At the dive-in

The Underwater Studio in Basildon attracts rock bands, film stars, world record breakers and scuba divers. James Wood finds out more

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, starring Kate Moss, shot scenes at the Underwater Studio.

At first it’s unclear why actor Joanna Lumley or indie rock band Stereophonics might visit an industrial site just off the A127 in Basildon.

But amid the recycling points and manufacturing fi rms, the Underwater Studio opened there in 2004, when Geoff Smith relocated the facility from Enfield in north London: “We decided on Basildon not only because it was close to the M25 and the coast, but also as we have access to fantastic industry. We can call on the various engineering and manufacturing firms operating here when we need to.”

Since the move to Basildon, the studio has been used for myriad feature films, music videos and commercials, as well as world record attempts and nearnightly diving and scuba diving classes.

Most recently, singer, Birdy – whose songs have featured on the soundtracks of successful film franchise The Hunger Games and the Josh Boone romantic comedy, The Fault in Our Stars – made use of the facility for the music video of  her latest single, Wild Horses.

On set, Birdy grins as she slips into the water for the shoot – “I’ve always wanted to be a mermaid,” she says. Director Francis Wallis explains the concept behind the video: “We shot Birdy standing on top of the water. The narrative is that we see a whole sequence of a sailor getting dressed into a vintage diving suit. Meanwhile, Birdy is dressed as a mermaid and we essentially see the impossible love story between the two underwater.”

It’s not the first time the studio has been used for dramatic shoots. Jonathan Glazer’s acclaimed 2013 science fiction film, Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, about an alien on earth, needed an underwater scene to create the graphic illusion of a human body having its insides sucked out.

The cinematographer behind the shot, Mark Silk, told Moviescope magazine that filming underwater can be a painstaking process, with a 12-hour shoot often only producing four seconds of footage, but the advantages of such a facility from a filmic perspective make it a worthwhile exercise.

“There’s no geography underwater, so you can get away with a lot of things you wouldn’t be able to on land. It allows for a fluidity of shot, so you can rotate the camera as you’re filming an artist,” he told the publication.


Raising the roof

Sky Atlantic TV drama The Tunnel – a remake of the Danish show, The Bridge – makes use of an impressive feature at the studio, which allows the stage setting to be transformed from an indoor to an outdoor facility.

An enormous crane is used to lift off the roof and frame of the building, exposing the pool of water beneath to the elements. There is no other studio in the world with such capability.

Other notable films and TV programmes to be shot at the facility include a scene from the forthcoming Absolutely Fabulous movie, which will be released in cinemas in summer 2016; comic book caper Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, broadcast on Sky 1, which has received plaudits aplenty; popular Sky Living programme Britain’s Next Top Model and Danny Boyle’s film, Trance, starring James McAvoy.

Bands to have taken a dive at the studio include Stereophonics, whose video shoot for the 2013 single Violins and Tambourines was directed by the group’s singer, Kelly Jones. Friendly Fires’ Jump in the Pool and The Maccabees’ Marks to Prove It music videos were also fi lmed there.


Breaking boundaries

The studio has also been hired for some memorable world record attempts.

In 2007, Essex FM (now Heart FM) radio station attempted the record for the longest underwater broadcast, breaking the one previously held by German radio presenter, Frank Niessen.

This served as inspiration for others who have since broken it again, such as Australian station WFSM and even the British Armed Forces’ station.

One former soldier, who lost a friend to a diving accident and has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, will attempt to break the record for the longest amount of time spent underwater – a record currently held by Ronny Frimann from Norway.

Mark Colman attempted the record in 2012, only being allowed out of the water every four hours for 20-minute food and water breaks. He is busy preparing for his next attempt in June 2017, again at the Underwater Studio, aiming for more than five days submerged and raising money for the Veterans in Action charity.

With such a range of complex and diverse purposes, those who run the studio also find time to offer diving classes run by the Orca Scuba Diving Academy and Waterfront Scuba, which are open to all abilities.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the Underwater Studio is how its profi le and standing has managed to stay so low.

Famous names often have cause to quietly visit this part of Essex, but Geoff Smith feels no need to shout this from the rooftops – they know where he is, continuing to offer a unique and versatile location for underwater pursuits of all kinds in the most unlikely of places.


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