Director of photography Peter Woeste has filmed in a lot of interesting places during his decades in the business, including plenty of locations with aspects of the US military. But never, until the filming of Continuum, had he filmed on an operational nuclear submarine.
Before the Stargate: Continuum crew could even get aboard the sub, naturally it had to surface – and the opportunity to film a sub punching through the arctic ice wasn’t one that either Martin Wood or Peter Woeste would willingly pass up.
“The shot that we were really looking for, something that was unattainable anywhere else, was that we wanted to tie the sub coming out from under the ice in with our actors,â€ Woeste explains. “We wanted them in the same shot; so that there was no doubt that we were there. Otherwise we could have done it all with VFX!â€
The perfect opportunity to get such a shot came during part of the training exercise that the Navy was running beneath the Arctic ice. “What they do is, they have a crew on the ice and they draw a mark – an ‘X’ – on the ice. The sub comes up and tries to hit it: X marks the spot where they would like the sub to come up. Usually it’s on thinner ice. In all these exercises, they’d never been able to hit the X.â€
The idea was that the Stargate crew could film their scenes as an adjunct to this exercise – and then they’d have their desired shot. Timing was therefore of the essence, as was the position of the camera. Not knowing where exactly the sub would surface meant that the shot could easily go awry, with the vehicle surfacing half out of the shot, or even completely off-camera.
“If you can imagine, when you’re shooting this, you can’t see it come up. You have to just roll the camera and point it at this endless, horizon less sea of ice,â€ Woeste says, laughing at the memory, “and you have to hope that this sub is going to come up where your camera is pointing when it’s rolling. The added problem is to get your actors in the same shot.â€
Having tried it once without success, the production was running out of time. The US Navy had work to do, and if Stargate didn’t get the required shot during their short period of ‘target practice’, that was it.
“The second time, we actually had actors there. We were trying it again and unbelievably, they hit the X dead in the middle! They’d never done it before. The sub came up, our actors were in the shot, and it was just an amazing thing to see. Of course, it was not used in the film in its entirety as we shot it, and in fact we did use a few visual effects in that sequence. But rest assured our actors were right there when the submarine came up!â€
After the triumph of bagging that shot, it was time to move on board the sub. Usually, of course, Woeste and the director would have already seen the location in which they would be shooting. Not so in this case. Instead it was a matter of having to run with whatever presented itself, and making it work however they could. Not only that, but the military couldn’t suspend the sub’s active duties for the sake of a film crew – and so the production found themselves right in the middle of a very real, very military working environment.
“We all trooped on board, through these little round hatches,â€ Woeste recalls. “We had about six or seven people plus our actors. And you have to understand, on a sub like this there are 180 guys – it’s quite confining. I’m 6’4â€- 6’5â€ and about 240 pounds. When I stood in a hallway sideways, I filled it. There was no room, and my head was scraping the ceiling! And with 180 guys, there were people everywhere on the set, wherever you went. The guys on the sub didn’t know who we were, or what was happening – just, all of a sudden there’s people in huge parkas coming down the hallways,â€ he laughs. “It was quite an experience! On the sub it’s 70 degrees all the time. They don’t feel where they are. Some of the guys didn’t even know where they were – all they knew was that they had been in Hawaii last and that was it.â€
The last thing the production needed in the midst of such an intense working environment was technical difficulties. To prepare themselves for the extremes they would be working in, it was necessary to find alternative filming methods.
“All our equipment was prepared for the Arctic,â€ Woeste explains. “We took the grease and lubricating oils out of the cameras and we had them all prepared for the cold weather. Of course, when you come into a warm, humid environment like a submarine from a very cold and frigid one like we were in outside, all your equipment freezes and fogs up… So we shot everything in the Arctic on 16mm film except the stuff on the submarine.
We had to shoot that on a Panasonic digital camera, one that records on just a memory card. And the reason for that was it was just so compact. The camera was so light that I could hold it in one hand; arms outstretched, and move it around periscopes and over racks of control equipment. It was the only way, there was no way we could get our usual equipment in there, not in the short time we had. You can’t tie up these subs for all that long. They actually have a job to do and they’re worth millions of dollars!â€
In fact, not all the scenes set on the sub were filmed inside the vessel. The scene in which Daniel talks to O’Neill from his infirmary bed was filmed months later on a set built to identical specifications. But the adjoining scene, in which O’Neill exits the room into the hallway, is the actual sub. It’s impossible to tell the difference, the two marry together so well.
The final shot the production took of the submarine during their Arctic stay was of it diving. Again, Woeste and Wood had to rely on luck for it to work.
“We also had to do underwater stuff,â€ he says. “So that same camera that we used on the interior we fitted into an underwater housing. We sawed ourselves a hole in the ice just in front of the submarine and then submerged that camera in the water under the ice, to watch the submarine dive. The first time we tried it, we had troubles with the exposure – we didn’t know how dense the water was under the ice or how thick the ice was and how much light it would let through.
The second time we tried it, somebody lifted the underwater housing out of the ice just for a second to see if it was okay, and in that second it froze. The water froze on the housing and it wouldn’t thaw. And so the next time we tried it, we just put it under and decided that whatever happened, we would roll the camera. Because it records on a memory card, not film, we knew we had exactly 20 minutes of recording time. So we rolled the camera, and at 19 minutes and 30 seconds, the sub started going down!â€
News article courtesy of the official Stargate website