Filming on a nuclear submarine 500 meters under the sea was an experience I will never forget. NMFR was hired by the local USS Santa Fe booster club to shoot a video about a Santa Fe chef going on board the USS Santa Fe to cook New Mexican food for the crew. Gene and I flew to San Diego along with 20 other “distinguished visitors” to meet the sub which had sailed from its home base in Hawaii for this special embark.
To prep for this trip I had to consider several factors.
- Equipment transportation: Two checked bags per person, we could take a max of four cases.
- Size of equipment: I knew the sub was going to be tight so I needed a small camera and lights. Fortunately, since it was a nuclear submarine, I knew there would be plenty of power so I brought all AC lights and didn’t have to bring a ton of V-locks.
- Fun fact: FAA requires passengers to carry on all batteries. You cannot check them.
Since it was just Gene and I on this shoot, I was doing all the lighting, rigging, sound and camera with some assistance from Gene. After several camera tests I settled on shooting with the Sony X70 because of its great picture and small size. This turned out to be the correct choice. I also took a GoPro to rig in the galley as a wide/B cam. For lighting, I took a Fiilex 302 because it was a complete kit in a small package and variable color temperature. I had no idea what kind of interior lighting submarines have so I needed to be able to match quickly. Their small size was also necessary. Included in the package was my new Westcott Flex. It’s extremely lightweight, low profile, high output design would be perfect for this type of environment. Also in the kit was some cardellinis, mafers, grip clips and the do-all Noga arm. I figured there would be many places to mount lights to and clamping would probably be better than stands. (It was, I did not use a single light stand). Sound department was my Audio technica 875 short shotgun and a MXL wired lavaliere. I packed everything into four cases: camera, tripod, lighting and AKS.
DIVE DIVE: Shoot Day
Call time was 0545. We were greeted at the base by PR Commander Barker who would be our escort on the sub. Our group had a quick breakfast at the aptly named Subway, went down to the dock and walked the gangway onto the sub. After a quick photo op, we descended down the hatch and were escorted to the crew mess.
The first thing I noticed was how tight the sub really was and how challenging this was going to be, not just fighting for a place to stand but to light everything as well. After a short welcome, crew introductions, and a safety briefing I was told that lunch was being served in an hour (it was 0900 hours) and I should get to the galley to start shooting. Ideally, I would have like to hang lights in the mess and galley, which I could work with all day but I did not have the time to do this.
I measured the interior fluorescent lights at 5700k with my Sekonic C700, so I put some Full CTB on the 32k Flex which brought it up to 5400k (close enough). I clamped it onto a shelf in the kitchen and shot it into the ceiling to bring up the ambient. The whole galley was stainless steel so the light bounced around nicely. I set a Gopro on a mafer with a Noga arm and clamped it to another shelf. I let that run for a couple hours to capture all the action when I wasn’t in the galley.
Shooting in the galley was tricky to say the least, 5-6 guys cooking for a crew of 150, going in and out of a kitchen the size of medium sized bathroom. Add my dumb ass and a camera following them around like it was Iron Chef. First thing I said to one of the Culinary Specialists (CS) was “just shove me out of the way if you need to” and he replied “No worries man, all good, do what you need to do.” I shot in the galley for a while and then went to the mess to get the food being served and consumed.
Next, I went down the hall to the ward room where the Captain and Executive Officers eat, but today it was the tour group who was joining the Captain. For that I just had to go with house light, which was sufficient. The Captain told the group lots of cool facts about the boat and how some of their systems like air scrubbers and water desalination work.
Commander Barker said I should go get some food while I had the chance so I loaded up on the delicious chow. For lunch they had bacon stuffed chicken, chili, wild rice, shrimp, salad, ice cream, and chocolate cake. Five minutes after I sat down I was told that the sub was diving and I should get to the control room to shoot that operation. I stuffed my face, grabbed the camera and went to Control. This area had the most classified material of any of the places we were shooting. Basically I was not to shoot any screens, which there were hundreds of. I stood in one place and shot the crew calling out commands and coordinates.
After the dive I finally got a break and was able to light for the upcoming “angles and dangles” and interviews with the culinary specialist. Angles and dangles is when the sub does very steep dives, ascends and rolls. Besides nearly sliding towards the nuclear reactor room, the only reference you have to the surface of the earth is the liquid level on the drink dispensers. Gene staged a couple of seamen by the dispensers and I shot them leaning in to get a drink. I clamped the Flex to the ceiling and shot it towards the guys.
Lighting for the interviews was one of the most fun setups I have done. Mostly because I was lighting on a nuclear attack submarine. It was simple, with two lights and some modifiers, it looked very good. I had the Flex as my key and the Fiilex as a backlight. I then hung a couple pieces of duvatine to block two house lights that were spilling onto the subject. I would have liked to have the backlight a little farther around back or flag it off so it didn’t spill as much onto the talents face but that was a limitation of lighting on a submarine. It still looked good.
Gene wanted a shot of a CS studying recipes in his rack (bed). These are extremely tight quarters so it was just me and the Flex again. I couldn’t even frame it out the space was so small.
Gene and I were then taken down to the torpedo room just because the Commander offered to show it to us. He asked if I wanted to climb into the torpedo tube and get a shot looking back out. I was not keen on climbing into a torpedo tube but was also not going to give up the opportunity to climb into a torpedo tube. I had to inch worm my way down the 24″ tube on my back while holding the camera, hoping that Gene wasn’t going to shut the hatch and shoot me out to sea :). The Commander then had a cool idea to open the hatch and look around with a flashlight. You’ll notice that my legs are on the shot, there was no way I could position myself to frame them out. I felt like a cameraman from Dirty Jobs. (Fun Fact: they gave me a grease pencil to sign the inside of the tube, I will forever be a part of the USS Santa Fe, or until they wash it.)
The last part of the the day was probably the best. The crew saved the final trip up to the sail for me to get an EXT shot of the sub coming back to the harbor. I got harnessed up and climbed up 3o rungs, camera in hand, GoPro on belt. Awaiting me atop the sail was a sight I will never forget. I’ll paint a picture: The 360′ USS Santa Fe gracefully powers through the water, the dark grey sea pouring over her bow. The captain and his crew stand on the sail calling coordinates to the control room to keep the boat between the buoys. Two armored coast guard patrol boats flank our sides. On the back of the boat are hundreds of seagulls catching a free ride back to the harbor. An armed gunman stands at our six searching for threats. The periscopes turn, scanning the horizon as the American flag flaps in the breeze.
I want to close by thanking the US Navy for their service and hospitality. Every single person from when we stepped onto the base to when we dipped below the surface was friendly, welcoming, and helpful. Frankly, the crew aboard the Santa Fe should have been overwhelmed and put off by the burden of 20+ extra civilians coming aboard their boat and infringing upon their workspace (I would be). There was no spot on the boat where we were not in the way. But, every man was happy, accommodating, and simply proud to show off their sub. For a group of guys to be working in such a harsh environment with such a high level of responsibility (they could literarily end the world as we know it) and to still have that much poise, character and camaraderie is very inspiring and something we should all strive for. ‘Merica