A Guide to Underwater Wildlife Video & Editing: Part 1

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A part serialisation of a book by Jeff Goodman

Profile: Born in Devon, England, Jeff now lives in Cornwall where the horizons are clear and bright. He has been a freelance television underwater and wildlife cameraman from the age of 22, filming mostly for BBC, Discovery and National Geographic. With this book, Jeff takes the reader through all the basics of film-making and editing underwater wildlife video. How to choose a camera and underwater housing, finding and filming the subject, right through to the editing process on your home computer. Jeff enables the production of a quality video presentation with music and narration.

Throughout this serialisation of the book, Jeff shares some of his more poignant experiences from filming on location. His stories explore our relationships with the natural world and our place within it. His love of the oceans is evident throughout and so encourages any reader to look at the marine environment as a unique and magnificent ecosystem.

We will be looking at cameras, how to choose and how to use them. Lighting, editing and many other aspects of getting the very best video images and sequences will follow.

Forward by BBC TV Wildlife & Underwater Presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff

“A Guide to Underwater Filming and Editing” is a technical manual with a truly light touch. It enables us to begin to film marine animals, plants and habitats with confidence and care. The layout is based on the filming courses that Jeff runs, and is tried, tested and proven successful. The technical aspects are easily mastered by anyone, the compositional elements make a sound base from which to develop one’s own style, and the straightforward text guides the filmmaker right through to their premiere!”

PART 1: Introduction

Things have certainly changed since I began my career as a wildlife cameraman. Technology in all its facets has brought the capability of making good wildlife videos, especially underwater, within reach of most people. When I started, in the late seventies, professional and semi professional movie cameras were a very specialised item, particularly with any sort of underwater housing. Now, the modern day high street store or web shop can supply a whole variety of cameras and housings pretty well tailored to fit requirements and budget.

Technology has also made the process of shooting video easy. ‘Point & Shoot’ cameras are very good and the quality can be excellent.  A bit further up the scale we have cameras that give us the option of either using complete ‘auto’ or complete ‘manual’ with a few combinations in between.

So, why learn about equipment and how to make underwater films when technology has so many things placed in the ‘auto’ folder of life?  Basically ‘auto’ will only take you so far and while producing a very immediate image; it will not replace your mind as a thinking decision maker, with a sense of artistic ability. While many people are, quite rightly, excited about the first video clips they make, there soon comes a time when the desire to do better things arises.

Whether you are intending to make a professional broadcast film or a good quality hobby video, the basic principles of making that film are the same. A cameraman must know the camera and its underwater housing controls fully and be able to use all its required functions without any second thought.   Imagine the scenario of getting to a location  –  saving the money, deciding where to go, getting the tickets, passports, currency, excess baggage, travel to airport etc etc. You get the picture.  Finally you get to the location you have dreamed about. Now you organise the diving  –  where to go, what state of tide, what time of day, how deep, who to go with, etc etc. Finally after all this preparation and anticipation you are in the water and the conditions are good. Without any warning, there in front of you, is the animal you came to film and incredibly, it’s doing its thing! You are excited, you lift the camera up to shoot and then panic as you ask yourself  –  is it in focus, is the exposure right, what about colour balance and so on ???  –  and then in that brief moment while you are deliberating over the camera settings, the animal swims away, or buries itself in the sand, or simply stops what it is doing to look at what you are doing. Oh! the sheer frustration of not being prepared!  ‘I should have used auto,’ you may think to yourself, and perhaps you should have, but knowing where and when not to use ‘auto’, is part of the whole deal.

But let’s suppose you get some great shots, the next question is what are you going to do with them? Show your fellow divers  – show the family (and let’s face it, they will love anything thing you do)  – then what?   If that’s all you want to do then probably the ‘auto’ way of life is not such a bad thing, but, if you want a little more out of all your hard work, then perhaps this book is for you.

Most people with a modern video camera get to take some excellent shots now and again, but it takes a little more effort and thinking to be able to produce a video sequence that will enthral your audience and keep them entertained until the very last frame has been seen. This applies to the absolute beginner right up to the semi – professional. By the time you may become a professional, all these skills will be second nature, allowing more time to think about animal behaviour and to predict what is about to happen next. This is where research and knowledge of the species you are filming becomes invaluable and knowing what is going on, and perhaps what to wait for, instead of just shooting away only to achieve a simple catalogue of animal portraits instead of a good behavioural sequence.

So, being a good cameraman does not end with just knowing your camera and being skilful in getting all the best shots. As any video editor will tell you, every shot can be a masterpiece, but if there is not enough variety of material to make a full sequence, then all that effort can be wasted. A great shot is of course a great shot and this is most obvious when taking a still photograph. But with video, the story doesn’t end there. All the time you are filming you have to be thinking about your final video product. ‘I have a great shot, but how am I going to get into it story-wise and then how am I going to get out of it and into the next great  shot?’…….and so on.  Editing is a crucial part of film making and in my opinion no professional cameraman is truly worth his or her salt until they have spent some time in an edit room and seen how sequences are made and fitted together.

It is with equal attention that this book will look at cameras, how to get the best from them, how to approach filming your subjects and how to ensure you have enough material to make a good and full sequence. We will then look in detail at how to put your hard earned shots together with easy to use consumer editing software.

There are many skills and qualities that make a good wildlife underwater camera person. A few of these are confidence in their diving abilities, slow and easy going in movement while approaching marine life, a good degree of knowledge about the subject, being able to give the correct body posture and not to appear threatening. When filming wildlife there are often no second chances and so we discuss later a ‘whole new way of diving’.

The next part of this serialisation will look at how to choose a camera and housing.

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman is the Conservation editor and also the Underwater Videography Editor for Scubaverse.com. Jeff is an award winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

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