Charles Maxwell’s underwater world – As Featured in ‘The Call Sheet’

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Friday, September 05, 2008 RssIcon

Article by vianne Venter

Published in The Callsheet - September 2008

CAPE Town-based underwater cinematographer, Charles Maxwell, has worked on numerous marine documentaries over the past 21 years, including the Emmy Award winning episode of The Blue Planet, Seas of Life; Planet Earth: Shallow Seas; and Air Jaws, which captured spectacular footage of great white sharks breaching in False Bay. With more than 40 years of diving experience, he is the first port of call for clients from the BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Mythbusters when it comes to marine wildlife on the South African coastline. Charles surfaced for a chat about his underwater adventures.

How did you get into the industry?
I had been a professional diver doing cave diving as a hobby for many years when, in 1987, I was invited to head a team of divers to explore and map the newly discovered Dragon’s Breath Cave, the largest underground lake in the world, situated in Namibia. While assisting the Swiss filmmakers on the documentary of our work, I became interested in filming underwater and bought my first underwater housing shortly afterwards. My first paid underwater filming job was on the Green Point sewage pipeline that broke during a big May storm. After diving into a huge cloud of raw sewage, I realised things could only get better. It really opened my eyes to how we are destroying our marine environment, an issue that has been with me ever since.

How accessible have you found the international market?
While challenging and rewarding, it is a very competitive market. I’m competing with wildlife filmmakers from all over the world, often with far greater resources and contacts. This industry operates by word of mouth and therefore builds momentum over time, so I’ve built up a long relationship with the BBC, National Geographic and others. South Africa is very fortunate from a marine wildlife filmmaking point of view though. It’s an area of unique and rich bio diversity, both marine and terrestrial. Our waters offer three different marine ecosystems - cold, temperate and semi-tropical - as well as seasonal coastal migrations of certain sharks, marine mammals and birds.

What format do you prefer to work in?
I personally prefer video to film. In the past there were strong arguments for the quality of film over video, but video has become an increasingly powerful, modern tool. With the quality now available through HD, it’s generally a less expensive, more versatile format. With modern cameras, lighting has also become less important. The HD cameras give you fantastic colour, so I mainly only use lighting for close-ups and very deep or dark conditions such as caves and wrecks.

How have you approached your unique technical and logistical challenges?
I spend as much time in my workshop developing unique equipment with the help of marine technician, Mike Patterson, as I do underwater. One of the challenges we face in Cape Town is wave action, as it’s quite a rough area to work in. I have a nice housing for an HD Camera, which is very big, and therefore very stable, but in turbulent water it can be extremely tiring to hold it steady. My favourite pieces of equipment are the three towcams I use, which consist of torpedo-shaped tubes with fins and adjustable ballasts to change the angle of the camera, which is mounted facing backwards. This allows us to tow it behind the boat and get animals to follow the camera. We don’t even need bait or a lure because animals like sharks, seals and dolphins are naturally curious, so they will follow the towcam.

What have you shot recently?
Sharkville, produced by Obsessively Creative, will premiere in South Africa on 3 September 2008. The underwater footage was shot on HD in Mossel Bay, which is a great place for white sharks but the underwater visibility is often poor. However, my underwater housing has extremely good optics that enhance the picture considerably. The most exciting aspect of Sharkville was a night white shark breach captured on a heat-sensing camera.

I have recently finished with the BBC production, Earth’s Great Events, where I used a towcam to capture dolphins racing towards a baitball, and I am presently wrapping up with another big BBC production called Life. I have been utilising my towcam and other methods to get images of seals chasing white sharks. It sounds very odd - don’t white sharks chase seals? Yes, normally they do, but if a seal sees a white shark coming, it will try to get behind the shark where it is safe and follow the shark until it can make a break for the safety of the island. I managed to get this sequence on standard definition but I still need to repeat the exercise in high definition.

Do your clients ever have unrealistic expectations?
All the time. I’m often asked to get key shots because the producers can’t find what they need amongst the thousands of hours of footage available in image libraries, but that material usually isn’t there because it’s very difficult to get. I wouldn’t say any shot is impossible, but sometimes you need to make the person sitting in the office on the other side of the world aware that it’s not going not be easy.

What’s been the highlight of your career ?
During the Natal sardine run in 2000, I managed to get unique footage of a baitball for the Emmy-winning Shallow Seas episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet series. After a few frustrating days of chasing gannets and dolphins, I came across some concentrated dolphin action and jumped into the water not really knowing what to expect as this had not been filmed before. At first, all I saw were lots of sharks, more sharks in one place than I had ever seen before. I had also seen a lot of humpback whales in the area, so when I spotted a dark shape in the distance, I assumed this to be one of them and swam towards it. I was confronted by the most amazing spectacle. A huge mass of sardines was being ravaged. As waves of dolphins and sharks crashed through the baitball, a hole would briefly open up and close again behind the racing predators. It was a total image overload. I was like a kid in a toyshop.

What’s your favourite shot?
One of my favourite shots was taken while filming a baitball. My camera was framed for a wide shot with dolphins and sharks rampaging through the baitball. Suddenly and totally unexpectedly, a Brydes whale came so perfectly into frame that I did not have to move the camera. Its mouth was wide open as it scooped up sardines before exiting the picture. The framing was so perfect that I could not have done better had I seen the whale coming. Luck plays a huge role in underwater camera work, so the more time you spend in the water, the more likely you are to get good footage.

What was your most dangerous situation?
I have had some close shaves with sharks but the more I get to understand marine animals, the further I can push the limits with a degree of safety. Surprisingly, my most scary filming moment was with a whale. Often referred to as gentle giants, whales can be positively grumpy and aggressive. I was filming a mother and calf pair of Southern Right Whales when the calf decided to swim close to me. My excitement at filming a whale at such close quarters was short lived when the mother charged me. The next thing that I can remember was swimming frantically on the surface of the water as the whale closed in on me, its enormous head swinging from side to side, its callosities, (those large patches of hard, rough skin) only centimetres from my face.

In desperation, I sank to the seabed eight metres below. I looked up to see the whale sinking towards me. I was about to be crushed beneath 40 tons of blubber! The sandy bottom was churned up and I lost sight of the whale. As the sand settled, I found the whale had, thankfully, moved just to the side of me. After a few seconds, which felt like hours, the whale slowly rose to the surface and swam away. My camera was rolling throughout but most of it was out of control.

An angry marine predator is bearing down on you. Do you keep rolling?
That’s actually a very difficult one. The mind works in strange ways under pressure. Often a shot has been a year in the planning and taken two weeks of filming to get. It sounds mercenary but getting that shot is of paramount importance. It becomes an obsession. All you’re concentrating on in the moment is your focus, exposure and white balance. In at least one situation, I’ve carried on filming while I was desperately trying to figure out what to do. For the long-awaited South African episode of French Television’s Ushuaia Nature, shot during the winter of 2006, we needed footage of legendary French adventurer and presenter, Nicolas Hulot, and marine biologist, Laurent Ballesta, swimming unprotected with white sharks near Dyer Island. We had spent many hours underwater but the white sharks, while ever present, had never come sufficiently close for that critical shot. As we were about to leave the water, a large white shark suddenly turned sharply and sped towards us. Fortunately, my HD camera was on standby with iris and focus set, so my first reaction was to hit record. As I swung the large camera housing to frame the shot, I realised that the other two were unaware of their predicament. I was still trying to decide whether I should hold the shot or warn the other divers when Laurent spotted the shark and grabbed Nicolas’ arm. The shark veered off less than a metre from them, and we had the shot.

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Article Courtesy of The Call Sheet.

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