How Did Production Film “Black Sea?” Was an Actual Submarine Used?


The logistics of filming in a cramped, crowded submarine sound daunting. Even if you’re not a filmmaker, even if you don’t know much about the filmmaking process, stuffing a camera crew, sound people, lighting units, and a bunch of actors into tight quarters is obviously challenging. But for Black Sea (2015), director Kevin Macdonald wasn’t afraid of that. To him, the point of making this film wasn’t to create some big Hollywood blockbuster. The goal wasn’t to over-produce. It was all about maintaining control, and being authentic - to that end, as much of the film as possible was shot inside a real submarine.

After reading about the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, Macdonald thought a submarine is the perfect setting for a dark, terrifying character study about what greedy, no-nonsense men do when isolated in tight quarters. Capturing that authentically meant shooting in a real vessel. They found one known as Black Widow, a Soviet-era, Foxtrot-class submarine owned by a private collector.

Macdonald told Nicole Laporte of Fast Company: Create “We went to visit several submarines and one of those was the one we ended up shooting on, partly. We shot on board this 1960’s Russian diesel submarine that we happened to find floating in a river outside London that had been bought by a collector guy who thought it would be a nice hobby piece—have an old, Russian sub. He bought it in 1994 and it had just been sitting there, pretty much, all this time. We saw that as research then we thought it was so incredible inside the sub, we have to shoot on it.”

Real submarine experts then came on board every day to explain to each cast member what his individual responsibilities would be, and how to perform them. That ensured even background movements and behaviors were authentic, and not just actors pretending to turn knobs and pull levers.

This time talking to The NY Post, Macdonald said “I thought I’d have these walk-and-talk scenes. You can’t. After the sixth day filming in the same room, you’re tearing your hair out wondering how you’re going to make this interesting. You feel like you’re stuck in a box. You’re down in that sub, and there’s the stench of diesel and sweat in your nostrils and it’s claustrophobic and such a hostile environment. The claustrophobia was good. It made everyone feel like a crew”

The majority of the film was shot using a Canon C500 and EOS-1D C, relatively compact handheld cameras that suited the shooting environment of the tight ship. Humorously enough, the crew often didn’t have the maneuverability to have two cameras trained on the actors, operated by humans. Macdonald told Canon’s blog that the EOS-1D C is actually visible in shots, on occasion, because they’d just sit it somewhere:

“We also used the 1D C as a ‘B’ camera. You could really put it anywhere in the submarine – behind some pipes; above a door – and it would blend into the industrial look of the submarine. So, you could get away with it being in [the] shot and nobody would see it.”

These handheld cameras served the filmmakers magnificently, though, and captured the mood and aesthetic of the film perfectly. Visually, they worked wonders. Thematically, having handheld cameras in close quarters with the actors added to the claustrophobic feel of the film.

“Christopher Ross navigates the pic’s necessarily restricted dramatic space with nimble aplomb, and avoids the murky pitfalls of this particular subgenre with boldly primary-colored lighting schemes. Nick Palmer’s production design is similarly outstanding, evoking the cast-iron rot of Cold War-era military craft.” - Guy Lodge, Variety

After about two weeks of shooting in the submarine, another five weeks were done in soundstages. The entire production took just under seven weeks.