Flying high under water: Rob Franklin

Rob Franklin cormorant
Rob Franklin in action with a fake cormorant in Mexico - see below (Kat Brown)

Director of photography Rob Franklin has long been a first call when big underwater filming projects are in the wind. PENELOPE GRANYCOME talks to him about BBC boot-camps, Blue Planet challenges, a whisky-fuelled fantasy in Mexico and how best to turn pools green

Comparing notes about near dozing-off experiences under water was not how I had expected to start my chat with Rob Franklin, a seasoned director of photography (DoP) and commercial diver with three decades of diving and filming experience in some of the world’s most challenging locations under his belt. 

But that’s what we do talk about – me recounting warm Indonesian waters in which I almost drifted off at 3m (I blame jet lag) while Rob’s near-soporific state had occurred while he was glued to the roof of a cave, alone, waiting for colleagues in the peaceful darkness.

BAFTA-winning and Royal Television Society-lauded, with major broadcast credits spanning an array of documentary and fiction productions, Rob exudes the sort of sense of calm demanded by both the filming and diving industries. 

His route towards underwater cinematography was not a linear one but evolved from a childhood love of speleology. Aged eight or nine, he saw a TV documentary about caving and thought “that looks really exciting”. Later he joined a local caving and climbing club, and the journey began.

A few years on, at a British Caving Association conference, Rob met cinematographer Sid Perou, regarded as one of the greatest cave film-makers of all time. Taking his chance, he asked Sid for a job. 

“Hello, I’d like to work with you” led to a couple of unpaid days in Wales working for the BBC, and on to the last trainee film camera assistant scheme ever run by the corporation. “It was a gateway to the rest of my career – and my life,” says Rob.

Last-minute sprinting

Learning the camera and lighting trade with the BBC made mountains and caves seem “a long, long way away”. A family friend whose son was a Royal Navy diver piqued Rob’s interest in the underwater world, but he didn’t put this into practice until the BBC started looking to put together an underwater film unit. 

“I went along and learnt to dive,” Rob explains and, with only 25 recreational dives under his belt, he proceeded to undertake a commercial-diving course. 

“It was hardcore,” he says of the training, which ran for a month along the lines of a military boot-camp, each day starting with a two-mile run. The last trainee across the line was pushed straight into press-ups, a fate avoided by Rob thanks to a newly discovered gift for last-minute sprinting. 

A tougher test consisted of repeatedly jumping into the water from a height of 6m while forbidden to modify gear or adjust weighting, and with no BC allowed. 

On a dive to 20m in a drysuit many sizes too big for him, Rob found himself stuck on the bottom, unable to gain any buoyancy as air burped out from his neck-seal. Managing to gather and fold in the excess, he eventually made it back to the surface.

‘Don’t specialise’

After 10 years with the BBC unit, Rob started freelancing. Warned not to constrain himself by becoming a specialist, he made sure to embrace a wide range of productions including snow and ice work, and melding his experiences of diving and caving together. 

Despite the well-intentioned “don’t specialise” advice, Rob found that his freelance work was increasingly taking him under water, where working with a bigger crew was all part of the attraction. 

He has shot a lot in open water as well as studio tanks and fresh water, but when discussing diving in the open sea he quotes his good friend cave-diver John Volanthen, who wryly describes it as “salty, wobbly and dangerous”.

Shooting wildlife in or out of the water, Rob says that one of the challenges that most tested his patience came when filming the same sequence of diving guillemots over and over again for Blue Planet II, in the freezing Barents Sea north of Norway. 

However, he finds that the intense creative teamwork required in both fiction and commercial cinematography engage him at a deep level, and he believes that “anything is potentially possible”.

“It’s really interesting, people often collect qualifications but it’s about continuity of experience,” says Rob. “You are part of a team, yet you also have to think for yourself.” While these might appear to be mutually exclusive concepts, most divers understand instinctively that having the ability to think for yourself is what makes you part of the team.

Portrait of Rob Franklin topside with camera
Rob Franklin: ‘You have to think for yourself’

Whisky challenge

The demands of collaboration, creativity and co-operation were never more put to the test than when Rob lit a commercial for Ballantine’s whisky at a depth of 30m in a cenote near Tulum in Mexico. 

The shoot involved 13 divers and an underwater layer of hydrogen sulphide into which his model, freediver Lance Lee Davis, had to plunge in costume. Lance then had to pose above the layer as a Chinese cormorant fisherman steering a sunken boat in 30m of semi-toxic warm water. 

Drafted in as a critical part of the team by director William Williamson, Rob built an entire lighting rig from scratch, deploying and connecting it to a surface generator. 

Preliminary lighting flare tests at the Vobster inland site back in the UK had created a load of black smoke, “which would not have been acceptable in an environmentally fragile area”, Rob explains. “When you’re faced with a project like that, you start doing your research and, as with any plan, you start putting a list together.” 

After weighting and tethering the boat above the underwater “river”, with fake cormorant in place and an oil lantern burning brightly in the gloom, Lance and his safety divers, William and his safety divers and the entire underwater crew had to work in perfect synchronicity to achieve the desired result – the illusion that man, cormorant and boat were afloat on the sulphurous underwater river. 

The mindset required to break such challenges down into achievable components explains Rob’s reputation as a great mentor. Combined with his natural sense of calm, it’s hardly surprising that he is the go-to DoP for some of the world’s leading broadcasters. 

At the same time, a sense of proportion is essential, and he sees part of his job as managing producers’ expectations. “You give them all the information about what the production needs to do a job properly, but we have to look at risk and mitigate risk.” That extends to saying no when a proposition is simply too dangerous.

Turn the pool green

One of Rob’s quirkier improvisations involved recreating the river Thames in Victorian London, complete with corpses and detritus floating across the frame. Given permission to dye a pool green and add the debris, Rob phoned a food manufacturer to ask: “How much food dye do I need to turn a swimming pool green?”

“Uh, probably half a gallon,” came the answer. 

Accordingly buying 4.5 litres, Rob went a cupful at a time until, after three, the perfect shade was obtained. The huge amount of spare green dye stayed in his garage until he finally used it to make mint creams.

The disciplined mindset required in cave and technical diving can, Rob finds, be usefully applied on the many fraught shoots that take place above the surface. “Normally, when you go cave diving there is no urgency,” he says, underlining that to approach any job in a state of frenzy is counter-productive.

So whenever thrown a problem and wondering how to tackle it, he bears in mind that the diving is “always the easy part”.

Rob’s work with household names including, but not limited to, the BBC, ITV, Discovery, Channel 4, NatGeo, Netflix and numerous commercial agencies is testimony to someone who gets the job done on time and within budget with grace and expertise. His business is The Underwater Company, and the website provides a roll-call of its many impressive film credits.

“When the phone rings and someone says hello, you never know where it’s going to take you or what the challenges will be,” he says. Which, we ultimately agree, is all part of the magic.

Portrait of Penelope Granycome

PADI Master Scuba Diver Penelope Granycome is a professional actress who learnt to dive in Oahu in 2008. Diving has taken her all over the world but she also enjoys both coastal and inland UK diving. She writes about both diving and well-being.

Also by Penelope Granycome on Divernet: Easing Into UK Drysuit Diving For A Relationship Built To Last

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