Deep Blue Movies

It was most likely the late Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau who started it all.

Whilst exploring the previously un-photographed wonders of the deep, the French sub-sea naturalist and co-inventor of the Aqualung took along his movie camera so he could show the world that life beneath the ocean waves was just as rich and varied as that on land; probably more so.

More than half a century later, Cousteau would probably marvel at the images achievable with modern, high-definition underwater digital video cameras, particularly those made by Canadian design and engineering company Amphibico Inc. We report on how one man’s passion is revolutionising the world of underwater movie making.

It’s a rare person indeed who, to paraphrase Mark Twain, makes his or her vocation their vacation. To be able to make a living from one’s passion is a privilege not many achieve. To successfully combine several passions into one profitable activity is harder still. But that’s exactly what Val Ranetkins has achieved. He is the inspiration behind, and the current director of research and development at, Montreal-based Amphibico. As well as being a keen photographer and a passionate diver Ranetkins is, above all, an inveterate innovator. Finding himself out of work in the late 1980s, he turned his hand to designing and making underwater housings for still cameras, combining his interests to make a living and, in the process, building a successful engineering design company.

For Ranetkins, it all started with a passion and (the never-to-be-underestimated, all-important) contacts, two things you can never have too much of when starting a venture.

“When I started out,” says Ranetkins, “I was making very basic products using an epoxy and polyurethane-based housing. I was doing almost everything by hand, working from my basement.”

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Little did he know, but a key contact at the world-famous National Geographic Society would soon prove vital to the future of his fledgling activities. The National Geographic Society is the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and is well known for its adventures above and below the waves, documenting its expeditions in its monthly magazines and on its TV channel.

“The National Geographic people came to see me and liked what they saw,” Ranetkins explains. “They asked me if I could make something similar, but out of aluminium rather than epoxy. I said sure, of course, but the problem is, I don’t have any money. They asked, ‘Well, how much do you need to make a mold?’ I said about $12,000. Next thing I knew, they had sent me a cheque for $12,000! I was stunned, but pretty pleased, so I told them I’d have their housings for them in three months, which was a very ambitious deadline.”

But, despite his impetuosity, Ranetkins kept his word and managed to deliver, as promised, in just three months.

“Years later I met the National Geographic director who signed the cheque, and he said, ‘You know Val, I don’t know how you talked me into it.’ He said he didn’t sleep for three months once he’d written that $12,000 cheque. He really put his job on the line.”

Once Ranetkins had his foot in the door at National Geographic, word got around, and almost everybody who was anybody in the underwater film business wanted to talk to him.

“These days, customers are mostly people like underwater photographer Tom Campbell [shown at right], Air Sea Land Productions, Eyewitness in the UK and other companies that rent the equipment to individuals and companies,” says Ranetkins. “They’re almost all professionals, although occasionally we sell to wealthy or very keen amateurs, as well as non-profit organizations like the Cousteau Society and the Boston Aquarium. Of course, we also do a lot of business with Hollywood and with rental companies serving Hollywood.”

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Making a Movie Star

According to Ted Overton, affiliate of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, writing in the June 2002 issue of the society’s monthly publication, Amphibico Inc. manufactures “what are probably the most sophisticated underwater (camera) housings in the world of video.” And, although Amphibico produces housings for most consumer and ‘prosumer’ (high-end, sophisticated consumer) type video cameras, Overton claims that the jewel in the company’s crown is the all-new Amphibicam® camera housing, designed and built specifically for the Sony HDW-F900 high-definition digital video camera.

Ranetkins designed the new housing specifically to meet the demanding criteria of high-definition (HD) video; in particular, to allow the operator unlimited access to all of the functions offered by the very sophisticated camera “right at your fingertips, as if you were hands-on with the camera itself.” Such comprehensive control from an underwater camera housing has never been achieved before. Using the Amphibicam®, the operator can select and adjust all of the camera settings to best suit the underwater light and environment, whilst submerged.

“This project has been the most ambitious ever undertaken by Amphibico,” says Ranetkins. “As well as taking up all of my time, it’s also been a major commitment for our team of electronics and optical engineers, as well as our mechanical design and production engineers. The result is one of the most technologically and optically innovative housings ever conceived in the videography industry. We’ve had praise from some highly respected authorities.”

The Amphibicam® housing is designed to be as compact and as easy to use as possible, vital when most of its working life will be in such difficult and potentially dangerous environments. In fact, its design is both technologically clever and innovative; on land it weighs a hefty 72 lb, but in salt water it has neutral buoyancy, so that a diver can control it with just one hand.

“The company developed the initial housing design using Pro-engineer,” says Ranetkins. “We started by scanning the Sony camera to get all of the dimensions, and then we looked at the required specification for the system and what that specification would be likely to cost. Once we were happy, we started building the design on the CAD system and machining prototype parts on our Haas VF-3 vertical machining centre.”

Ranetkins claims that the company’s investment in new technology played an important part in developing the new product. “Before we bought the Haas VF-3,” continues Ranetkins, “we did most of the machining of our products on a variety of different manual and CNC machines in our on-site shop. On this occasion, we wanted to invest in something exclusively for the R&D department: Something particularly accurate to work with, and something suitable for the development of the new product. We bought the machine through the Montreal Haas Factory Outlet (a division of Sirco Machinery),” he says. “They were extremely helpful. They allowed us to go and see a variety of Haas users in the Montreal area to see how they were getting on with their machines.

“Although the Haas is still used mostly for R&D,” he says, “in the case of the new housing, it’s used to machine all of the 120 milled parts. The other 80 components that go to make up a finished housing are lathe parts. Looking at the Amphibicam®, it’s hard to believe that there are that many components, but it’s really quite complex.”

The main aluminium extrusion that constitutes the housing body is the largest component to be machined on the Haas. In this case, the complete manufacturing process is made up of three operations: The first two use the VF-3 working in three axes, whilst the third and final includes the use of a fourth axis, thanks to a Haas HRT 310 rotary table mounted on the machine’s table

“We cut each housing length with a band saw and calibrate it prior to machining,” says machine operator and production engineer Freddy Espinoza.

“For the first operation the component is located in a special custom fixture, so that the top surface is presented to the machine spindle. This surface, the seal surface, is machined at close tolerance, a critical operation to ensure the performance of the camera housing at extreme ocean depth pressures. The first operation also includes drilling and tapping various location holes.”

The second operation is similar to the first. The part is held in another specially designed fixture to allow the underside seal surface to be machined to a high tolerance.

Finally, the housing is mounted to the 4th-axis rotary table and is presented to the spindle in various planes for detailed machining of multiple features on the part surface. Cutting operations include fly cutting, spot drilling, normal drilling, tapping, finish machining and dovetailing.

Again, Amphibico is keen to point out that, to maintain the reliability of the product under extreme conditions, all processes require tight tolerance repeatability. For exactly the same reason, inspections are performed after each operation to ensure accuracy, flatness and continuity in the component.

All Singing, All Dancing

Aside from its build quality, the other factors that make the Amphibicam® truly special are its optics and electronics. For a start, the aspheric and binary lenses virtually eliminate refraction in water, meaning that a shot scanning from underwater to above water (or vice versa) won’t lose focus or distort.

In the case of operator control, Amphibico had to work closely with camera manufacturer Sony to ensure that all of the camera’s advanced features were available on the housing. Where many housings are primarily mechanical, the Amphibicam® uses electronic connections with the camera’s systems to ensure faultless communication.

“We eventually collaborated with Sony to develop the protocol allowing our housing to interact with that of the camera,” says Ranetkins. “Initially, we’d already done quite a lot of work, but we were having problems. With some gentle persuasion, Sony eventually agreed to work with us to help solve some of those problems. We signed a confidentiality agreement and they sent us 300 pages of control protocol! This was perhaps our second-biggest breakthrough in the development of the product, after developing the optics. Now, all of the fine controls and menu options normally accessible on the camera can be controlled outside of the housing.” Needless to say, this kind of technology doesn’t come cheap, but Ranetkins knows his market and has positioned the company and its products to appeal to those with the highest professional standards and aspirations.

“Our housings for high-definition digital cameras cost up to around (US) $60,000, and, when you think that the camera and lens for this kind of housing might cost (US) $150,000, you can see that the whole system can easily run to almost a quarter million dollars. This is a major investment, but it’s the kind of investment you have to make if you want to be a serious naturalist videographer. For the good ones, it can also be quite a lucrative profession, but there aren’t many good ones out there.”

Quite what the Captain would have made of all this is anyone’s guess. Suffice it to speculate that if it helps to further the public’s love, understanding and respect of the world’s oceans, he would have approved for sure.