About Pawel Achtel – Imaging Engineer & Cinematographer
Pawel Achtel Acs has been involved in underwater cinematography for almost 30 years. Pawel also designs and produces underwater cinematography equipment.
His work has been featured by National Geographic, BBC, Discovery and Sony. For almost a decade Pawel’s focus has been on 3D cinematography for IMAX® and Giant Screen cinema. Pawel is a member of the Technical Committee at Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) and the Australian Cinematographers Society Technical Committee.
Pawel achieved numerous prestigious Australian and International awards. In 2013 Pawel won the coveted Studio Daily Innovation Award at NAB Show in Las Vegas and in 2015 Pawel was awarded the Inaugural Bob Miller ACS Technical and Innovation Award.
In 2017 Pawel received ACS Accreditation, Golden Tripod and Gold Ron Taylor ACS Award for his cinematography.
Pawel is a rebreather diver with over 5000 dives from equator to Antarctica.
Ep 50 – Pawel Achtel
[00:00:00] Brett Stanley: Welcome back to the underwater podcast. And this week we’re talking underwater, 3d filming with Powell, Asheville. Powell is an engineer with a passion for the underwater world and has created a variety of imaging solutions, including the 3d stereoscopic camera system for James Cameron’s new avatar movies.
We chat about how his rig works, the physics of 3d imaging and how to stop moviegoers from throwing up. And a neat trick to stop pesky microbubbles from sticking to your camera’s done. All right. Let’s dive in.
Powell welcome to down to water podcast.
[00:01:07] Pawel Achtel: Thank you for having me, Brad
[00:01:09] Brett Stanley: Are you’re in Australia, right?
[00:01:11] Pawel Achtel: I’m in Sydney at the moment. That’s correct. Yes.
[00:01:14] Brett Stanley: Yeah. That’s my hometown.
[00:01:15] Pawel Achtel: Right. long way from home.
[00:01:19] Brett Stanley: Yeah, very much so. Yeah. And and with the whole pan pandemic thing, I haven’t been back for a few years, so I’m, I’m kind of missing it a lot. w what, what part of Sydney are you.
[00:01:26] Pawel Achtel: South I’m in Rockdale, close to best diving spot in Sydney
you have bought an bay and, and that’s, really attractive diving spot it’s well protected. So
[00:01:37] Brett Stanley: I’m, I’m sad to say, cuz I grew up in Australia. I haven’t lived in Australia for about 20 years, but I’ve I’ve only dove in Sydney like once I think,
[00:01:46] Pawel Achtel: Right. It’s got, yeah, it’s got some nice spots or you can dive Sydney most of the time. even in rough conditions, you can usually find a protected, spot.
[00:01:58] Brett Stanley: And so how is that how you came into the under underwater cinematography world through, through diving?
[00:02:03] Pawel Achtel: I pretty much wanted to do both at the same time. So I’ve done my open water course with a view of filming. And in fact, my second dive after they, cause I had a proper camera in my hands and probably only dove without the camera. Maybe about two or three times
[00:02:25] Brett Stanley: So the diving was, was that, so you could go down and do cinematography or they just both happened at the same.
[00:02:33] Pawel Achtel: now it was specifically so I could do underwater cinematography.
[00:02:37] Brett Stanley: So had you been doing cinematography before, before you started diving?
[00:02:41] Pawel Achtel: No, it was actually the underwater cinematography that attract that attracted me. To cinematography. So
[00:02:49] Brett Stanley: interesting. That’s cool. And what was it about that? Had you seen something like, were you a, like a Jao fan or.
[00:02:56] Pawel Achtel: not really, I I’ve I haven’t had holidays for a very long time after coming to Australia about 35 years ago. And I decided to have a good holiday and go to the great barrier reef. And I put my head on the water casually and then I, I just suddenly sort of clicked and I thought, yep. That’s I think what I wanna do.
And since then that was. Passion obsession. Probably both
[00:03:22] Brett Stanley: Yeah. Yeah, totally. Yeah. It is. It is addictive, right?
[00:03:26] Pawel Achtel: yeah. Yeah. Once you, once you start it’s it’s it is like obsession.
[00:03:31] Brett Stanley: And so what was your background before then? Was it engineering?
[00:03:35] Pawel Achtel: Yes. I have science engineering background,
[00:03:38] Brett Stanley: Yep. Is that something that you came to Australia to study? Or was that something from where are you from originally?
[00:03:45] Pawel Achtel: I’m originally from PO,
[00:03:47] Brett Stanley: Oh, right. Yep.
[00:03:48] Pawel Achtel: and I studied civil engineering there and really had good background in, in physics and maths, which which I think are absolutely essential for photography and cinematography these days.
[00:04:03] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:04:04] Pawel Achtel: But I Al always had a soft spot for nature. So I guess going underwater where you can get close to nature much closer than you can come on land.
[00:04:15] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:04:15] Pawel Achtel: that, where that nature is plentiful and and quite diverse and mysterious that was like, You know, so like a paradise, like something I wanted to pursue.
[00:04:27] Brett Stanley: I totally get what you mean. Like the, the amount of wildlife that’s in under the water. It’s almost, it’s not something you get on land in terms of that sort of density, right?
Like it’s, it’s almost as if you, if you could float in the trees and be floating up around with the birds and stuff, that’s kind of almost what it’s like being in amongst all those fish.
[00:04:45] Pawel Achtel: That’s right. And I guess that element of it really appealed to me particularly from the point of 3d. So I very quickly decided, or, or started exploring stereoscopic, 3d and larger form formats of cinematography.
[00:05:03] Brett Stanley: Oh, interesting.
[00:05:04] Pawel Achtel: Yeah. I thought that watery environment, the ability to swim through things and also with things suspended mid-water itself to you know, more immersive forms rather than flat picture.
So I became interested in, in. IMAX and and giant screen as the medium to to display that environment.
[00:05:32] Brett Stanley: So, how did you approach that initially? I know you said like the second dive you went down, you had a camera in your hand. How long was it from that point to when you started doing stereoscopic, 3d stuff?
[00:05:42] Pawel Achtel: Oh, it was still, you know a fair of town time. The cameras weren’t quite up there in terms of technology. So it, it, it took more than a decade. But that immersive sort of feel was always there. And that’s something that, that I really wanted to pursue. So I started pursuing 3d about 15 years ago where just about the time when 3d became quite popular.
I guess that was around the time when a avatar one got produced. So that started that big interest in, in, in 3d.
[00:06:19] Brett Stanley: Yeah. I was talking to my wife about this earlier today, actually like, you know, when you know, what memorable 3d movies have we gone to see. And I think for me, like the only one that I can think of that made use of 3d really well was the first avatar. I remember watching that and going like, feeling like I was actually there rather being a bit of a gimmick.
[00:06:40] Pawel Achtel: Yeah. And I guess it’s ironic that avatar to the way of water is going to be screened in few months time and, and that’s underwater.
[00:06:52] Brett Stanley: Absolutely. And then this is the, kind of what brought me to you and that’s kind think of how I found you was that you have done some work on the latest avatar films in terms of is it just supplying some equipment or were you actually filming and, and on set as well?
[00:07:06] Pawel Achtel: Now Pete Carini. It was D O P on the, on the set. I supplied the lenses. I supplied the 3d rig. That’s quite unique. It’s never been used in feature film before in and Ric is very different than anything else that’s been used down the water.
[00:07:23] Brett Stanley: So explain that for me. Talk, talk to me about your rig and how it’s different to other underwater or even any other 3d sort of situations.
[00:07:33] Pawel Achtel: So what filmmakers used to do? Was to put 3d rigs inside a water, tight casing and have some sort of port in front of it. With 3d, that was predominantly a flat port. As you know, flat port doesn’t work very well underwater, not only it reduces the angle of fuel, which is precisely the opposite.
What. Want we want wide and go of field to have more immersive experience and also to get closer to subjects, but also it diminished the quality of the images with chromatic, collaborations and distortions and field curvature. It just didn’t look good. So until This invention, there was no way to actually film underwater in 3d in a way that we film on land that would produce this truly immersive experience.
So yeah, the rig is Very different than that. There is the main elements are not housed in housing. The lenses are submerged in the water and a beam splitter, which splits the left right eye from the, from the, from the right that beam split is also submerged in water.
[00:08:53] Brett Stanley: Oh, okay. So it’s actually filled full of water. So the, the light is traveling through waterers until it basically hits the camera.
[00:09:01] Pawel Achtel: That’s. That’s right.
[00:09:03] Brett Stanley: Wow. So. So why does that make a better quality image? Is it just because there’s less? The, the light beam is, is, is being bent less,
[00:09:12] Pawel Achtel: So for start, the lenses are designed for underwater. They, they don’t produce distortions. They produce sharp images from corner to corner underwater. So they specifically designed for sharp wide angle images.
[00:09:29] Brett Stanley: right?
[00:09:30] Pawel Achtel: And there is no barrier between water and air, which means we don’t end up with a refraction problem that is associated with using flat ports.
So there is nothing in a way of light there to be distorted by bent Produce any operations it just pure water around it.
[00:09:56] Brett Stanley: Yeah, cause that’s the thing, isn’t it. So, so currently you have with, you know, traditional sort of housings it’s, you know, the light comes through the water, then it comes through either a flat or a dome port, and then it’s going through air. And then it’s going back into the glass and then it’s hit in the camera.
So there’s all these situations where the light can be degraded, I guess.
[00:10:15] Pawel Achtel: That’s right. With submersible lenses they can resolve far more detail especially around the edges. Then a housed lens. I’ve done an experiment, a test of. Using the best landlines I could buy, which was a master prime, 14 millimeters I designed and, and headed manufactured a massive down port that was really expensive and precision made.
And on an optical bench, I was. Doing the MTF charts, which are modulation transfer function functions that essentially are designed to measure the sharpness. But the result of it was that I could not resolve more than approximately two K using this setup which was yeah, very disappointing.
Considering the sophistication and, and, and cost of, of, of this solution and, and just, you know, out of curiosity, I had some of those old menos lenses and I thought of, let’s see if I can quickly adapt one to the same camera and and just compare and just looking. In a view finder, I could see massive difference.
[00:11:33] Brett Stanley: Right. Straight away.
[00:11:34] Pawel Achtel: straight away, you know, we’ve fully opened up a chat of 2.8. I could see pinch sharp images from corner to corner. And I thought, well, we don’t get that. Using Don Don ports.
[00:11:46] Brett Stanley: Yeah. Yeah. That’s incredible. So, so with that initial test you did with that custom dome, what, so you’re saying you could only resolve two K of that. What was the full size of the image? Like, was it a, like a eight K image and only two K of it? Like the, the center part of it was actually sharp enough,
[00:12:04] Pawel Achtel: Yeah, well, at the time, I mean, we are talking you know, about 13 years ago.
[00:12:10] Brett Stanley: Oh, right? Yeah.
[00:12:11] Pawel Achtel: so at the time there weren’t Eight K cameras. The maximum we we could get was around 4k, but I could not resolve even close to that using the traditional Don port
[00:12:23] Brett Stanley: So less, less than half of it was usable.
[00:12:27] Pawel Achtel: that’s right. You could see the, the sharpness falling off away from the center quite clearly.
And there was nothing I could do with, you know to improve that you can stop down and let less light in it sort of slightly improves, but obviously with less light it’s it’s not ideal at the water.
[00:12:46] Brett Stanley: Yeah. And that’s the thing, right? So, so you were saying that with the NA Konos with this, with the wet lens, you could sh you could open it right up to two eight, and still be totally sharp, right. To the edges. Whereas with a lot of lenses inside a dime, you have to stop it down to get some sharpness at the edges.
[00:13:02] Pawel Achtel: That’s right. And I’ve done some tests. In fact, I tested approximately a hundred. Lenses samples for, for Ava to select the best eco lenses I could, I could find and matched pair. And I was able to achieve eight K corner to corner at F 2.8 on a small sample of, of, of, of that pull of lenses.
Yeah. And two best lenses of that pool of hundred lenses was actually labeled avatar two. There wasn’t a formal title at, at the time. And yeah, I still have them in a box just in case they go ahead with a avatar four and five. But yeah, they, they, they definitely put aside.
[00:13:46] Brett Stanley: That’s amazing. And, and especially that they’re that sharp and they’re now basically, you know, avatar lenses.
[00:13:54] Pawel Achtel: That’s right. And they stir up a pair matched which is they have similar characteristics, mirrored because on a beam splitter one image comes upside down and one image comes normally, so they have if you really look at the how sharpness pans out on a, on a frame They almost like a mirror image of each other.
And extremely sharp from from corner to corner. Again, I was testing with a nine K camera and yeah, it was resolved right to the night west limit from corner to corner fully wide open have to 0.8, which is not easy even on land to achieve that.
[00:14:37] Brett Stanley: That must have felt amazing to see that especially underwater and, and to be, to know that you’d nailed.
[00:14:42] Pawel Achtel: Well, that’s right. I’ve I work a lot with charts. And you know, I mean, I’m kind of person that has very methodic workflow. I can’t improve. Something, unless I can measure it. And so everything gets measured and quantified
[00:14:58] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:14:58] Pawel Achtel: So as soon as I see the numerical numbers on the, on the screen, I’m I’m get, I start getting excited, but.
[00:15:07] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:15:08] Pawel Achtel: But that didn’t quite match the excitement when I actually saw the images coming from the 3d R onset of avatar to the surface and displayed already corrected geometrically and displayed on a 4k 3d screen, which is how Jim Cameron likes to see The images on set. And that was something that the entire team just covered around the monitor and said, wow essentially the.
The first thing that you noticed it, it looks like air. It doesn’t look like underwater at all. There is no distortion. You completely immersed in the image. When you look around, there is no common sort of squeeze or, or bent, or the images are completely flat. And you, you like when you look at the screen, you just feel it’s air.
But then you look more closely. It’s obviously underwater. So so the images look very different, very different. And it’s not common that Jim Cameron would you know Praise things casually, but he did send a message to everyone saying that he’s never, ever filmed underwater images with this quality before.
[00:16:24] Brett Stanley: Oh, that’s
[00:16:25] Pawel Achtel: by far. Yeah. And I mean, this was, it was pretty obvious when, when we saw it in, in Oakland
but it almost, it almost didn’t happen.
[00:16:34] Brett Stanley: Oh
[00:16:34] Pawel Achtel: because initially before that. the team asked me to send the equipment to LA so they could do some testing and they were testing it in the pool.
And I got a phone call from, from LA and and they say, Paul, we’ve got a problem. I said, what’s, what’s the matter. And they said, oh, we’re getting micro bubbles on the mirror and lenses. We can’t use it.
[00:16:58] Brett Stanley: Oh,
[00:16:59] Pawel Achtel: They said you know, once you submerge it after five, 10 minutes, the bubbles are forming.
And I said, okay. I think, I think there’s a solution for it.
[00:17:11] Brett Stanley: right. Yeah.
[00:17:12] Pawel Achtel: I said I was dealing with John Brooks and, and I said, John go to a local photo photographic show, the old style and buy some photo floor. It’s a it’s an agent that you add to your when you develop film. To break surface tension of the water and, and you know let the water shed cleanly from, from your film.
And I said, John, use that agent just spray it over the mirror, over the lens, and then go diving and see what happens. Next morning, a phone call. How it works. So , so that saved, that saved the
[00:17:49] Brett Stanley: The
[00:17:49] Pawel Achtel: The whole project. That’s right. That’s right.
[00:17:53] Brett Stanley: that’s crazy. So, so is it something a little bit like RENX or something?
[00:17:58] Pawel Achtel: Yeah, similar. I mean, you can use baby shampoo you know, detergent, if you like. But it’s not as effective as for the floor for the floor is is really effective. So if you don’t want bubbles forming on your lens on port or whatever, just spread before the dive does the job pretty, pretty well?
[00:18:16] Brett Stanley: How long does it last for?
[00:18:18] Pawel Achtel: Well, it seemed to last until they needed to. Pull the camera out. And so even if it lasts few hours, you know, you can pull the rig out, spray another you know, few teaspoons and and continue filming that that was acceptable. What was not acceptable that they would be in the middle of take, or, you know, with the entire Set ready.
And, and you would get a bubble or two only on the mirror
[00:18:44] Brett Stanley: Oh, yeah. And if no one noticed and yeah,
[00:18:49] Pawel Achtel: or they would, they would notice there’s very tight quality control. People are looking at monitors. Very, very
[00:18:55] Brett Stanley: Constantly. Yeah.
[00:18:56] Pawel Achtel: constantly but it wouldn’t be acceptable from the you know, the amount of shots they needed to, to, to get within the time that they had, it would be it would be a, no, they had a plan B, they, they built another rig that more traditional rig.
[00:19:12] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:19:12] Pawel Achtel: Just in case my invention didn’t work. But as far as I know, they didn’t use it at all.
[00:19:18] Brett Stanley: You’re right. there something specific to your your model that, that made the bubbles worse? Or was it just because they’re in,
[00:19:26] Pawel Achtel: No, no, it’s just, it’s just what happens if you have water that’s saturated. Yeah. With with air that. Will always get them.
[00:19:37] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:19:37] Pawel Achtel: Hmm.
[00:19:38] Brett Stanley: Because I, I do know cuz I, I know a few people that worked on avatar, the new ones over the, over the last few years and you know, they were saying that, you know, they, they couldn’t be on scuba because of, you know, putting too much bubbles in the system and it was affecting the, the mocap system and all that sort of stuff.
Is, is, was this part of that as well? Was this a result of, of having people in the water with scuba the bubble.
[00:20:01] Pawel Achtel: It wouldn’t help. . Yeah. And it was warm water. The water was something like 35 degrees, really warm.
[00:20:09] Brett Stanley: Oh, wow. Yeah.
[00:20:10] Pawel Achtel: so so you could dissolve a lot of air in, in that water.
[00:20:15] Brett Stanley: Yeah. And so, because they were doing a lot of mocap on this set, is that what they were using your cameras for was to, to record the mocap stuff as well? Or was this for principle photography?
[00:20:25] Pawel Achtel: No, that was just for principle photography. Mockup. Was was done differently. This was just to do, to get 90 3d film a as a, as a, you know, principle shots.
[00:20:38] Brett Stanley: Yeah. And then you were saying that that comes to the surface pre stitched, I guess, or, or pre combined. So that you
[00:20:46] Pawel Achtel: Yeah.
[00:20:46] Brett Stanley: it straight away
[00:20:48] Pawel Achtel: That’s right. So, so it, so it’s yeah, so it comes through it’s as left and right then it goes into into a, a box that, that analyzes the signal and actually tells you the vertical distortions and disparities. So, so it’s something that. They also actively measure whether the quality of the, of the image is coming out is within the, the range that that they want.
It’s a box made by three reality. And and in real time it just tells you percentages that About the vertical disparities. And that was like really, really small. They’ve never seen so little vertical disparities simply because there is no distortion the distortion is so low that that the That that didn’t cause any, any disparities?
It was always within, within, well within the green zone and yeah, converted to side by side also with reality box and then displayed onto just domestic type large 3d screen using polarized glasses. You could you could see it stride on the set.
[00:22:00] Brett Stanley: that’s amazing that it, that it is that quick. And I guess that the vertical disparity you’re talking about is if it is too far out, then your eyes won’t make sense of it. Like it starts to be blurry and stuff.
[00:22:13] Pawel Achtel: No. So what happens is that our brains Put together horizontal disparities as the perception of death.
[00:22:22] Brett Stanley: Right.
[00:22:22] Pawel Achtel: So, so we need certain amount of horizontal disparities in order to perceive 3d. however, our eyes are very poor at fusing vertical disparities. In fact, tiny amount makes us dizzy and and we are not able to put those images together anymore.
If they if they not align vertically.
[00:22:47] Brett Stanley: Oh, okay.
[00:22:49] Pawel Achtel: So you want to avoid vertical disparities as much as possible because it’s especially on the edges because our peripheral vision is quite sensitive about that. Otherwise you just throw the entire immersive experience of out the window and make it a torture because our, our, our eyes get strained and, and it becomes very uncomfortable to watch.
[00:23:13] Brett Stanley: Is it something similar to cuz I know at the front of the camera, you’ve got your two lenses, which are basically I, I distance apart, right? They, they kind of mimic the, the distance of human eye distance between each other. Is that right?
[00:23:28] Pawel Achtel: yeah, you could do that, but that wouldn’t let you film from close up because the disparity, the horizontal disparity would be too large on when you look on a large screen. So that’s why. Side by side configuration has limitation as to the size of the subject and distance from the subject in order to get close to the subject, you really need to put those two cameras very close, so close that.
The distance is about, you know, two centimeters of three centimeters and you can’t physically do it because the cameras are bigger than that. And this is why they use the beam splitter, where one camera shoots, throw a half mirror and one camera shoots bounce off a half mirror. And that way you can bring those cameras as close as zero.
So So they in effect have like virtual positions because one is vertically, physically positioned. One is horizontally positioned, but because of the half mirror, they, they kind of side by side overlapping each other.
[00:24:39] Brett Stanley: So in, in that, in that case, if you are kind of, if you’re doing something that’s close up, do you have the ability to then push those lenses closer together?
[00:24:46] Pawel Achtel: That’s right.
[00:24:47] Brett Stanley: Oh, that’s great.
[00:24:48] Pawel Achtel: so you can change the stereo base and adjust the amount of 3d effect that you want. So, so it is always comfortable to watch on a large screen.
[00:25:00] Brett Stanley: Yeah, I think that that’s got kind of always got me, I think was, was how you could have changed those things and whether, you know, whether the distance between those lenses changed anything with the final result. And obviously it does.
[00:25:13] Pawel Achtel: That’s right. That’s right. It’s, it’s something that on the production of this magnitude you would be, you would want to be able to control because that controls the 3d effect, the immersion, and also shows that The images are comfortable to watch and comfort of watching 3d is extremely important because it’s a long film.
And, you know, if you strain your eyes, you just won’t be able to watch it till the end.
[00:25:39] Brett Stanley: no, no, totally. And is there something weird as well with the like the horizontal plane as well? Like if, if one lens is slightly higher than the other, does that sort of start to make things weird as well? Is that what you’re talking about with the vertical
[00:25:52] Pawel Achtel: That’s right. So, so so if you have any detail in the picture, and if it appears on a different height in the left eye, as it is on the right eye, that would. Be a vertical disparity. They need to be on the same hide. They can be offset horizontally because of the depth perception, but vertically they must be exactly aligned.
So any distortion in the lens obviously is a, is a bad thing. As the state of the art before this invention was to film with flat board. I mean, you can imagine. The massive concussion distortions that the flat board creates. It’s not, it’s not good for for 3d, because that would cause those distortions would cause vertical disparities because the Stripe lines are not produced as straight lines. So in the past, Those disparities had to be corrected in post. But by doing so, it, it even further graded the, the optical quality of the, of the images
[00:26:59] Brett Stanley: Yeah, that makes sense. And is it because we are looking at it straight on and the image is trying to tell us that the, that our head is kind of tilted to the side and that’s not, and that’s why it kind of makes us feel uncomfortable
[00:27:12] Pawel Achtel: No, I mean, when I, our head is tilted to a side, we still don’t have vertical disparities in a plane that stilted. Right. So, so our brains are wired for both eyes to receive images that do not, that are identical in terms of the vertical composition. But offset horizontally only.
[00:27:41] Brett Stanley: Yeah. So it’s like, if, if one of our eyes was, was a little bit higher than the other one.
[00:27:47] Pawel Achtel: Yeah, that’s right. That’s, that’s something that our brains would freak out and,
[00:27:50] Brett Stanley: Yeah. and starts to make you feel pretty sick.
[00:27:54] Pawel Achtel: that’s right.
[00:27:55] Brett Stanley: That’s amazing. And so so with that sort of submerged. Situation. So you’ve got the light coming through the water. It goes through that, glass of the lens, and then back into water through the beam splitter, when it hits into, when it goes to the camera itself into the sensor, is it going through a flat port at that point?
[00:28:13] Pawel Achtel: No, there’s no flat board. Don’t put of any type. So the housing itself it’s you can imagine as if it’s a waterproof lens Mount that wraps the camera around.
[00:28:27] Brett Stanley: Oh, okay.
[00:28:28] Pawel Achtel: So, you Mount the camera to the housing as if you were putting a lens Mount on a camera
and then you put a lens. Attach it to the housing as if you were attaching it to a lens Mount
[00:28:44] Brett Stanley: Right. So now you’ve basically got, so the only time the light actually goes through air is when it’s inside the camera, hidden the sensor.
[00:28:51] Pawel Achtel: that’s. Right. Which is exactly same as if it was with normal, the, or
[00:28:56] Brett Stanley: Right. And that’s how you’re getting such amazing sharpness is because it, that no, you know, there’s very little degradation from the, passing through air.
[00:29:05] Pawel Achtel: That’s right. I mean, the the lenses have been designed from ground up to operate in that optical medium. So, so they are designed to produce sharp images when there is water in the front of the lens and air the back of the lens. So that’s when they perform at their best.
Um, once you put a flat or down port.
You degrade the, the quality of the, of the image to a certain degree and, and and it’s a compromise.
[00:29:39] Brett Stanley: Right. So then how do you set focus and change, Iris? Is it, is it inside that wet lens?
[00:29:46] Pawel Achtel: yes. So Niko lenses have KNS to change aperture and focus on the outside. For avatar, they, they made like an extension that they were able to pull focus from. Short distance away. The camera assistant was able to to control that.
[00:30:04] Brett Stanley: Oh with a whip or something.
[00:30:06] Pawel Achtel: that’s right.
[00:30:06] Brett Stanley: Amazing. And so I guess you just, were they connected so that they would always be the same focus or do you have to basically do. Individually.
[00:30:14] Pawel Achtel: I believe they were connected. Yeah.
[00:30:16] Brett Stanley: So just ganged and then just one, one focus control.
[00:30:20] Pawel Achtel: Yeah
[00:30:20] Brett Stanley: what focal length was it?
[00:30:21] Pawel Achtel: that was the 15 15 millimeters. They haven’t used any Ava lands.
[00:30:27] Brett Stanley: Oh, that’s great.
And what cameras were they shooting into?
[00:30:30] Pawel Achtel: So they were shooting on son Venice. So they were VE is real Alto. Cameras can be detached from the main bodies.
[00:30:39] Brett Stanley: Oh,
[00:30:40] Pawel Achtel: is the camera head for the left eye camera head for the right eye and the big box housing, the two camera bodies and then cables going from that big box to the surface.
[00:30:54] Brett Stanley: Oh, okay. So cuz with your rig, right, you’ve got one camera head, basically horizontal and the other one’s vertically. Into the splitter. So you’ve got the, the camera heads in each one of those, and then they cable out to both camera bodies and another box.
[00:31:09] Pawel Achtel: Yeah. The wreck was quite large because the actual Venice cameras are quite, quite large.
[00:31:16] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:31:16] Pawel Achtel: When I use the rig with, with smaller cameras that can easily be handled by a single person.
[00:31:24] Brett Stanley: Right. Was this were they using this free underwater or were they attached to like a hydro head or something or,
[00:31:30] Pawel Achtel: No, no, it was, it was handheld.
[00:31:33] Brett Stanley: oh, right.
It must have been quite big to push through the water.
[00:31:37] Pawel Achtel: it’s not too bad in a, in a pool. Yeah, if, if it was in the ocean, that would be a different story, but but in a pool it was it was quite okay.
[00:31:46] Brett Stanley: And I guess you don’t have the big domes either. So you, you probably, it’s probably a lot more sleek than like a, a traditional underwater camera.
[00:31:54] Pawel Achtel: It wasn’t slick because the, the beam split is like you know like a flat feature. But, but it definitely was much smaller than housed systems because you don’t have that bulk around. The beam splitter and the entire system,
[00:32:12] Brett Stanley: right.
[00:32:13] Pawel Achtel: the system is much smaller. It doesn’t need that shell around it.
[00:32:17] Brett Stanley: no, that makes sense. And so outside of like avatar, what, what other sort of work are you doing with this, this setup?
[00:32:24] Pawel Achtel: Well, that was, this setup was only used on avatar. It hasn’t been used since then. And it wasn’t, it, it hasn’t been used before. Avatar is the only film that this setup was used on. So it’ll be interesting to to watch it because it will be one and only.
That was, that was film using using this this system?
[00:32:48] Brett Stanley: So this system was built custom for James Cameron.
[00:32:53] Pawel Achtel: No, it was built seven years earlier. It was built for Jan screen and IMEX productions.
But Jim Cameron was the first one that said I wanted I want to, I want to give it a go. So it hasn’t been used anyway, despite its potential until Jim Cameron became aware of it and thought, well you know, let’s give it a go and see how it goes.
[00:33:18] Brett Stanley: Yeah. So how did he find out about it in the first place?
[00:33:21] Pawel Achtel: They, they came across my website, so they, they found it on a website.
[00:33:25] Brett Stanley: Oh, wow. And was it a surprise to you? Like, did it just come out of the blue with them?
[00:33:31] Pawel Achtel: It was, I was driving a car and I had a phone call from John Brooks and he said, oh, you know, Calling from on behalf of Jim Cameron and we are doing avatar and I said, oh yeah. Okay. And we talk and he said you know what? We who we are. Right. like, he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure whether I was aware of the magnitude of the project,
[00:33:51] Brett Stanley: right. Yeah.
[00:33:52] Pawel Achtel: Which was funny, but it was, John is great.
We, we get along pretty well but that was sort of a surprise
[00:33:59] Brett Stanley: And were you nervous going in? Like, was it, were you kind of like, well, I dunno if this is gonna do it or were you like, yeah, this is perfect for that.
[00:34:06] Pawel Achtel: I knew it was perfect for that. There is always nervousness around doing big production because you know, of the stakes involved when you’re doing your own filming you know, if something goes wrong, it’s not big deal. You can go again tomorrow and fix whatever was broken. There is no room for that.
On productions of this magnitude, everything has to be tested and at work reliably. So you know, when you are preparing all the equipment and solve those thoughts going in your head, what can possibly go wrong? What can possibly you know, whether you can anticipate. Failure anywhere. And you try to cover all the bases with that.
But yeah, it was, it worked and other than the bubbles, which we managed to solve overnight it it was working perfectly
[00:35:01] Brett Stanley: So, were there any any memorable moments for you on set? Like when, when it, you know, any interesting problems that came.
[00:35:08] Pawel Achtel: Not really. I tried to cover all the bases before going to Auckland, but definitely a memorable moment was when we first put the entire rig inner water. We and Peter ASI took it over and took it down.
[00:35:24] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:35:25] Pawel Achtel: The whole team, got it around the 3d monitor and And then he pointed it to a subject and and everyone was like, wow, can I, can I have a look, can I, can I get your glasses?
You know and, and I guess it was that moment of realization that when you have your theory and scientific findings, right.
[00:35:49] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:35:49] Pawel Achtel: it’s got to work, but you know, it’s not until you actually see it in real life when you realize, wow. That was worth it.
[00:35:57] Brett Stanley: Oh, totally. Yeah. The, especially with that, you know, all that lead up and that apprehension and all those people, you know of this massive production and then to see it bang on screen. Just looking amazing that that must be incredible.
[00:36:10] Pawel Achtel: Yeah. Yeah. And um, so we recorded some images that were sent to LA cuz Jim was in LA at the time. And, and yeah. Everyone was, was happy.
[00:36:21] Brett Stanley: Yeah. I bet. So so what’s next for you? Have you got any other big projects coming up?
[00:36:28] Pawel Achtel: So there are I mean, my focus now changed a fair bit. Maybe it’s not as closely related to underwater. It’s more related to cinema in general. I’ve invented this new camera system that has massive sharpness comparable to an array of say six to 12 cameras stitched together. So. So that application for that is in VFX shooting plates, but also for giant screen and, and, and IMAX projects.
So yeah, at the moment, my focus is On that system. And there are projects that big Hollywood projects that use the cameras those new cameras for, for shooting their VFX. And that takes a lot of my time and And focus. But I’m hoping that I would be able to go back to diving hopefully next year with, with the new, with my new camera system using the nine X seven cameras you know, I was always trying to improve the cameras I was shooting with, whether that was Sony or red or any other camera.
And now. I decided to build mine own. So
[00:37:40] Brett Stanley: Yeah, that’s amazing.
[00:37:41] Pawel Achtel: so I can I can, if there’s any improvement, I can go back to the manufacturer myself and and say, well, that needs to be fixed.
[00:37:51] Brett Stanley: yeah, yeah, totally.
[00:37:53] Pawel Achtel: uh, So yeah, that’s, that’s my current focusing on. Yeah. The cameras have been already used underwater there’s large projects Hollywood sort of projects that The cameras have been used with Nikos RS system using, using vanquish housings that my company also provides.
And that was to shoot very high resolution plates for VFX underwater. Yeah.
[00:38:20] Brett Stanley: That’s amazing. So how with a camera that, that has that much data coming in and I assume me it’s, it’s uncompressed. How, how much does it actually store or do you have to actually send it to the surface to for capture? How does that all work?
[00:38:35] Pawel Achtel: You can separate the camera from the recording module up to about a hundred meters. So that configuration is possible, but predominantly the recording module is in the same housing and recorded Underwater the data rates are quite high. We’re talking up to 11 gigabytes per second.
[00:38:58] Brett Stanley: Yeah. Which is crazy.
[00:38:59] Pawel Achtel: That’s in comparison, the latest cinema cameras coming from air can record up to about 0.5 gigabytes per second. So we are talking. 20 times more data. Yes. It’s uncompressed raw up to 16 bit bed depth. Yeah, a lot of, a lot of data.
[00:39:20] Brett Stanley: And is that a lot of dynamic range as.
[00:39:23] Pawel Achtel: it’s it’s similar to some of the best cinema digital cinema camera. So up until now nine X seven camera had about 0.7 of a stops, less dynamic range than we compared it with Alf,
[00:39:38] Brett Stanley: yeah.
[00:39:38] Pawel Achtel: With the new firm where that. That we’ve developed just few weeks ago. We can improve it by about two to four stops, so very significant improvement,
[00:39:51] Brett Stanley: God. That’s crazy.
[00:39:52] Pawel Achtel: in ranch.
[00:39:53] Brett Stanley: Yeah.
[00:39:54] Pawel Achtel: I don’t think it will go as high as the latest area 35 but I’m relatively confident that it will be. Higher than, than pretty much any other digital cinema camera.
[00:40:05] Brett Stanley: Yeah, that’s great. Well, congratulations.
[00:40:08] Pawel Achtel: Thank you.
[00:40:09] Brett Stanley: P this has been amazing. Thank you so much for for sharing all of this and, and kind of explaining everything as well. I, I hadn’t really thought about how 3d underwater really worked. So this has made a lot more sense to me.
[00:40:20] Pawel Achtel: oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.
[00:40:22] Brett Stanley: It’s been a pleasure and I look forward to seeing what comes next for you?
[00:40:26] Pawel Achtel: Yeah, it’s never a boring moment.
[00:40:30] Brett Stanley: that’s good. all right. Thanks.
[00:40:33] Pawel Achtel: thanks, Brett.