Dive Odyssey: Behind the Scenes

Behind the scenes of Dive Odyssey
Behind the scenes of Dive Odyssey

It’s five years since the atmospheric Dive Odyssey fused elements of science-fiction, diving and fantasy and, although the film had only a short run-time, the amount of work that went into those 11 award-winning minutes was astounding. Stars ANDY TORBET and GEMMA SMITH take us behind the scenes of this epic production

Dive Odyssey took the diving world by storm in 2018. This short film, the brainchild of Janne Suhonen, master cave cinematographer and head honcho of the insanely talented Divers Of The Dark filming team – was, in his words, “a meditative journey into the depths of water – and mind”.

Dive Odyssey takes the viewers on a journey into crystal-clear darkness where the only light ever is man-made,” said Suhonen. “The film is an ode to thousands of years of mystical experience of water. It is also a tribute to science-fiction classics, some of which might be recognised in the film.”

The film accompanies The Explorer (played by Gemma Smith) through her exploration of an unknown planet. She is following a strange signal reaching out to her from beneath the ice, and ventures through the snow, then through the ice and into the water below. After an epic journey through the dark, she has an ethereal encounter with The Aquanaut, an alien entity (played by Andy Torbet).

The Shoot
The shoot

The challenging shoot was conducted throughout locations in Norway and Finland, and the harsh conditions the crew had to contend with pushed people – and equipment – to their limits.

Struggling to find snow

Gemma recalled a particularly fraught shoot towards the end of the filming process. “It was midway through April, and after two flights and a six-hour drive, I arrived in Norway for the shooting of the dry land scenes and some last-minute underwater reshoots,” she explained. 

“It was amazing how difficult it proved to be to find snow at that time of year without having to travel halfway around the world. A remote site almost directly below the Arctic Circle solved this problem.

“The focus of these few days was not the diving but the winter environment that The Explorer travels through before ultimately reaching the water. We therefore had a much smaller team on this phase, comprising Janne and me, as well as the then-current Rolex Scholar Felix Butschek, and past Rolex Scholar Oscar Svensson.

“This week was not without difficulties, and we had multiple kit issues and logistical problems. Flooded drysuits, faulty camera systems, broken rebreathers and poor weather made for some tough days. We had to remind ourselves on several occasions that nothing worth doing is ever easy!

“Finally we got underway, and we commenced the shoot by piling a bright orange JJ rebreather, multiple orange stages and an orange SUEX XK1 scooter onto a sled and snowmobiling out into the frosty wilderness to find the right spot for filming the required scenes.

Exploring the dive
Explorer meets Aquanaut

“Surreal was the word to describe this particular outing! Using a combination of GoPros mounted on drones and traditional camera and tripod, Janne and I did multiple takes at various locations to try to accurately portray the journey The Explorer is making. Six hours and a minor snowstorm later, we had the footage we needed.

“We finished the week shooting final scenes under the ice in the head pool of the nearby Plura cave system. We had timed it right, and luckily the surface ice was still solid, allowing Janne to film the transition of The Explorer from above ground to the hidden underwater world beneath.

“After all the hard work and trouble, we were finally pulling everything together. I can honestly say that of all the diving and filming projects I’ve done over the past few years, this was the most strange and outlandish and, perhaps because of that, it became very important to our team.”

And our team
The sub-team in Norway

Ojamo and Plura

It wasn’t only Gemma who had to contend with hardships on the shoot. Andy takes up the tale, recalling when that same team met for the first time months before.

“Finland was the destination, and it too was in the grips of winter,” he said. “Although the filming in Plura was the opening to the film, it was shot second. The first stage of this ambitious project was the middle part, the major part, set in Ojamo Mine.

“The entrance to this vast and complex flooded system is via Ojamo Lake. However in December, with topside temperatures pushing towards -20°C, the surface was solid ice. A diver has to break the surface of the ice to enter, then, after almost four hours in waters between 0 and 2°C, has to unclip their side-slung bail-out bottle to re-break the ice to escape. 

“But the underwater landscape is worth it. Ojamo had everything we needed for this shoot – narrow tunnels, scree slopes that slid into the depths, huge chambers 20 or 30m high. And the two most-important backdrops on this underwater stage – Hell’s Gate and Lucifer’s Pillar.

“The British contingent was made up of five – Gemma, continuing her role as The Explorer, myself, playing The Aquanaut, Rich Stevenson on camera, with Phil Short and Aron Arngrimsson (who is Icelandic) in support.

“We joined the Finnish team, headed up once again by Janne Suhonen, the mastermind behind the project, and joined by Sami, Laura, Jenni, Veli and Antti who, along with Phil and Aron, would help light our ‘film set’.

“Each dive was a major operation, and we had at least eight divers in the water on every dive, most of whom were involved in handling the powerful underwater lamps required to illuminate the huge, black spaces.

Diving starts late

“Each dive day began at 10am, which seems late but, as you’ll soon see, there was sense to it. We’d leave our communal log cabin in the snow-covered woods and head to Sami’s dive-store to prep rebreathers, bail-outs, scooters, dive kit, cameras and lights before moving on to Ojamo.

“At the site we were unable to dive until 5pm because the lake is used for commercial diving and offshore survival training during the day. However, we had the use of a classroom where we’d sit, plan the dive, rehearse each individual shot and try not to eat too many Finnish sweeties. 

“It would often be after 7pm before we started to slowly don the many layers we needed to withstand the cold. The trick was to dress without generating too much heat, because this would cause a diver to sweat. The dampness within the drysuit would mean the diver would start feeling cold within minutes of immersion.

“I was the only member of the team without any electric heating system, but I wore three layers of undersuit, two hoods (a 5mm and a 2mm) and three pairs of warm gloves under my large drygloves –which made my manual dexterity pretty limited and my hands looks like a clown’s.

“The rebreathers also kept us warmer and were essential, because every dive was between 50m and 80m deep. We’d normally exit the water by midnight, strip kit and return to Sami’s to put all the electrics on charge and return to our cabin for a beer before crawling into bed by 3am – hence the 10am start. 

Dive Briefing
Dive briefing

“Our dives began with the simplest scenes in the tunnels and chambers of Ojamo – The Explorer on her DPV flying through the submerged corridors and empty spaces, tight shots and wide shots.

“But by day three it was time to head to Hell’s Gate. I’d dived Ojamo in the past, but this was my first chance to dive the Gate. It’s the main draw of the mine and I had great expectations. I was not disappointed. 

Diving through the wall

“When the mine was still in use, they had excavated under the lake and realised that the roof was in danger of collapse. So they built a huge wall, metres thick and tens of metres high, from floor to ceiling to support the chamber. The supporting timber still remains stuck to the outside and creates an incredible, megalithic structure.

“I have often likened diving to space, but never before had I felt more like an astronaut exploring an abandoned alien base. I hung in the crystal-clear, freezing water for many minutes, oblivious to my role in the shoot, just soaking in the abstract nature of the scene in front of me. And then I swam though the wall.

Preparing for the leap
Preparing for the leap

“A narrow cut in the wall, made to allow miners to pass through, is what gives Hell’s Gate its name. It was here we filmed a number of shots, including the funniest of all. The film itself is not meant to be amusing, but at one point Gemma and I had to circle each other, slowly, almost dance-like, while we stared into each other’s eyes and I beckoned her to me.

“It was made harder by the fact that above us – lighting, filming and watching our every move – were some world-class divers. And we almost held it together. Almost. As we circled, peering unblinking at our mate, it was only a matter of time before we cracked.

“I can’t remember who started laughing first, but the other followed a second later. Our masks filled with water, bubbles poured out and we lost gas from our rebreathers, meaning our buoyancy went up the spout and we ended up flapping about trying to sort ourselves out. Still trying to control a giggling fit. We could feel the judgment from above…

“But we managed to complete our filming in Ojamo despite the long days, the cold and our juvenile antics and, as we crawled cold and stiff from the frozen waters for the last time, and exhaled that first misty breath into the frigid air, we felt content at a hard job well done. But with parts one and two done, our task was not over yet.”

Laughing on a breath-hold

“The final part was a return to Finland but only for Gemma and myself, to film in the much-lighter, brighter and considerably warmer Helsinki City Swimming Pool. How Janne managed to ‘borrow’ the pool I’ll never know, because this entire film had no budget and was all completed by volunteers.

“The downside was that we could use it only out of hours, so our filming ‘day’ started at 9.30pm and ended at 5am. Fortunately, it was only two nights of work.

Underwater action
Underwater action

“We dropped a huge black curtain to cover the one wall of the pool and a huge section of the floor. Large studio lights were constructed overlooking the main filming area and, as Gemma and I were on breath-hold, wearing heavy weight-belts and costumes, we had safety divers in the water at all times.

“In all there were up to 20 people on site and that comfortable, safe environment meant that everyone was relaxed and it was a much more social occasion.

“I think Gemma and I freedived to the 5m bottom over 100 times each over the two nights, and we suffered the same problem as in Ojamo when we had to stare into each other’s eyes. It seems that breaking into laughter at the end of a breath-hold is about as much fun as on a rebreather at 70m…

“With all the footage captured, then began the long process of editing – a task that Janne bore alone. This was the hardest work of all. It held none of the camaraderie or fun of the diving, it was long hours, always alone and sat in an office.

Dive Odyssey was a true team achievement. Many people loaned their time, equipment and money to what is an incredibly beautiful project, but singular praise has to go to Janne, whose heart and soul fed the film from conception to release.”

Now watch Dive Odyssey…

Photographs by Janne Suhonen

Also on Divernet: 20 titles for divers streaming on Netflix, Torbet 360: Virtual cave-diving, Freediver sues Netflix over No Limit movie, Last Breath, Review of the original film


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6 months ago

Amazing shots. Could I ask how much light did you use and how did you distribute it to get these shots from the far? We can, actually, see the entire wall and a diver from quite far. That’s not easy in this level of darkness. The visibility must be really good in this place? I love the scene in this cloud of H2S (or whatever that is) and the meeting of 2 divers.
I have to admit that I admire you for the 4h in this cold water, as well. You are taught.
Very good work. You just feel like you have to see this place, after watching your movie. 😊

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