Subaquatic Frames
Nicole Starosielski / Miami University

life aquatic
1-2: The Jaguar shark (left) and the undersea community (right)
in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).

The Mediterranean films Respiro (2002) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) culminate with a movement – of camera, characters, and viewers – under the surface of the ocean. In her essay contrasting the films, Elena Past argues that this cinematic submergence is correlated with a movement past “earthly concerns” into a more inclusive space where characters can commune with aquatic others.1 As the crew descends to find the Jaguar shark, Past notes that they are brought together, beyond their terrestrially based conflicts, and the undersea environment becomes a place where they can consider ecological ethics. In this scene, as they gaze out the submersible’s window, they are united for the first time in a shared vision of the undersea world (Figures 1-2).

3-4: Immersive aquarium exhibits in Okinawa, Japan (left) and Atlanta, Georgia (right).

This essay tracks the origins of the cinematic framing of undersea environments in order to draw attention to the historical specificity of this view. The Life Aquatic’s framing of underwater space as a de-politicized sphere apart from historical conflict is a trope present across aquatic film and television, from the The Abyss (1989) to the Blue Planet series (2002). In recent films, the movement underwater is often linked with a multiplication or expansion of the frame itself. Aquaria and museums are similarly moving toward large-scale, immersive, and apparently unframed underwater exhibits (Figures 3-4).2 Together, these discursive sites situate the movement underwater as a progression beyond social (and particularly racial) differences and a step towards interconnection with others around the world in preserving the ocean, the common heritage of all mankind.

Here, I chart how early popular underwater film envisioned the ocean, not as a place to escape earthly concerns, but as a territory to be exploited, an area of contestation and battle, and a zone imbricated in the interactions of white explorers with coastal islanders. The sea was not a site to be communed with, but one that was inhabited by racialized (and often dangerous) others. It was not until the 1960s that American film and television “whitewashed” the ocean, erasing indigenous peoples from the narratives and depicting it as a region beyond territorial concerns. It was at this point that the undersea environment became a safe place for a middle class American family to explore and to reconcile their internal differences.

5: The Williamson Photosphere.

The first popular underwater cinema was produced by the Williamson Brothers between the early 1910s and the 1930s. They developed the “Photosphere,” a submerged tube that extended to the seafloor from a boat, and in which a cameraman could photograph the aquatic landscape through a round glass window (Figure 5). Both underwater and surface shots at times included this round frame, eliciting the perspective of the periscope or the porthole (Figure 6). The films often included reverse shots of onlookers inside the sphere, who would comment on the beauty of the scene via intertitles (and later through voice over). Structured into this view, audiences were encouraged to gaze out onto the seafloor as a foreign terrain, but they nonetheless remained safely distanced from it.

Narratively, the films of this period depicted the undersea landscape as an exotic space navigated by dark-skinned islanders. Islanders both helped to facilitate film production and became some of the films’ main subjects. In the Williamson pictures, they caught fish, battled sharks, and freed (white) helmet divers from the perils of the ocean (Figure 7). Some of these stories, such as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1916), went further to portray the ocean as a site where a racialized aquatic other might subvert colonial authority. In this film, true to the Jules Verne story, Captain Nemo is an Indian and his undersea journey is in part an effort to escape British colonization (Figure 8).

6-8: The round frame of early aquatic cinema (left); dark bodies stand out against sandy coastal seas (middle); and Captain Nemo as an exotic, colonial other in
20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1916) (right).

In the post-war era, a new set of narratives emerged that projected the ocean as a space of danger, a site where conflicts played out both between nations and between humans and monsters. There were two distinct cycles of submarine films at the beginning and end of the 1950s (beginning with Mystery Submarine (1950) and extending to Up Periscope (1959)) as well as a cycle of undersea Creature films, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). In these narratives, the indigenous people who had formerly helped with the production of undersea cinema were displaced either to the coastline or to the figure of the undersea monster.

Parallel to this narrative shift, a new underwater aesthetic emerged. During World War II, the aqua-lung was developed, a technology that meant that divers were no longer tethered to the surface for air. They could now swim freely into the depths and they took the underwater camera with them. In this process, the cinematic images of the ocean become much more mobile. Cameras moved up and down, from surface to seafloor, and travelled laterally along with the currents. In addition, the underwater scenes often lacked both dialogue and voice over. Instead, intense and overwhelming scores exaggerated the sense of danger in the aquatic environment. In the racially charged stalking scene of Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), for example, the camera floats around the undersea environment and even adopts the point-of-view of a Creature looking up from the deep. The sound takes on a narrative role and, alongside the mobile framing, heightens our perception of undersea danger. As the underwater cinema of the 1950s “immersed” viewers in the ocean, they brought this audience into a zone of social and territorial struggle, rather than providing an escape from it.


9: Underwater stalking in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

By the 1960s, the undersea monster and submarine warfare cycles had run their course. A new genre of underwater films, ranging from Jacques Cousteau’s documentary World Without Sun (1964) to the underwater domestic comedy Hello Down There (1969), focused on aquanauts in undersea habitats. The seascape was now captured within square windows that resembled the frame of the television screen, and it ceased to be an immersive and threatening space. While there were occasional battles against sea monsters, these were often alien monsters. White explorers were no longer under threat from racialized Others originating in coastal territories, but inhuman ones from distant planets. The coastal islanders that had previously been important to undersea narratives were excluded from the frame. From within the domestic habitat, aquanauts began to look out into the ocean as their own neighborhood, and in many films, characters’ dialogue serves to familiarize the undersea view. As underwater imagery expanded onto television, in shows including Flipper (1964-1967), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68), and The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1966-73), the ocean became a backyard, a site safe for an audience to navigate and explore.

10-11: Looking out from the undersea habitat in Destination Inner Space (1969) (left)
and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) (right).

With the transition to a domesticated ocean, undersea film and television sidelined the coastal politics and conflicts that had permeated many of the previous films. Underwater environments became a natural landscape that could be inhabited by an American family. They were no longer the domain of coastal peoples, but a “blank” without history. It is in the undersea film and television of the 1960s that the contemporary view of the ocean originated: a site where we could move beyond social differences and explore our interconnections with others via a shared gaze out onto the subaquatic world.

A longer version of this essay is forthcoming in Ecocinema Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2012). Thanks to Meredith Bak for comments on this version of the article.

Image Credits:
1. Screen shots from the film.
2. Okinawa Aquarium; Georgia Aquarium
3. The Williamson Photosphere
4. Left and center images are screen shots from With Williamson Beneath the Sea (1932); the right image is a frame grab from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1916).
5. Screen shots from the films.

Please feel free to comment.

  1. Past, Elena. “Lives Aquatic: Mediterranean Cinema and an Ethics of Underwater Existence,” Cinema Journal no. 3, 48 (Spring 2009): 52-65. []
  2. Doordan, Dennis. “Simulated Seas: Exhibition Design in Contemporary Aquariums,” Design Issues 11, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 3-10. []


  • Nicole,
    Excellent synopsis of the role of underwater filmmaking in considerations of the social imaginary. Your references to Elena and Dennis are helpful as well. Thanks!

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  • Nicole,

    This is an illuminating account of cinema underwater, a space often overlooked in critical discussion. I would like to put your account in dialogue with a text that occupies a strange position in the evolution of subaquatic environments, the first James Bond film Dr. No (1962). This film differs from your selection in that it is not primarily concerned with underwater exploration but I think a brief analysis of the scenes in and around Dr. No’s underwater lair using your framework will shed light on the particularly interesting way that this film reflects changing understandings of the ocean space.

    As you point out in your post, the early years of underwater cinema characterize the ocean as a dangerous space, inhabited by racialized others, to be explored and exploited. In the postwar period, then, the ocean becomes a site for “the battle between nations and between human and monsters”. By the time that Dr. No comes out, underwater films had already begun the whitewashing that will come to characterize later years, but interestingly enough, this first Bond film recalls earlier ocean cinema. Before he is kidnapped and taken into the underwater lair, Bond and his companions come into contact with the racial inhabitants of the ocean space: Dr. No’s Asian and African American workers. This contact with “racialized aquatic others” continues when Bond and Honey first experience Dr. No’s lair, which is inhabited by the doctor and his staff who treat it like it were any ordinary colony. In these scenes, Dr. No echoes the portrayals of ocean space in early cinema.

    Reflecting postwar portrayals of underwater environments is the national conflict at play between Bond and Dr. No, and between Bond and his indigenous or ethnically othered villains in general. (This pattern has been described at length in various publications – in particular my comments are indebted to Cynthia Baron’s essay “Doctor No: Bonding Britishness to Racial Sovereignty”.) Dr. No as a character presents an interesting twist on the idea of nations at war in the oceans since, as he explains at their dinner, he is not a representative of any particular country, born of German and Chinese parents and working as a freelance terrorists (although when we meet him he is employed by the Soviets). Likewise, No is presented as simultaneously human and monster, his psychological wickedness signified by his black metal hands. Regardless, Dr. No clearly plays into the postwar conceptualization of the ocean as a “zone of social and territorial struggle”. As the film continues, its portrayal of ocean space becomes increasingly contemporary.

    Wherever he goes and whoever he fights, through wit and physical prowess Bond is able to take control of the foreign spaces he navigates, leading to the consistent triumph of Western whiteness. In the final underwater scenes, Bond, as he always does, explores the others’ epic space and gains mastery over it. Then, after destroying the lair, Bond and Honey Ryder neck passionately while a rescue boat tows them to safety, their ease and the fact that they can travel the sea without any effort or attention on their parts demonstrating the white, English, male Bond’s inherent control over the ocean environment. Bond has conquered the ‘indigenous’/racialized aquatic civilization, undermining the dangerousness of the ocean and paving the way for the ocean’s ‘domestication’. In its last thirty minutes, Dr. No progresses through the three stages you describe, laying bare the transpositions through which cinematic understandings of the ocean transformed into the safe space for the internal reflection and ecological ethics of a film like The Life Aquatic. Clearly you’re onto something with the chronology you lay out – thanks for this great contribution!


  • Nicole, this is a really intriguing post that got me thinking about a tangential trend in subaquatic film sequences, specifically underwater voyeurism. After reading your discussion of Creature From the Black Lagoon and watching the clip that you provide, I couldn’t help but think of other more contemporary films (mostly in the horror genre) that have borrowed the image of a woman swimming on the surface of the water, shot from below, to suggest the threat of attack by some underwater creature. I don’t know if Creature From the Black Lagoon was the first film to feature this shot, but it has become something of a trope in water-related horror movies/sequences. A few examples that spring to mind are Jaws, The Beach (min. 1:00, though it features men in addition to a woman), and Piranha 3DD (min 0:19).

    While you note that in this sequence from Creature From the Black Lagoon the creature is racialized, I would argue that as we are aligned with the creatures’ gaze in these shots, the humans (mostly women) are also othered, in a way – as sources scopophilic pleasure. Scantily clad and gliding supine across the water, the reflective surface prevents them from seeing below, while the light above perfectly silhouettes the contours of their body. The probing camera promises the threat and pleasure of penetration.

    On a different note, this line of thought led me to consider the subaquatic realm as a metaphor for cinematic forms (as a voyeuristic space, in which you take pleasure in seeing without being “caught,” as it were). You imply a connection between the subaquatic and cinema in your discussion of 1960s underwater films: “The seascape was now captured within square windows that resembled the frame of the television screen, and it ceased to be an immersive and threatening space.” But I would argue that the connection is, in fact, more immediate when we are immersed in the water. Rather than framing our view into an underwater world through televisual-like structures, the immersive sequences in the aforementioned films frame the world above as a televisual/cinematic space. But instead of “familiariz[ing] the undersea view,” they seem to momentarily other the above-sea view.

    Though less sinister than the othering of women’s bodies I describe in relation to subaquatic horror sequences, perhaps this potential othering of the above-sea world is related to Elena Past’s argument that “cinematic submergence is correlated with a movement past “earthly concerns” into a more inclusive space where characters can commune with aquatic others.” Specifically, the scenes of underwater reconciliation you describe in contemporary subaquatic films seem to posit the conflict-laden above the surface world as alien.

    Furthermore, I wonder what these potential connections between the othering of female bodies and the othering of the above-sea world say about the underwater space you describe as its connotations have changed over time, especially in light of the fact that a cursory google search of “underwater voyeurism” brings up an apparently thriving sub-genre of underwater porn. If, as you mention, early subaquatic films tended to racially other underwater creatures in the visually impenetrable below-the-surface environment, it seems that the development of underwater filming technologies have allowed for the sexualized othering of above water bodies as we have penetrated its surface. This development might be particularly disturbing in light of the peaceful underwater environment you describe. How do we reconcile the subuaquatic realm in cinema today as both a space in which people can move beyond “‘earthly concerns,’” as you suggest, and also a space in which they can voyeuristically indulge in images of sexualized bodies (and vicariously threaten/penetrate those bodies) without fear of being caught/seen.

  • nuuu: nude
    Nicole, your post is really thought provoking, which immediately led me to think of Tarzan and His Mate (1934). This film with its underwater “nuuu” scene has been mentioned a lot among film scholars because of its back story and its important position in film history.
    Tarzan and his Mate is the sequel of Tarzan The Ape Man. While the original Tarzan iconized Tarzan as a virile, strong, muscular man attractive to women, the sequel attracted the intention of a wide range of audiences because of its “nuuu” swim scene. In this scene, Tarzan naughtily rips off Jane’s dress, pushing her into the river. Tarzan and Jane, both “nuuu”, are chase each other in the water. The underwater background is quite dark and is contrasted by the white attractive body of Jane. This scene lasts over three minutes without a sound score, instead focusing on pure visual attraction like films at the dawn of the cinema.
    It is said that the scene was filmed in three different versions with modifications of Jane’s appearance: in clothes, topless and totally “nuuu”. The film was sent to different territories, attached with three different versions. The appropriate version of the film would be decided by distributors to meet the local censorship law. The version with the “nuuu” scene is restored for DVD release.
    Tarzan and his Mate provoked another aspect of film while capturing the underwater environment that Cristen mentions in her comments: voyeurism. The film was made in “Pre-Code” Hollywood, and its filmmakers took advantage of the freedom to exploit sexuality in a visually photographic way. Unlike the films that you referenced from the 1910s to 1930s, which depicted the “undersea landscape as an exotic space navigated by dark-skinned islanders,” this film portrays the undersea landscape as a romantic space in which the two characters show their love to each other. Also, as Cristen points out, as a metaphor, the sub-aquatic in the film is a safe space for the heroine to reveal her primitive nature beside her “sexually-free” mate. It is worth noting that the heroine does not appear “nuuu” in a long shot in any other scenes of the film, even though she lives the jungle among animals. The subaquatic environment is, therefore, an aesthetic space for the filmmaker to invite his audiences to look at a spectacular scene.
    The underwater scene resonates with the film Across the Universe (dir. Julie Taylor, 2007). Although the characters are in their clothes in the underwater scene in this scene, in terms of visual photography, the representation of their romantic love is much derived from Tarzan and His Mate. This suggests that the visual effect of voyeurism evoked from the sub-aquatic space holds great power in cinema.

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