Exclusive interview with Achtel Pawel, a wildlife filmmaker with a passion for underwater cinematography who has just won the Innovation Award for his cutting-edge underwater 3D film cameras at the prestigious StudioDaily Prime Awards in Las Vegas. We caught up with him to find out more about this innovative underwater camera system.
What made you start making underwater camera housings?
The introduction of large, high resolution sensors really showed up the short-comings of traditional underwater housings; by placing wide angle lenses designed for land use behind dome and flat ports, the optical performance was being greatly compromised and we were missing out on the improvements in quality available for shooting on land. All commercially available housings use wide flat or dome ports. These ports may have been adequate for small 2/3”, high definition sensors, but they cannot provide even the same high definition optical quality when the physical size of the sensor is larger. The limitation of the underwater imaging was the port hole, which decreased the optical performance well below the capabilities of large high-resolution sensors causing a range of problems: distortions, chromatic aberrations, astigmatism and image plane curvature, to name a few. As an inventor with a Master’s degree in structural engineer and a passion for underwater imaging, I wanted to do something about it. I decided to design and build a housing using optics that would not limit the quality of my underwater images. I also thought that other underwater film makers should have a better option that what was available on the market.
So, how did you solve the problem of distortions and loss of sharpness underwater?
As a scientist, I knew that, in order to improve anything, I needed a way to measure it first. So, I built an underwater optical bench and fully automated the process of quantifying optical performance by producing MTF (Modulation Transfer Function) charts, the industry’s standard way of measuring optical sharpness. I measured optical performance of a range of traditional dome and flat ports commonly used in underwater photography and motion picture. The results were both surprising and terrible. I found that not even an underwater IMAX camera could resolve standard definition quality away from the centre of the image frame. This was shocking discovery and made me realise that underwater imaging had a long way to go in order to match with what had been available on land for years. Out of curiosity, I decided to test an old, but highly praised, submersible Nikon Nikonos 15mm lens used decades ago for underwater photography. The results were simply unbelievable. After performing hundreds of MTF and distortion measurements under different conditions I realised that I may have found the holy grail of underwater imaging. These lenses not only produced no distortion, no aberrations and didn’t suffer from image plane curvature, they actually out-resolved the state-of-the-art 5k RED Epic sensor from corner to corner – easily. But, what was even more remarkable was that these lenses performed just as well at wide apertures – something that most land lenses struggle to achieve even when they’re not placed behind an underwater port which exacerbates the problem. This was critical discovery.
To my knowledge, Nikon Nikonos lenses, and the famous Nikonos 15mm in particular, are the only wide angle underwater optics capable of delivering undistorted and incredibly sharp images. No other housed lens solutions are able to come close to their remarkable sharpness and their optical performance underwater. These lenses no longer limit the quality of underwater images as they produce images sharper than even the highest resolution sensors are unable to resolve. As a result, I chose these lenses to create a new style of housing – one that did away with dome and flat ports altogether and enabled me to produce a much smaller and more streamlined housing than had been available before. We have now designed a patent-pending underwater lens mount that allows those lenses to be used for motion pictures.
The water environment lends itself to 3D. All the fish, plankton and animals are suspended floating in the underwater space. And the best way to experience this environment, short of scuba diving, is on a cinema screen in 3D. However, the distortions and aberrations that arise when using housings with flat and dome ports prevented us having a truly immersive experience underwater. Our eyes, and particularly our peripheral vision, are very sensitive to how we perceive the three dimensional space around us. With any hint of distortion or other image degradation to the magic of the immersion goes out the window, so to speak, and creates instead a perception of looking through a port hole. The introduction of non-distorting underwater lenses allows us to create a truly immersive 3D experience underwater for the first time in the history of 3D underwater imaging.
The 3Deep housing appears to have a fixed stereo base. Is this a problem?
As you may know, all underwater 15-70mm IMAX movies were shot with side-by-side underwater rigs with fixed stereo base of about 75mm or larger. All other underwater 3D digital movies except one (The Last Reef, 3D) shot for the large screen were also filmed with side-by-side rigs. It is more of a norm than an exception to use a large stereo base in underwater cinematography. All James Cameron’s Fusion rigs have large stereo base with side-by-side configuration too. This is not as critical underwater as it is on land because the background is never at infinity and most often is just a few meters away. Therefore the full Bercovitz formula should be used for estimating the depth budget underwater. However, for closer subjects and for macro work we are about to release what may be the world’s first wet beam splitters rig using a dual DeepX setup. The wet beam splitter rig will have a variable stereo base from 0 to at least 50mm. We intend to announce it soon.
What was the industry’s reaction to the release of your new housings?
I think they caused quite a stir in the community. There was a lot of disbelief and doubt, but when the images came out most people were speechless. Never in the history of motion picture had it been possible to get undistorted and sharp images from edge-to-edge when shooting underwater.
Haven’t your rigs just picked up the top prize for innovation at NAB in the States?
Yes, I’ve only just heard the news about that – and we’re thrilled. I’ve created these housings to make much better quality films. That’s my passion. I never expected to win awards for designing the equipment!
So, do you have any time left to make films yourself these days?
We’re now in pre-production and are discussing several large screen productions based in the oceans around Australia. And I go filming every opportunity I get! I’m working on a couple of large screen 3D films too – hoping to make the best use of these inventions and to show audiences the magic of the underwater world in a way that’s not been possible before.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Pawel left the city life of Sydney to build a film production studio in Tasmania, Australia. For the past 15 years he’s been making natural history films, mostly underwater and has filmed in locations from the equator to Antarctica. He’s also worked as a DOP on features and live performances, predominantly using cine-style camera setups. Pawel was the director, producer and filmmaker behind the highly acclaimed natural history film ‘Aliens of the Sea’. He has won many awards, including the ‘Best Documentary’ award at the New York International Film Festival, two awards at the International Wildlife Film Festival and the First Prize, Gold Camera Award at the US International Film and Video Festival.