Video and water don’t mix. Or do they? True, water-related video-which can require shooting video on water, under water, in water-does present certain problems for videomakers, both pros and hobbyists alike.

In this month’s column we’ll find out how the pros do it-and how you can apply their techniques at home in the puddle of your own choice.

At Sea with the Pros

Recently I visited the guru of water-related special effects, Martin Gutteridge, managing director and award winning designer of the famous Effects Associates, Gutteridge has designed special effects for such epics as S.O.S. Titanic, Heroes of Telernark, H.M.S. Defiant and dozens of other sea sagas.

I toured the facility with Gutteridge. First, he directed me to Effects Associates’ new camera department, which boasts every imaginable type of camera, lens and appropriate accessory:


How to Make a

DIY Green Screen

Free eBook


How to Make a

DIY Green Screen


Thanks! We will email your free eBook.

Among this wealth of equipment were two new pieces of equipment especially well-suited for shooting very realistic ocean footage.

One was a remote controlled camera mount which, under power, twists and turns in every direction. It’s often used to film water scenes while the camera director remains on dry land.

The other new device was a long snorkel lens Gutteridge uses to shoot pictures right down at the surface of the water. This lens not only lowers the point-of-view of the camera, but also alters the perspective. Move it across the deck of a model ship, and you mimic the effect of a person making the same journey. Tilt the camera up, and the model appears life-sized-a superstructure with masts and machinery towering into the blue sky above. Exactly the same as you’d see it in real life.

On to our next stop: a “dead store” where the hulls and carcasses of model ships lay at rest, having given their all for the sake of their productions.

These models featured incredible detail and fidelity-incredibly, effects specialists constructed most of them in a matter of days.

These special effects wizards use numerous tricks to make models look realistic, even to the unforgiving glass eye of a camera. Though plastic replicas come from the manufacturer with impressive detail, they often look too pristine for battle sequences.

One easy secret from these pros:

dress the model with battle scars. Drag a hot nail or pin across portions of the hull to simulate damaged or fatigued metal. Poke it through the plastic for a convincing bullet hole. Use the smoke from a candle or match to char sections of a burned-out superstructure. Smear the ink from a felt-tipped pen while still wet on the hull, and you’ll see instant burns from an electrical fire.

Gutteridge also showed me the famous Paddock tank, home of many fancy sea battles you’ve seen at the movies. The 67 by 60 meter tank is one of the world’s largest; it takes ten days just to fill it. Made of reinforced concrete, the walls of the tank feature demolishable sections that can allow the passage of vehicles when the tank is dry. The all-important back wall has a level surface that serves as the distant horizon.

A team of artists paints the sky backing on a vast permanent screen some 18 meters high and 73 meters wide.

Imagine performing such a task-without being able to step back to check your wOrk!

I asked Gutteridge about the need for this sky backing, because I knew of another outdoor tank constructed to line up with a real ocean beyond it instead. Gutteridge put me wise. Such tanks are fine for certain purposes, but you have to prepare for changing skies. Continuity is important; the sudden appearance or disappearance of clouds can hold up shooting.

There’s a lesson in this for all videomakers, whether or not you’re shooting an ocean epic-every variable you introduce into your production is a potential continuity problem.

The tank’s meter-plus deep water is fine for most model ship sequences. But when vessels must sink, or for effects that require machinery below water, Gutteridge uses the deeper section in the center of the tank. For one project, specially made rigs hurled a large model aircraft into the deep section.

Waves pose a unique challenge for producers. Though a model ship traveling slowly through water may appear to be moving fast simply because the waves are being directed past it, the relatively slow movement creates very little upheaval of water under the bows. The solution: to direct separate jets of water in front of the hull from pipes secreted below the surface. At Effects Associates, special pumps and tanks produce false bow waves.

You can do this at home as well. If you’re working in a backyard swimming pool, simply grab a common garden hose and hold it below the surface of the water. Experiment with water pressure to create a convincing bow wave.

Similarly, the rear view from a vessel should show the wake streaming away from behind the ship even though the mock-up was basically stationary. How? By making water flow away from the camera, while pumping white fluid into it as it passes around the stern. The white fluid simulates the froth of the wake.

Crashing waves and weather occur on the Paddock tank, too; effects specialists blasting air across the surface with a number of large wind-machines, the best of which come from aircraft engines. Videomakers without access to surplus aircraft parts can experiment with normal household fans, or even hair dryers. In this game, what you see is all that matters.

At Home the Hard Way

Then I asked the big question: faced with the need to shoot scenes at sea, could the average videomaker hope to create tank-shots similar to those on the big screen?

Maybe yes and maybe no.

It would be wrong to suggest that you could achieve the same results without all the facilities of a major studio.

It just wouldn’t work. To be realistic, such scenes depend on the size of the models and the scale of the waves. To achieve this, you must slow down the action.

This in turn slows the water movement-to the point where rippling wavelets become ponderous swells.

You need to shoot at high speeds to produce the slowed-down action that makes small flapping sails look like large flapping salts and moderate underwater explosions look like huge explosions. Effects Associates seldom shoot at less than 120 frames per second (almost five times faster than normal film speed). Film runs smoothly at high speeds; consumer video does not.

Does this mean that videomakers should forget about shooting model ships? Not a chance. By using various ploys, you can still achieve good results. Take a tip from the pros and “think large.”

Small vessels on tiny ponds never look like big ships on mighty oceans. Even underwater explosions such as a torpedo hitting a ship or the detonation of a sea mine must be as big as possible lest the oversized water droplets give the game away.

The recording of model seascapes is one area in which you need to turn planning on its head.

What can be done dictates what will be done; those directors who demand that design comply with the script may find themselves facing a hard time. Compromise is often the only solution and a wise director will realize that it’s better to adapt the shooting script to accommodate the limitations of the medium than to insist on something that could turn drama into farce.

Last year Effects Associates filmed the miniature sequences for Norman Rosemont’s splendid production for the TV series Ironclads-a story about armor-plated ships that engaged in battle during the Civil War.

The 1st Unit filming occurred in Richmond, Virginia, where parts of ship exteriors were constructed and floated on barges to look like the real thing. Videomakers can achieve success with a similar technique-try hanging a painted facade on a small raft or other recreational water craft.

For the interiors, Effects Associates built scenic mock-ups in a warehouse where the claustrophobic atmosphere provided a realistic “frigate” environment which yet enabled them to record without becoming seasick.

But there had to be long shots as well-the obligatory overall views of the battle. The crew painted the huge sky backing gray to match the skies in Virginia-which had not always been consistent. Varying between gray and bright blue, they were often smoked up to maintain continuity.

You can also simulate long-shots with special effects projection lamps. These lamps employ rotating gobos, providing a very passable imitation of waves on water. Such lamps could solve the problem for videomakers wishing to shoot miniature seascapes of their own.

TV Tricks to Try

Any videomaker watching Ironclads will surely long to produce something similar… the spray of the sea as it surges past the ship, the noise of the lines as they snap against the masts-but hold on, we’re talking video, aren’t we?

But this is no reason to rule out all sea dramas.

For one thing, the greater part of any drama consists of dialogue between actors-invariably in a static setting. The cut-aways are there to give the plot larger dimensions.

To appreciate what you can do with a simplistic approach, think back to the days of early television. Then, TV producers tried to emulate filmmakers with pathetically minuscule budgets.

To shoot stories at sea, they’d often use real craft, filming on board vessels tied up in harbor; at other times they’d set their cameras in front of an outdoor rostrum, half dressed as a ship or galleon with rudimentary masts and rigging erected against the sky.

For the long shots, they’d construct tanks of polythene sheeting in the studio with brightly lit sky-scapes behind them. They created model waves by gently touching the surface of the “water” with their fingers.

This method worked well for those shots where model ships came “round the headland.” They worked well because the main part of the scene consisted of land-always easy to construct in miniature.

But for more ambitious sequences you can sail model vessels on a pond or lake. Open water of this kind produces natural wavelets which look good and break up unwanted reflections.

The need for an open sky background is, of course, paramount. Use one or both of the following ploys.

1) Set up a matte sky-a painted board erected in front of the camera and above the action.

2) Do what Norman Rosemont did in Ironclads. That is, smoke up the background. Employing a smoke or fog machine should obscure the too-low horizon of the pond and blend unnoticed into the real sky above. High winds can frustrate your attempts to use smoke in this fashion, so save your shooting for a relatively calm day.

Not all sea scripts call for elaborate sequences with model warships banging away at each other with miniature cannons, anyway. Imagine a simple plot in which the skipper of a yacht is searching for another lost vessel.

A smudge of smoke on the horizon prompts our skipper to grab a pair of binocnlars. He discovers that it is the missing boat and it is on fire! The viewer sees the conventional binocular shot-a black card held in front of the lens-centering on the yacht, which burns fiercely.

Few people would dare to shoot this sequence with real flames on an expensive yacht-if nothing else, it would surely invalidate the insurance. So you construct a substitute to take its place.

This model would need to be large because flames don’t burn to scale. But since the craft is supposedly on fire and belching out smoke, it might be unnecessary to construct any elaborate superstructure. Even the paint work could be crude.

You can shape and cut a model of this type from a block of expanded polystyrene. Leave a fire- and heat-proof compartment for the flame-maker in the middle; remember the necessity for retakes.

Imagination is Everything

When it comes to special effects for movies and videos, it’s safe to say that with a little imagination you can find an answer to every problem.

You just have to think your way around things.

When you do, remember those pioneers who ventured into these tricky areas years ago.

If they hadn’t, we’d have to confine our shooting to unadventurous soaps and kitchen table sagas.

Bernard Wilkie, a Videomaker contributing editor, designed special effects for the BBC for over 25 years.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.