Water Dancing

"Prisoners of the Body" was nominated at 2020 Student Academy Awards in the 'Best Alternative/Experimental' category.

This experimental short film takes the audience on a metaphorical journey into movement: "Allow me to introduce myself. I am movement. And this is my film. With me is life. But what is without me? What is my essence? I try to comprehend what I am. Dancing. I show and observe myself at various locations. I wake up in water, explore boundaries in the chaos of the city. I recognize my inevitability, and yet I lose myself on the path to my freedom. Music accompanies my excursion into the world, through five chapters in different scenarios." In this liaison of film and dance, the camera itself becomes the protagonist's expression – and it dances.

ARRI Rental Munich provided the Hydroflex underwater housing, the Zeiss Zoom LWZ 15.5.-45mm T2.6, and other equipment for the shoot. DP Mateusz Smolka, a graduate of Munich's HFF film school, answered some questions about this extraordinary graduation project by Elisa Maria Nadal (screenplay and director) for ARRI Rental.

ARRI Rental (AR): Can you describe for us the background to the project, and your role in it?

Mateusz Smolka (MS): “Prisoners of the Body” is the final school project of director Elisa Maria Nadal at the HFF Munich (Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München). I was the cinematographer on this project. It is an experimental dance film in which movement – spoken by a narrator – goes through a series of stages. Each of the six episodes is illustrated through dance. The underwater scene we are talking about here is the film's first episode and symbolize the birth of movement.

AR: Did you already have experience with underwater filming that you could fall back on for this shoot? 

MS: I gathered some experience a few years ago shooting a fashion commercial that played entirely underwater. But I only shot that with a DSLR camera and a small underwater case. “Prisoners of the Body” was my first truly professional underwater shoot.

AR: How much did the underwater aspect change how you approached the project?

MS: The underwater shoot brought with it a lot of work on technical issues and involved a lot of time. The biggest challenge in this episode was to create an environment for our lead role, the dancer, in which he felt comfortable and safe.

AR: How did you prepare specifically for the underwater scenes?

MS: First of all, we created a precise set mock-up with the aid of a 3D program, which meant I could try out and determine many of the settings in advance. In close collaboration with our underwater operator Daniel Reger and the dancer Gonzalo Cruzinha we went through the entire sequence and decided the order for shooting the scenes. The biggest challenge was time. Our dancer couldn't stay 7 meters down for more than 30 - 90 seconds without taking a breath, and yet we had to film a four-minute choreography in one day.

AR: What films did you watch in advance that were also shot underwater?

MS: THE SHAPE OF WATER by Guillermo del Toro and AMA by Julie Gautier.

AR: Which camera and lenses did you use, and why?

MS: We filmed the entire project with the ARRI ALEXA Mini. It was the perfect size for our needs. This film demanded a wide variety of camera movements, and we shot most of the scenes with a gimbal and camera robot. For the underwater scene the camera was mounted in a Hydroflex submersible housing, which came from ARRI Rental, as did the Zoom lens. The housing enabled us to operate the camera entirely out of the water, which gave us control over the focus, zoom, aperture and all other settings, and it meant we had a good video picture above water.

We shot the entire underwater scene with a Zeiss LWZ 15.5 – 45mm T2.6 Zoom. This lens fits perfectly into the Hydroflex housing and the Zoom's range was big enough for the entire scene, so we saved a lot of time not having to change lenses.

AR: How did you approach the lighting issue? 

MS: The task for this set was to illuminate everything in such a way that the actor could move freely throughout the entire 360-degree radius. To achieve that we put three low-volt bulbs in our Practical lamps underwater. We used bigger HMI Lights from above – i.e. from over the water – for our main light source, and we also added some accents with smaller HMI lamps through underwater round windows in the sides of the pool. As time was at a premium and we didn't have the chance to perform lighting tests in advance, I built a model of the entire location in a 3D program and determined the best way to set up the lighting for the scene in advance.

AR: Did you have to take any special safety precautions for the shoot?

MS: Well electricity was something we had to be very prudent with. All the lights and cables had to be secured additionally and with great care, so that there was absolutely no risk of them coming into contact with the pool. Everything that was connected to an electric cable and that led into the water was not connected up to the grid, but run on battery power. For instance, our entire camera system was powered by rechargeable block batteries.

AR: What would you say were the main challenges?

MS: Apart from the technical things that required a lot more work than usual, the weightlessness and resistance under water were the biggest factors. Much of the vitality of dance comes from combining different speeds, and that is much more difficult to accomplish in water. So we were forced to shoot an unusually large number of camera angles, in order to be able to show the dynamism of the movement, later in the editing process.

AR: Who and how many people filmed underwater?

MS: There were four people in the water: the dancer, an underwater operator and two underwater assistants. One assistant worked closely together with our underwater operator Daniel Reger. The other one took care of our actor, so that he got into the right position and always had a supply of oxygen. Another person from the Movienaut team took care of everything else that had to be done out of the water; such as swapping the air tanks and preparing all the diving equipment.AR: How did the dancer prepare himself for dancing underwater?

MS: Gonzalo Cruzinha had done an apnoe diving course well in advance of the shoot – to learn the breathing techniques and prepare mentally. We had to hide weights under his clothing to enable him to perform some of the movements.

AR: How did you manage the breathing underwater? How long could the dancer stay submerged?

MS: The collaboration with Movienaut and Gonzalo enabled us to stay underwater for up to 40 minutes at a time. The safety diver had two long air hoses and escorted the dancer to his starting position. Gonzalo gave a signal when he was ready, the hose was removed and he could dance for 60-90 seconds. At his second signal he was brought the air tube again and stayed submerged during the playback and lighting changes.

AR: Where did you film? How difficult was it to get the location?

MS: We had the Fire Department's training pool as our location. It was perfect for our needs. It had a mobile platform that could be moved from a depth of 50 cm to 7 meters. Our production designer was able to build an entire room on the platform, which we could then sink below the surface at the press of a button. And there were round windows in the side of the pool that we could light through easily. As it was a film school project, we didn't have any major difficulties procuring the location

AR: Were you happy with the equipment and support you received from ARRI Rental?

MS: We were extremely pleased with ARRI Rental's support. It gave us great advice and helped us put together a perfect set for our requirements. The shoot wouldn't have been possible without the Hydroflex submersible housing. In particular the team from Movienaut and our Dry Technician Sascha Mieke, who has a lot of experience shooting under water, gave us excellent tips and made us feel a lot more confident about what we were doing.