Gary Yost on shooting infrared music video underwater with a Nikon D200 and D5200 IR converted cameras

In this guest posts Gary Yost ( will share his experience on shooting infrared music video underwater with a Nikon D200 and D5200 IR converted cameras. See also his previous posts on the “Hawaiian Tree Bones” infrared time-lapse and the Full Moon Pacific Blanket time-lapse videos.

The SF-based band Yassou Benedict came to me in June of 2014 and asked me to help them make a music video for a new song that needed strong visuals. I hadn’t heard the song yet, but co-founder Lilie Bytheway-Hoy was clear about wanting a unique visual style for the piece. “Unique” in the music video field is a tall order, but I already had a converted D200 from a few years back and I’d been experimenting with a recently IR-converted Nikon D5200 for a time-lapse project that I wanted to accomplish that summer in Hawaii. So I suggested that we do some tests. We got together at my house and took the camera and a slider into my backyard to see what we could do.

The D200 and D5200 each have different strengths and weaknesses. The D200 is an old body but it does have a 10-pin terminal, which allows for precise shoot-move-shoot motion control when capturing time-lapse sequences with my eMotimo TB3 3-axis mo-co head. I bought the D5200 for its ability to shoot real-time video, which was going to be key to making the video work. I didn’t have an underwater housing for my Nikons, but I did have a dry bag for an older Canon XF100 Camcorder, which has an IR mode, so (along with a 720 nanometer filter) I used that for the underwater infrared shots we eventually needed.

I send my cameras to Lifepixel for infrared conversions, and I choose the 590-nanometer Super Color filter because it’s the most flexible. It can shoot IR pseudo-color, but when I want the strongest monochrome IR effect I add a 720nm IR filter in front of the lens — and that’s what I did with both cameras for this project. I find that 720nm is the most interesting wavelength threshold for people because it makes skin so porcelain-like.

You can see the test visuals in the video below (thrown on top of a fun Morcheeba track just to see how they cut together to a beat). We spent a lot of time testing different clothing material (because infrared will sometimes show white as black!). It was also important to see how the infrared imagery looked in both the real-time and time-lapse motion domains. We were thrilled at the disjointed stop-motion quality of the time-lapse footage and our tests gave us the confidence we needed to start brainstorming the piece. There are some beautiful shots in this test.

By August we had clear ideas for the look, but I still hadn’t heard the music track yet and was curious about where the song would take us. Lilie sent me the first cut of the track in September and I was hooked. The song starts with a lo-fi sequence of James Jackson singing in the background and then kicks into the first verse with a strong bass drop. Structurally, it has a long first verse and then splits into two polar opposite vibes in the second section, alternating between a frenetic feel and a very calm release. In short, a great aural canvas to paint on!

The creative vision for the piece didn’t come easily. We struggled quite a bit with developing different ideas that would play well in infrared. In a late September, rehearsal, Theo Quimby (their keys/synth player) was joking that perhaps synchronized swimming would be a good direction for the video. 21st century Busby Berkeley! Lilie picked up on that and called me the next day asking if this would be possible. WTF! Of course I didn’t know any synchronized swimmers, but I had seen (and loved) many of those old film starring Esther Williams and the thought was so crazy intriguing that we began doing research on whether any swimmers were even available for something like this. Eventually that search led us to the only professional synch swimming team in the USA, the Aqualilies. I contacted their manager in LA, Mesha Kussman, and laid out our plans for the video. They’d recently done a music video with Justin Bieber and had worked on TV shows like Glee, with Justin Timberlake and others. With our limited budget it looked like it may not be possible, but Mesha was fascinated by the project and loved the music, so she agreed to collaborate with us in early October.

We had swimmers! Not just swimmers, but the best on the planet. Game on, and the stakes just got higher.

Our intention for the song was to build it in three parts. An opening A-sequence and then alternating B&C sections, followed by a resolving part D. Synchronized swimming would be the C part, and we decided that both the A and B parts needed to be water-themed as well. For A, we felt that starting in Lilie’s bathtub and having her drop underwater would give us a doorway into the B&C sections, which are essentially dream sequences. The B-part was the biggest challenge because we wanted watery imagery — but as different from the silky smooth choreographed swimming movement as possible. Infrared photography is such a surreal way to shoot skin because 720-nanometer infrared cinematography captures light that passes through the outer dermis skin and is reflected off the sub-dermis.  The sub-dermis is composed of connective and adipose tissue (whose physiological function is primarily to provide insulation and cushion the underlying body for protection against trauma).  So when you view people filmed in this way, you’re essentially seeing through the outer layer of the character’s skin, into the hidden support organ underneath. Seeing underneath the skin is super interesting to me and it supported the narrative of young love, with so many emotions hidden below the surface.

The tests we had done in June proved that we could use the D200’s shoot-move-shoot capability with the 3-axis motion control system to create Harryhausen-esque stop-motion time-lapse sequences of Lilie’s body in front of the smoothly roiling clouds. Those clouds would reinforce the water motif but still provide strong visual contrast. Lilie was a huge sport during this process… we needed voluminous storm-clouds and waited until December to do this, but it was very cold up on top of Mt. Tam… usually in the low 40s. She didn’t have a lot of clothes on and each 10-second sequence would take 10 minutes to film while she animated her body slightly from frame-to-frame. The things we do for art!

But now we had all of our scenes in mind and once that visual language was established, the rest of the project fell smoothly into place.

The Aqualilies obviously need a large pool to perform in, and we had to find one for them. It had to be private, and I was lucky to know someone with a beautiful pool and facilities to support all the talent (6 swimmers, 2 coaches) and the production crew (5 of us). For time-lapse sequences we needed clouds behind Lilie, plus we wanted to portray her as huge, so the hills of western Marin county lie below her as if she’s hundreds of feet tall. There are very few places other than the top of a mountain where you can get that effect.

I already had the converted Nikon D200 for shooting IR time-lapse, and it was perfect for the mountain shots. I also had a dry bag for the Canon XF100 for shooting the underwater sequences, but the XF100’s lens wasn’t wide enough for the overhead pool shots. This is where the D5200 was essential. We needed the ability to use different lenses for different scenes and I ended up shooting most of the overhead pool sequences with the Tokina 11-16/2.8 (and some of the sequences were shot with a Nikon 17-55/2.8). I purchased a 15’ crane from Proaim for those critical overhead shots and that crane has come in handy on a few other shoots already.

Of course there were trials… Usually the weather is my biggest challenge because almost all of the work I do is outdoors. Sometimes I need clouds and there are no clouds. But for the swimming sequences we needed sun and warm weather and were lucky to get that at the end of October. I pre-visualize everything I do in advance for shoots like this, so when I walk on set the day of, I’m comfortable that I can do what’s necessary even when the eventual challenges arise. The Aqualilies were such professionals… it was all I could do to keep up with them as they went through their routines, listening the music blasting through a special underwater speaker system they use. We recorded the song 20% faster than the track’s actual speed and executed all the choreography to that. We over-cranked the shot at 30p and in post I slowed it back down to normal speed so that the swimmer’s motions would have an extra little bit of smoothness, and that enhanced the dreamy surreal quality. We made extensive use of the Blade Speed function in FCPX for fine adjustments in timing.

During post/finishing, working with these three infrared mediums of real-time, time-lapse and underwater cinematography had unique challenges and we needed seamless integration in order to sell the vision. That was accomplished primarily by bringing the FCPX edit timeline into Davinci Resolve and using Resolve’s advanced controls for matching tonality from shot-to-shot, which integrated the disparate visual components.

Collaboration is key!

As always, when you bring talented people into a creative project, what you get is synergistic… much greater than the sum of its parts. Working with Lilie’s concept from the beginning was exciting and then sitting with her in the edit bay for weeks, helping her to accomplish her vision for the final piece, taught me so much. Creative projects are a process and slowing down allows the process to play itself out naturally instead of forcing it.

It’s tough to establish a distinct look for a project. In this case, we had so much interesting visual imagery to work with and originally felt that maybe we needed to “gild the lily” and add additional visual effects to the synchronized swimming sequence. One of the amazing things about shooting swimmers wearing white bathing suits in a pool with an infrared camera is that the video stream is also essentially a z-depth map in addition to an RGB image. When the swimmers are at the surface, the whitest part of the image is closest to the camera, and the darkest part is farthest away. This is insanely useful for doing depth-map-based visual effects, and my friend Jamie Clay ran some fascinating experiments on the footage in After Effects to see what was possible. Short answer is, A LOT. But in the end we decided that the look of this piece needed to be as clean as possible, without pushing too far into the abstract zone. That said, we’ve got a lot of beautiful footage here and I’m hoping to eventually get the time to cut a piece for the Aqualilies that’s the visual equivalent of a synchronized swimming acid trip. Here’s a clip with some of our depth-map experiments:

So even though we could do something visually crazy, we decided against it for the sake of the project, not wanting to detract from the narrative. It’s important to go into every project without holding your creativity back… go way outside the box. Then, once you’ve explored all the potential opportunities, see how you can best help the story tell itself. Music videos are great fun to work on because there’s so much room for creative freedom. Wouldn’t it be great if they also came with reasonable budgets! Luckily I had that old D200 that which had been repurposed for infrared, and the D5200 was very inexpensive. This project certainly did not break the bank!

Anyone who wants to come up with their own look needs to explore what turns them on. My credo is that I’m “looking to explore the mystery in life through a careful examination of the natural world,” and everything I shoot supports that philosophy. I know that if I stay true to my own personal ethos, all of my work will have a consistency and “look” to it. But it’s taken me a long time to come to this place of understanding, and I’m learning more about it every day.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the shoot day with the Aqualilies:

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