In some movies, you see that there is a character who is sinking towards the bottom of the ocean or pool or whatever, they are there for prolonged periods of time with their mouths open and they are under for quite some time (longer than 3 minutes).

Though I can't remember the name of the movie that I saw it from (as that doesn't matter) I have the scene clear in my head (a woman is hovering in an ocean with her mouth wide open and they film her being there for quite some time with relaxing music being played and a close up scene to her body from the side of her body.).

How do they film this without the character (actor) actually drowning?

  • 6
    I can't imagine them never cutting in three minutes...
    – Catija
    Jul 27, 2017 at 0:17
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    they can run the film in slow-motion to make a relatively short period of time appear longer, they can cut multiple shots together, allowing the actor to surface and breathe in between shots, they can put a thin aquarium-like water tank in between the actor and the camera so it looks like they're underwater... And then, as always, there's CGI. Lots of ways, and I'm sure there's more, too. If you can find a link to a specific scene, we may be able to help explain the particular effect used therein.
    – Steve-O
    Jul 27, 2017 at 4:09
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    If I can be shown an example of a 3 minute long take of an actor underwater, with no cuts and no CG or slow-mo, I'd be impressed. Jul 27, 2017 at 8:27
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    And then, there's James Cameron almost drowning Ed Harris in the Abyss.
    – LeonX
    Jul 27, 2017 at 11:09
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    @LeonFreire - Bruce Campbell describing the run-up to a "wall of blood" scene in one of the Evil Dead movies - Sam Raimi - "Okay, if it gets to be too much or you can't breathe, wave your arms around to get our attention and let us know." Bruce - "Wait. Isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing in the scene anyway?" Sam - "Okay, everyone ready? Action!" Jul 27, 2017 at 14:25

2 Answers 2

  1. Slow motion to make the scene longer.

  2. Each time the camera changes angle there is a new shot. So the whole scene might have been shot in for example 3 shots of 1 minute each and all these shots were edited together with some clever angle change.


Actors have in the past stated that they were able to perform without any breathing apparatus, but most of this is probably hyperbolic and in most cases can be attributed to clever editing.

In filming the extended underwater sequence of Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise has claimed he held his breath for up to 5 minutes.

Cruise, who reportedly trained to hold his breath for six and a half minutes underwater in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, shared the process of filming the extreme stunt. “You get rid of the regulator, get rid of the bubbles, get on the side and we wanted to do it one shot, so they were very, very long shots,” said Cruise. “I’d have to hold it consistently, you know safely, up to four minutes almost for every take.”

Despite hours of training and even learning to slow his heart rate down, Cruise explained performing the actual stunt was “not pleasant.” “I trained for a long time to the point that when I finished the sequence, there’d be times I’d be sitting there talking in meetings and I wouldn’t breathe,” he said. “I realized I am not breathing and I had to turn my autonomic system back on to breathe again.”

However, even if this is true it should absolutely be treated as the exception, and most film makers will simply be creative in how they choose to film and how they edit. Different film makers will use different techniques, which are in turn dependent on variables.

Almost all underwater shots are done in 'a tank', as opposed to out in actual open water. Not only is this less cost prohibitive, but it also allows the film maker control over consistency of conditons: lighting chief among them. This is often also the case when shooting with water at all, infact.

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Tanks are typically useful for creating the deception of the actor being deeper underwater than they actually are, but when an actor needs to go deeper and cannot surface for air, a diving team is typically used.

The following scenes are from the production diary of Atonement. The shot below of Keira Knightley sees her submerged only a few feet underwater, but in order for her not to constantly have to reset her position she was given a diving team (just out of shot, to the left):

enter image description here

In this shot, she is being provided with oxygen between takes. It is much easier for the diving time to get out of frame than for Keira to surface, gulp air, dive and get back in position for another shot.

enter image description here

When using tanks, greenscreens/bluescreens and Chroma Key are used to modify the background in post production.

enter image description here

  • 4
    Trained to hold his breath six and a half minutes underwater smells like ego-driven BS claim for/by Cruise. Good answer, nonetheless. Jul 27, 2017 at 14:27
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    @JohnnyBones - This is not about whether he's doing stunts or not, it's about claiming six and a half minutes. This has nothing to do with "oh, he didn't do an underwater stunt." Jul 27, 2017 at 16:43
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    @papakias - There's also the liability insurance aspect of pushing the multi-million dollar star to potentially lethal limits that are completely unnecessary for the stunts - when they can easily cut the shots, get oxygen to him. Jul 28, 2017 at 16:23
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    @PoloHoleSet I think Johnny is pointing out that Tom Cruise is basically nuts when it comes to stunts, so 'freediving' for extended periods (and the training required) is a credible claim on his behalf. Additionally, he never said he held his breath for 6.5 minutes to perform stunts: only that he trained himself to do so, probably to condition his lungs. Infact, the most he claims to ahve done 'as part of a stunt' is four minutes. The world record is, I believe, 22 mins; so again, not implausible. Just braggadocios. Jul 28, 2017 at 16:30
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    But, funnily enough, you're right about the insurance aspect. Tom couldn't get insured for some of the stunts they wanted to do on this movie. As producer, he had to make the decision. His solution? Dismiss the insurance company, and hire one willing to take the risk... Jul 28, 2017 at 16:33

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