How to Shoot Underwater VR Travel Videos
From stitching tips to camera techniques, learn from our trials and tribulations shooting underwater VR with the 360Abyss
As the co-founders of superswell VR, Wasim Muklashy and I are always searching for new ways to create cutting-edge 360 videos and share them with the world. We heard about fine artist Doug Aitken’s traveling exhibit, called “Underwater Pavilions,” and knew we needed to immortalize it in 360 degrees. So we assembled our dream team—Eve Cohen, our uber-talented DP and scuba hero and Breanna Wilson, our co-host and resident mermaid—and headed to Catalina Island, where the swim-in, swim-out installation debuted.
There are not that many underwater 360 cameras on the market, but we wanted the best. So we rented the 360Abyss from Radiant Images. The Abyss utilizes six GoPro Hero3 or Hero4 cameras, an aluminum core and high-strength polycarbonate to film spherical content under the sea.
What follows are tips and tricks that we learned while filming with the Abyss camera during our underwater shoot on Catalina Island.
Get a Dive Master
Scuba diving is hard enough as it is. Couple that with managing a shot list and monitoring equipment and you have a mighty tall order. Someone has to be looking out for your safety, and our dive master extraordinaire was Dave Lieberman, the owner Diving Catalina. He kept his eye on us and the surrounding conditions the entire time we were in the water.
Keep a Firm Grip on the Abyss
With the Abyss camera, you can capture footage while swimming, holding the camera by its legs. However, you’ll want to keep your arms steady and locked, taking special care not to turn the camera. If the axis rotates, your viewers might feel nauseous when they watch it in a headset.
Face the Primary Camera
If you plan on getting shots where you swim with the Abyss, position camera one, the primary camera so that it’s facing you the entire time. Not only will this help your stitcher overcome ghosting issues in post, it will also help you search for the specific shots and help you figure out which sections are worth stitching in the first place.
Use GoPro Brand Batteries Only
During our test day, one of our cameras died suddenly, which meant that any footage captured afterward would be unusable.
Bring Extra Charged Batteries
You’ll want to bring extra sets of charged batteries and change them out after you’ve fine-tuned your settings and right before you get in the water. That way, you’ll have maximum battery life. The last thing you want is have to get out of the water and open up the camera to change out the batteries, which would be a huge time suck and place unnecessary strain on the crew.
Organize Your Cards
Develop a system to organize all of your micro SD cards so that all of camera one’s shots are on the same card, all of camera two's shots are on the same card and so forth. It doesn’t have to be a sophisticated system.
Adjust Your Settings Based on Changing Conditions
Consider the weather when adjusting your settings since coastal conditions can change pretty dramatically. It was overcast during our test run, so we shot at a 1600 ISO limit. The following day, the weather was bright and beautiful for the first half of the day and then cloudy during the better part of the afternoon. The changing conditions were frustrating for us, but sometimes you need to think about splitting the difference in order to save time.
Don’t Depend on Seeing Wildlife
Each time we’ve taken the ferry to Catalina island, we’ve seen dolphins. Based on these observations, we made the mistake of writing a dolphin sighting into our script—Mother Nature is not something you can bet on.
Shoot in Native Color
For the most color information, shoot in native. We debated back and forth about this, but if you know you are going to color-grade the footage in post, native color is the safest best.
Suit-Up at the Last Possible Minute
Definitely wait until all of your equipment is set up and ready to go before you put on your wetsuit. You won’t have much flexibility once you’re suited up.
Prep Your Crew for a Long Shoot
Make sure your crew are strong swimmers who are prepared to spend hours in the water. The currents were extremely strong off the coast of Catalina, which made it harder to steady the camera, and it tired us out easily.
Knowing what we know now, our advice is to plan on no more than one to two dives a day. The health and wellbeing of the crew are of utmost importance, and you need them to be alert so they don’t get hurt out there.
Prepare to Spend Extra Time Stitching
We knew going into this project, that the footage would be far too complex for any auto-stitch program. Kolor Autopano Video Pro, the software we chose, struggled to auto-stitch overlap points between the six individual cameras. This is usually not a problem for simpler 360-degree videos—when the camera is locked down, subjects are far enough from the camera to be in the parallax-safe zone and when there are numerous distinct background objects to serve as reliable reference points for the stitch.
We had to force a stitch in areas where there was a lack of reference points to lock to. Another issue was prominent parallaxing caused by the camera operators proximity to the Abyss. In some cases, our arms were cut-off. Despite these challenges, our stitcher—Jimmie Rhee at Virtuality Lab—achieved an acceptable stitch with most of the takes. However, there were a few takes that were just impossible to stitch due to our limitations of reference points and parallaxing.
We hope that you learned from our trials and tribulations shooting underwater with the Abyss camera and wish you the best of luck on your shoot. Feel free to ask me and Wasim any questions about shooting with the Abyss camera in the comment section below. For more 360-degree experiences, check out the superswell VR and Joan Jetsetter YouTube channels. Check out our underwater 360 video here.
The pre-production, field production and post-production of our "Underwater Pavilions" shoot were a collaborative effort. The project was made possible by superswell VR, Radiant Images, Virtuality Lab, Diving Catalina, Catalina Express and Visit Catalina. Special thanks to Eve Cohen, Jimmie Rhee, Breanna Wilson, Gerardo Lechuga, MOCA Los Angeles and the Doug Aitken Workshop.