The enormous problems faced by the Walt Disney Crew filming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ are described in this article abstracted from American Cinematographer.
THIRTY FEET underwater in the Caribbean, off Nassau, Bahamas, some eighty motion picture artists and technicians wearing safety diving gear recently completed what unquestionably was the most challenging assignment ever faced by a Hollywood motion picture troupe. Here on the ocean floor was filmed in Eastman Color with a CinemaScope lens the fabulous underwater sequences for Walt Disney’s version of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.”
During this assignment there was photographed more underwater footage than for any other motion picture on record. The scenes for the most part were not the familiar underwater swimming shots of one or two people, but embraced carefully-planned and enacted scenes that required peinstaking rehearsals, and the use of props and set pieces laboriously brought to the ocean floor.
Of equal interest is the fact that there were more people working underwater at one time in the filming of these scenes than in any other previous attempt at underwater film production. In the key dramatic sequence — the burial under sea of a slain shipmate of the Nautilus crew—there was a total of forty-two persons working simultaneously before and behind the camera.
Because most of the undersea action consisted of lengthy routines rather than brief shots of men swimming, etc., our filming operations approximated those of the studio sound stage. We used a standard Mitchell camera for the stationary shots, heavy metal tripod, parallels, etc., and were assisted by the usual crew of camera assistants, prop men, and grips. About the only thing missing was the big studio lights. Here, illumination was supplied by sunlight.
For most of the crew, diving equipment consisted of the well-known Aqua-lung with air-chambers that strap to the back and permit one to remain submerged for 60 minutes; a pair of swim fins; and a diving mask. Augmenting the crew and cast directly involved in the underwater sequences were a number of expert divers.
The Carribean location site chosen for this production is perhaps the most ideal for underwater cinematography. Nowhere else is there the wide variety of picturesque coral formations, the countless different kinds of fish, ranging from the colorful grouper to barracuda, sharks and sting rays. The crystal-clear water afforded visibility to depths as great as 50 feet. Because there is no direct current running through the waters here, there was not the problem of mud or silt clouding the water to hamper photography.
The appearance of fish swimming through the water is an accepted component of underwater photography; but we found that this piscatorial prop was not always around when we were ready to start shooting. So here again, ingenuity came to the fore, and fish were gathered up by the prop men and held in wire mesh pens until time came to release them for a “walk through” in the scene.
In gathering the fish, it was learned that if the open end of the net was pointed at a coral head the fish would swim into it rather than away toward the open sea. We thus had excellent luck in always keeping the fish within the camera range. Indeed, some of them seemed to like acting in pictures. Many stuck around after a scene was over and were recaptured and used again.
Although I have had previous experience as an underwater cameraman on 20th Century Fox’s “The Frogmen” and “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef,” I put in more sub-surface time on this Walt Disney production than on the other two combined. This was certainly a most interesting and challenging job, but I'll be happy to settle for one on a “dull,” dry sound stage.