Filming the Deep: Margaret Cohen on Underwater Film Technologies

"The book is about the importance of film for enabling audiences to connect to the most remote environment on the planet."

In this conversation, Stanford professor Margaret Cohen and John Plotz discuss The Underwater Eye: How the Movie Camera Opened the Depths and Unleashed New Realms of Fantasy. The conversation first appeared in Recall This Book, a Brandeis-based scholarly podcast that is affiliated with both Public Books and the New Books Network: hear the full conversation here. John’s previous conversation partners on Public Books/Recall This Book include Robert Lee, Samuel Delany, and Kim Stanley Robinson.

JP (John Plotz): Margaret, friend, colleague—welcome. I’ve been scheming to get you on Recall This Book for a long time. It’s great to have you. Can you tell us about your wonderful new book?


Margaret Cohen (MC): The book is about the importance of film for enabling audiences to connect to the most remote environment on the planet: the ocean. The second important through line—which I only discovered in 2019, when I went to the studio of a famous engineer and diver named Pete Romano, who makes water housings and shoots underwater—is the importance of water as a medium for creating very beautiful and evocative imagery.


JP: I have a couple of technical questions. What ways are there of seeing underwater, and how are they different? If we have a scuba mask on, there’s air between us and the water. How does that compare to what I might see if I open my eyes underwater? Is that a meaningful distinction?


MC: First of all, if you don’t have a layer of air between the water and your eye, it’s irritating, but second of all, you can’t focus because light needs to refract. The refractive properties of water are not sufficient for us to be able to focus. Also, when you open your eyes underwater, you see very differently from the way you see on land because water is 800 times denser than air. So, you can’t see very far. If you go into a pool and open your eyes, you’ll note how distance just fades off. The color changes, the red lane markers turn kind of brownish and start to lose their clarity.


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JP: Do you think that by the time underwater film technology arrived and made it possible to really see underwater there had already been cultural space made for it? Maybe by the Victorians, who loved natural history and technology?


MC: Like the Victorians, I adore aquariums and seaside naturalism. But prior to writing the book, it hadn’t crossed my mind that at the same moment that the aquariums were getting started and people were so fascinated with the undersea, the technologies necessary to explore the ocean already existed in industries like diving and salvage. The leading salvage divers and marine engineers in London were just a couple of miles away from the London Zoo. But people just were not interested in actual undersea conditions. The technology was there, and of course there was growing knowledge of the undersea with these pioneering oceanographic exhibition expeditions around the world. But it took the movie camera to get scientists to realize that they could dive. In 1914, underwater footage was first shown to a scientific audience, and the scientists were absolutely captivated. As I talk about in the book, they said they were discovering species they had never known before.

But why weren’t they interested in the deep sea in the first place? Natasha Adamowsky’s recent book points to an abiding fear of the depths.1 I do think that the underwater realm is scary. But another element of this story is a class divide between the scientists and the divers. The industry divers were not in communication with the elite scientists.

JP: That reminds me of another way you talk about our relationship with the deep ocean: knowledge versus mastery. The ocean is this other realm here on earth. We had neither knowledge nor mastery of it, but then there was suddenly this possibility of knowledge without mastery. How do you think about those two categories?


MC: The Marxist paradigm for thinking about the relationship between the human and the natural world is a relationship of technological mastery. Technology captures the energy, the potential of the natural world, and turns it into a servant for good or evil. But when you’re contending with this vast force…


JP: The unmasterable sea! And in contrast to the ultimate vulnerability of the human body. You actually spend a lot of time, in really wonderful detail, unpacking the not exactly fetishistic but certainly technophilic quality of what it means for people to be geared up for undersea exploration. You seem to think that part of the appeal of these films is the gear.


MC: Absolutely. I’m trying to remember the budget for Thunderball. Maybe it’s $800,000 to shoot that amazing underwater fight scene. It’s certainly a gadget-filled wonderland. I think the fascination with technological innovation is that it enables us to engage with such an unruly environment, both emotionally and practically.


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JP: Where are the other amazing filmographic breakthroughs? 20,000 Leagues under the Sea? Flipper?


MC: I structured the book around breakthroughs, actually. So, for example, the 1916 20,000 Leagues is really quite an extraordinary film. It was filmed with the first technology for filming underwater, which was an enclosed sphere where the camera operator was enclosed in air and had the instructions coming down from the surface via voice communication. And this film featured extended underwater sequences of a length that you won’t see till Thunderball.


JP: Yeah, that funeral procession, for example, minutes long and filmed completely underwater.


MC: Oh, in the funeral procession—talk about technology! That was made using a closed-circuit breathing apparatus designed for the military during World War I, which was very dangerous. Witnessing the marvels of the sea in the first sequence, seeing sharks for the first time on film—I mean, sharks that size do not survive in aquariums. You even have the hunters and the sharks in the same frame. It’s not faked. That’s a revelation.


JP: Can we talk about the notion of filming from the sea creature’s view? That Man Ray film called The Starfish tries to depict how people might look when glimpsed by the starfish that they are looking at.


MC: Surrealism was the last artistic movement to take the sea seriously. The surrealists were fascinated with underwater optics and the behavior of bodies underwater as a means of opening up a domain of surreality, of other ways of seeing. Man Ray didn’t have the technology to actually film underwater, so he was extraordinarily clever with different ways of blurring the lens and shooting through stippled glass.


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JP: I really love how you set up the duality between two unavailable and now potentially attainable realms of the mid-20th century: space and the sea. When I teach science fiction, my students think in terms of space films that start coming out in the ’60s. But you persuaded me that a lot of this is happening through the concept of underwater. It’s a lens through which people can think about space as an alien but available atmosphere.


MC: Technologies to access space and the undersea both emerged from the Second World War and were developed in the 1950s and regarded as equivalent realms for human exploration. There was a lot of interest in the potential for undersea colonization. But then, by the 1970s, the cultural focus and the resources of the United States had shifted to outer space. And although the undersea is heavily engaged with by professionals—you know, submarines, undersea cables—it’s not captivating to the general public. Instead the fantasy is going to the moon, going to Mars. It’s Star Trek, it’s Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Why space should take on that charisma and the undersea should lose out when it’s such a productive realm is a puzzle. Perhaps it’s easier to fantasize about what you don’t actually have to engage with in a nitty-gritty way. The deep sea is very obviously a space that requires professional expertise. And in that way, fantasy just can’t roam free.

JP: Did you have any unexpected research or film discoveries while you were writing the book? Something that sent you off in a whole new direction?


MC: One film that is underappreciated in the US is Luc Besson’s The Big Blue. It’s a French cult film about rivalry between free divers, and it has the most stunning underwater imagery that was filmed with a very low budget. It was influenced by surrealism, influenced by the ability to create these fantasy scenarios using water. In fact, I have a small color insert in my book because one of the challenges was how to write about a multicolored medium while only being able to show it in black and white. We ended up putting a small color insert inside. And a disproportionate number of the images are from The Big Blue, because they’re stunning.


JP: It looks amazing. I went right out and saw the Man Ray film, but I haven’t seen The Big Blue yet.


MC: Another strong endorsement from me is Creature from the Black Lagoon by Jack Arnold.


JP: Oh my God, love that. 1954.


MC: I was looking up IMDb trivia, and apparently Ingmar Bergman watched it every year on his birthday. It was inspired by Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who filmed The Pearl, which is a masterpiece of Mexican cinema. It’s just really beautiful. The underwater sequences are very innovative, but even more so is this interspecies love affair, which is presented mostly as longing from the side of this very sympathetically depicted creature. It seems to me, although the creature gets integrated into Hollywood conventions, it is extraordinarily moving, and that underwater sequence between the creature and the scientist assistant is just a memorable, beautiful scene. It stands out. Guillermo del Toro was inspired by it in making The Shape of Water, which won Best Picture in 2017, but I didn’t include it because its underwater sequences are shot dry-for-wet. But he also gives sympathy to both sides of the story. Both the creature and then the woman in love with him.

I just want to continue this in this vein. Because now I’m about to scroll through all the grade-B disaster movies from the 1950s, like the Attack of the Giant Crab Monsters.


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JP: It always comes from the Mariana Trench.


MC: You’re going to get me talking about my favorite place! It all connects together. I live off Monterey Bay, and the mountains go down into the sea and into this deep ocean trench, and just five to ten miles offshore that goes down to almost 5,000 feet.

To circle back to your question about knowledge and mastery, I think underwater filming is a history of working in the most challenging environment for creating imagery on earth. It’s a history of unceasing technological innovation, and creativity to make up where innovation falls short. You see a natural environment being constructed that has never before been seen, and you witness imagination in process in a way that it’s there in very few other environments on earth. You can think of parallels, like with the high mountains, but it’s quite unique. icon

  1. Natasha Adamowsky, The Mysterious Science of the Sea, 1775–1943 (New York: Routledge, 2015), 149.
Featured image: Sean Connery in Thunderball (1965) / IMDb