An Interview with Watermark Productions' Stuart Cummings

After finishing an HD shoot that took our production company to a number of outdoor locations along the Massachusetts seacoast, I started to wonder: What kind of underwater HD shooting is taking place in the New England area? My research soon led me to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where I discovered Stuart Cummings of Watermark Productions. Cummings’ production company is a small boutique shop that offers a range of production and post services. He has been shooting and editing for more than 16 years, working alongside his wife, Susanne, a snorkeling and diving expert and award-winning video producer who has also produced a number of popular guidebooks with her husband. Cummings admits he’s a bit of a technology junky. “With the technology changing every day, it’s almost a full-time job keeping up with the latest and greatest tools,” he says. Luckily, he’s a long-time beta-tester and is able to get his hands on new gear before most everyone else. His special talent? Putting products through the rigors of real-world video production by taking them to places not many others have gone.
Q: How did you get your start?
In the early days, we built our reputation as one of the go-to companies for underwater and tropical island video production. That’s always been where our hearts and passions lie. Over the years, we’ve produced countless promotional videos for tourism boards, hotels and dive operators in the Caribbean and Pacific. Our stock footage frequently shows up on television and at aquariums around the country. These days, we still shoot a lot of underwater and island footage but we’re now shooting a wider range of nature subjects. I’m currently editing an HD television series for Outdoor Life Network (soon to be Versus Network). And let’s not forget corporate work, which is still a lucrative part of our business.

Q: Why did you migrate to HD?
The real incentive to go HD was all of the nature and underwater footage we capture. Nothing showcases nature-topside or underwater-like high definition. The sharpness and color saturation is truly impressive. We also knew this was the direction in which the industry was going. But even more important, we knew we needed to future-proof our footage, especially the underwater and nature footage, which isn’t that easy to re-acquire with the kind of in-the-moment action we like best. In fact, it’s sad to say, but some of these photo ops may not even exist in their pristine states 10 years from now.

Q: You’ve been working underwater lately with the Panasonic AG-HVX200. Any particular reason you chose this camera?
Have video, will travel. We needed a camera that was compact, lightweight, unobtrusive and affordable. We also wanted four channels of uncompressed audio and HD video using a 4:2:2 color space instead of the 4:2:0 color space used in the HDV format. That immediately eliminated just about every HD camcorder we were looking at in our price range, except the Panasonic AG-HVX200. We had mixed feelings about the P2 cards, honestly-they are very expensive and offer very limited record time. They are a great format, but we just wish they were bigger and cheaper. In every other way, the Panasonic seemed to be an excellent camera for our needs, the ideal camera for worldwide travel-lightweight and compact. When we have a bigger budget shoot, we typically upgrade and rent a Sony HDCam or Panasonic VariCam.

Q: Recording times would definitely be an issue underwater, where you can’t exactly swap out a full card for an empty one. How did you get around that?
Shooting underwater has raised an undeniable problem-the short record time of the P2 cards definitely is a liability in this situation. Two 8 GB cards gives us about only 16 minutes of DVCPRO HD storage. On any given dive, we rarely shoot less than 20 minutes and often as much as 50 minutes or more, depending on our allowed bottom time. Because of the physiology of diving, you can’t just surface, download or change P2 cards, and re-submerge at will. On a past trip to an isolated stretch of reefs in the Banda Sea in Indonesia, our bottom times averaged 90 minutes-there was an abundance of mind-blowing subject matter, so we weren’t going to cut that short. We have been eager to return to shoot this incredible underwater environment in HD but with only 16 minutes of record time per dive, it was impractical.

Initially, on land in normal field conditions, the recording time limitations of the P2 cards were an inconvenience that we quickly overcame. We simply downloaded footage onto our Mac PowerBook using bus-powered FireWire drives. But without a definite ETA for larger P2 cards, we clearly needed an alterative for longer recording time-especially for nature shoots, aerial shoots, action sports and, of course, underwater work. When the Focus Enhancements FireStore FS-100 was introduced, we immediately acquired two units; it effectively increases our record time on the HVX200 to 1.9 hours in DVCPRO HD and 3.8 hours in DVCPRO 50. Download time is real time or slightly faster, too. But the FireStore is also completely programmable for different shooting modes and formats. We quickly started using it to organize our shots into pre-named folders. Better yet, the firmware is upgradeable and you can “slave” multiple FS-100s together for even longer record times. We now use it on every shoot, even when the P2 cards would suffice.

Q: Where did you find an underwater housing that would hold the camera and the FS-100 attachment?
After it occurred to me that the FS-100 would also be great underwater, I knew I had to address some other issues first, namely, finding a housing that would accommodate this setup. We researched the small number of underwater housings available now for the Panasonic HVX200 and ultimately turned to a long-time friend, Mike Hastings, who owns AquaVideo in Weston, Florida.

AquaVideo has been building underwater video housings for 25 years. Their signature double x-rings provide a double sealing surface against leaks under pressure, which makes these housings extremely reliable. But most important, the tubular design provides enough room to add an external hard drive like the FireStore beneath the camera so you have longer recording time. Amazingly, there is also enough space on the side to open the LCD panel, which means you don’t have to invest in a costly external monitor and monitor housing on top of that.

Next, there was the question of the lens. When you’re shooting video underwater, a wide-angle lens is invaluable because it allows you to move much closer to the subject. The closer you are, the less water lies between you and your subject, resulting in a much clearer and more colorful image. I chose the Century Precision Optics .75 wide-angle converter, which was designed for the HVX200, for its superior sharpness and its ability to zoom right through without losing focus. The AquaVideo housing has a nice front lens dome, so there was no vignetting, a problem that occurs in a lot of housing systems and one that can make your HD footage worthless.

Q: How’s this setup been working for you?
We’ve begun testing it in Key Largo and, while our first descent wasn’t perfect, the outlook is still quite promising. The FireStore FS-100 fits perfectly into the AquaVideo housing but there is significant heat retention inside the airtight housing, causing it to reach temperatures higher than 95 °F after prolonged shooting and recording. The FireStore was designed to operate within a temperature range up to 95 °F. We found that, with no fresh air flow circulating around it, it simply stopped recording after about a half hour. On the bright side, the 30 minutes of footage that the FS-100 captured looked great and the record time was still double what the P2 would have given us. We are presently working on a way to cool the interior of the housing more efficiently to create a more FireStore-friendly environment.

So even though we’re working out the wrinkles there, I now use the FS-100 for everything I shoot topside from day to day. It gives me a comfort level to know I have more recording time to get just the shot I want. No pressure. Just like tape…only better. The FireStore also has a longer pre-cache function than the HVX200, giving you six seconds of pre-cached HD video versus the four seconds you get with P2 cards.

Q: You have a bunch of accessories for your FireStore. How do they improve your workflow?
One thing I found to be great for topside shoots is the JimmyBox II. On occasion, I’ve noticed that the internal mic on the camera can pick up noise from the FS-100 when it’s mounted on the top of the camera in the optional FS-100 holster and ball mount that attaches to the hot shoe. When you’re shooting natural sound, which we do for backup sound on various projects, you don’t want any electronic sound interfering with the sounds of waves or birds. By putting the FS-100 beneath the camera in the JimmyBox II, you eliminate that problem. If you don’t care about the audio from the camera’s mic, you can mount your FS-100 on top and use the JimmyBox II to hold your wireless mics below. The JimmyBox also has a removable handle that makes it easier to keep a steady hand.

Then there is battery power. The FireStore’s built-in battery lasts for about as long as the record time, about 90 minutes, and takes about 3.5 hours to recharge. I’ve bought additional batteries from Focus ($180 each); there is even a 180-minute extended battery. Another battery option is the Power Bag Junior, developed by Joseph Matyas. The external 60-watt battery pack is specifically designed to provide supplemental power for the FS-4/100 family of DTE video recorders, and it will give you more than 7.5 hours of standalone power. Used in conjunction with the built-in battery that comes with the FS-100, it increases your total battery time to 9 hours. The Power Bag Junior takes three hours to recharge on a normal charge but it also has a float charge function, which you can leave on, even when you’re not using it, without risk of overheating the battery. It also comes with a padded strap, so you can hang it on your shoulder or tripod; a belt loop; a convenient Cordura bag; and a rain cover that’s built into the front pocket.

Q: Do all these extras weigh you down?
Not at all-they really don’t compromise the compact design of the FS-100, which is what attracted us to it in the first place. Travelling with all our equipment is already easier and our shoots are so much more cost-effective.

DP Donald Berube and his brother, Daniel, are the principals of noisybrain.Productions, a collaborative, full-service production through completion facility based outside of Boston. Both have more than two decades worth of production and editing credits on public and network television. Daniel is an Apple Certified Trainer and founder of the Boston Final Cut Pro User Group. You can reach them at

Info Links

Focus Enhancements


Schneider Optics

Watermark Productions

Power Bag Junior