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Filming in the Movieworld tank

Gold Coast visualist key to Aquaman’s underwater look

Sam Cleveland | December 2018

Critics worldwide are praising the lavish underwater visuals of Aquaman, Warner Bros’ Gold Coast-shot epic starring Jason Momoa as DC Comics’ Atlantean prince.

But ironically, only a small portion of the blockbuster was actually filmed underwater, with the majority of scenes shot “dry for wet”, a complex visual effects process that mimics an undersea look.

To fake it, actors rode elaborate wire rigs that allowed them to “float” in front of the camera, which was also suspended to give it a weightless feel. After filming, bubbles and a layer of deep sea murkiness were added by computer.

The watery look was perfected ahead of shooting with an intensive few weeks of camera tests involving stunt and visual effects personnel, and lighting techs.

And behind the camera on the high-stakes tests was Gold Coaster Simon Christidis ACS, one of the Asia-Pacific region’s top underwater cameramen, handpicked for the job by Aquaman’s US cinematographer Don Burgess ASC.

“I’d shot Nim’s Island here with Don about a decade ago and so he asked me to come down to the studios to shoot the Aquaman tests,” says Christidis.

Christidis’ expertise in undersea shooting allowed him crucial input into the process, where his eye for how actors’ bodies and the camera function in authentic underwater environments was translated to the multidisciplinary team trying to fake the result.

“We tested these complex rigs to suspend and rotate the actors to make their movements look real underwater, and we shot all the costumes to check the colour palette for the underwater scenes.”

Christidis’ work has taken him around the world and given him the chance to collaborate with some of the film industry’s most respected artists, including Roger Deakins CBE ASC BSC (Unbroken), Robert Richardson ASC (Adrift) and Darius Khondji ASC (The Ruins).

He says apart from creative and technical camera knowledge, shooting in water requires very accurate diving skills.

“You have to balance your body, and your camera; know how to float, how to ascend and descend, and even when to hold your breath so there are no bubbles in the shot,” says Christidis.

“And on top of the you’ve got to get the shot in the first few takes because you don’t get much time with the actors underwater, as it’s usually pretty uncomfortable for them.”

His expertise shooting in water – where light and movement follow much different rules to working on land – holds him in good stead collaborating with the world’s best cinematographers, even if a few specific habits raise eyebrows.

“When I’m working in the water, the only way to clean my lens is to lick it, and so these big close up images of my tongue sometimes get seen by the director and cinematographer back at the monitors,” he laughs.

Fremantle-born Christidis was fascinated by stills photography at a young age and, as an avid surfer, even wrapped a camera in a plastic bag to shoot his mate catching waves.

After high school he drove solo to Melbourne for a job at a production company, then gravitated to Queensland at 21 with dreams of shooting in the newly opened Village Roadshow Studios.

“And it was another 10 years before anyone gave me a job and let me shoot there,” he laughs.

Up here, Christidis built his own underwater camera housings and soon became the region’s go-to underwater shooter, booking back-to-back jobs on progressively larger productions.

On Sanctum, the 2011 cave diving thriller shot at Village Roadshow Studios, Christidis caught the eye of executive producer James Cameron.

The master filmmaker behind Titanic and Avatar, himself an avid diver, then recruited Christidis to shoot Deepsea Challenge 3D, the documentary covering Cameron’s submarine trip 11km below the ocean’s surface.

“I loved working with him,” says Christidis, “He’s very respectful of everyone’s skill, and very academic – he listens to what everyone says.”

Christidis had to turn down a third collaboration with Cameron – a high-profile adventure film with a big underwater component – due to the project’s almost two-year commitment in New Zealand.

“It would have been an amazing experience, but I’ve got work and clients here that I just couldn’t let down,” he says.

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