Underwater Cinematographer, Carly Brenner Hunter
All things Underwater for Cinema with Carly Brenner Hunter.

Carly Brenner Hunter is an Underwater Specialist from Toronto, Canada and runs a company specializing in consulting, crewing, shooting, safety and rentals for underwater filming.

How did you combine your passion for the water and camera?

I started off in the camera department, straight out of film school at 21 years old. We have a camera trainee program with our union, IATSE 667, which is basically a low paid internship that introduces you to different crews, formats, camera systems, etc.

My last show in the program, Resident Evil 4, had a water unit. I was mesmerized. I knew right away I had to figure out how to get involved. After the program, I flew to Thailand for a 4 months backpacking trip. My first stop was Koh Tao, where I learned to scuba dive.

My first drink of air in the pool, I literally stood up and said “this is what I’m doing with the rest of my life”. My instructor had to turn my air off to get me out of the pool.

I ended up travelling for the better part of 3 years, but ultimately looked for a reason to come home. In Canada, you have to be a certified commercial diver to actually perform any work underwater. So I ended up going back to school to get this certificate. It was an intense year!

I learned to use power tools, weld, etc all underwater. Nothing to do with film. After that I struggled to get my spot back in the industry, I worked really hard and built my brand, Carly Underwater. Now my bread and butter is shooting underwater and water safety, though I will still work as a focus puller or camera operator topside.

What is involved as an UW cinematographer or on-set as water safety crew?

The slogan for my company is: all things water for cinema. Consulting, crewing, rentals and safety.

So I like to get as involved as possible, and know as much about the shoot as possible! As the cinematographer, I work with the primary cinematographer to set the lights, frame, and coordinate the best way to get the shot.

All things underwater with Carly Hunter
Carly combined her passion for the water and cinema to create her own company, Carly Underwater. Photo: Carly Brenner Hunter

What is involved in organising an underwater shoot? What are the additional challenges compared to shooting on land?

Shooting underwater can be very involved, or very straight forward. The biggest challenge is prepping the camera and keeping it safely enclosed in a housing that will interact with the lens choices for the overall look of the film.

In terms of safety, having the commercial dive team around covers this. But there’s other elements to consider. As a Canadian, I am always following the weather for an exterior shoot. And usually carry multiple exposure suits to work, and choose the best based on water temp, air temp and comfort.

Since I work in drama most, I am always concerned for the actors’ safety. This means knowing what their wardrobe is made of, (wedding/period piece dresses get VERY heavy in the water), and making sure they can stay warm too! 

What type of locations do you work in?

Since I predominantly shoot drama, I am mostly in pools. We have built sets and sunk them, or most often black out pools. There isn’t a purpose built tank in Toronto, but productions often build a tank to suit their requirements. I have helped consult on depth requirements to get the shot they need, and connect production with tank suppliers. 

They often crank the temperature of the tank to body temperature or even a degree above. Being submerged in water all day, will drop your core temp if it isn’t that warm. This is also a hazard as a diver, because I have overheated on set, and become dehydrated. But for the actors to stay warm all day, it’s necessary. 

What is the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job?

If a show was shot in Toronto in the last 4 years, and has underwater scenes, there’s a very high chance I was the camera operator. Challenging shots are obviously the most rewarding, tracking shots and stunts, etc.

But to be honest, everyone loves the look of underwater, so my job is always rewarding. The DPs and directors always compliment my work. The most challenging part is maintaining my buoyancy as necessary while paying attention to the frame. Practice makes perfect, which is why you really need extensive dive experience to handle cameras underwater. 

What additional equipment do you need for UW shoots?

I have used it all, and won’t give away my exact trick 😬.

I am open circuit but have a special regulator I choose if I am not required to wear full face for communication systems.

Being 8 weeks postpartum, for tomorrow’s shoot I have 2 options of exposure suit. A 3mm Mares wetsuit, or my drysuit. They’re the only 2 that fit me at the moment!

I usually travel to set with all of my exposure suit options, dry suit (option thermal underwear), 5mm, 3.5mm shorty, 3mm long, shorts & rashy. You really never know what the conditions will be, and I have to be prepared in any direction.

Carly Brenner Hunter with her underwater camera equipment.
Ready for a water shoot. Photo: Carly Brenner Hunter

What qualifications do you need to become an UW cinematographer or to specialise in water safety for cinema?

In Canada, you have to be a certified commercial diver, or occupational scuba divers. A recreational licence is not good enough.

Each country is different, so know the regulations where you shoot! To be proficient with a camera underwater, you don’t just have to be a scuba diver. You have to be a competent diver, who can control your buoyancy, while framing a shot. Practice makes perfect.

Read More: Q&A with a Canadian Commercial Diver 

Tell us about your scuba diving experiences!

I have lost track of my recreational dives, I would guess somewhere in the 500s, my commercial dives are all logged by hours. The deepest I have been is 178 on surface supplied air to train, which was a decompression dive, requiring time in the hyperbaric chamber.

My all time favourite site is the Yongala Wreck from Townsville in Australia! Saba Island in the Carribean is spectacular, and so is Bonaire! For cold water local diving I am a regular in Tobermory, Ontario… we have a lot of incredible shipwrecks.

Describe your most memorable diving experience.

Snorkelling with a whale shark on Ningaloo reef in Oz was pretty amazing.

Most memorable could be black tips sharks on the Aliwal Shoal! Or maybe following a bull shark in Thailand during my advanced open water course. I could keep going for this one.

For professional, I guess just big name dives, like shooting Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America!

To see more of Carly’s work, head over to her Instagram and check out Carly Underwater.

Emma was initially terrified of the deep ocean but dived into scuba diving in 2013, and hasn't looked back since! She worked as an underwater videographer for several years and is now a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer. She currently runs a dive shop on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand and is the founder of Down To Scuba.