A shipwreck diving pioneer – after all, director Sir Ridley Scott wouldn’t be making a film based on the real-life exploits of just any dude in a wetsuit – Dan Crowell knows from deep sea diving. That’s why he’s been chosen to film what KPI president Vinnie Kralyevich calls ‘naval graveyards’ for a Military Channel and Discovery Networks International series called Sea Battles, KPI’s 4 x 1-hour look at shipwrecks around the world.
Each episode has a few key components, says Kralyevich. ‘We’re looking at the strategy of the battles, but we’re also looking at the guy stuff like the dials and technology [the divers use to explore them]. What I’m hoping to bring to the viewer is the isolation of these wrecks – how difficult it is to get to them, and how these divers are really unique.’
An investigation of each battle combines CGI and archives, and culminates in onsite explorations of the wrecks with the divers. As Kralyevich describes, Crowell has shot in German U-boats just off the coast of North Carolina. ‘You can see bones and skulls [of German sailors] – it’s untouched history. It’s as if a B-52 landed in your backyard and no one touched it. It’s a whole other world.’
Crowell references the recent Battles shoot at the site of the EM Clark - an American vessel sunk in 1942 by a German U-boat – to illustrate how to keep underwater shoots flowing smoothly:
Know your window
Each wreck has a ‘weather window’ – the specific amount of time available for the best filming conditions. In the northeast or along the Atlantic coast, Crowell says the window is from June until the end of September. ‘July and August are usually best because even though it’s hurricane season, the weather is generally good,’ he says.
Get down to essentials
Crowell notes that the batteries and lights he uses now are twice as bright and less than half the size as five or six years ago, so he recommends keeping up with current technological advancements. ‘Don’t get complacent about [it]. Every dive has to be tailored towards the dive itself.’ Why bring extra equipment that will only hinder you?
He also recommends using a rebreather – a compact tank that recirculates air and electronically controls your gas mixture. ‘Instead of having two big tanks on my back, I have a little tank.’ This was useful when diving to depths of 240 feet deep (over double the depth to which recreational divers are limited) to capture the EM Clark. Crowell spent 25 minutes shooting the wreck and, since he had to slowly ascend to decompress, he was in the water with his team for a total of two hours.
Have back-up plans
‘Be as prepared as possible for both the dive and the shoot, but don’t get stuck with it. If there’s anyone who has a problem on the dives, the dive is over, and if the conditions aren’t what you expected – due to poor visibility, strong current, whatever – be flexible and have at least two or three contingency plans. In many cases, you’ve only got one chance to surface with the right shots in the can.’
So when Crowell’s first attempt to shoot the EM Clark was affected by a strong current, he was restricted to the shooting stern of the boat, but he made the most of his time. ‘What you’re shooting is also going to change if visibility isn’t great – it would be like trying to shoot the Empire State Building in the fog – so instead of trying to get a wide-angle shot, focus in on smaller areas and things that are recognizable to most people, like the bow, the propeller in the stern section, or any doorways or windows.’ If visibility is really horrible, shoot interior shots instead. ‘Try to do the best you can because your time is so limited and you never know what you’re going to get.’