“The Little Mermaid”: Sun, Sea and Cinematography

(Spoiler alert!) The denouement of The Little Mermaid takes place in the waves on a picturesque beach, where Cam (William Moseley) has carried Elizabeth (Poppy Drayton). In true fairytale style, our hero and heroine finally share their first kiss, parting to reveal the flaring orange sun behind them, just above the horizon. By the time we got to this sequence, we had already shot some water scenes, but those were in controlled, studio-like conditions. Working with natural light and real waves was going to be a whole different ball-game.

Here are some extracts from my diary, revealing how this magical moment was ultimately captured.

 

Day 22

Scenes at the beach today, with actors in the ocean. We’ve been worried about this sequence since the earliest stages of preproduction. Will the cast get too cold? Will it be too dangerous with waves and jellyfish and razor-sharp oyster beds? Will we get the magical dawn lighting the script requires? Building a partial beach set against green-screen was considered for a long time, but eventually shooting on a real beach, and this one particular beach, turned out to be our only option. (We’re back on Tybee Island, the same island we did the Shirley Shoot on so very long ago, and Baywatch seems to have all the other beaches tied up.)

The weather is good, with a cloudless sky. We’re cheating sunset for sunrise, and I know exactly where the sun will go down, thanks to the Helios and Sun Tracker apps.

We get ready to go into the water shortly after 6pm. The ACs put the camera in the splash bag and we bring it into the ocean. It starts to leak. Which is pretty much the last thing you want to happen. We pull it out before the camera gets damaged, but now we’re wondering how to shoot the scene. Someone suggests I just put the camera on my shoulder (I’m only going in up to my waist) and a couple of the crew spot me to make sure I don’t drop it. Sounds risky, doesn’t it? But it works. Meanwhile Captain Dan joins us in his waders to hand-bash a polyboard bounce, and the ‘B’ camera team are on a pontoon trying to get alternate angles.

Perhaps the most important thing I do today is ask Will to pick Poppy up the other way around. You see, when we’re about to turn over, Will picks up Poppy with her head to his right and her tail to his left. But I can see that if they play the scene with Poppy this way around, I will end up framing the two-shot with my back to the sun, losing that magical image of the low sun in the background, and probably casting camera shadows on them to boot. So I ask Will to pick Poppy up the other way around.

As the sun races towards the horizon, we get two magical takes. I’m constantly reframing to keep the setting sun in the background, and as the hero and heroine kiss, it flares out perfectly between them. Everyone is ecstatic.

 

Day 23

‘B’ cam 1st AC Geran Daniels on the pontoon with the Alexa XR Studio and the hefty Angenieux 19.5-94mm Optimo

It’s another beautiful day, and the first task is to go out on the pontoon and shoot Poppy’s double swimming about in the mermaid tail. I use the Angenieux zoom for only the second time (it normally lives on the ‘B’ camera), and for the first time on my shoulder. Damn, that thing’s heavy. But my shoulder has worse to come today.

As sunset approaches, we must shoot pick-ups for Saturday’s water scene with the principal cast. Today the tide is much lower at sunset, and getting out to a deep enough spot (up to around waist or chest level) means walking over very squelchy mud which you sometimes sink in up to your knees, and sharp oyster beds. So instead we get into the water via the pontoon. This boat has a limited capacity, so I’m dropped off on the first trip, before it returns to the dock twice more to get the rest of the cast and crew who are needed. It’s extremely pleasant to swim about in the ocean (more of an estuary really) while we wait.

In the water with 2nd AC Kane Pearson and some expensive electronics. The white patch on the splash bag is the $5 of tape!

Line producer Fabio has proudly repaired the leaky splash bag with a $2 bicycle inner tube patch. 2nd AC Kane, a big spender, added $5 of tape, and we successfully tested it before we set sail.

Because the splash-bag doesn’t fit our Alexa’s viewfinder, Kane has to hand-bash a 5.6” monitor in a ziplock bag (along with a Teradek receiver and battery) so that I can see what I’m shooting. This works pretty well though. The hardest thing is the mud; it’s impossible to find a firm spot, so during the takes I’m always sinking and trying to keep my balance and follow the action at the same time. Kane has to prop me up on a couple of occasions.

For all the material in the ocean I stick to a (Cooke S4i) 32mm lens; the zoom won’t fit in the splash housing, and lens changes take too long. (The cast can only be in the water for 30 minutes at a time, according to Screen Actors Guild rules.) Although we mostly shoot at water level, where the splash bag floats and is easy to control, one set-up requires me to put it on my shoulder. The weight is quite something, but with help I get the shot.

With the water scenes wrapped, and the tide now higher, we swim back to shore. We’ve been in the water at least three hours, and it was exhausting but a lot of fun too.

That concludes my blog series on The Little Mermaid. If you missed any of the earlier instalments, here are the links:

Don’t forget, if you’re in the UK, the film is currently available from all good high-street DVD retailers and on Amazon as a DVD or download.

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“The Little Mermaid”: Sun, Sea and Cinematography

“The Little Mermaid”: Pools of Light

Although The Little Mermaid takes place mostly on dry land, there were some key scenes involving tanks and pools. These include the moment which introduces the audience to the mermaid herself, played by Poppy Drayton. Here are some extracts from my diary covering the challenges of creating a magical, fairytale look while filming in and around water.

 

Day 10

Today we’re inside the big top all day – actually all NIGHT. We can’t shoot during the day because too much daylight bleeds through the canvas of the tent.

We are setting up when a storm hits. The tent starts to blow about in a slightly alarming fashion, rain lashes down outside (and inside, because the tent isn’t very waterproof) and lightning flashes. We are ordered out of the tent, and I run into a waiting mini-van with Joe from art and some of the camera crew. We sit watching the rain and telling stories for half an hour before we can press on.

Setting up with a stand-in next to the mermaid tank (centre, behind the monitors). In the top right you can see the 575W HMI backlight for the tank, and below that, grip Sawyer Oubre stands ready to fake watery rippling light with a par can and a blue gel frame.

Around the wall of the tent the art department have hung canvas posters; at the suggestion of gaffer Mike Horton, we uplight these with par cans and par 38s. The design of these fixtures hasn’t changed since the 30s, so we can get away with seeing them in shot. The art dept have sourced four period spotlights which we use as background interest (they’re not powerful enough to really illuminate anything), as well as string-lights.

Ambience comes from a Maxi Brute, with just a couple of bubbles on, firing into the tent roof. After seeing a video test of various diffusers during preproduction, I asked for Moroccan Frost to be added to our consumables list, and we use it for the first time on this Maxi Brute. It gives a lovely muted orangey-pink look to the scene.

Steadicam operator Chris Lymberis. Photo: Kane Pearson

We’re shooting our mermaid for the very first time, in a tank in the circus ring. The initial plan is to fire a Source Four straight down into the water to create genuine watery rippling light, while bouncing a par can off a wobbling frame of blue gel to beef up the effect. In the end the Source Four isn’t really cutting it, so instead we rig a 575W HMI, gelled with Steel Blue, to a menace arm and fire it into the tank as toppy backlight. This Steel Blue gelled daylight source, blued up slightly further by the water itself, contrasts beautifully with the Moroccan Frost tungsten ambience which the Maxi Brutes are giving us.

In her mermaid tail and costume, Poppy Drayton looks stunning in the tank. We shoot steadicam angles and some slo-mo to get the most out of the set-up.

 

Day 15

The rocky pool set with two of the side-lighting Kino Flos and the 1.2K HMI backlight (centre) in place

Back on stage, and we’re shooting the rocky pool. This set was built before I even arrived in Savannah, so I’ve been waiting a long time to shoot it. It’s built almost right up to the ceiling of the studio (a former supermarket) so it’s challenging to light. The grips build four menace arms and poke two 4×4 Kinos and two 575W HMIs over the sides to cross-light the set and bring out all the texture in it. Where the set ends they put up a 20×20′ greenscreen, which we light with two Kino Flo Image 80s fitted with special chroma green tubes.

After a wide (which didn’t make the final cut), the next set-up is a 2-shot of our leads in the pool itself. We consider arming the camera out over the pool using a jib, but ultimately decide that it’s better for me to join the cast in the pool, with the camera on my shoulder in a splash bag. 2nd AC Kane Pearson joins the pool party as well, and ends up hand-bashing a monitor for me since the splash bag’s designed for a Panaflex film camera and the viewfinder doesn’t line up. I’m reminded of my frustrating splash bag experience on See Saw back in 2007, but this time at least within a few minutes I’ve found a comfortable and effective way to operate the camera, under-slinging it and allowing it to partially float so I don’t have to support the whole weight.

For this shot we’ve added our par-can-bounced-off-a-wobbling-blue-gel gag for watery light ripples, and combined with the real light ripples and the reflections of a 1.2K HMI backlight, the image looks beautiful.

 

Day 19

After lunch we shoot the singles for the rocky pool scene. The pool itself has been removed, and the actors sit on stools in a paddling pool, with the set behind them. The paddling pool serves two functions: it catches the water that make-up pours over the actors to make them look wet, and it reflects rippling light onto their faces. This light originates from a par can. At first it flattens out the look, then we figure out that we need to lay black fabric on the bottom of the pool. This stops the par can’s light bouncing directly, while retaining the rippling highlights off the water’s surface. (Check out my article on shooting water for more tips like this.)

The low-tech solution for the pool pick-ups

In the final edit this was all intercut with some beautiful footage by underwater DP Jordan Klein, shot both at a local diving pool in Savannah and at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida. The main unit shot another scene in the actual ocean, but I’ll cover that later in this series. In the meantime, next week I’ll reveal some of the tricks and techniques used in shooting The Little Mermaid‘s many sequences in moving vehicles.

“The Little Mermaid”: Pools of Light

Deep Blue See Saw

A few posts back I wrote about See Saw, the thriller directed by Tom Muschamp which I DPed in the summer of 2007. Today I’m going to share some of the tribulations experienced in the making of this sequence:

The sequence was filmed in the Hamptons, a popular holiday destination at the east end of Long Island, near New York City. The boat was filmed in a harbour, with the camera and an HMI lamp on the dock. I wish we could have put either the camera or the HMI in another boat, because it’s never a good idea to have your camera and your only light source close together; you end up with flat lighting that looks like flash from a stills camera. Unfortunately we didn’t have much choice. Putting the HMI on a boat was too dangerous, and putting the camera on a boat would have rendered the footage too shaky for successful compositing with the other element of the sequence: Katherine.

Aimee Denaro as Katherine
Aimee Denaro as Katherine

Katherine, played by producer Aimee Denaro, was filmed in an outdoor swimming pool – again, of course, at night. We had been able to get hold of a single black drape, which we rigged half in and half out of the water, to hide the stand for the backlight and to cover the blue-painted pool interior. We originally planned to frame all our shots tightly enough that this drape would fill the entire background, but we ended up shooting off it quite a lot. Fortunately the surroundings were dark enough that we got away with it.

Aside from the backlight there was one other lamp – a key light coming in from the side. Both were 800W tungsten pars if memory serves. As I often do on night sequences, I white-balanced on a red-gelled lamp, fooling the camera into turning everything blue for that classic James Cameron/Michael Mann look.

Director Tom Muschamp
Director Tom Muschamp

After shooting all the set-ups from the poolside, it was time to dive in – quite literally – and shoot the underwater material. That’s when the fun began.

We had spent the last couple of weeks trying to find an underwater housing we could hire, but nowhere had one that would fit our camera (a JVC GY-HD110). In the end we had to settle for a splash bag designed for ENG (i.e. proper broadcast) cameras. A splash bag is simply a rubber bag with a waterproof zip and a porthole of optical glass at one end. They’re not designed to be used at any depth, but will keep the water out down to a metre or two. So far, so good – this restriction fitted in with Tom’s shot requirements just fine.

But because our camera was too small, we could not screw the filter thread into the porthole inside the bag. This meant there was no way of keeping the camera in a fixed position within the bag. This was, not to beat about the bush, annoying. Oh, and did I mention that the battery adapter on the camera had a loose connection which caused the camera to shut itself off sometimes?

The black drape and backlight set-up
The black drape and backlight set-up

Anyone who knows me knows that I am very quiet. I doubt most of the cast and crew were accustomed to hearing me say much of anything. They were certainly all pretty shocked when, within a few minutes of starting to work with the splash bag, I was cursing and swearing like a trooper. The difficulties of trying to swim, keep the bag underwater (it had plenty of empty space in it so it wanted to float), keep the camera lens lined up with the porthole, prevent the focus ring from rubbing against the inside of the bag and throwing the image out of focus, all at the same time, almost drove me insane. Add to that the battery coming loose from time to time and you can see how I might have been a tad frustrated.

But after a while I learnt to contort my body and the bag into a stable configuration and we got some great shots. By the time we wrapped, thanks to the pool’s automatic overnight chlorination system, we all had red, stinging eyes and Aimee’s top had been completely bleached.

The next time I shot underwater – which I may blog about in the future – rather than trying to hire a housing to fit our camera, we hired a housing that came with its own camera. In hindsight I wish we’d done this on See Saw. If you’re going to try it yourself, I’d recommend getting hold of some diving weights because you’re always fighting the natural buoyancy of the housing. Remember that tiled walls and painted lane divisions are dead giveaways that you shot in a swimming pool; don’t rely on the distorting effect of water to hide these – it doesn’t work that way. Bring drapes or tarpaulins to fill your background.

Okay, that’s all for now folks, but if you enjoy reading this blog then please consider contributing a little cash towards my new short film Stop/Eject.

Katherine clings onto the "boowee" as our American friends like to say
Katherine clings onto the "boowee" as our American friends like to say
Deep Blue See Saw