Ilanna Barkusky goes Under the Surface
By Alixandra Rutnik on Jun 01, 2023
One Club Member and ADC Cube Winner directs beautiful artistic swimming film
Memorial Day Weekend is always the (un)official kickoff to the summer season, and historically speaking it is not always the best weather in the northeast, but this past holiday weekend was filled with endless sunshine and temperatures in the high 80s. Pool season has entered the picture. Time to float on some noodles and practice those underwater handstands and flips, but anything more advanced than that we’ll be leaving to the artistic swimmers to master.
Under the Surface directed by Ilanna Barkusky, One Club Member and ADC Cube Winner, captures Olympian Anita Alvarez's stunning artistic swimming skills. We talked to Ilanna to get more details on her latest sports film project.
How did this film project pop up on your radar?
The idea and commitment for this project came together very organically, pretty much in the span of a single evening. I was talking to Jacqueline, the underwater cinematographer, and we were both interested in shooting passion-driven work the following week. We moved extremely quickly on the idea, and I contacted Anita the next day to see if she wanted to be a part of it. In all honesty, I was not super familiar with the sport at the time.
After this project, I have such respect and admiration for artistic swimming. During filming, I was so impressed by Anita’s ability to hold her breath underwater for such a long length of time. While filming, I realized this sport is a unique intersection between creativity and athleticism, which I’m always trying to achieve in my work, so it felt like a perfect synchronicity. I was aware of what had happened to Anita the previous summer before contacting her as I had come across it in The New York Times, but I was cognizant of not letting that experience overshadow the other important parts of her story and wanted to be respectful of that throughout.
"While filming, I realized this sport is a unique intersection between creativity and athleticism, which I’m always trying to achieve in my work, so it felt like a perfect synchronicity."
Under the Surface captures the four emotions of joy, sadness, fear, and trust. Where did this inspiration come from?
Landing upon this idea came to me fairly out of the blue. I think this happens because I have a daily practice of brainstorming creatively about ideas, keeping lists of projects I’d like to make, and absorbing a lot of inspiration from different artistic mediums, art gallery visits, and the like. Eventually, I’ve found, these more developed ideas will bubble to the surface at random times. I’m always trying to recreate that process, but I think it is something natural you can’t overthink.
What is your favorite scene in Under the Surface and why?
I would say my favorite section of the film is “Fear.” It is such a powerful emotion that can sometimes overtake, overwhelm, or completely freeze us in our tracks. Anita has an incredible presence and captured this feeling exactly how I had envisioned.
"Fear is such a powerful emotion that can sometimes overtake, overwhelm, or completely freeze us in our tracks."
Can you talk to us a bit about the underwater filming experience?
This is not the first time I have filmed underwater before with Jacqueline. Since we have worked together a handful of times already, it is a seamless process at this point because we work well together. We didn’t really encounter any challenges throughout filming, but there are things you need to consider when shooting underwater.
For this project, we needed to black out the pool for the look we were going for with the different colour lighting setups. To effectively communicate with crew and talent, underwater speakers let you give direction from the surface, but you still need to rely on hand signals through the monitor for when the crew is ready on their side to coordinate specific shots. We captured each emotion in stages as you see it in the film – first joy, and then sadness, fear, and trust. We got to use an incredible location, which is an underwater studio/tank in Long Beach run by an amazing underwater photographer, Brett Stanley.
"To effectively communicate with crew and talent, underwater speakers let you give direction from the surface, but you still need to rely on hand signals through the monitor for when the crew is ready on their side to coordinate specific shots."
As the director of this project, what were your roles?
As the director, I developed the idea, brought on the crew, and then created a series of storyboards in pre-production that I shared with Anita and Jacqueline in terms of capturing specific movements. On set, it was my responsibility to give guidance and feedback throughout the night to create footage in line with the vision. I then helped steer the project through post-production, working with an incredible group of people including our editor Whitney, composer Donny, colorist Elodie, and sound designer Matt.
Out of the other athlete projects you’ve worked on so far, what makes this one unique?
This project is unique to some of the others as it is personal yet abstract at the same time. In sharing an expression as part of Anita’s experience, we were hoping to create something relatable to the human experience. It was also the first fully underwater piece that I’ve done, so it was an enjoyable experience creatively to be limited to a tank of water and what we could produce within those boundaries.
Working with athletes must inspire you. What are some stories (other than Anita’s story) that have moved you?
Every story that I’ve been lucky enough to tell has had an impact on me in some way, and I always feel fortunate for that opportunity. There are two examples that stand out over the last couple of years, working with Carlin Isles and Jerome Blake. Carlin reflected on the importance of being and doing things differently, and Jerome reframed success as being mentally tough in terms of “what can you overcome?” These were both very powerful sentiments to take forward with me.
What are you working on now?
I am currently in pre-production for two short documentary films that I will be shooting over the summer between other projects. They each take an in-depth look at themes I have explored in the past, but now I’m diving into them deeper. Through my experience over the last few years, I feel more equipped than ever to tell these stories and am excited to start filming soon.
Director: Ilanna Barkusky @ilanna.tv
Athlete: Anita Alvarez @anitaalavarez
Director of Photography: Jacqueline Lehr @jacquelinelehrrr
1st AC: Cynthia Hatfield @cynthiahatfield
Editor & Motion Graphics: Whitney Weir @poorlaurapalmer
Colorist: Elodie Ichter / The Mill @elo.ichter
Composer: Donny Dykowsky / The Ski Team @donnyd13
Sound Design: Matt Tipold @teeper
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