Ex-HMAS Adelaide

Cinematographer Sylvi Soeharjono braves the depths to film documentary on the wreck of the Ex-HMAS Adelaide – by Sylvi Soeharjono

Diving the Ex-HMAS Adelaide – PHOTO Lee Emery

Most of my jobs were cancelled when Covid-19 hit Australian shores last year, so I spent a lot of time diving with a friend as we know there is no Covid-19 underwater. Once restrictions eased around September, most small businesses needed to work harder to rebuild their business.

It was out of desperation, love of diving and wanting to help my local dive shop survive that I approached Chris and Reni Turnbull, owner of Dive Imports Australia on the Central Coast of New South Wales. I pitched the idea of producing a number of marketing videos around one of Central Coast’s premier diving destination, the Ex-HMAS Adelaide. One of the projects was that this documentary be launched to coincide with the Tenth Anniversary of HMAS Adelaide being scuttled.

HMAS Adelaide was a 138 meter long Escort Frigate of the Australian Navy. The now Ex HMAS Adelaide is the most recent wreck dive in Australia. It was sunk in April, 2011, near Terrigal, not far from Sydney to create an artificial reef and a wreck diving site.

Not a coincidence, the dive shop’s operations manager Sue Dengate was also the media spokesperson for the Central Coast Artificial Reef Project, a group responsible for getting the Adelaide to the Central Coast.

There are a lot of factors to consider when filming underwater. The main thing is how much natural light penetrates the depths, and how wide or close the shots should be. In addition, I was restricted to using what equipment I already had as my budget was limited. 

For all my land-based filming I used Panasonic GH5s. For underwater filming I used a Sony RX100 VA camera in a Nauticam housing and an INON wide macro lens. For underwater lighting I chose the Bigblue 8000-lumen dual-beam video and tech light, and also an iProDive 3500-lumens.

Lights are always one of the biggest challenges underwater. When you drop below five meters, you start losing colour due to the lower intensity of the sunlight penetrating the water. Colour will gradually disappear, starting with red until what’s left is only green and blue.

The Adelaide sits between 20-38 meters below the surface of the water, so additional lights are crucial to film closer range subjects as it would be impossible to light the whole ship. Sometimes on a good visibility dive we only had to raise the ISO and open the aperture. I was pretty surprised with what the Sony RX100VA can achieve.

Apart from using the two additional lights, I also ‘pushed’ the camera to the maximum capacity by reducing contrast and manually adjusting the white balance trying to squeeze as much dynamic range as possible.

The Adelaide is a deep water dive, which means there are a lot of additional variables and risk when we film underwater. Some of the precautions we took included safe diving practices. I am not a technical diver and I am limited by my non-decompression limit (NDL) to avoid decompression sickness also known as ‘the bends’. With planning, we normally do forty-five minutes on each dive. Maintaining good buoyancy is paramount especially when penetrating the inside of a ship, and always ascending with enough air to do a three-minute safety stop before surfacing.

Because of the limited gear I can take, once we jump in the water, there is no option to change batteries or SD cards or to seal the camera from leaking so it’s critical to always double check the gear works properly on land before entering the water.

We had to reschedule some of the dives at the last minute due to bad weather. The Department of Lands controls the Ex-HMAS Adelaide dive site. In their regulations, any time the seas are swelling over five meters they must close the site for a safety inspection. This involves commercial diving surveyors checking for damage caused by large swells from severe storms to ascertain that is still safe for divers. Every time this happened it would put us a couple weeks behind schedule.

We completed the documentary over ten dives with a crew of two or three each time. I did all the filming and operating myself. On this project, the dive team is an integral part of the production. My dive master Mark Davies took me on most of the trips. His expertise was invaluable to the success of each filming dive.

Prior to each dive I would tell Davies what shots I needed. We planned carefully as we only have forty-five minutes to safely achieve everything. For instance, I needed a shot where the ship settles in the sand, which was at 38m so we need to do this first. While being the talent on the shot, he also made sure we did not exceeded our non-decompression limit as it is so easy to lose track of time while filming in the deep.

I particularly love the shot we did at ‘King William Street’, which is actually the name of the primary passageway on the Adelaide. Each ship’s main crew thoroughfare is named after the main street of the city that the ship is named after, in this case, King William Street in Adelaide. 

It’s a long corridor, about a five minute swim along where we passed many holes opening up to other parts of the ship, providing a safe exit at any point and when we got to the end the view through the three exit doors was just stunning. At that moment, I just thought this shot is going to be something, and imagined the music while we were still diving.

I am what most people call triple threat; producer/director, cinematographer and editor. This worked in my favour on this project since with Covid-19 we had limited budget and staff. I completed editing and colour grading using Adobe Premiere Pro and had my team doing animation and sound mastering.

If I could go back and do it differently, I would use a rig with more flexibility to enable me to use my Panasonic GH5. That would have given me more dynamic range and the ability to use a wider-angle lens. However I am incredibly happy and proud of how the documentary turned out.

Sylvi Soe is a filmmaker based on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

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