Select Page

An Ocean of Troubles: Movie producers swept up in challenges of water filming



Swashbuckling pirates, hidden treasures and incredible creatures are all concealed in the waves of the ocean’s mysteries. People have always been enchanted by these untamed waters, which is why the sea has been featured in stories all throughout history. The ocean is an incredible force of nature that plays a leading role in many popular films. The production of these movies is often taken for granted, but it takes a lot of time, money and manpower to harness the ocean’s force into a movie set.

An ocean-sized budget

First off, films that are produced on water are really expensive. In fact, it takes a massive team of technical experts to replicate the ever-changing and unpredictable ocean. Generally, producers expect to spend three times as much producing water scenes, compared to filming on dry land. The increase in the budget comes from the additional work required in every aspect of production. Lighting, for example, requires extra consideration, because of the way water causes light to reflect and change direction. This means it’s extra challenging to get the perfect lighting and recreate it in other scenes.

Underwater scenes 

Second, underwater scenes usually combine computer generated imagery (CGI) with underwater equipment, depending on the film. The crew behind the camera is working in full scuba gear to capture each shot from different angles and with different lighting. It’s time-consuming work because they can only film for as long as the actors can hold their breath. Eventually, the actors have to resurface or take a breath from air tanks. However, professional divers who can hold their breath for long amounts of time are sometimes used to stand in for the main actors.

Open water film production

Third, filming in open water has a lot of challenges with water currents, quality, depth, temperature, wildlife and other unpredictable factors. To combat these uncertainties, movies are sometimes produced on dry land, in pools or in specially designed tanks. When scenes are filmed on land, water backgrounds and effects are digitally added in post-production. Green screens in regular pools can be used to film scenes in a controlled location. Once filming is complete, special effects alter the scene to make the setting look realistic.

Replications in water tanks

Additionally, movies that require large ships, such as Titanic or Pirates of the Caribbean, take special preparation. Major Hollywood studios have used tanks to produce water scenes. Oceans are never perfectly still, so it’s important to add wind and waves to make the scene realistic. Powerful fans and wave machines help replicate everything from calm sea breezes to intense ocean storms. Dump tanks drop a large volume of water to recreate big waves and ocean spray. Also, rain pours out of fire hoses and pressure sprayers.

Interestingly, the shape of a production tank is important to get a realistic wave pattern. If the tank is square with straight sides, the water bounces off the sides and creates unnatural opposing wave patterns. Blue dye is usually added to the water in these tanks. Coloring makes the water less transparent, hiding production cables, ropes, and equipment. Traditionally, when a scene required large ships to be in motion, ropes and hidden production assistants would guide the ship models through the tank. With technological advancements, radio control systems have become a reliable solution.

Water animation

Animation and CGI technology helps producers avoid the hassle of filming in ocean water, but this stage of production has its own challenges. Whether animation is used in a live-action movie or a fully animated one, artists must capture every aspect of the sea. It’s a complex process that requires hours of editing and strict attention to detail. Technological advancements have given artists the tools to make their productions as realistic as possible. Think of how different the ocean looks in The Little Mermaid, which premiered in 1989, versus Finding Dory, released in 2016.

Ambitious production teams work to replicate the ocean’s untamed waters on movie screens. These films require massive efforts and even bigger budgets. The ocean’s untamed beauty and power have been featured in stories and movie plots throughout history. People have always been fascinated by the mysteries of the ocean. Movies provide a way for people to get caught up in the ocean’s secrets until they’re lost at sea in enchanted waters.