A fascinating journey into underwater filmmaking
Elise Gibbins is not your usual case study. As an underwater and topside filmmaker and exhibiting photographer who specialises in conservation, natural history and commercial projects, she has the sort of job we all dream of in our youth.
However, before entering the open waters, Gibbins shot commercially for brands like Vauxhall, The Independent, Boots and Macmillan Cancer Support. Coming from a commercial background, Gibbins says she was used to planning every shot meticulously – from lighting charts to minute-by-minute schedules.
“This preparation can somewhat be transferred into documentaries and natural history sequences. However, when filming wildlife, especially on location, I have to be extremely flexible and patient with my approach,” she explains. “I always go into a shoot with a rough storyline and angle from my pre-production research, but for me, the story is usually crafted on location – through interviews, if it is a human-led documentary, or by observing an animal’s behaviour in its natural habitat. This is a great way to keep the story open to new behaviours and keep the film as authentic as possible.”
Gibbins is indebted to her years of shooting product and model campaigns. “It really set up my technical foundation; I honed my lighting and shooting skills while also learning how to direct a team.”
After working in-house at a production company for years, she decided to go freelance to combine her two worlds: commercial and nature. “Now, I create visuals for conservation organisations to communicate the science, shoot product campaigns for adventure commercial brands and develop documentaries exploring human-nature relationships,” Gibbins adds. “As a visual storyteller, I want to highlight endangered ecosystems through the female gaze and connect audiences to nature’s significance and our relationship with it, raising awareness and driving positive environmental change.
“I’ve had two different periods in my career so far: I started off as an editor, production and camera assistant and worked my way up to DOP across documentaries and commercial social campaigns,” Gibbins says. “Throughout this period I began scuba diving, and the natural progression was to start taking my camera with me, which led to picking up my first couple of underwater jobs.”
It won’t come as a surprise that underwater filmmaking, especially in remote locations, means there are a lot of contingencies to consider. “Being prepared and self-sufficient is key,” says Gibbins, to the extent that she always brings spare parts and necessary tools, as a lot of the time she is many miles away from the nearest shop. “Sometimes setting my underwater housing up in very exposed places can be challenging, where the wind, sand and salt threaten the effectiveness of the O-rings that make the housing watertight,” she continues. “To manage these risks, I work quickly to build the housing systems, limiting the exposure time while also meticulously checking the O-rings for any grit that may cause a leakage. Also, as I have upgraded to a Nauticam underwater housing, I can now use the vacuum system to seal everything off and check the light signals that indicate if there is a drop in pressure.”
After years of buying through CVP, Gibbins worked with her account manager to source all of the kit she needed to set herself up as a freelancer for filming underwater and topside. “My go-to underwater set-up is the Sony FX3, Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 G Master lens and the Atomos Ninja V monitor. Topside, I tend to use a telephoto like the Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3, and swap out the Atomos Ninja for the Shogun 7 or the Zato Connect – depending on my needs,” she reveals. “I take my equipment underwater using the Nauticam housing and love pairing my 230mm dome port with my 16-35mm lens, as it helps reduce optical aberration and increases the sharpness of my image. Being able to take my monitor underwater with me is a game changer, as I can use the bigger screen to pull focus and it helps me manoeuvre my camera in line with or below my subject.”
Independent filmmakers often have multiple projects on at the same time, in different stages of production. Currently, Gibbins is pitching for new business, editing social campaigns, managing pre-production for an upcoming conservation shoot and is in post-production for a documentary she shot earlier this year. “I love being across all aspects of the business, as each one feeds into the other. For example, while I’m out shooting, I constantly piece together an edit in my head and alter the sequence depending on the conditions. This really helps going into post as I already know what shots I have, so I can just focus on the creative aspects.”
With an enviable CV that’s rich in diversity, Gibbins says her career trajectory has never been more promising.
“So far, 2023 has been the biggest breakthrough in my career,” she enthuses. “The projects I’m working on reflect where I’m most passionate, and I’ve been able to work on some amazing films empowering women in conservation.”
“I want to highlight endangered ecosystems through the female gaze, driving positive change”
“My go-to underwater set-up is the Sony FX3, Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 G Master lens and Atomos Ninja V”
ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
Elise Gibbins filming with her Sony FX3, off the Raja Ampat Islands in Indonesia
DIVING IN Gibbins turned to CVP for the equipment she needed to start her underwater filmmaking journey
BENEATH THE WAVES Dusky dolphins and green sea turtles are just some of the subjects Gibbins has captured
GLOBETROTTING Gibbins has been taken around the world by her work, including filming orangutans in Sukau, Borneo
GO-GETTER Gibbins got her start in commercial product photography, before combining her skills with a penchant for diving
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