Cave Diving for the Silver Screen

by Andreas W. Matthes

Cave diving in Romania is something not offered all the time and when friend, Underwater cave cinematographer and photographer Wes Skiles of Karst Production was asking me some years back during a NSS-CDS cave diving convention in Lake City, Florida if I like to go cave diving in Romania naturally I was curious and it turned out to be quite a cave diving experience indeed.

I have never heard of any cave diving in Romania and was intrigued when I was told that an international cave diving crew was assembled to help filming the adventure movie “ The Cave “ that is showing a cave exploration team discovering a large cave system in Romania. The first part of my involvement was to be four weeks filming in the Mediapro film studios in Romania and the second part four weeks of filming in the cave system of Dos Ojos in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

The underwater part of the movie was shot entirely on a Sony High Definition video system in a Light and Motion housing, costing together more money then I will ever earn in my life. The camera was connected via a fiber optic cable to the surface recording unit where the director had direct control over the images being shot and was able to talk to all the gaffers, stunt and safety divers, lighting personnel and riggers directly through an underwater communication system that led you to do what ever had to be done directly and immediately without any time delay.

That is where the adventure began. High end exploration cave equipment including Dive Rite arrow scooters and Inner Space Systems closed circuit Megadolon rebreathers dragging and steering large underwater sleds through cave passages when caves collapsed, boulders fell and large explosions happened underwater with enormous fire balls scorching the surface transpired in the process of making this intense movie.

The movie was shot at the Mediapro Studios in Buftea close to Bucharest, Romania with large set stages where dry caves were created as well as underwater caves. The cave diving scenes were shot in a large 2 million liter pool painted black with a large black tent on top of it. An underwater cave maze was created out of plastic in the 17 feet deep pool, painted, formed and filled with real rocks to make the illusion perfect. After four weeks of diving in the artificial cave it became a real cave to me, true enough since large parts were real overhead environment.

My job was to be a safety diving officer in charge of safety on topside when ever actors, stunt personnel or shooting activities transpired in or close to the water. Over 24 divers where on the underwater cave set at any given time, while preparing diving gear including one or more of the 10 Megadolon CCR rebreathers on set, and underwater diving safety for daring underwater stunt scenes which included to a large extend apnea cave diving or daring sharing air scenes, all in the overhead environment. High voltage cables were run close and though the water, the gaffers and grip constantly moved large structures around, you know, the normal thing you would expect going cave diving in Romania.

The second part of my time was spend doubling as an underwater stuntman for one of the actors, doing scenes that where deemed to dangerous for the actors themselves. If I had some time to spare besides all that I was operating parts of the special effects cave creatures, helping divers to get in and out of suits, gear, props, holding and providing light for the shoot, repairing gear, handling the 1000 feet / 300 meter fiber optical cable for the HD camera, making sure every one kept coming out of our cave and supporting the surface stunt crew that was working close to the water, in artificial created waterfalls of being dragged through the water upside down with no regulator in their mouth. You get the idea.

Time came to hear the final wrap it up call in Romania and all 10 tons of gear were packed up again and shipped to Mexico where a small village was created in the middle of the jungle with the help of Buddy Quattelbaums Hidden World Dive Center, at the Orchedia Cenote and Tak Be Ha Cenote, to get the nice cave scene shots for the big screen movie.

In Mexico we came in touch with the real cave diving world, descending upon it in a large very focused crowd. One of the most important aspects during the filming of the movie was safety and cave conservation first, movie comes second. A small tent village was created to house the costume, charging and rebreather department, large generators kept the power coming for all the lights, chargers, the climate controlled recording building plus the large compressor needed to fill the empty double tanks and stage tanks.

The conservation of the cave involved a chain of support divers holding up the long fiber optic cable to prevent the cable hitting the floor and leaving marks in the sediments or rubbing against any fragile rock formations. In silty conditions it was a small challenge at times to keep track of all divers and a strict sign in and out procedure helped to keep track of all 20 cave divers and support personnel involved and in the water at the same time, listening in to direct communication and directions from underwater director Wes Skiles. His famous words and daily inspiration in our very ears multiple times a day “ dive, dive, dive, time to make the donuts “.

At the end close to 2000 hours of diving had been done with not a single accident or incident other then ear infections or skin rash due to extreme in-water exposure times. You may imagine how it smells when over 25 divers are in the water for over eight hours a day for four weeks at a time. We sure did not stop the film shoot for little bathroom visits and our pool location in Romania had a sweet smell around it. Many times we where eating and drinking in a rush while sticking our heads out of the water wolf and gulp down what was prepared by the catering service and in the vicinity of the diving platform, and go on with the work.

When I started to participate in this large project I had only two expectations. One is to meet new people and two, to learn new things. I have not been disappointed in either. When we prepared for shooting, safety or set up dives I looked around me many times in awe to all the cave divers around me and thought more then once: In this pool or in this cave are now over 500 years of cave diving experience together with some of the early cave diving pioneers present. The craftsmanship and organization of the Romanian and Mexican crew in any respect was astonishing and extremely professional. I can’t possibly list all the people involved but would like to share this moment of recognition with the cave diving crew of Brian Kakuk, Jil Heinerth, Paul Heinerth, Woody Jasper, Tom Morris, Wes Skiles, Nathan Skiles, Joel Tower, Mark Meadows, Jidka Hyniova, Jakub Rehacek, Chris Stanton, Kenny Broad, Mark Long, Bil Phillips, Len Bucko, Steve Bogaerts, Scott Carnahan, Chuck Stevens, Anthony S. Lenso, Imanol Zubizarreta and Martin Gallo Argerich.

I am grateful that I was able to participate and to contribute in a small way to this movie, might it come out good or bad. Our outstanding work and safety record as a cave diving group diving for the silver screen has created a special bond that will last for the rest of my life.

Director Bruce Hunt directed the coming of the movie with the group of cave explorers being played by the actors Cole Hauser, Eddie Cibrian, Morris Chestnut, Piper Perabo, Daniel Dae Kim, Rick Ravanello, Marcel Lures and Lena Headey. The movie is going to be released and in the movie theaters by August 2005, and was produced by Touchstone pictures.

See you at the movies.

Contact info
Andreas W. Matthes
ProTec Advanced Training Facility
Playa del Carmen
Quintana Roo, Mexico
[email protected]