Champ Williams provides us with our first celebrity underwater cinematographer interview at DSN. His films speak to us on many levels, mostly because we’re invertebrate biologists with a taste for gore. Last month we featured his short film "Secret Weapon," a stunning cage-match between a sea star and mollusc. You’ll never guess who wins.
This time we focus on Champ’s beautiful short film "Attack of the Sea Slugs," destined to be another classic in the invertebrate Fight Club genre. Watch and listen before you read the interview. Can you guess, film or video? In the field, or in the aquarium? Find out below.
PJE : "Attack of the Sea Slugs: How did you do it?"
Champ: I did it with the help of a great crew and music composer willing to work long hours, as well as some local produce from Vons grocery store. Without that, the underwater world of this film would be far less crunchy.
Some background information usually helps. The film is shot entirely at night using HD video in the cold waters of Puget Sound [in Washington state] over a four-month period. The camera is always on a tripod or sea scooter. Almost every shot is sped up 15 to 20 times real time, which means that every one minute of high-def video represents 15 to 20 minutes of raw footage. With just those facts, it should be easy to see why this film was a challenge.
One of the most challenging yet forgiving aspects of shooting “Attack of the Sea Slugs” was the reliance on time-lapse photography. These striped nudibranchs are slow. Very slow. Early on I figured out that no one would want to watch a film about cold-water sea slugs if it were shot in normal time.
The problem with time lapse is that it takes a lot of time to capture the action. Time is not on your side when your underwater breathing from a finite air supply during a narrow window between tidal exchanges or when there is a limited amount of tape or light battery power. So the most frustrating aspect of shooting this film was the numerous
times that one or more of those three items [time, video tape, or battery]
ran out before the action was complete.
Another problem occurs when the tripod is significantly moved or bumped in the middle of a shot. Most of the time, such an event required reframing the shot from a different perspective. But time lapse can be forgiving when recording in real time to be sped up in post-production. If a large piece of debris entered the shot or a minor camera bump occurred, it was cut out of the shot before I sped it up, thus maintaining the illusion of continuous time.
Another challenge was working with the “talent”, which in this case were sea slugs and sea stars. Since the environment is composed of sand and silt, any attempt to physically move the animals resulted in a significant reduction in visibility. Over numerous long nights of working with these creatures, a rather simple and unobtrusive way to herd them appeared. Both animals are repulsed by extremely bright light. Lights were used advantageously to herd the sea star into frame and to capture the most challenging shot of the film: the initial plunge into the sand of the striped nudibranch.
Because the subject matter of this film is so small, most of the shooting required macro lenses. One of the difficulties with macro lenses is the limited depth of field. To compensate for this, two 50 Watt HID video lights were used with an extremely close working distance to deliver a tremendous amount of light to the subject.
As any photographer knows, the more stopped down a lens, the greater the depth of field. Bright lights were essential to shoot at the maximum f-stop of the camera (f-11). Added depth of field created much cleaner images and provided some protection against soft focus. For this film, the goal of the lighting technique was high contrast ratios, good separation from the background, and exploitation of the semi-transparent nature of the sea pens to create beautiful backlit shots.
Any good natural history filmmaker will say that a solid plan is essential. Although it is nearly impossible to plan for exactly what the camera will see, being prepared with a script and storyboard greatly increases the efficiency of the production and helps bring forth the story. Filmmakers should “plan the shoot and shoot the plan.” Unfortunately, as mentioned, animals have a mind of their own. No storyboard can accurately predict all the situations and unexpected surprises that are encountered while on site. From an editing standpoint, this unpredictability coupled with the many shots from different days and locations made story continuity a real challenge.
Despite all the difficulties faced during this project, “Attack of the Sea Slugs” was a rewarding production that pushed me like never before. I’m very proud of this short film, and I hope you enjoy it.