A couple months ago, Ballantine‘s approached me with the most amazing assignment ever:

“We love what you do and want to support you as part of our Stay True campaign. Is there anything you’d like to do that you’ve never done before?”

To receive such complete freedom from a client is almost unheard of – add onto that a budget for both the production and creative teams?

Now that was a dream job come true.

MAKING OF: BALLANTINE’S PRESENTS VON WONG’S UNDERWATER RIVER

Ever since my last underwater photoshoot, I had dreamt of kicking things up a notch but simply didn’t have the resources to make it happen.

I had this grand idea: To recreate the iconic scene of a young Chinese cormorant fisherman hard at work on a bamboo raft – shot 30 meters underwater in a cenote just above a toxic layer of hydrogen sulfide.

Traditional culture as a whole, is something that is inexorably fading with time. I wanted to create a piece that would immortalize a piece of my own culture – the iconic cormorant fisherman. By placing him directly above an underwater river, within this portal that was believed to lead to the mayan underworld, seemed like the perfect way to bid farewell to a proud tradition.

Transforming that idea into a reality was not going to be easy.
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Scouting + Concept Doodle ft. Rich Schmittner my safety diver

As a general rule, taking underwater portraits is extremely complicated. Simple tasks like breathing, communicating. posing and moving become a lot more complex whilst standard lighting rules and equipment requirements change completely.

Transport that shoot 30m underwater and suddenly things become exponentially more complex. Ambient light levels and visibility plummet, dive time is reduced significantly while the safety risks from potential malfunction increase.

Add onto that a toxic layer of opaque hydrogen sulfide and only five days in Mexico meant  we were really setting ourselves up for a challenge.

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 Nikon D800 |Nauticam Housing | Nikon 14-24mm | ISO800 – 16mm – f/4.0 – 1/100 sec

Underwater cameras, lights, rigging, props, scuba safety, freedive model, not to mention a stuffed cormorant – were just a few of the items on the list of things to prepare.

To tackle the numerous challenges we would be facing, Ballentine’s Scotch & Whisky helped assemble top notch talent critical to the project – from award winning commercial diver and DOP Rob Franklin, to model and free-diver Lance Lee Davis, along with an amazing dive support crew provided by Xibalba, local production house Yucatan Productions, as well as an elite film crew from Archer’s Mark to direct and capture the entire creative process.

Designing the underwater light setup was our first challenge. The goal was to have an ethereal moon-like glow over the entire set, combined with an underwater lantern and some cinematic side lighting.

To make that possible, Rob and his team had to first figure out where the lights had to be underwater, and how that translated relative to the surface so that they could align the lights, cables and generator properly. This meant diving down, securing a rope where we imagined the set would be and floating a buoy straight up to the surface.

Using that as a guide, 6x Orca Lights attached to a cheap plexiglass frame were then deployed straight from the surface – to approximately a 70 foot depth – just out of frame of my theoretical shot.

Since underwater gas lanterns don’t exist, we made our own by putting an orange gelinside a vintage lantern which we then duct-taped to a battery powered dive torch.

Last but not least, 2x additional Orca Lights were kept on batteries and handled by Kat, who would act as a mobile light source that could then be directed.

Nikon D800 | Nauticam Housing | Nikon 14-24mm | ISO3200 – 16mm – f/4.0 – 1/50 sec

Placing the props into the right position was our next big challenge.

A 50 lb, 3m long negatively buoyant home-made fiberglass boat had to be anchored at 30m depth. To control its buoyancy, four BCD’s were strapped onto the bottom of the boat. Holes were drilled along the fiberglass body to allow air to escape when the boat was lowered into the water.

Ideally, the boat would be bolted down to prevent it from moving regardless of air leakage. Unfortunately, since the shot would look best hovering over the underwater river, bolting it down wasn’t an option and instead had to be strapped down carefully to the debris beneath the toxic layer of hydrogen sulfide.

From there it was back to basics.

Lance would dive down, escorted by two safety divers ensuring that oxygen was only a couple seconds away when he would need it.

Simple hand gestures and an underwater dive slate were used to communicate with lighting and crew whilst Rich, my safety diver hovered an arms reach away, keeping a close eye on me and helping me manage my buoyancy so that I could focus on directing and shooting.

With only 20 minutes of shooting time underwater and 2 minute breathing-cycles for Lance, the shoot was frenetic and fast paced with little room for waiting around.

As I frantically clicked the shutter on my Nauticam housing, Lance went through a sequence of pre-practiced poses.

Staff Up. Staff Down. Crouch Down. Stand up. Look Down. Look Right. Fix Hat. Repeat. 

With each breathing cycle, we refined the poses, tweaked the position of the props and just like that. It was over.

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.Nikon D800 | Nauticam Housing | Nikon 14-24mm | ISO1600 – 16mm – f/4.0 – 1/50 sec

Epilogue

I believe that projects like these are important. They prove that nothing is impossible if you set your heart and mind to it.

Achieving amazing results is not simply a result of being lucky but of constant problem solving, amazing teamwork and believing in your ability to complete the vision you have in your mind.

If you can break down an impossible concept into bite-sized problems and relentlessly solve them one at a time, success can only follow.

Three years ago, I was just another mining engineer. Today, I’m a creative getting paid to make dreams come to life.

Dream the Impossible

BALLANTINE’S PRESENTS VON WONG’S UNDERWATER RIVER

Media Requests

Feel free to quote and publish the photos on your web publication (please credit Source: ”  Von Wong Blog –Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky – Von Wong – Epic Photography ” without nofollow). High-rez press images, BTS and more can be found in this dropbox link

Credits:

Photographer: VonWong
Partner: Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky
Agency: M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment
Model: Lance Lee Davis
Production: Paz Parasmand and Adam Booth, Archer’s MarkYucatan Productions
Video Director: William Williamson
Surface Camera: Will Hanke
Underwater DOP: Rob Franklin
Rigging/Support/Safety Divers: Kat Brown, Jack Stevenson, Xibalba Dive Center
Photo Assist: Geena M. Grim

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Von Wong holding his Nauticam housing - Photo by Archer's Mark

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