#BehindTheLens - Sumer Verma blows the gaff about what goes behind pulling off an underwater shoot, his special underwater project for Gehraiyaan and more

Shachi Lavingia
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Sumer Verma

In a recent conversation with cinematographer and Canon EOS Ambassador, Sumer Verma helped us understand the nitty gritties of underwater cinematography and left us wanting to scuba dive with him right away!

With sweat trickling down my forehead on a ridiculously sunny day in May, I was in conversation with India's first underwater cinematographer, Sumer Verma and was immediately transported to his world and who wouldn't be? It was all happening away from regular life, underwater, with the cast of Gehraiyaan for a special underwater project or for a cover shoot with Vogue for Alia Bhatt. For the uninitiated, Sumer Verma is the video genius behind Dobaraa, Haseena Dillruba, Tooth Pari and Saas Bahu Flamingo to name a few. His creative camera recording skills have given some of the finest results from underwater sequences in many Indian movies and after talking to him in depth, we realised what actually goes into these beautiful and aesthetically shot scenes we see onscreen.

Also Read: #BehindTheLens: Jubilee’s cinematographer Pratik Shah deep dives into his process, philosophy and Jubilee!

We spoke to Sumer about how he approaches an underwater shoot, his technique across his projects and so much more and here's what he has to say!

How difficult has underwater cinematography been vs other forms of videography?

It's a much harder form of cinematography because apart from all the challenges of cinematography in general, like framing, lighting, mood, movements, which can make artistic images, you have to coordinate all of that with actors and others in water where everything is much harder to do in terms of communication and movement. So there are many challenges with underwater cinematography but I love them all, and that's why I got into it in the first place.

How do you communicate underwater with the crew?

Well, between the divers who are underwater for my support, divers who are underwater for the safety of the actors and even the actors per se, with us prior to short, is with masks eye contact and signals like any scuba divers do. And that is all part of the training process. How to say okay, how to say not okay, how to say up, how to say down, and basic things like that. How to say out of air so that the driving instructor then can return the mouthpiece back to the actor. And as far as the entire bunch of us underwater between the director, it's all very sophisticated now. The camera and housing is passing a live view outside to the director's monitor who's sitting mostly on the edge of the pool, but he may be anywhere, but he's obviously at the shoot near the pool. He communicates with us through a Mic and an underwater speaker, so we can hear him very clearly say, move left, move, okay, it's looking good, roll camera, mouthpieces out and action. And then whatever else. And then cut. Then if he wants to know Sumer, are you ready? He asks me and I'll give an indication of okay into the camera which he can see on the monitor. So our communication is like that. We can listen to his instruction through the mic and it's fabulous.

Can you tell me a little more about the underwater shoot for Gehraiyaan and Vogue for Alia Bhatt?

I shot the promotional pictures with the cast and Amazon, prior to the release of the film. Where I had Ananya, Deepika and of course the two boys, in their kind of character as an underwater portage which was, splashed all over social before it came out. So that was my experience, which was more a still shoot. Now, of course, there are two genres of underwater photography in the realm of people, because otherwise the original genre is wildlife and nature and turtles and manta rays.

Now that I also do commercial work, it's either still photography assignments or then cinematography for feature assignments. So completely different from each other. And Gehraiyaan and the Vogue shoot were still shoots, which are, to be honest, much more relaxing and fun than doing cinema shoots. I'll explain why. So yeah, very good fun. Fantastic clothes for the Vogue shoot, of course, styled by Anita Shroff who's like the best. She's worked with me and given, you know, all my underwater shoot have been with Vogue with her as the stylist. So we have a good relationship. And it was fabulous to try to shoot those pictures with Alia Bhatt. At the same time, it is challenging also, there's a lot of pressure also in the fashion shoot, there's pressure because you have to deliver something fantastic.

Everyone's got a concept, you want to do a brilliant underwater shoot, just clear pool. We're going to give you Alia Bhatt, we're going to give you amazing clothes but you to still manage to deliver something fantastic in a small period of time. It's not that you have infinite time to keep shooting. So whether it's a sun movement, the lighting, water visibility, her body language, how her face is looking good, what's not looking good, because to make a person comfortable underwater is half the task. If they are tensed, if their eyes are squeezing, if their mouth is holding air, if their neck is tense, all these things don't tend to come across as a beautiful underwater picture. The person has to be relaxed, flowing, graceful, almost like a ballet dancer and a mermaid mindset, very relaxed, peaceful kind of vibes. So that all has to be trained, otherwise it becomes very difficult.

And of course, people need to also have control of their body, almost like a dancer's control and form then only you can make magic happen. Otherwise, it's very difficult work, and it's mostly thankless in the sense that you're doing fashion on land. If you're shooting 20 pictures, 15 will be good out of which your five will be brilliant, and you have a tough time choosing what you want. In underwater, you struggle sometimes to find one or two, which are good enough for print. So that's the challenge and the pressure!

You worked on such different films over the last few years. How different has your

experience been across these projects, from the Dobaara, Hassen Dilruba, to Saas, Bahu and Flamingo

Each one of them is totally different thing. What does it mean to do cinematography for a feature film? We have to articulate a sequence, there's already a clear storyboard, there's already a brief if they are in a well, or they are in a lake, or they're in a river. It's a car falling in, it's a bus falling, there is a fight sequence, there may be a romantic love scene. So whatever it is, it's already decided. It's part of the script, it's part of the story. There's a cinematographer who's shooting the rest of the film as per the director's vision. And they come to you for one part to execute the underwater parts, which means help visualise what they are seeing, train the actors to be able to perform it and then shoot and light it in a way to be able to deliver them more than they expected.

It's different from creating something in fashion where you got a concept, but you are going to try to create something out of the box and here you are trying to articulate their vision to the T and give them something even more. So it's a different kind of challenge, but we have time to prep for it. We have time to train for it. We train the actors, we do a test shoot with my other camera. We see this stills, how it's looking. We discuss the backdrops, we discuss the lighting. We may test the lighting, and then we will shoot the sequence. We may put in the artwork, whether it's rocks, whether it's plants, whatever the props, the sets are, we'll have VFX on set to discuss what they can clean out later, what we have to shoot live for them and it's such a big beautiful collaboration which goes through to making this happen. So it's wonderful fun.

But the negatives of that, if at all, are that is very exhausting work because you work by the film shift, which is 12-hour shift, 8 to 10 hours in the water with the camera, whether it's cold water, whether it's warm water, it doesn't matter. You have to get it done and that becomes excruciatingly tiring. Your body cramps up, and you lose energy. So you have 3, 4, 5 days of back-to-back shoot. One way. It's good. You're living your dream, you wanted to do this, and you're making the money you make as a cameraman through this work. The cinematography work is my bread and butter. Wildlife is my passion. Brand-based content building, I'm now working on, I've built a studio for myself in Alibaug it has good quality of water. And over there I'm building concepts and working with now people to encourage brands one way or the other, to start thinking about their products or their brand being represented in some kind of underwater imagery. So we'll see how it goes. But right now it's mostly films and feature work. So every time it's different, you don't know what you're going to get.

What kind of equipment do you use when you're shooting underwater? Are there any specific

Canon cameras or lenses that work best in that environment?

Well, basically we use cinema cameras when we shoot underwater and cinema cameras basically have much better specs and latitude in terms of all the ways they can collect light and detail and information so that you have the most latitude for post-production work going forward before you're going to actually put that content out. So for this cinema work, we obviously use the Cine line of cameras, be it Canon, Alexa, Red, but it's always the Cine line with their prime lenses, which work best. And for more of the ocean and wildlife kind of stuff, obviously all the new rage, which is truly fantastic. I recently had an experience with, Canon R5 with a housing in Indonesia when I was driving in Kamodo. And in fact, a colleague of mine has it, I still have the Canon 1DX which is the DSLR, and having the lightness of that, the result, the output. So for the ocean, I would always say, DSLR, and now I would be definitely a crossover to Mirrorless. And for the cinema shoots, it's definitely the Cine line up. So in Canon it's the C300, C700, those cameras really are the best.

How do you approach framing your shots underwater? Are there any specific techniques and

considerations to keep in mind?

Framing is an aesthetic. Framing is an eye, framing is a perspective. So you do it the way you instinctively feel it's right to do. There may have been rules in photography books about rule of thirds and balance and all of that, but of course, there are many, many concepts around what makes a good frame, and they're all valuable. Especially when you're working in photography and you have to balance the sky horizon versus the land or whatever else. There has to be a sense of balance. Then there has to be a sense of composition, aesthetic value and you try to incorporate that when you're doing feature film work, when you're doing a closeup of somebody in a part of a sequence, you have to balance him in. Obviously you're using sometimes anamorphic lenses, which are super wide and flatten the image in a different way. So you have to think also about the big screen, how it's going to be seen. I love cinema. I love going to the big screen. And then you are trying to create really dynamic visuals from the water to add that absolute wow factor to the production.

Is there any particular kind of lighting that you guys use during underwater show shoots? Are

there any challenges that you face while getting the right lighting in that environment? (For


As I said, our film and our sequence and a reason for being on the shoot is, its script driven, So script-driven means there's somebody car's falling off a cliff at 4:00 PM into the green pond. So everything about our short underwater will be designed to match that continuity, whether it's the lighting of 4:00 PM whether it's the color of the backups in the pool to make the water greenish. And the level of dirtiness we add later in post-production to keep it real because we can't have somebody falling into a green pond. And then the underwater sequence is crystal clear, beautiful, it doesn't work. I'm not shooting a music video. I'm making a real-life part of a real-life story.

So it's every time determined by that. And all our key lights are external light sources, specular lights like HMI and mould beams, and these large powerful lights, 15 kilowatts, 18 kilowatts, and they represent the sun. So that is the main primary source, which is the sunbeam. And then we have a lot of other soft lights, through diffusion from the sides of coming in, which provide a sense of fill and detail in the shadow so that you can see everything clearly because only the top light doesn't work. And then further, if we need, sometimes we bring in certain lights underwater, which are specially designed and like even small keynote bulbs, just to light up the eyes in a very dramatic sequence. So just a small piece of light for certain elements just to bring them into life. So you can control the drama through them. So we have a range of lights, external and internal, which we can use and we do use to bring these sequences to proper glossy Hollywood, Bollywood life.

How do you deal with the physical challenges of shooting underwater, like currents or limited


See, those things happen mostly in the ocean and most of our commercial shoots for cinema are in swimming pools, because in swimming pools you are able to control all the factors, in which case it's slightly easier to do something which is already very challenging, unless of course, for whatever reason, there's no way of avoiding shooting it in the ocean, for whatever reason, that is the absolute requirement. Then of course, one would shoot in the ocean. And for a couple of feature films, I have fielded very large cinema cameras in the ocean. And it was actually very good fun. But in terms of visibility, you have to plan and predict, especially in the ocean, you need to know which area. If you want clear water, you're not going to go to Malvan, you're going to go to Maldives.

You have to decide the location based on the visibility. Most times, obviously in the ocean, you're going for the clearest water and the best visibility conditions, the calmest water that has the depth. You have to have a proper support and safety team involved. And that's how you would plan. And, if there's bad visibility, there's nothing you can do to make things better. So you have to plan to get good visibility. In the swimming pool, we can certainly control it through the filtration, chlorination and ozonation of the water and keep the water clear for shoot condition. And of course, currents are a factor of tides and tides also are possible to study and understand and predict. And for a particular area, one can easily know if the current are rising, is it falling, is it pulling in? Is it pulling out? Is it going to be a big current play? Is it going to be a small current play? So all this knowledge help with deciding if certain areas are prone with current, that when to use those areas for shoot so that they're not going to be with tremendous current, because needless to save with a big fat current in the ocean, everything will become hundred times more difficult, if not impossible. It all goes into lots of planning and preparation and expertise in these areas, which basically I'm very lucky to have. And that is why I'm able to succeed in this career because it's a very rare profession to have, not only in India, but worldwide, because I was a diving instructor and lived and dived and did underwater photography by the ocean for more than 20 years between Lakshadweep and Andamans.

From the age of 20 to the age of 40, I was a scuba diving instructor and I lived in Lakshadweep and Andamans, I did wildlife and nature photography. So not only did I learn the art of photography and camera handling, but I also know obviously how to look after people in the water, teach them driving, and more. Therefore I can train the actors better and I can handle the big cameras better. So all the expertise you need for this field I've developed through other areas of diving and photography. So that now I'm in a position to execute these kind of difficult assignments.

How do you approach editing footage after a shoot? Are there any specific considerations you

keep in mind while working on underwater footage?

There are a couple of things that are vital frankly - to get the colours right, obviously as you go into the water and the deeper you go into the water, the colours, the light, the different colours of the spectrum start reducing in the reverse of the VIBGYOR. So the first light shade to start becoming lesser is red. And basically, you lose all the colours still eventually at deep depth you only see violet in blue completely. So when you want to bring back the beautiful stuff you're seeing in the water, it's obviously all about the colour. These fish, the coral reefs, everything is so vibrant and beautiful. So you want your images and videos to represent that. You don't want your images and videos to look like blue cast, blurred things, and now if you don't know about underwater photography and you don't understand the medium, your images will all look blue cast and blurred because the water is a blurring blue filter. So now how are you going to get sharpness at this and how are you going to get the natural colours back? Sharpness comes by using wide lenses under very beautifully designed dome glass. So you can shoot with focal lens of 1624, 28, 35 and more. So you shoot with wide lenses and you come closer to the subject and therefore you reduce the amount of water between your camera and the subject. That is the fundamental rule of getting clear underwater pictures. The further you are from the subject, obviously the more blurred and hazy and not good your images will be.

And in terms to impose production, bring back some red, the first colour, which goes, as I said, is red, and obviously some amount of intensity of light goes. So to add some brightness, to add some warmth, to try to get the white balance back to neutral, these are the keys to getting your underwater footage to look and natural, beautiful and possibly at its best.

Do you have any tips and advice for somebody who wants to start underwater cinematography?

You have to be extremely committed, patient and passionate if you want to truly succeed at it. If you want to do it as a hobby, it's wonderful fun to scuba dive and then adding a camera to that hobby and going in the ocean and diving is brilliant. It's addictive! People do it their whole life. They absolutely love it. And it's a real hobby, which gives them the sanity to live their urban lives. It's so good. If you want to do it commercially and professionally, as I said, there are a few avenues. There's fashion photography underwater to limited markets, whether it's advertising, honeymoon or fashion, these kind of areas. Then there is a travel editorial, which is travel to destinations and shoot be it, sea, ocean, and more.

And there's nature documentary, which we all know is challenging as it is. So these are the avenues of making a living as an underwater photographer or cinema cinematographer. And of course then there's a commercial area, which is photography and cinematography for film, web series, and all the other things we spoke about. And that is a big business. Now that's a big deal to get there, to be good enough to handle that pressure, expectations, demands and those challenges, you have to be really gone through the grind of 10 years, 15 years for being involved in a subject matter. Otherwise you will find yourself under prepared most times to deliver and that will not work well for you. So it's not easy. It's challenging, but obviously I proved it in a world, even 20 years ago when there was nothing - less support, less knowledge, less internet, less opportunities to master and pursue a passion for underwater photography that I can do what I do today.

So obviously it's possible. And today I work on so many good projects, even RRR and all of these things. So it's a privilege to work on these things and then get called, Travel and Leisure wants you to do a cover shoot in Maldives. And then you get called to do these feature film shoots. And then in my free time I go off and do my nature and wildlife photography and sell those artworks, which is another way a photographer can do something. So these are all the different genres. All of them have to be tapped and explored, truly then one can make a living doing this. And I already explained the fundamental of all that is the commercial stuff. You have to assist people, you have to learn, you have to master your scuba diving, you have to study your cinematography and lighting, but most of all, you have to master your ability to be comfortable in the water, have total control of yourself and your equipment.

And then of course also need a support team of safety people who understand those parameters of safety and planning for the actors and all. It's not only a question of getting some good footage. Actor comes in the water, if you are not in the position, you haven't planned properly and if he goes too deep, there can be a drowning incident anytime. It's not something which is so safe. You're under the water. You're doing a shoot. People are without air, without support in the middle of the pool or in the middle of the sea. And when they get out of air, the person who's giving the safety can't be dreaming because that person will drown. He has to be so far on the ball and so prepared to give that guy air, it's all the highest level of professionals. And that's the only way it happens. People have to trust you to give you this work. Ultimately that's it! I may have been able to do this work even 10 years ago in terms of my expertise and qualification, but it takes time to build a name, to build a reputation of safety and execution of good quality cinema. So both those aspects are fundamental to be a success in this field.

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Gehraiyaan Ketchup Talks cinematographer behind the lens Cinematographer Sumer Verma Sumer Verma Underwater cinematography Vogue shoot