How a Photographer and a Scotch Brand Created an Amazingly Cool Underwater Image

Ballantine's, a model and a toxic layer

One hundred feet below the surface of an ancient sinkhole in Tulum, Mexico, a team of 13 divers, one ambitious photographer and a model in a straw hat are hyperaware that they're swimming dangerously close to a toxic layer of hydrogen sulfide, all in the name of the perfect photo.

Halfway down the sinkhole, the chemical layer creates a mystical white cloud in an otherwise crystal-clear body of water. It gives the illusion of an underwater river flowing through the cenote. This spot is where photographer Benjamin Von Wong dreamed of recreating the image of an ancient Chinese cormorant fisherman for his Ballantine's "Stay True" series.

A collaboration between Ballantine's Scotch whisky, production company Archer's Mark and Von Wong, the short film "Benjamin Von Wong's Underwater River" is the fourth installment in the Ballantine's series.

The goal of the series is to "marry up who we are as a brand with content and experiences [consumers] will actually engage with in an authentic way," said Tom Elton, senior global brand manager for the whisky. In other words, they just want to show off something cool.

Von Wong's style, method and attitude were a perfect fit for the series, said Alex Wilkinson, senior account director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. "[Ballantine's] is for people who are driven by an inner conviction and a strong self-belief that enables them to push the boundaries of what's possible in their chosen field," he said.

Branding within the film isn't in your face, but is instead strategically placed within the series. That way, content is hopefully more appealing for users to share on social media and online news sites. "We balance logo exposure in the main film with all the other related opportunities to share the brand story and context," Wilkinson said.    

So, how did such a complicated stunt come together? And why choose such a dangerous spot to shoot?

"The layer is so unique that to not film in or near it would have been a huge missed opportunity," said Adam Booth, head of production for Archer's Mark. The production team spent two weeks planning, doing detailed research and building a team of specialists to pull off the complex shoot. On set, a "wet team," comprised of cave-diving specialists and an underwater film crew, had to figure out how to build and light a set 100 feet beneath the surface.

Model Lance Lee Davis, a diver, needed to hold his breath for minutes at a time, putting on an oxygen mask to refuel between takes.

"One of the most enjoyable things about visual storytelling is having the privilege to be able to explore rich environments around the world and work with ingenious professionals who are specialists in their respective fields," said Booth. "This shoot provided us with the opportunity, perhaps more than anything else we've ever done, to experience that, and we're incredibly proud of the end result."


Client: Ballantine's

Agency: M&C Saatchi Sports & Entertainment

Agency Producer: Alex Wilkinson

Account Manager: Daniel De Freitas

Production Company: Archer's Mark

Director: William Williamson

Producer: Paz Parasmand

Production Manager: Paul Upton

Head Of Production: Adam Booth

Managing Director: Steven Jamison

Local Producer: Dominique Duneton

PA / Photo Assistant: Gustavo Gusgar

Assistant: Karim Hija

Underwater DOP: Robert Franklin

Underwater Assistant: Katharina Brown

Focus Puller: Jack Stevenson

Land DOP: Will Hanke

Sound Recordist: Carlos Valdez

Drone Operator: Jonathan Alzak

Diving Supervisor: Richard Schmittner