Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

      The September 1961 issue of American Cinematographer (cost--35cents) featured an article on the filming of the special effects for the Voyage feature film.  What follows is a recap of the article with photos taken from the original article and culled from this site master's files.  Please note that I have condensed the article and altered the order of some of the material presented to enhance flow.

    The text begins with a lengthy recap of the film which I've not included.  On the slight chance that you're unfamiliar with the plotline (is that really likely?) check out this site's movie synopsis contributed by site visitor D.K. Henderson.

Of Sersen Lakes and Studio Tanks.

Giant Fox effects lake with paintable sky background named after effects pioneer Fred Sersen.

    After the recap , American Cinematographer contributor Herb Lightman dives into the technical aspects of the film, noting that effects are highlighted right out of the gate after the opening credits with Seaview's famous "emergency blow" surfacing sequence      

Technicians prepare barge mounted camera for filming of
Seaview (mid-upper center, "ice bergs" behind her.)
        The initial dramatic scene was shot on Fox's Sersen Lake, as were all "surface" effects shots.   The polar sea is seen to boil up as our favorite futuristic sub leaps out of the water and comes to rest on the surface.  To produce the action, 20th Century Fox's Special Effects Department, under the supervision of veteran effects expert L.B. (Bill) Abbott, ASC, constructed an approximately 17', 3" model of Seaview, one of three different scale miniatures built for the shooting.  (*Note --the article incorrectly refers to the model's length as 20 feet.)  The model was positioned below water in a pit created in 1953 for the shooting of Fox's 1954 release, Titanic.  By means of a trip release and a winch with a line attached to the sub, the craft's natural buoyancy was accelerated for the "jump-up" effect.

    Within the sub model itself, high-pressure water hoses connected to the ballast vents produced the effect of water gushing forth from the sub as it surfaced.     

    The addition of detergent added to the water created the desired effect of foaming turbulence.  The spectacular opening shot duplicates a real "emergency blow" surface maneuver which producer Irwin Allen was familiar with from his research efforts.

Foaming water gushes from ballast vents.

   An effective scene early in the film shows the submerged Seaview gliding through dark waters beneath a "ceiling" of polar ice.  The bergs begin to disintegrate and huge chunks of ice crash down on the stricken sub.  The icebergs, Abbott explained, were created out of individual metal frameworks covered with wire mesh. Over these were placed several thicknesses of cheese cloth, then the assemblies were
covered with wax. A major problem was getting the various sized iceberg props (size, 4 to 24 inches) to descend at the right speed in order to look realistic.  Each was individually weighted so as to have relative buoyancy; the smaller bergs had to fall at the same rate as than the larger ones. The icebergs were arranged on planks overhead above the water's surface and dropped into the studio tank by technicians as the camera rolled.  The divers had to retrieve the various iceberg miniatures and realign them for the retakes and shots to follow.  Note--underwater shots were filmed in the studio "tank," as opposed to the Sersen Lake, which for the most part was only several feet deep and used exclusively for filming surface shots.  

Studio tank with rows of attendant lights and other gear.

The movie's four principal models. the 17-plus, 8 and 4 foot models and the
generic teardrop sub taken out of storage for the 1964 season of the TV show.
       In addition to the 17-plus-foot model used for surface shots, there was also an eight-foot model for underwater shots in the Fox tank,  and an approximately four-foot model which was built to scale for the octopus attack sequence.  The octo attack scenes were shot in a relatively small aquarium type tank as a technical assistant manipulated the model by hand.

    For the sequence in which the mini-sub exits Seaview to head forward to the nose to free a mine from the sub's searchlight casing, the large model, built specifically for surface shots, was submerged in the tank in a stationary position. 

    It was equipped with an electrically controlled hatch from which a small eleven-inch model of the mini-sub could be released, guided by fine wires, which carefully lit, were invisible on screen. 

    A larger model of the mini-sub was built to a scale carefully calculated with respect to the explosion which was to demolish it, so that the explosion would appear as real as possible. The result was viscerally effective, as the larger scale mini-sub model was actually blown up, the explosive charges planted within, and the resulting footage processed against a matte of Seaview's observation nose ports. 
Mouse-over at right for dramatic result.    

    In a special effect project such as this, Abbott explained, the studio's miniature prop shop contributes substantially.  Herb Cheek, head of the shop and considered one of the top experts in the business, supervised the construction of the various models required.

   Virtually all of the underwater scenes for Voyage were staged in the studio tank, as pictured at (right)--60 feet square and 11 feet deep.  The special effects photography was done with the camera mounted in an open-top "diving bell" camera barge (see below) set into the tank.  Pontoons attached to the sides kept it afloat.  The curvature of the convex glass port served to nullify the refraction of the water, which, would otherwise magnify underwater objects (Seaview included) about one-third, thus making it necessary to work in a much larger underwater set to achieve the same pictorial depth.  

L.B. Abbott drawing of camera barge above,
from his book on Special Effects. 
     The curved glass, cut down refraction and allowed normal perspec-tive.  An added advantage of shooting through the curved glass using a 75m lens was that it was possible to achieve a depth of field ranging from 4 and 1/2 to 12 feet.  In miniature work, the depth of field factor is especially critical, particularly when filming with CinemaScope lenses, which characteristically lacked depth.

Photographer Winton Hoch & Irwin Allen

gaze up from within the camera barge.

End Part 1.  Part 2 coming soon.

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