Mike Valentine is often asked about the size of Leonardo DiCaprio’s
member. A strange question, perhaps, but as the underwater cameraman on
The Beach, responsible for the love scene among other things, he is well
placed to comment.
So, what is the answer? ’He has a lot to be proud of,’ Valentine reveals
with a smile.
Valentine is one of the leading - and most high profile - people in his
field. Mention underwater shots to anyone and, more often than not,
they’ll come up with his name.
A television reviewer wrote in The Guardian: ’I have noticed that
whenever anyone drowns on TV, Mr Valentine is always there. Someone
should look into it.’
Despite a number of underwater specialists being listed in The
Knowledge, Valentine claims that it is his 25 years of experience that
gets him the best jobs. So far, his CV includes 42 features, including
Castaway, Leviathan, Star Wars and Tomorrow Never Dies, along with pop
promos and numerous commercials including spots for Aero, Gordon’s Gin
and Lynx Atlantis.
The Beach was among the most exciting, not only because he got to work
with one of the hottest Hollywood actors around, but because he was
reunited with the Trainspotting director, Danny Boyle. Having proven his
talents with the disgusting - but brilliantly shot - scene in
Trainspotting, in which Ewan McGregor dives into a noisome toilet, Doyle
gave Valentine a great deal of artistic freedom, allowing him to direct
as well as light many of his scenes.
Valentine claims that the key is combining physics with art: ’Water is a
sensuous, velvet-like medium through which the camera can be transported
smoothly. But before you interpret it or use artistic impression, you
have to overcome the physical elements.’
Some actors, he says, are terrified of such scenes. Liam Neeson, who
stars in the latest Star Wars film, is a weak swimmer and didn’t
appreciate his 8ft cloak dragging him down. Pierce Brosnan is no water
Meanwhile, the actor in Valentine’s latest Shell commercial for J.
Walter Thompson had to take his breathing equipment off at 60ft and
simulate normal breathing.
’We know the dangers of that - it’s what doctors call drowning,’
But for him, safety is paramount, which is why he has spent years - and
a small fortune - designing and collecting equipment, including
underwater cameras, monitors, mounts, loudspeakers and lights.
’It quickly became clear that a cheaper alternative to underwater
filming would be to stand in a shower tearing up pounds 50 notes,’ he
claims. But despite the cost and the risk to life and limb, Valentine
There were several potentially dangerous scenes in The Beach, including
the use of a pounds 125,000 animatronic shark which pushes DiCaprio
along at a rate of knots by means of an underwater carriage. While
DiCaprio was perched in front, Valentine clung on at a precarious
Meanwhile, massive pumps, creating the illusion of a rain storm on the
water’s surface, added to the frenetic atmosphere.
Valentine reveals an even hairier story. While DiCaprio was swimming
above, a real 9ft shark pushed past the camera below, feasted on a fish
and made a speedy exit, creating a wave which knocked over the entire
’I looked up and could see Leo’s little white legs dangling down. If
only he and 20th Century Fox knew just how close he was to being eaten
by the real thing,’ he says.
Valentine’s underwater adventures began by chance. He left school at 17
and joined the BBC as a sound engineer. Then, in 1977, he went on
holiday to the Seychelles and signed up for diving lessons. What he saw
below the surface so captivated him that he felt compelled to tell the
He began by buying a Nikonos 111 and practiced by taking photos of his
toes in the bath. In 1980, he made his first film, The Silent World,
which featured reef creatures accompanied by bizarre sounds.
Was he ever tempted to go into natural-history photography, then?
’Waiting for some bloody penguin to come bouncing out of the water while
I freeze my arse off? Not my cup of tea at all,’ he says.
Despite the glamour of features, Valentine still loves making
Among his finest are the Gordon’s Gin ’innervigoration’ ad - an
underwater fantasy commercial featuring a semi-naked man and a sea of
glassy bubbles; Aero - a bubbly chocolate heaven and Lynx Atlantis,
which required an underwater set of columns, a Pulnix camera on the sea
bed and a monitor on a boat, allowing the set to be dressed and altered
above the water.
Valentine’s latest ad for Shell, filmed in the Red Sea, is a
special-effects extravaganza, with fish speeding over the seabed in neat
lanes like cars on a motorway.
Now 46, Valentine claims that his ego is still the main driving force
behind his work. However, his chatty, extrovert and humorous nature also
seems to play a major role in assuring he gets the plum jobs.
It’s not always as glamorous as it seems, Valentine insists. Underwater
shots are often complex and taxing on actors, who come with a lot of
Valentine claims to have liked DiCaprio, though. ’I thought he would be
this choirboy from Titanic who would just ponce around. But he was a
great swimmer, a very good actor, and all the girls on set were
overwhelmed by him. Actually, thinking about it, I hate him.’
Valentine had to simulate a bubbly chocolate heaven
Leonardo DiCaprio came close to being eaten by a shark
The actor appears to be swimming in a sea of glassy bubbles