Aquaphobia started out as three lines of bad poetry in an old journal, which I was inspired to elaborate upon after assisting New York based filmmaker Ed Bowes with one of his projects over the summer of 2012. I co-created String Theory around that same time and I thought some of our stylistic approaches would work well under water.
Before You Begin
Making movies is not a solo exercise. Rather, every project is a community project. So take care of your community! These things really start with your relationships, and every project builds on top of all previous projects.
Nikki Pike (in orange) helped develop cosutme ideas.
Mark Mook and Kendra Buck did a lot of legwork. We were on set together for the 2012 48 hour film race, and knew we wanted to work on something else together.
Mark is just in front of the camera on the 48 hour film project set.
Kendra was also an actress and crewperson on that project. Here she's pointing to our post production team on the race. We had a killer crew that year.
Tim Nolte directed the 48 hour film project, and I was his cinematographer. We've worked on four of five projects together in various capacities. We swapped roles for the boat scenes on Aquaphobia, and we shot half of the film with his new camera.
Danae Neldon, a Denver based Illustrator, was invaluable. She sewed the final costume together, and was there on pool day to help apply makeup and take care of Madison. More about pool day in a minute.
When String Theory wrapped I knew I wanted to do something underwater, and with a distinctive character. Sophia, who was a collaborator on String Theory had begun a series of body paintings (her new specialty, which got its start around that time). This inspired me to paint an actress. I started a series of face paintings as well as full body compositions in an effort to learn the tools and techniques necessary, as well as develop a design for the character. Here are some initial experiments.
Experimentation led to the discovery that airbrushing would create a much smoother look faster than painting with a brush or sponge. It took about three months of research and experimentation to teach myself how to competently handle the airbrush and to learn which kinds of paint and makeup spray the best.
Around this time I purchased a GoPro in conjunction with a project called Low Road Baby by filmmaker Mark Roeder. I conducted my first underwater tests using my wife as a model:
I discovered that the GoPro's normal housing doesn't do well under water. The image was blurry, and a little distorted. I also learned that the image "zooms" under water -- an effect clearly seen in many of the shots in the test video.
At some point I announced the project on facebook and started collecting inspriational/reference images. I cut this video of existing footage to get everyone on the same page about the mood and look. Yes, that's the oracle scene from 300 which was obviously shot under water.
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People started to get interested.
Audio First, which is backwards.
Mark and Kendra came over and we recorded all of their lines. I put the word out for an accented voiceover actress, and another local filmmaker/acting tutor Patrick Sheridan sent one of his students to audition. Anna Berry had a marvelous accent, and got the gig despite having never done anything like this before. Greth, a composer/musician friend I've worked with on several projects, sent a few sample tracks and I went ahead and created a full audio mix for the story. I listened to it for a few days until I started imagining the accompanying visuals, which I simply wrote down in a shotlist.
One connection of mine who is also a Denver based videographer, Joan Lawson, offered to lend me her underwater housing for the shoot. Here I am in Joan's office picking up the housing.
I didn't have a camera that would fit, but was sure I could figure something out. Always test the underwater housing -- if the seals leak it's a good idea to find out before submerging the $7,000 camera.
Tim Nolte and Vadim Elkind stopped by one evening to problem solve how to secure Tim's new camera in the housing. It fit. Barely. Vadim is another fantastic local filmmaker with whom I collaborate on a lot of projects. He took most of the photos on this page, so he isn't in many of them. Denver is a small town, and you quickly find reliable production buddies. When you do it's important to take care of each other!
As a backup I upgraded a DIY camera stabilizer to carry the GoPro. They started selling a "dive housing" about a week before our next pool test, which fixed the image clarity problems from the previous shoot.
Makeup and Fabric Tests
The next step in character design was to field test various types of underwater makeup, and experiment to learn how to create the flowing fabric look I had in mind. Kendra agreed to be our test subject. Jessica McMasters and I painted various swatches on her arms and back. We also glued faux scales made of different materials on top of the makeup on her back -- something we abandoned before the final shoot. Nikki Pike brought a collection of fabrics and plastics to tie to Kendra to see what flowed the best. The GoPro doesn't have a monitor built in, so you have to just point it in the general direction of the action and hope the composition is okay. Here are some clips from this first test:
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While I was taking care of the camera and character design Mark called every swimming pool in the Denver Metro area to see who had a deep end we could use. The winning pool was at an athletic club in South East Denver. It was outdoors, but we could use two of the lap lanes whenever we needed them at no charge. This was early September, and we didn't have much time before it would start getting too cold to swim. Here's a photograph from our location scout.
While searching for a pool I had put out a casting notice. I do almost all of my recruiting on Facebook, where a large number of actors/actresses hang out in various groups. The more you help out on various projects the quicker you can meet the people in these groups, and then you can help each other in a fantastic positive feedback loop. Here's my casting notice:
There are a lot of beginners hanging around on Facebook, so you have to be really clear about what is expected in a role. I once cast a "girlfriend" part and the actress started requesting scene changes after she landed the part -- she started asking questions like "I don't want to kiss anyone, can we hug instead" and "can I wear sweat pants instead of underwear in this scene?" She was a good performer, but we both decided it would be a good idea to re-cast. Incidentally, we worked toghether on another project a year later and she'd since gotten over her pantless kissaphobia. In any case, it's best to be clear up front to filter for people who are comfortable with the demands of the script.
We had five serious applicants who were willing to kiss Mark while wearing only body paint. We set the audition on a Saturday and spent the afternoon at the pool. Each actress got a couple dots of paint to test for allergies, and to make them comfortable with the application and removal process. Whether your collaborators are working for free or not it is extremely important to be respectful, and to be very clear about working conditions and expectations.
Kendra applies paint swatches. The colors are different types of waterproof bodypaint.
This is Emeli, a local model/actress.
I was in the water with the camera. Mark took notes on everyone's performances from poolside. I was interested in how far everyone could swim between breaths.
There were occasional pauses between auditions. It was a tough day.
As part of the audition process each actress read the script and we discussed the story and her character. This is Madison.
Madison swam like a fish, and was open and enthusiastic about the role and how to set up interesting shots.
Casting is the most important decision a director makes. If you pick the right performers your job becomes very easy. Madison was like Ariel's evil mermaid twin in the audition footage -- beautiful and sinister. I knew that working underwater would be very complicated and potentially dangerous, so I was happy to find someone who was able to own the role right away and who was very comfortable in the pool.
Corinne also gave it her best shot, but none of the other actresses were as comfortable under water as Madison. We had our fish. Here we're reviewing some of her audition footage poolside.
About half of the film takes place on a sailboat, on the open ocean. My brother has a boat on Carter Lake above Loveland, and when he learned about the project was really excited to help.
He sailed the boat, while our small crew crawled around on the deck and got the shots we needed. We took care to frame out the shore as much as possible. My vision was to tell that part of the story through a collage of details, so this wasn't as difficult as it would seem.
Mark picked up a copy of the Guiness Book of World Records and a handbook on knot tying the night before the shoot. Kendra's character would, it was decided, be interested in tying knots. We tried to catch the sun coming up, but were 15 minutes too late arriving at the boat. We had to create the "sunset" look while color grading. We were done on the boat by about 1pm.
Tim was the camera operator on the boat. We were shooting with his brand new Sony FS700. Did I mention that he is very brave, and the FS700 is a beautiful camera.
"No, David. You may not hold my camera over the side of the boat."
The day before the pool shoot I wandered around confluence park and filmed a big green scarf tied to various trees. It was very still, so I had to wait a long time to see the "presence of the atmosphere" in play with the fabric. Mark and Kendra came down later in the afternoon and we shot their date/breathing footage. We also filmed on Larimer Street after dark. It was beautiful and romantic but not as breezy as what we shot at the park, so I chose not to use any of those shots in the film.
The weird selective focus effect was created in-camera by shooting DSLR with a Lensbaby Muse. It also created all of the gerogous organic lens flares that appear in that sequence in the film.
Danae created an amazing costume consisting of a shawl and very long translucent skirt. I picked up embroidered elements at a thrift store the day before the pool shoot and we combined them. Painting Madison took about 4 hours, and used a remarkable amount of expensive waterproof makeup. The costumes we used during auditions didn't last very long -- water is a harsh environment. We wound up sewing her into parts of the final costume.
We touched her up at the pool, then were in the water from 1pm to about 4:30pm at which pont we lost our sunlight.
The light under more than a few feet of water is monochromatic. Only blue wavelengths penetrate to any depth. As a result the bright white and cyan turn into differing shades of cool gray at the bottom of the pool. Working out the color theory was tricky.
The fabric created a lot of drag, so it was difficult to swim. Madison had a couple close calls. Remember, safety first! Mark was on the other scuba regulator and swam in as our lifeguard whenever she started having difficulty.
I had scuba gear so I could hang out on the bottom of the pool for extended periods. The large camera housing didn't work out -- the back surface turned to a mirror when viewed at a slight angle under water. The display on the camera was at an odd angle, so we couldn't monitor the camera while shooting. We wound up filming all the underwater sequences with the GoPro in its new dive housing. I ordered a LCD monitor the week before, and it arrived at the very end of the day on the Friday before the shoot. We would have had to reschedule if they shipped a day late -- fortunately we were able to shoot on the very last warm Saturday in September.
I made a 300" square backdrop, which we attached to the edge of the pool and anchored with weightlifting weights. This provided an even gray background for all of the shots, which made editing the underwater footage much easier. All of the light rays and most of the bubbles seen in the final film were created in After Effects.
Final Post Production
Finally, I graded all of the sailboat footage to make the bright green mountain lake look like a deep, foreboding sea. Postproduction took about 8 days, four of which were spent creating the underwater environment.