Explorer in bright orange. Drysuits, scooters, rebreathers, tanks, everything was colour matched to our specific roles. While a bright orange JJ rebreather would not necessarily have been my first colour choice, when it is seen on camera it truly comes alive. There is no question that a good director has more to think about than ‘just’ directing.
A typical dive day
Due to the limitation in access to the mine because of the commercial diving school based at the site, we are restricted to late afternoon or evening dives only. This actually works very well, as there is a surprising amount of dry land work to do first. Being the professional that he is, Janne has hand drawn and storyboarded every single scene he wants to film. This allows not only him to envisage what he wants, but is a huge help in allowing the actors to understand what is needed from them. Plus the fact that at 80m/260ft in this kind of temperature we really need to nail the shots the first time around. No one wants to spend more time completing cold water decompression than they have to. After the morning wake up call and a warming breakfast at the nearby lodge where we are staying, the team normally arrives at Ojamo around midday. This gives us all a couple hours to strip and prep all rebreathers from the day before, and complete checks on all gear. The freezing temperatures are a constant reminder of just how on the ball we need to be. What might be a small or annoying issue in warm water (a flooded drysuit say) could easily turn into a really serious problem in these conditions. When everyone is sure that their gear is good to go, its time for the specific filming briefing. With the storyboards as our guide, we do dry land run-throughs of everything we want to do underwater. Practice on land makes the task of coordinating underwater so much easier.
Our aim is always to get in the water around 5pm, but things often take longer than anticipated on a film shoot! Getting in the water around 6pm and out around 9pm is a good day. It’s often easy to forget just how involved these dives are. We are all diving CCR with a minimum of two bailout tanks. We are working at least 500m into the mine, so to maximise bottom time Diver Propulsion Vehicles are used to get to the particular location for the shot more quickly. We are diving in an overhead, so all the gear needed for ensuring safety in that environment (primary light, two back up lights, reels, spools, arrows and cookies, and so on) also has to be carried by every diver on every dive. Add to this needing enough drysuit, dry gloves, and enough thermals to remain safe and comfortable in this water temperature. Oh, and at the same time as all this, remember that you are a human Explorer interacting with an otherworldly ‘Being’ and act accordingly! I was only glad that I didn’t have to deal with a camera as well! This was some of the most technically challenging, not to mention thermally tough, diving I’ve done. It was also incredibly fulfilling. I count myself lucky that I was able to work with such a professional team on my first film shoot, both in my fellow actor and in the amazing lighting and filming crew.
At the end of the day, I had the easy job. Now it’s up to the director to make a coherent whole out of the scenes we filmed. Trying to tell a story with no dialogue is not going to be easy, but I know if anyone can do it Janne can. From here comes the editing, colour correcting, general post-production, and the composing of music to bring this mini-film together. And this, after all, this is only phase one of filming! Now some of the team go on to the Plura cave system in northern Norway for the above water snowy wilderness sequences, as well as the reshooting of any shots as required, and finally on to the pool in Helsinki for the grand finale of the adventure the ‘Being’ and the human Explorer have shared together. It’s been over 18 months since first filming, and work on the project is still ongoing. I can’t wait to see the finished film, but whatever happens its been an incredible experience. I’ve learnt so much and worked with an amazing team, and I don’t think you can ask much more than that.
Check out Dive Odyssey – now available!
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