Underwater studio makes major waves in film industry

Summary

The innovative Lites studio in Vilvoorde allows directors to create a vast underwater world for a fraction of the cost and time of shooting on location, and is attracting attention from far and wide

Making a splash

From high drama on the open seas to submarine and diving disasters, Lites studio in Vilvoorde allows directors to film every aquatic scenario imaginable. With one push of a button, the waterproof studio can be flooded to create a 10-metre deep underwater world with special effects such as metre-high waves.

The unique studio – the most complete and technologically advanced in the world – was inaugurated on 3 April. It offers the advantage of shooting visual effects in interior studios, helping films to stay within budget and on schedule – factors that are tricky to control in outdoor locations.

It’s the brainchild of Wim Michiels, CEO of Lites, a rental house for cinema equipment. The professional underwater cameraman dreamed of his perfect studio while working on films across the continent. “We were always waiting for special effects,” he says. “I would be lying for hours on the surface with my camera thinking, if only we had a crane here and wouldn’t it be fantastic to have another there.”

The hard work begins

One reason this hasn’t been done before on such a scale may be the technical hurdles involved – waterproofing the multi-studio infrastructure, for example – as well as financing. Michiels first drew up plans almost seven years ago, but lack of funds led him to temporarily abandon them.

A critical breakthrough in funding the €23 million was the €1.1 million subsidy by the Flanders innovation and Entrepreneurship Agency (Vlaio); this was key in securing private investment and a bank loan. Michiels also recognises the important role of the tax shelter scheme that acts as an incentive for local and foreign productions to film in Belgium.

People are discovering what we can do and I am helping them with that, which is also very challenging

- Wim Michiels

With the project back on track, a suitable site was found on the periphery of Brussels in Vilvoorde and building work started in 2017. “It was first very demanding and then very satisfying,” says Michiels. “Now the hard work begins and we start to shoot films.”

Lites is already attracting a range of projects with its multi-purpose complex of six buildings, including dry studios and acoustic stages that are soundproofed against aircraft noise from nearby Zaventem. “It’s very important to offer a complete package so when you have a few expensive actors you can organise all the production in one spot,” says Michiels.

But the star turn is undoubtedly the high-tech 24 x 21 x 9m water stage and studio. Water is heated permanently to 32° to ensure comfort in the pool during long shoots. As well as wave and wind machines, special effects include a giant filtering system that changes the water from dirty and low visibility to crystal clear, imitating a river or an ocean.

Flood the studio

“As much as from a technical point of view as creative, we can do many things in an economic and sustainable way,” says Michiels. Sets weighing up to 20 tons can be built on moveable platforms and submerged to any depth. The sets and other props, such as boats, are lifted into the water by two aerial cranes that can carry 25 tons.

With the whole studio floor able to be flooded to increase its surface, the studio is itself a piece of special equipment. “Stainless steel and composite materials make everything durable, so they can be used on more than one film set, spreading costs over at least 15 years,” says Michiels.

Safety is the overriding concern when filming. The underwater crew are all professional divers, with actors and their doubles having recreational scuba certification or special training. “Everyone in the pool has the same knowledge of safety and all the diving rules have to be respected,” says Michiels. “We can go up to 10m in depth, but you cannot go up and down 30 times a day.” Sophisticated underwater telecoms enable crew to communicate with technicians while in the water.

The studio was baptised earlier this year with the filming of Swedish director Joachim Hedén’s diving thriller Breaking Surface. A three-week shoot involved a seabed set construction with real sand and stones submerged to three metres for five days and then for 10 days at eight metres.

Transformation

Though Michiels is reluctant to name projects until contracts are signed, Lites is already busy with 10 projects ready to shoot in the next 18 months and a further 30 in development. They include filming a sailing boat in a storm and an oil rig disaster.

International projects that had been frozen because of the lack of underwater facilities are now contacting Lites. “People are discovering what we can do and I am helping them with that, which is also very challenging,” says Michiel.

And with the order book filling up, Lites is looking to expanding its 30-strong team, spread around the Flemish Brabant studio and offices in Brussels and Amsterdam. Vilvoorde is also proving a popular location.

Lites can offer specialised services leading to audiovisual productions of a high quality

- Mark Andries, Vlaio

“We are 10 minutes from the airport, but are not directly under the flightpath. Plus we are on the ring and right across from the train station, which is 12 minutes to the city centre,” says Michiels.

At the studio’s inauguration, Vlaio director general Mark Andries said: “This project shows how we have been able to combine two important political domains – economy and innovation – in a practical way. Lites can offer specialised services leading to audiovisual productions of a high quality. These past years, Lites has proved that transformation can have a positive impact on the Flemish audiovisual sector.”