Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Seaview in the Arctic

A brief history of Seaview's design & filming.

Pre-production on the movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea  was rolling in late summer, 1960, at which point Fox's supervising art director, Jack Martin Smith became involved with the film, and inevitably, the design of Seaview, the mini sub, interior sets, etc.  Since Voyage was to be a science fiction film based in fact, Seaview's design had to be believable, yet something beyond the well-known state-of-the-art teardrop shape American submarines had evolved to.  In addition to Smith, staff artist Herman Bluementhal and to a lesser extent, Fox's effects wizard L.B. Abbott were involved in the design process.  Numerous meetings were held with Irwin Allen, script in hand, to determine precisely what could and would be depicted in the film given the available technology and just as importantly, the available budget.

Past cover of Janes Fighting Ships
Research Tool.

    Since Jack Smith's tenure at MGM and Fox had, over the years involved him with numerous movies featuring ships and even submarines, he was well prepped for the endeavor.  He refreshed his memory by revisiting Jane's Fighting Ships and touring a nuclear submarine then harbored in San Diego.  As he explained to Tim      

seaview_manta.jpg - 6222 Bytes
Something fishy?  A familiar looking shape.

Colliver in an interview conducted around 1980, his research was widespread and drawn as well from books on the anatomy of flowers and fish and the work of Jacques Cousteau.
Seaview's intended on-screen length has been bandied about over the years, and certainly the principals involved in her creation cannot agree.  Jack Martin Smith recalled in a 1980 interview that Seaview was supposed to be around 300 feet long (highly improbable.)  L.B. Abbott recorded, in his book, Special Effects, Wire, Tape and Rubber Band Style, that Seaview was "presumably 350 feet long, utterly unique in design, and visually exciting (regards the length, equally improbable.)  The actual blueprints generated by 20th Century Fox's design department and dated 1960 boldly measure Seaview's length as 400 feet exactly, yet publicity for the film upon release, site Seaview as longer than two football fields placed end to end—around 620 feet.  This last figure is certainly the most likely given the expanse of the submarine's interior.  It is also the figure sited in the July, 1966 issue of American Cinematographer in an article detailing Voyage's deserved Emmy win for special effects.  Again, it is the figure sited in Fox's huge press package put together in 1968 for Voyage's entry into the syndication market.  In addition, the figure fits nicely with the length of the Soviet Akula class submarine, which Tom Clancy refers to as "The world's biggest submarine, pure and simple." at 560.9 feet long.  We can only assume Clancy's research hadn't uncovered Seaview's top-secret existence.

The first designs to surface (no pun intended--really) resembled a typical teardrop shaped submarine with a large glass-domed observation room aft of the conning tower, presumably similar to the craft depicted on the cover of the 1961 Bantam release of Theodore Sturgeon's adaptation of Charles Bennett's script.  This design was shelved duo to budget limitations. Eventually, the familiar manta-ray nose fins and "glass-nosed" front end design evolved.  Initially, the two levels of nose ports were intended to have six window groupings each, for a total of twelve.  Once again, budget came into play and the number was reduced to the now-familiar 8    

 Cover of 1961 first printing of Theodore Sturgeon's Voyage novelization.
Original intended design? Click here for more.

nose ports.   As Tim Colliver reports in his book, Seaview, The Making of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, "to the rear, two large tail fins protruded above a pair of exhaust tubes that contained propellers. The sub had no keel or rudders at this point, but did have missile hatches, a conning tower with triangular diving planes, a sonar dome at the top of the hull just in back of the nose, and a hatch under what would be the missile room section for launching of a mini-sub.

18 footer gets launched in the Fox moat.
The Largest Seaview Model about to set sail.

    L.B. Abbott recalled the actual models of Seaview used in filming as being variously 4, 8 and 19 feet long.  The July, 1965 issue of American Cinematographer says there were 2, 4, 8 and 18 foot models.  The usual length reported for the largest model is either a little over 17 feet or 18 feet long.  Upon it's sale by Profiles in History, the largest model was specifically sited as being 17 feet, 3 inches long.  You get the idea.  It was big, and was used primarily for surface shots where water is subject to surface tension, which means that the bigger the model, the more realistic will be the final shot.
Even so, slow-motion photography (shooting the film at ahigher speed than it will be projected) must be employed to preserve the illusion of model versus wave size.  For more on the various Seaview effects models, check out Rick Quizenberry's page.

Once again quoting American Cinematographer, "The size of the waves in relation to the miniature must be realistic, but those in the background must gradually diminish in size--a forced perspective, so to speak.  Mechanically, this illusion is achieved by setting the front wave scale with wind machines, accompanied by the use of (wave making) plank agitators manipulated by experienced effects technicians who vary
  Hot wave action in the original Sarsen Lake on the Fox lot.    
the cadence to produce an irregular wave pattern.  Large mechanical agitators enhance the  illusion by adding a ground swell."
In the photo at left, note the very diminishment of apparent wave size described.  It was this attention to detail which made Voyage's most successful surface shots so convincing.  By the time the Voyage series was shot, the huge new Fox Sersen Lake built for Cleopatera was available.

Underwater photography was created in what was commonly referred to as "the moat" a huge outdoor shooting tank which was divided in half for budgetary reasons, rendering a

tank 60 by 60 by 11 feet deep.  For underwater shots, wires were stretched across the usable tank area.  These wires supported silk diffuser.  As Abbott put it, "This allowed us to use diffused sunlight for many of the miniature shots, making it possible to depict the submarine at great depths without having the surface water make shadow patterns such as one sees in a swimming pool.  An open-topped camera "barge" was used which allowed camera and crew to film below the water line and still be moved about for different shots.  The convex underwater ports used to shoot the footage through were obtained from Disney, and were in fact, the same ports that Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea had been shot through.  Such convex ports were needed to counter the refraction index of water and make the models look normal, rather than magnified.      Allen and Abbot in the "barge."
Looking down on L.B. Abbott and Irwin Allen.  Glass Port is the same one through which 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was shot.

A separate "barge" of different design was used to create the shots of water burbling up in front of Seaview's nose ports.  The film footage was shot through two quarter-inch Plexiglass windows in front.  As the barge was pulled through the water, it's forward bevel pushed the structure deeper into the water.  The speed at which the barge was pulled, controlled it's depth, and a special fan shaped nozzle fed by a high-pressure water pump increased the agitation of the water, which was shot from within at high speed.  Projected back onto the nose set's rear projection screens at normal speed, the footage gave the illusion of surfacing, running and submerging as seen from inside the sub.

The 8 foot model was used for most underwater shots, where the problem of surface waves and droplet size were not an issue.  As reported in the July, 1966 American Cinematographer, the models were pulled by fine piano wire which was invisible on film when carefully lit.  For the scene where the generic UN teardrop sub chasing Seaview imploded, the models were guided thusly, and the explosion accomplished by an internally placed explosive charge.  There was no computer animation at the time and it wasn't needed to created incredibly realistic undersea shots and, in addition, underwater explosions.

All of the Voyage movie's surface shots were filmed in Fox's original Sersen Lake built for 1939's The Rains Came.  Voyage was the last film shot at this facility before the land was sold for the development which became known as Century City.


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