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During the last four decades, Al Giddings has earned a reputation as one of the most creative and talented filmmakers in the entertainment industry. His diversified roles have included that of director, producer, and cinematographer. Never settling for off-the-shelf technology, Giddings is constantly designing innovative camera, lighting and optical systems in all film and video formats to High Definition TV.

He is well known for his underwater directing and shooting of such highly acclaimed films as The Deep and the James Bond series For Your Eyes Only and Never Say Never Again. But what many don’t know is that Giddings was also a pioneer in technical diving out of necessity for his film projects. He was the first to dive with mixed gases on the Andrea Doria in 1969, the first to discover, dive and penetrate the Japanese I-169 submarine in Truk Lagoon in 1973 and he’s been incorporating innovative gear, such as rebreathers, in his projects for years. Giddings also pushed underwater film techniques and technology for The Abyss and the film went on to capture an Academy Award nomination for Outstanding Cinematography. More recently, he served as co-producer and director of underwater photography on Jim Cameron’s spectacular Titanic released in 1997. The film, of course, broke all box office records in film industry history as well as dominating the 1998 Academy Awards.

Al Giddings

I originally trained to dive in 1959 using Morgan’s book, Underwater Safety, and he’s been a hero of mine ever since. Although he is the stuff of legend in diving and surfing, in real life he’s even larger. While standing well south of six feet in stature, he towers above most when you simply consider the contributions he has made to diving. And surfing for that matter. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Bev is his refreshing candor and point blank way of speaking. Ask him why he was first interested in diving and he’ll tell you straight off that it looked like a good way of getting girls at the beach. For a guy who never went to college, he will leave you simultaneously amazed and educated with the most complex engineering explanation you could hope for. Differential mixed gas formula equations? He’ll solve them from both ends and never spill his drink. Ask him for an opinion? You’ll get it “no holds barred” and with none of the expletives deleted. Among military and commercial diving professionals he enjoys a reputation as “da man” and the “go to” guy for whatever piece of gear or methodology necessary to get the job done.

When Hollywood needs impossible special equipment designed for underwater films, the solution is always, “Get Morgan on the phone!” And then there’s a few assignments he’s accepted from our government that he really can’t talk about… at least not when the tape recorder is running.

Giddings has directed and filmed dozens of works for television, including his specials on the Andrea Doria, as well as films on the North Pole, deep-sea volcanoes, great whales and sharks. In 1996 he did Galapagos: Beyond Darwin for the Discovery Channel, one of the highest rated shows in its 10-year history. Three television specials, Blue Whale, Shark Chronicles, and Mysteries of the Sea each earned him Emmys. He also produced and directed Ocean Quest, a five-part NBC ocean adventure series that captured the number one slot in prime-time ratings. For Giddings, like many other filmmakers from Cousteau to Howard Hall, technical diving has been a means to an end, whatever it takes to get the shot. Much of the technology Giddings developed, both in diving and filmmaking, opened the door for the modern diver to follow in his virgin footprints. Still, it has been his talent behind the lens, along with his willingness to push the edge of diving, that has won him great success and acclaim.

This interview actually began in 1997 and portions were used in the old Garth/ Gilliam magazine Deep Tech. At that time I was dispatched to track Giddings down at his lavish Montana ranch and production studio. We first met on the The Deep over 30 years ago then, and had continued to exchange information on emerging rebreather technology. On my first visit, Al told me that I might have trouble finding his place even with good directions, so he’d meet me at a place called the Old Saloon just off the main highway in Emigrant, Montana, about 30 miles out of Yellowstone. It was a nice fall day about 70 degrees and, of course, I’m in shorts and a T-shirt. So I stroll into this bar and it’s like stepping back in time into the Wild West. There are guys in Stetsons sipping beer who look like they just finished a cattle drive and some very friendly women eagerly attending their needs. I figured Miss Kitty was in the back somewhere. The bartender takes one look at me and says, “You gotta be looking for Giddings. He’ll be coming in shortly. Sit down and have a drink.” Whether a suggestion or a command, it seemed like good advice.

I climbed onto a stool and he shoved over a beer mug roughly the size of Rhode Island. Al arrived and escorted me across the Yellowstone River in front of towering mountains to his new 20,000 square foot studio. Just up the hill at his house, a friend was preparing a gourmet meal of fresh salmon and pasta. We watched a herd of elk grazing in the high pastures from his back deck while a Montana sunset of impossible beauty wrapped the valley and mountain range in warm light. Over a glass of fine Chardonnay, we caught up with each other and let the tape recorder run. Then about to celebrate his 60th birthday, Al is the consummate hard-driving professional who hasn’t lost a step. We had spent some time at DEMA 1997 getting him set up with closed-circuit rebreathers and now he was eager to show me some footage from his upcoming Discovery Channel special on whales. As the sequence unfolded in the studio, I sat speechless. He had captured over 30 humpback whales in one frame as they congregated for their migration to Alaskan summer grounds. Nothing had changed. Al was still the king.

Making a Career in the Water

You’ve been in the business for nearly 40 years. When did you start diving?»Mid to late 1950s. I really loved the water. I grew up in Northern California with a fly rod in my hand, fishing and hunting. I started off shooting with a speargun as do so many people from Gustav to Cousteau. I got excited about diving and, I thought, somehow I’m going to make my living in the diving world. Probably two years into it, I became more interested in shooting with a camera. I bought an Argus C3 Matchmatic Camera and I put it in a ’46 Ford oil filter with a screw down top. Then I cut some holes and came up with lens ports. I sold two pictures to Motorland magazine. Now I could see the possibility of earning my keep diving, but photography, that would really be the high tech way to go. So I started the retail diving operation, Bamboo Reef. Sal Zammitti got involved later, Leroy French was my partner. Al Santmeyer bought my interest out years later.

Filming humpback whales in Alaska

What year was that?»We started Bamboo Reef in 1961. I was teaching diving at Drake High School that I did for three or four years. So at the age of 21 or 22 I sat down and wrote this paper on “diving’s physiology & practical aspects” or some zany title like that. I don’t know who reviewed it, but soon I had a state teaching credential, three or four years out of high school, no college. I was back at my high school as an accredited teacher.

From Retail to Customized Cameras

With Bamboo Reef you guys were classic dive retailers. But later on you went into building customized cameras.»Leroy French and I got $600 of home-improvement loans and bought $1,000 of inventory and then we took all of our personal gear and displayed it in the store. We took no salary for the first two years, then $25 a week for the second year or two. This was 1961. So I started building camera housings on the side. I was already doing stills, I could buy $20 worth of Plexiglas and a bunch of surplus store fixtures and build an underwater housing fashioned after Jordan Klein’s, who was building them at the time.With Bamboo Reef you guys were classic dive retailers. But later on you went into building customized cameras.»Leroy French and I got $600 of home-improvement loans and bought $1,000 of inventory and then we took all of our personal gear and displayed it in the store. We took no salary for the first two years, then $25 a week for the second year or two. This was 1961. So I started building camera housings on the side. I was already doing stills, I could buy $20 worth of Plexiglas and a bunch of surplus store fixtures and build an underwater housing fashioned after Jordan Klein’s, who was building them at the time. I remember when you came out with the Giddings Felgen line of underwater camera gear.»That was in 1969, seven or eight years into my career.

Giddings’ production studio in Montana

That was really top of line. I still have a Nikomar housing and a Seastar III strobe.»You were our first dealer in the Caribbean. Because of my personal interest in photography, I would develop these systems for my own use and then spin off a product. We really popularized motor drives and some of the first dome ports. My personal and professional interests were growing so I partnered with Mike Felgen. Even then, around ’69, when I announced to the world that I was going to really earn my living just shooting underwater, they thought I was crazy. The first year I made $40,000 to $50,000 and I couldn’t believe it because I had no overhead, no inventory. When I started shooting, the volume money wasn’t there, but the take home money was. I would get a check for $3,000 and I didn’t have to pay US Divers for all the tanks I had ordered.

The Begging of an Underwater Journey

What were your first underwater jobs?»I started getting involved with National Geographic. There was an oil spill in San Francisco Bay; I shot some stuff there. Then I shot an article for the Geographic, also about this time, on plankton with Bill Hammner in Bimini. I started to do motion picture film. Al Tillman had the first big underwater festival in Southern California, so I started selling some of that material.

Sharks’ Treasure

I did films with AMF Voit and US Divers: Painted Reefs of Honduras and Twilight Reef in Cozumel.There was just enough work to sort of pay the rent and 10 years later an event happened that really accelerated things. Cornel Wilde (the actor) approached me and had this feature called Shark’s Treasure. That was a real Hollywood pot-boiler. I think his budget was about a $1.8 million. So we shot on 16mm and blew it up to 35mm. I took Cornel and a bunch of people 1. Filming humpback whales in Alaska 2. Giddings’ production studio in Montana to Australia, set up cages and strategically baited the sharks. I had really great results and although it was a B-picture, a lot of people saw it, the shark material specifically, and thought it was pretty exciting. That led to The Deep. Columbia called me a few years later and they brought up Shark’s Treasure and I initially backed off a bit embarrassed. But they said, “Why are you backing off? The picture did $11 million dollars gross but cost only $1.5!” At the time that was real money and they loved the images so I partnered with Stan Waterman to shoot The Deep. I built the camera systems for The Deep, three 35mm models. That really was a remarkable project in so many ways. I was involved for eight or 10 months before we pulled the trigger. We built the housings and ran around the world trying to find the sites — Bermuda, Virgin Islands, Australia. I think that was the first time anyone hat shot underwater material in any other way than the “set-it-and-forget-it” wide angle lens approach. With three cameras, my approach was to shoot it as a creative topside Director of Photography would: with different focal lenses, three cameras shooting simultaneously, and give the editor something really dramatic to cut. Lighting was another issue. We brought in not one or two 1Ks, but 5Ks and dozens of 1Ks and built an enormous underwater set. We shot all of the master shots in open water on the 1867 wreck of the Rhone in the British Virgin Islands and then went to the underwater set in Bermuda. We laced the set with live eels and live fish so as the camera panned around, you really felt that you were there.

Many people have said that they can’t tell the difference between the Rhone and the set.»Right, the biologists complimented us to no end saying they didn’t know where the scene transitioned between the set and the open sea. It really made the movie. I could actually go: “stand by, roll camera one, roll camera two, and feeder.” Somebody would then sprinkle the set with fish food. We wouldn’t feed them for a day or so; the fish would be all over the place. There are shots of Robert Shaw lighting a fuse to blow up the wreck and as the camera backs off, fish are looking at the burning fuse. That created a production value that no one had ever seen before. Imagine too, we would shoot an extreme wide-angle lens master plus a medium close-up on Jackie Bissett or Robert Shaw or Nick Nolte or Lou Gossette and somebody else would be running tight on the burning fuse, so the editing was really creamy. For the first time we had an underwater movie that had all the dramatic moments and the voltage of a tightly choreographed, well shot, topside film.

Spear Fishing in 1959

The Big Pitch

I remember when the movie first came out, many people critically hailed it as the most ambitious underwater project that had ever been done since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea some 25 years before. How did Columbia react to this whole thing when you guys pitched this and said we are going to do this thing with 60 percent of it under water? That must have been a daunting sell.»They were really nervous, and for Peter Guber, 29 years old. His first picture was The Man Who Would Be King with Sean Connery. Peter was a very persuasive, very highvoltage guy. We got along very well and the core and fiber of our relationship was my endless excitement over what we had set out to achieve. Peter gave me full backing and support and Columbia deferred to him as the producer. Peter Yates (the director, who had also done Bullit with Steve McQueen) was really excited about the ideas that were brought to the table.

It was an incredible challenge and I mixed my natural history experiences, my commercial diving experiences and the support of Columbia and Peter Guber’s enthusiasm with a budget of $8.6 million. Every time we had a meeting I’d raise my hand and they would all go, “Oh my God, here he comes again.” Cameras were an issue. There were no reflex systems around that would take multiple lenses and my dream and vision was to build three underwater 35mm “Stradivariuses” that would allow us slo-mo, multiple lens choices and all. Peter said, “OK, go for it.” We used hoses (surface supply) for the first time. I took the first stage from a dozen regulators and hooked them up to a master manifold and ran a dozen hoses in the water – 60, 70, 80 and 100-ft. hoses. We would go in and of course, we could stay on the bottom forever since the depth was only 30 feet or so. We covered the whole set so that it was dark as night and then we would light the interiors of the set. It was amazing, I remember, for the first time ever, looking through the viewfinder and thinking it looked like that vision of the shipwreck that I had when I first started diving. You know, you close your eyes and you think someday I’ll be on a shipwreck like this. It was absolutely perfect.

In addition to the technology challenge, this was the first time that anybody had really tried to put the actual actors in the water and shoot them. You had all of these non-diving actors, how did you do that?»The studio guys talked constantly about doubles. I wanted to approach this a little bit differently. I wanted to sit down with Shaw, Bissett, Nolte and Gossette, all of these people, and teach them how to dive. Of course it was, “Oh no, use doubles for that.” I said, “Wait a minute, we’re going to get a production value. We’ll get voltage, we’ll get excitement out of these people that you could never get with doubles and I’ll be able to shoot all of the close ups and pull-backs and all of this on the actors and I think they are really going to love it.” You know Nolte is a very physical guy. But Jackie Bissett was a little different. She said to me, “I want to get something straight at the beginning of this conversation, not only am I not going to dive but I don’t even like to put my face in the water.” I took a deep breath and waded in and said, “Well, then you are going to miss a most incredible experience. Perhaps, one of the most exciting experiences of your career.” I heard her groan. She was trying to figure me out, where is this guy coming from, but I was totally serious. I left National Geographic magazines with her when I was finished. I did the same thing with Shaw and Gossette and all of those guys. I have never, in my career, ever worked on a film that had the unique spirit of those people. All of those people learned how to dive. They were challenged by the diving as well as their first discipline, acting and doing a movie.

Directing Sean Connery in Never Say Never, Again, 1983

We Got the Shot!

Bissett was the largest name at the time with Shaw who had just finished doing Jaws. He had something of a notorious drinking habit. How did you handle that?»Bless him, I loved him. He was a great man and a wonderful artist but he did have a bit of a drinking problem, as you’ll remember. In fact, on the last day of the last hours of The Deep, he was too much into the sauce to do his scene. I know you remember that scene where the giant eel grabs Lou Gossett by the head and drags him back into the wreck. Shaw’s character is also tied up in the line from a spear gun and is being dragged toward the eel’s hole. Well, Shaw showed up to the set pretty bombed, actually more than bombed. In fact, Peter Yates took one look at him and said, “Forget it, no way!” Shaw came down, took me aside and said, “Al, I know you can get me through this.” So I went back to Yates and said, “It’s going to be okay, we’re going to do it.” Then I got Chuck Nicklin and the rest of the crew and told them to get in the water and light the set. They couldn’t believe it after watching Shaw stagger around. But in we went. Shaw somehow made it to the edge of the platform and I got in facing him. I grabbed him by the tank straps and hauled him into the water. I had to put the regulator into his mouth for him, all the while I’m looking into his eyeballs trying to read him. He just smiled, he was feeling no pain. So down we went to the underwater set, the lights came on, the cameras were ready and I jammed him into position then wrapped the line around him to set the scene. He was so out of it he kept spitting out his regulator too soon since he thought we were rolling and I’d keep jamming it back in his mouth. I’d go, “No, not yet!” and he’d just grin at me. Finally, I had him in position and all tied up and ready for the eel to drag him away. I grabbed my camera and had him hold still, then focused on his face. I nodded and he came alive and started acting. He spit out the regulator and I’m shaking him for effect with one arm, and he’s fighting back looking pretty heroic for a guy who could barely walk, much less swim. We did about five takes, then I handed the camera back to Nicklin and swam Shaw back to the surface. I had to lift him out of the water he was so gone. Then he puts his arms around me and said, “We got her, boy!” Meanwhile Yates, the director, is in the parking lot doing laps around his limo shaking his head. You look at The Deep today and you see that shot and it all worked. It looks like Shaw is in pain and struggling for his life in mortal combat with the eel. But in reality he’s smashed and half-laughing at the crap he’s putting us through. In hindsight I guess it was pretty funny, but at the time no one thought he was capable of getting through it.

The Deep

The Deep was in 1976, but you did some definitive stuff years before on the Andrea Doria wreck that was really some of the first technical diving of the era.»It was 1969 and I had met Bruno Vailatti at a film festival and he was interested in doing a film project on the Doria. This was deep stuff, especially back then, and he talked me into joining the project. It was only about a dozen or so years since the ship went down and it had hardly been dived at all. We chartered this 85-ft. trawler Narragansett. In those days we were using the old SOS deco meters and we were doing two dives a day. I ended up doing 21 dives, all on air and using pure oxygen for the decompressions. I’d never done that kind of deep repetitive diving and it was pretty hairy at the time. One time Bruno and another diver got lost on the wreck, we all had less than 150 psi left in our tanks and our meters so far in the red zone that I thought we’d never come out. A year later Elgin Ciampi, got bent when a Pegasus DPV had a failure, he ended up unconscious in the boat’s chamber, barely survived. But it was an exciting time. Later we used trimix for the first time. I had the wheel of the Doria in my hands on dive six. I was in the chart room with all the stuff spread out all over the place and the ship’s compass was still in place although it was smashed. It was the first real serious exploration of the wreck and we had a ball. But we were definitely out there on the edge at the time.

Is anything worth the terror of The Deep

Speaking of going over the edge, you did an amazing project in the 1960s with Bob Croft.»I did Bob Croft’s 240-ft. breath-hold dive and, in fact, that was the first network show I ever sold. Bob Hollis and I worked on that with Dewey Bergman. This was a revolutionary dive for breath-holders.» Totally unbelievable at the time! Bob was doing bottom drops, 110, 120-ft. deep breath-hold dives. Croft was a chronic smoker – two or three packs a day – and I remember Doc Schaeffer told him to back off on the smoking. But Croft said his tolerance for carbon dioxide was very high when he was smoking and he didn’t want to change his routine. When he quit smoking, his breath-holding capability was far less. Don’t ask me to make any sense of this.

Where was the diving done?»We were in the Gulf Stream off of Fort Lauderdale. Carl Rosseler was there at the time doing stills. Dewey Bergman, myself, and Bob Hollis. I remember rigging a camera on the line. The first dive he made with the camera on the slide was a disaster because the balance was off. It wouldn’t run right, so I ended up being the guinea pig. I had Hollis go to 100 feet. After we tinkered with the slide I rode to about 140 feet. Croft was entering a zone that had the doctors concerned. They actually predicted that he was going to have a residual volume lung collapse.»Right, they were concerned about hemorrhaging and I remember Doc Schaeffer set him up with an electronics package that would give him a readout. I remember gulping because we could watch his heart rate as he left the surface. It was a bit frightening because it looked like his heart was shutting down. Schaeffer said something about shunting blood to the extremities and at that time, a lot of this was really unknown territory. Anyway, Croft eventually got to 240 feet! I was down below him filming, slightly out of my mind from narcosis because I’m kicking like mad in the Gulf Stream trying to get the shot. At the time, his breath-hold dive just seemed impossible.

Bissett, Shaw and Nolteon, the underwater set of The Deep, 1976

Truk Lagoon

You followed that up with one of the first expeditions to Truk Lagoon.»Sometime around 1973 Paul Tzimoulis of Skin Diver called me and said he was trying to locate a Japanese submarine, the I-169, that was sunk in the Allied strike Operation Hailstorm in 1944. So we started systematically looking for the sub among the 60 or so known wrecks at that time. But until we actually put out the word through the Fishing Department that we’d pay $100 for any information on the I-169, we weren’t making any headway on finding her. About three days later a man came aboard and said he had lived on the island as a child, remembered the whole attack and knew where the sub had gone down. So we took off making passes with this little profile fathometer. Stan Berman was actually the first to see it and he came up almost choking because he was so excited to tell us about what he’d seen. I remember jumping in the water and going through that murky upper layer, my eyeballs popping out of my head, then all of a sudden, boom, the bottom opens up and there’s the I-169 stretching into infinity. It was about 140 feet to the bottom.

We had a little come-along and jacked open the hatch over the engine room. The hatch opening was too small for a big American in doubles, so I had to take everything off to squeeze in. Tzimoulis passed a single tank to me along with a big light. I remember turning it on and actually hyperventilating. There were human remains on top of the engine. It was like something out of a horror movie! The clocks had stopped at 8:02 in the morning and there were personal effects and skeletal remains everywhere! It was damn spooky. I’m walking around in the cramped compartment of the sub with no fins and about 40 pounds of weight on. I’m sinking into the muck and silt. At one point I’m nearly up to my waist in the stuff, crew remains and white skulls looking back at me everywhere. Then my light went out! I’m way in from the hatch and it’s totally black. I remember talking to myself saying, “Okay, cool it, don’t get excited, keep it together.” I managed to turn the damn light on and turn around. Black silt pouring off me and I’m bumping into skeletal remains. Talk about a rush! It was like entering a time capsule.

The funeral pyre ceremony for the Japanese crew of the I-169

Search for the Shinohara

Few people have even seen it since. I dove it in 1994 it was just exactly the way you left it, untouched.»After we left, other sport divers managed to find the wreck several months later. One diver ended up getting caught inside and drowned. It was a real tragedy and it scared off others. In 1974, the Japanese raised $240,000 to recover their war dead and I was invited back to film the effort. It was an incredibly moving experience that became the basis of my film, Search For the Shinohara. It was nominated for an Emmy. You had a National Geographic cover story on Truk as well, didn’t you?»Yeah, they sent me back again and a huge article was published, almost 50 pages in length. It turned out to be one of the most popular articles ever published for them. It seemed to strike a chord for everyone with ties to WWII, including the Japanese.

I remember seeing pictures of the Shinto ceremony, the funeral pyre, and the religious rites that you recorded.»Yeah, that was part of the film. It was all I could do to hold it together emotionally and shoot the ceremony. There were two survivors of the I-169 there, a Mr. Maki and a Mr. Eura, along with a throng of family members of the dead crewmen. The salvage crew brought up newspapers and magazines that were still readable after 30 years submerged. There were personal photos that hung on the bulkheads along with letters home that were never mailed. There were wooden tags from foot lockers and other personal effects that had been brought up. The image of mothers of the dead sorting through this stuff and crying was so compelling that all of us were moved to tears. At one point in the funeral ceremony Mr. Maki stepped forward and played taps, the U.S. version. Everyone was so overwhelmed by the emotions and loss of those brave men.

Mysteries of the Sea

Following your success with the Truk expeditions, you produced another hit for ABC, Mysteries of the Sea.»This was the second time I had worked with Peter Guber and I really wanted to do a chronicle of undersea history and indeed that is what it became. We traveled all over the globe in 1979-80 looking at the different developments and progresses in diving techniques over the centuries. We built full-size models of gear and equipment and even did period wardrobes for the re-creations. We filmed things like treasure hunting, predators and sharks, diving research and submersibles. I wanted the film to really have wonderful moments and remembered that National Geographic’s first grant for $1,000 was to Admiral Peary. I knew that Gilbert Grosvenor, (Nat’l Geo’s President) had sat on Peary’s knee as a young man. So I called him up and said, “Gil, I’m going to the North Pole to do this film. We’re going to dive in Peary’s footsteps and I’d really love to have you come.” He said, “Oh my God, that all sounds incredibly interesting.” He had some reservations though and wanted to think it over. I didn’t know if he was going to join us. On the third day I called and I got his secretary. She said, “Al, Gil is not here, but he told me to tell you that he was at Abrocrombie & Fitch and you would know what that meant!” So Gil committed. The film team went up to meet our Canadian expedition crew. We had chartered a vintage DC3 airplane and I remember this pilot had a roll of toilet paper hanging in the cockpit between the two windows so he could wipe the frost away while searching for the Pole. It all seemed totally bizarre.

Mysteries resulted in an Emmy Award winning film, and also as a wonderful book.»That’s right. We were flying back after a wonderful expedition to the North Pole. Gil and I were very excited. We had shot some great stuff and had dived through nine feet of ice. Gil had walked upside down in Peary’s footsteps. I was telling Gil about Mysteries and about how we were going to do a book and he said, “Let’s do it together.” In fact, at the time I was headed for my connecting point in Seattle and Gil was going east, but he said, “Don’t go to Seattle, let’s talk further about this.” So I changed planes and we went on from Yellow Knife in the Yukon to Washington. We talked all the way back on the plane and the result was the book, Exploring the Deep Frontier. Sylvia Earle was my co-author. Initially, they didn’t think it would find much of a market. But the first year it did about 250,000 copies in hardback. It was a runaway bestseller for the Geographic.

Giddings and Shawn Weatherly in ice cave filming Ocean Quest series, 1985

The Abyss

Tell us about some of the projects that you did between that and when you jumped in with both feet to do The Abyss.»I have had an interesting career working in two camps, the theatrical camp and the natural history camp. So in between theatrical projects, I was doing natural history and vice versa. I went on to do Gentle Giants, the first real film on whales. I spent a lot of time in Hawaii and then went on to Alaska to film the first bubble-net feeding behavior on humpbacks. In fact, we were just on a piece shooting widescreen digital in Alaska last month, revisiting one of the places that I worked years ago. I am also excited by Hollywood projects, particularly working with Jim Cameron, because I’m just so impressed with his work. That is an incredible challenge. I have really always been challenged by the natural history projects. In fact, each discipline benefits from the other. Working underwater and doing all of these natural history programs gives me a real take on how to approach theatrical programs and underwater lighting. I take those lessons and disciplines back to the natural history world.

As big of a challenge as working with natural history can be, where you have an uncontrollable “actor,” if you will; the technology-driven challenges posed when you did The Abyss were unheard of at the time. Tell us how you conceived shooting The Abyss, as well as the site you chose.»The Abysss will be historic. It was one of those special projects that only comes along once in a lifetime. Jim Cameron was committed to doing something that was totally believable. Cameron is really an excellent diver and a consummate filmmaker. He is unlike any other director with whom I have ever worked. We used 10,640 dive tanks in 90 days on The Abyss. Cameron was in the water, shoulder to shoulder with me for all of it. I never expected that. My respect for him, not only as an artist, but as someone who would invest that much personal and physical effort into a project, was immense.

Actor Ed Harris in special helmet designed for the Abyss, 1988

Giddings in the ice at the North Pole

Go Big or Go Home

You weren’t doing this in some small-scale set. Describe the set you were working on.»Well, like all Cameron projects, they are just sort of bigger than one’s imagination and this was no exception. We went to view a turbine pit at an abandoned nuclear power plant in Gafton, South Carolina. I remember being excited about the turbine pit and the possibilities of doing shoots underwater. About a half mile away was the main containment vessel. So Cameron, young, tough, rugged, brilliant, and I climbed this abandoned crane that had been sitting there for seven years. And now we’re looking down on this massive structure: four foot thick walls, 200 feet across, 55 feet deep. This great bowl would make the ultimate superset. Anyway, about three million dollars later, we had scarfed all of the metal out of this concrete bowl that had held all of the reactor stuff and painted the entire thing with black dye. I wanted a totally black environment. Things were now set in motion for the largest, most extensive underwater set in the world. Eight million gallons of water, filled, filtered and heated to 81 degrees. We then shot for five months.

You were using full size submersibles and habitats, right?»As soon as I read the script and spoke with Cameron I knew the elements from this picture were not coming from the props department at Fox. They were coming from the commercial diving world so I called Phil Nuytten. Soon after that Phil came to LA. We talked about everything from the helmet-like masks to beam splitters that would give some of the light on the actor’s faces. Once again I took the same approach that I had onThe Deep years earlier. I wanted to teach Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Ed Harris and Michael Biehn how to dive, how to use rebreathers and all the sophisticated gear. The approach was really going to be commercial diving. When production started we would enter the tank at 6:00 in the evening and work on the bottom from 6:00 until 1:00 in the morning. We were shooting nights so we had no light leakage, no daylight. We would come out at 1:00 in the morning, have lunch, jump in a hot tub right next to the set, warm up, jump back in to the set and finish at dawn.

The Abyss

Abandoned nuclear containment tank become the set for The Abyss, 1988

The Attraction of the Titanic

That movie was a success and, of course, Cameron’s prior successes with The Terminator, established him as the leader of this film genre. You both have recently gotten back together again on a very ambitious project which will be premiering shortly. Tell us about that.»I did a show with the Russians in 1992. I went out on the Titanic with Emory Kristoff and Joe McInnes to shoot Titanic: Treasure of the Deep. Walter Cronkite hosted the show and we had a premier screening in Burbank at the Academy with about 700 people and I called Cameron and said, “Jim you should come and see this.” He said, “Okay, I’ll be there.” He was a very busy guy, I wasn’t sure he was going to make it. But that evening just before the lights went down, I looked back and standing in the doorway to the theater was Jim and his brother. They came down and sat with me and we talked and watched the film. When the lights went up everybody was applauding, it was a very nice moment. Jim was so excited because he had been thinking about the Titanic and had seen A Night to Remember, the old black and white Titanic film weeks earlier. That historic night I think he saw unbelievable possibilities in the actual wreck as part of the story. Probably six months after his initial excitement at the screening, Cameron called up and said, “I’ve got to finish True Lies but then I want to dive Titanic.” I said, “You’ve got to be crazy, but I love it.” So off we went to Russia to investigate the submersibles and support vessel. We spent 10 days and had some wonderful parties with the bottomless vodka-bottle tradition and all. Later we rendezvoused water system with pan and tilt, and a black and white monitor inside the submersible. Our dives were 17 to 21 hours at 12,460 feet! If you really pinned me down and asked what is the most high-voltage underwater feature film ever done, I would certainly have to say Titanic. The ROV footage went to Fox’s prop department and they recreated the interiors of the wreck along with a 90 percent scale model of the ship. Looking through the viewfinders while shooting in the underwater set was like looking at the Titanic. I mean I would look through the viewfinder at night, we would have it lit, the ROV would come around the corner, into the room, flickering light off the mirrors in the Astor suites, the main ball room, the promenade decks. The set was so good. Once again, you are going to see something like The Deep years ago, where it’s a seamless setup. The audience will just freak because you are seeing the master super wide shots of the Titanic and we move up to the doorway, down the hall and around the corner and the set is so beautiful. Around the corner, you enter the first-class cabin; it is the core and fiber of the story. The fireplace, the wreckage, the safe that they eventually get to. All of these things are as if I was in a wreck swimming with scuba at night. It magically transported me to the real wreck. I wouldn’t really know the difference. So Cameron once again championed a whole new watermark and Titanic will carry a look and authentic fabric that has never been done before. How many directors do you know who would go to the Titanic itself and jump into a 23-ft. long submarine with a seven foot diameter interior space, along with three guys then log 150-200 hours on the bottom two miles down?

Full-scale operating submersibles were were used in The Abyss

Titanic will be released just before Christmas 1997. In spite of the fact that you have had a presence in Montana for a number of years, you have recently made a major commitment to this area with the film studio and production facilities.»Well, the Montana facility is a dream come true. I have had the ranch here for 15 years; it was always my getaway place. Years ago, fax machines, Fed-Ex, UPS, all of those great services finally came into this wonderful valley 20 miles from Yellowstone and I thought, “Could I really run my business from Montana?” I had a wonderful studio in Northern California, central to the real action in LA, just down the road. At this point in my career I sort of know all the players, with these new super ways to communicate, I took a deep breath and designed this building. This coincides with the practical reality of high definition film systems. How do you feel about this technology?»Just recently, new standards were finally realized and established internationally for high definition television. High definition has six or seven times the smack of the finest television image you’ve ever seen, of any size. With high definition, a little shutter dialed into the camera can capture any one of those frames and be printed on the cover of Geographic. I believe that the average set in America five years down the line will be 60 inches. High definition is so dramatic; a feature film in HD will be something akin to going to the theater. The marriage of images and sound in the future will be such that we are going to see a shocking new and wonderful change in home entertainment. It is a very exciting time. Most of my friends are saying this revolution is going to be something like the change from black and white to color. I disagree. I think the change is really going to be more like to the change we realized going from radio to television!

An Ethereral Trip to Montana

Back in 1997, I concluded the interview with Al and eagerly awaited the premiere of Titanic. We stayed in touch and I made a couple more trips back to his Montana house and studio. Later in 2002, I went back and re-read the original interview and was amazed at how accurately Al had predicted the blockbuster success of Titanic and the emergence of HD film systems and the popularity of home theatre including the DVD format that has replaced the VHS video tape. I thought it would be interesting to pick up where we left off and resume the interview. This time I brought along my publishing partner, Fred Garth. I had introduced him to Al before but he’d never had the chance to visit. After I filled Fred’s noggin with glowing accounts of how beautiful Montana is in the fall, he eagerly committed to the trip. After all, an invitation to visit Gidding’s private sanctum is one not offered to many persons. So we grabbed a flight from Las Vegas at the end of the 2002 DEMA show in late October and landed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming to begin the scenic drive through the south entrance to Yellowstone Park up to Al’s place just over the border in Montana. I told Fred to expect hospitable fall weather and maybe to bring a jacket in case it got cool at night. Wrong! We landed in a driving snowstorm and had to renegotiate our rental car for an upgrade to a fourwheel drive vehicle. We got the last one in town. When we informed them that we were driving up to Montana, the clerk just kind of chuckled and said, “Have a nice trip.”

Bret Gilliam ” Traffic Stopper in Yellowstone”

Have a nice trip.” We then embarked on an ethereal trip into America’s wilderness. A little more than two hours north of Jackson Hole, we were detoured by a herd of snow-covered buffalo that decided to have some sort of Bison World Congress smack in the middle of the only road. After sorting ourselves through that little mess, we toured through a premature winter wonderland of snowy roads, moose, a few more buffalo who hadn’t apparently heard that their convention was a bit further south, and finally an endless herd of elk feeding in the lush pastures next to the hot springs and geysers that turn Yellowstone into a spectacle of indescribable beauty. After nearly 10 hours of transit over 11,000-ft. mountains, descents through water-carved canyons, and a display of wildlife that rivaled any zoo, we arrived at Gidding’s estate just as it began to snow again.

Bret Gilliam ” Fred Garth, Teton Mountains”

We settled in at his plush log home (on the market for a cool six million as he builds something a bit grander) and grabbed a drink before touring the studio facilities just down the hill. As always, Al was the perfect host and eagerly took off on an excited account of the system he had acquired that allows him to “up-convert” his invaluable library of film and video to the new widescreen 16×9 HD format. We sat there for hours entranced as he previewed sequences he shot decades before that now were magically transformed into images with such depth and clarity that you felt you could reach into the screen and touch a whale, a shark or actually feel the warmth of a sunset. It was mind-blowing and more than a bit surreal. Once again, Al had not only anticipated the new technology but was leading the implementation process. At 65, he had managed to turn the clock back and re-birth film he’d shot in his youth. He was as excited as if he’d been given a time machine. We had to begin somewhere, so I figured a good shark story would get Fred’s attention. That’s where we started. »

Leroy Frenchs’ Shark Attack

Your partner, Leroy French, was involved in a shark attack that is worth sharing.»It was the early 1960s and we were new to the dive business. We chartered a fishing boat to the Farallon Islands about 25 miles out from the Golden Gate Bridge. We had about 12 people on the boat and it had a very high gunnel making it awkward to dive from. We were in double 90s, which were the order of the day in that era. I was wearing a set of those doubles; Leroy had a set of triples on a la Cousteau… you know, those skinny 40s or whatever. We were both taking pictures and others were spearing fish. I was on the surface at the boat that had this very high ladder and an eight-foot climb straight up the side. Suddenly a woman started screaming. And I thought, oh my God, somebody’s caught in the current.

Where were you when all this started?»I was getting out of the water. I had come back to the ladder and was awkwardly handing up my camera when this woman started screaming. So I turned and looked and it wasn’t a woman! It was Leroy, about six octaves above what is humanly possible. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I was a competitive swimmer all through school, so I took off swimming overhand with those awkward doubles, face down with my mask around my neck. I got about halfway to him and looked up. Leroy was about 30 feet away in a huge pool of blood. A very riveting moment. There was a 12-ft. circle of blood around him. We had no sense of what was going on. We couldn’t even spell White shark in those days and really knew very little about them. Leroy later said this was his worst moment, this huge tail went up behind him and he’s staring at me but hearing the rush of water. He’s already been hammered terribly once (receiving 470 stitches or something later), and the shark was so huge, maybe a couple thousand plus pounds. I first thought it was a killer whale. Again, we were green young kids just getting into it, but then I knew it’s no killer whale, it’s a huge shark! And it took him by the legs and “glump” he disappeared – silence.

So I guess I was on automatic, as people do under those circumstances. I dropped my face in the water again, then swam to close the distance and stopped. I’m treading water and frantically looking around in the middle of this big blood ring. All of a sudden he popped up, maybe 10 feet away, screaming out of his mind. And I remember thinking this will be a total mess unless I can get him turned around. We both had on these outrageous tank systems so I sort of manhandled him so I could get a grip on the manifold. Those triples were just right. I could really grab the bar. He was just out of his mind. I mean, literally just primal sounds, as I towed him to the boat, basically waiting for the next jolt. About three years earlier a woman had been hit at Monterey. Somebody was swimming with her and the shark continued to hit her, so I was waiting for that. The other people were climbing up anchor chains and scrambling out of the water any way they could. A guy named Joe Michato still had his tanks on and was going up the anchor chain hand over hand. People had just never experienced anything like it – total mental chaos. Anyway, Don Josslyn jumped in the water and swam to us, which I thought was unbelievably ballsy, considering what he’d seen happening. With everyone else scrambling by whatever means to get out of the water, Don jumped in to come help. What a guy, and was I glad to see him! Ironically, later on he was a victim of a White shark attack himself, less than 10 miles away. How many people have been in two incidents of that magnitude? Anyway, we towed Leroy to the boat. Then we had to get him up that ladder straight up the side of the hull.

Where had the shark gotten Leroy?»The first bite took most of the calf muscle from one leg and part of his buttocks was hinged back and flapping. The second time the shark took him by the arm and pulled him down about 20 feet. A little sidebar, he had a SportsWays vest on with the little CO2 cartridge thing. At about 10 or 15 feet down Leroy pulled that. We thought later maybe the explosive nature of the cartridge sort of startled the animal and it released him. Anyway, we were trying to get him up this ladder and I remember trying to keep my cool so that the rest of the people would not completely give way to panic. So I’m trying to hoist Leroy out of the water before the shark hits him again. People told me later it was raining blood. You can imagine. He was cut wide open and I could see blood vessels and tissue hanging. I remember this because they looked like telephone lines that had slipped through the shark’s teeth. Finally, with blood pouring all over me, we got him on the deck and radioed the Coast Guard to send a helicopter with a basket. He was then lifted to the Letterman Hospital. He was there for about two weeks then went through a long period convalescing. That experience kind of broke his spirit. Anyway, Leroy recovered and dealt with the dive shop for a while. Eventually I went to San Francisco to pursue filming and Leroy went off to the Caribbean and sort of disappeared.

Jim Cameron and Giddings during Titanic shoot, 1997

How old were you guys then? What year was that actually?»I was about 25. It was 1962 or 1963 maybe. And Josslyn?»I don’t know how many years later but Don was in water 15 or 20 feet deep diving for abalone and all of a sudden, “this great head came off the bottom” and Don fended it off. The shark took his leg and lifted him completely out of the water. Don is a big, tough, focused guy, and realizing he had the abalone bar in his hand, he gripped the handle and punched it into the side of the shark’s head once or twice, really hammered it, and the shark let him go. Luckily the boat was right there so he got out of the water with much less damage than Leroy. But still, to be involved in two major moments within five or six years was amazing. Another interesting incident following that was in San Francisco when the Southern Pacific Scuba Club guys came in to the store. They were renting gear to go to the Farallons, and I said, “Listen, I’m in this business and I want to promote it, but don’t go to the Farallons. It’s a major breeding area for White sharks, don’t do it.” And this guy said, “Yeah, yeah, we know, it will be fine.” That Saturday I was in the shop when all of a sudden the radio crackles with a news bulletin: a group of divers was being attacked by a school of White sharks at the Farallons. Anyway, it was another guy, Jack Rochette, who was hit under similar circumstances.

The Dramatic Effect

So 12 years later when you were put in touch with Peter Benchley to preview the Jaws film, how did you react to the movie?»Stan Waterman and I went to the premier in New York. There were only a dozen of us attending. I thought, there was no way this film will ever approach the voltage of the real thing, so I’m going to have to think of some discreet response after this film was over. You know, “Gee, wonderful, terrific, I loved it”, whatever. I remember being into the Spielberg magic when the young woman was hit at night in the sea, watching through my clenched fingers and covering my face. When it finished, my thought was how could they release this to the public? It’s going to rock like Hitchcock’s film Psycho. I thought, there’s no way they can show this because filmgoers will pass out in the aisles.

One of the interesting things Spielberg did that was so effective was never showing you the shark until the third reel. That made it scarier.» It was the dramatic and skilled management of those scenes. The anticipation, the leaning eight inches forward in your seat, and just not knowing. He sold that very well in a dramatic sense. It was quite remarkable. I think it was the third reel when the shark came up off the back of the boat and Roy Scheider is pitching chum out the back, that’s the first time you really ever got a good look at the head, and he says, “I think we’d better get a bigger boat” or something like that. And the whole audience at that point had just gone, “huhhhhhhhh!” It was crazy.

Give us some reflection on Titanic. Did you ever think that that film could do what it did?»No one anticipated Titanic’s success. I think everyone agreed that it would be a remarkable film. Jim Cameron called me during the edit and said, “You must come over.” I went over to a sort of inner sanctum in his house where thousands of cables literally took over like a postproduction facility. We went into the inner chamber where he had his screens and playback systems and he showed me elements, unedited but assembled, where the stern came up and people are dropping like flies and hitting stanchions. It was five times as severe as what you saw in the film. I mean, once again sort of like Spielberg, I thought, “Jim, how can you…” and he stopped me and said, “Al, I’ve got to cut about 80 percent of this.” And he did. But if you saw six or eight shots that were originally 10s on the on dramatic scale, there were 30 shots, 50 shots, I mean again and again. I was impressed! This film would be another one of those shockers in that sense. We anticipated a very successful film. But I didn’t feel that anyone had any sense of what it would end up doing – a billion, $700 million. Unbelievable. The next closest film is probably E.T. at $400 or $500 million, and I’m not sure that’s accurate. Something that no one anticipated was the fact that legions of people, tens of thousands of people, saw it four, five, six times.

Anything to Keep the Titanic Dream Alive

The studio had to argue with Jim on the money to complete the film, right?»Well, at one point in time I sat at the Golden Laurel Awards with Jim and he leaned over and said, “Fox reinstated my deal.” Because before the film was completed, the budget was running wild, $200 million plus, Jim gave up his director’s fee and his points and said, “You must stay with me and back this. I’m glued to my convictions and to my excitement over this film. Here’s my money, take it.” It was an extraordinary gesture for a director to do that. I really respect that kind of conviction in Cameron. He is an unbelievably capable director and will leave, in the truest sense of the phrase, no stone unturned to deliver. So the deal ultimately was reinstated. They gave it back to him, and the amount of money that represented was unbelievable. I think I said at the moment, “Jim, they love you.” And he said, “Baloney, they don’t want me across the street.” Earlier when we worked together on The Abyss, I anticipated that film doing much more because I saw so much of that material on the screen. It was really something riveting. And I thought The Abyss would go to the moon. I think Fox made a mistake. They pressed Jim in the end to deliver under any circumstances because of the money and interest on the money and all of that. And so Jim more or less mailed in the end because he was sick and tired of arguing with the bean-counters over the budget. I think you can make some mistakes early on in a film, but if you make them at the closing of the film, people leave with a negative impression. So The Abyss floundered around and did not go over the horizon financially. But no, Titanic, I thought wouldn’t do anything like The Abyss. And so as Bill Goldman says in his book about Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.”

The End to Abyss

How was The Abyss supposed to end? It was a fascinating film anyway because of all the technology you guys had going.»Technology and the pace of the film. It did not let up for a second. That’s right. Just as you said, the ending originally was incomprehensible.

Schooner Mayan under full sail

Giddings on film set, 1979

When they finally did release the director’s cut, I know scores of people who went out and got it just to see what it was all about. And everybody had the same reaction: How in the world did they not release it this way the first time?»As it was shot and released, frankly it didn’t make any sense. And when they put the extra scenes back into it on the director’s cut, now all of a sudden you realize that this is an alien presence that’s coming here to destroy the earth because we can’t get along with each other. Jim’s wonderful vision was not realized in the first release because they pressed him, so it stumbled a bit. How about this? When they came to Jim to do the DVD version he said, “I’ll do it if you strike 20 release prints. I’ll cut it in my long version.” He added 25 or 30 minutes to the film. And when it was released, there was a reviewer in The Chronicle in San Francisco who wrote, “Never in my career did I think I would say the following: the film to see this weekend is not a new release but Jim Cameron’s director’s cut of The Abyss, at 30 minutes longer. It is brilliant.” I went to the Galaxy Theatre, which is the nicest theatre in San Francisco, and couldn’t get in. I thought I’d go and there would be a handful of people. Forget it. I was there with a date and couldn’t get through the door. So I came a couple of nights later on Wednesday, the second showing or something, and watched it. People stood up and applauded. I think the Fox executives blew it the first time around. Had it come out of the chute in its full-length form, it would have done a few hundred million dollars at the get-go. Cameron is the most remarkable force to ever grace the halls of Hollywood.

When is he coming out with his next masterpiece?»Well, I’m curious. He’s so taken with the undersea world that he’s snorkeling around. That’s my way of saying, he’s playing around with all sorts of other things and not, I’m sure, making real money as it relates to his day job. He’s driving Hollywood crazy because they would all like to see him do Terminator XII and Alien VI and Titanic II, you know, billion-dollar deals. But Jim is really enamored with the underwater world and would like to be Jacques Cousteau, I think, or somebody of that ilk in the historic sense.

MIR submersible hover over Titanic, 1997

Giddings and film crew on the underwater set for the Abyss, 1988

High Def

Let’s talk a bit about high-definition technology. I think it was 1997 when you shot the Truk Lagoon HD program. Give us your perspective on how that went and what it was like to shoot in that format the first time.»Well, in my opinion, high-definition television is not an upgrade. I hear people make that reference all the time. It is a new form of entertainment with seven times the resolution. I anticipate when the dust settles, considering the American appetite for entertainment, the average home will have an 80 to 90-inch screen. The images will be very refined. HD is such a visceral experience that lights will dim, the family will gather, phones will shut down, and people will be entertained by this incredible technology. This ability to give you an almost three-dimensional image will be there in a way that will make tears flow and emotions soar. Right now you can watch fantastic films like Titanic, on your square 19 or 20-inch television, but the film wasn’t shot in a 4 x 3 aspect ratio, you miss part of the picture. And with speakers only four inches in diameter there’s no horsepower behind it emotionally. So, people don’t respond as they do in a theatre. When HD is full up, transmitted to everyone’s home, those experiences will be unbelievable. There are people concerned now on a number of fronts over HD and its resolving powers as it relates to say a Mike Tyson fight. Its clarity combined with such graphic and brutal sights could really blow people away. There are also concerns about models or aging actresses and how to handle that since the HD image is dead-on real. The cameras now have diffusion ability so that you can deal with skin tones to manage that. But HD is magic. What Sony, Panasonic and others are pioneering is unbelievable. Nobody, in my estimation, has a clue as to what’s coming.

It’s an unbelievable format. And “frame-grabbing,” the ability to capture a single image off the motion picture stream, is unbelievable! You really can’t do that with the old technology of film or even modern digital stuff. But if you shoot with that HD camera, you dial in an electronic shutter, you’re producing 30 frames a second, 108,000 frames an hour, any one of which could be frame-grabbed and printed on the cover of National Geographic. What tool would be more exciting for someone in the nature world – whether it’s Jane Goodall or me – than an HD camera shooting a breaching whale and having the ability to go in at the apex of the breech and extract the most dramatic frame. Imagine model calls in the future where a model like our dear mutual friend Lauren Hutton walks in, does a shoot for 15 minutes then while the camera is still running, we’re able to go through those 40,000 frames and extract only those that Revlon wants for their new magazine. Whoa, the whole photographic universe just changed! I gave a presentation at Jackson Hole a year ago, and at the end, all of it was at this voltage. Then I said there’s only one downside, and the audience got set to hear the second shoe drop.

The downside is, I’m not 30 and beginning my career with this new format. Cameron is experimenting with something that the two of us looked at very carefully, and he really is pioneering this. He went to Japan and talked to Sony. Out of that came a couple of the newest F900 cameras reconfigured to allow the cameras to be close enough, that is, the two lens centers to be close enough to shoot 3D. If you shoot 3D high-definition, two cameras, you then have a universal format. You can go in any direction. You could go to IMAX and expose 70mm film for display in Japan and all over the world, Paris, Tokyo, wherever. You can go to 35mm, you can go down to television, you can go over to 35mm theatrical, anyplace, any of those entertainment formats from one particular exposure. When we shot 16mm, we couldn’t make effective 35mm slides and we certainly couldn’t do IMAX. You had one relatively myopic format. An HD camera as we know them today and the HD camera that I’m talking about has three chips, part of the recording system, and each chip has about 2,200,000 pixels, bits of information. Those three chips create an imaging system, the base of which is about seven million pixels. Sony will show a new camera in Las Vegas next year. Each chip is the size of a 35mm frame, so each chip might carry 10 million pixels. I just said that the best HD cameras today that blow my mind have a total of 7 million bits of information plus. This camera will be 10 million pixels per chip for a total of 30 million bits of information. Now, do you think you can extract stills from that?

Hutton and Giddings at Bret Gilliam’s annual DEMA dinner, 1999

The equipment and camera workshop

IMAX 3D camera rigged with DPV drive units, Galapagos, 1999

Oh, I think so.»You could – I mean they’d be the quality of something shot with a 500C Hasselbladd. Remarkable. So HD is a new form of entertainment of the most provocative nature. Imagine a format that allows you to shoot, surface and then view it. For my whole career we’ve shot and then shipped film out for processing. Then we get a telex back in Tahiti or Galapagos or wherever we are, from the lab in LA saying, “no apparent technical difficulties.” Well, that doesn’t really tell us anything about the artistic nature. Did you like it? Was it great? Watch what this change to HD does to the shooter. Like Howard Hall, who’s already a brilliant filmmaker, jumps in the water to shoot a sequence and when he comes out he can play back his material in the field! Everybody, the lighting guy, you, everybody that supports him can look at it. With the old film cameras you have two-minute and four-minute loads. IMAX is a three-minute or 16mm is a nine-minute load. I now load 40 minutes of tape! If HD is the obvious future, let’s step back to 1999 and talk about your film, Galapagos in 3D. You’re talking about pushing an IMAX camera system so huge that you actually had to mount DPVs on it to fly it around. Do you think that’s over with now? »The 3D IMAX camera system that Howard Hall told me about had my knees turning to jelly initially. I ended up putting four DPVs on the back and came up with a series of bolts that I could walk the propulsion package up and down on this master plate until I found the sweet spot. Then I could fly that system. Once I had it up to speed, it was very effective. I’d literally launch it, disappear for an hour with a one-ton, multi-million dollar system and come back with smiles usually. We sort of pioneered a new approach to using a blacksmith system. It was the total opposite of my comments on HD in the sophistication level. We’d shoot, store the stuff, and ship it once a week. We wouldn’t hear anything for a month, so if we were out to lunch on exposure or the camera had a problem, we were effectively screwed.

And now with the two-camera HD system that, in essence, will simulate 3D, what are we talking about in size for that compared to this 3D IMAX 2,000-lb. monster?»Probably a package that would weigh 125 pounds in air that is relatively small, might be 25 inches long, 18 inches wide, 20 inches high and load 40 minutes of material. And you have the use of zoom lenses, beautiful primes – all matter of things that any creative Director of Photography would demand in any creative film project. But HD and IMAX – and I love the IMAX format – both have their place in film. Remember, I have walked in two camps throughout my career. Half of it has been natural history nonfiction and the other half has been Hollywood. One of them is the pure art of documenting real-time, exciting natural history, and the other is the art of illusion. Here at our studio, we have all sorts of formats from 70mm to HD from HMI lighting to Motordrive Nikon still camera, all those different formats. And the reason that they’re here is I don’t know whether the next call is going to be 70mm IMAX or theatrical or natural history nonfiction HD. So that’s really been an exciting and challenging adventure and experience, and I’ve carried the best of both worlds across the line. Learning theatrical techniques and approaches in lighting has really done wonders for the sort of shooting that I do underwater in a natural history sense.

HD Material

That’s a very good point, so much of your natural history stuff is shot with a theatrical slant.»Well, when you looked at the HD material here today, down in the editing suite, all of that was borne of an approach that nobody uses. I would go to the bottom with a couple guys at midnight in Palau with a camera that had a super-zoom ability and diopters, as well as the ability to fill a frame with a macro subject or back off to wide angle and manage it all on the bottom. So whatever we encountered we could cover. We don’t use fins in 50 – 60 feet of water or with 60 – 80 pounds of weight so we could literally tiptoe around the bottom. Your breathing rate is way down, believe me, much below what it is with fins and your balance is unbelievably enhanced. People very often say, “Come on, this was shot in an aquarium.” I mean it’s too dead still perfect. Steve Burns was here a couple of weeks ago with four executives from Discovery, and they said, “Nobody uses zooms like you do. Nobody racks focus and zooms at the same moment or moves in and pans to the right with focus clicked on. That’s a dramatic move.” I realized early on that in making images with a wideangle, “set-it, forget-it” system is not enough because people had already been exposed to all of this. I felt we had to fill a frame with a whale’s eye. We had to make it dramatic. We had to tell a story with the camera. Those are the approaches to dramatic storytelling.

I was reading that CBS is filming some of their new shows in HD and some of them in film, and some of the people were commenting that HD is still not at the level of film with certain light situations, similar to digital photography. Do you agree?»No, they’re totally incorrect. I think those people are classic Hollywood or classic film people who are perhaps a little intimidated by the technological jump, the move to high definition, the move to computer systems, so to speak. All this means is that they are more comfortable with older technology. I made the move 15 years ago to tape. The criticism then was, “Al, how could you?” At the first Jackson Hole symposium, Mark Shelley was there. He was the only other tape guy and was on a panel. I walked in and Mark said, “Oh, my God, I’m saved. Al is here.” And he knew that I had a hot new tape. So I screened that tape for those people, and the place went stone quiet. After I finished the first hand shot up. A guy said, “I’m really upset with you.” And I thought, okay here it comes. Then he said, “You just cost me $120,000.

Giddings in high definition editing suite, Montana studio, 2002

I just bought a film camera, an Arri SR and I bought this and that. It’s not going to do what you’re able to do with tape.” I’d seen the handwriting on the wall 15 years ago and migrated to tape for a dozen obvious reasons. Again, playback in the field, how can you put a price on that? Forty-minute load. And it goes on and on. Today, I’m really vindicated. I sit downstairs with today’s latest imaging technology, pioneering a process once again as I did with Sony’s cameras, changing the black levels, changing the chromo levels and really getting into those cameras, which is a part of history. When I started with video, Sony couldn’t spell “natural history.” They had no market there. And I said, “Listen, there’s a whole other market. It’s not huge, it’s not like the news market but it’s significant.” So when Jeff Cree prevailed, put a video camera in my hand and we started shooting in Cocos, I discovered that I loved the entire system but didn’t like the image all that well. Jeff just kept saying, “I can change that, I can change that”, so in the field I would look at it and say, “It’s not a Kodachrome look, where are the blacks?” Jeff would then get into the camera with a plastic screwdriver, open the side, and take my breath away.

Forty year of film library archives


You’re talking about a Betacam.»Yeah, Betacam 300. He would dump the black. He had the ability to go to a part where he could back it off. Then I would shoot and say, “Oh, that’s much better, a much better contrast, more like Kodachrome.” Then I’d carry on about something else. I remember the third or fourth day in Cocos the camera was so dialed in that I wanted to take it to bed with me for fear the electrons would fly off in the night. They used to drift with the old tube camera. Those guys would have to dial those cameras in every day sometimes in the early news broadcast usage. I took Sony’s cameras and radically changed them.

About an hour ago you said you love this new HD format, your only regret was that you’re no longer 30 years old.»Right. So, now you really are 30 years old again because you’re taking your entire library and transferring it to this 16 x 9 aspect. Tell us about that.»It goes back to what I said previously. My first innovative technological adventure in the electronic world was to establish the black parameters of cameras. Today, Sony’s cameras are delivered factory setup, but you can get into the menu and set it to your specifications. It’s really wonderful. I’ve made deals where I would say, “Listen, I’ll shoot this project for $8 instead of $10 but I want stock footage rights. I want the ability to use this natural history nonfiction material that is not dated by cars, clothes or period dress, there is no architecture, there are no straight lines, no buildings, all of that. I want to be able to store this and I want to be able to see income from the library sales. I saw natural history stock early on as something to treasure, something historic, something wonderful, the first whales, the first White sharks in slow mo, all of that stuff. Now let me back up a little bit. Three years ago I said, “I’m a little nervous, more than a little nervous about what’s going on with HD.” The digital world is coming on and all of the tape that I shot over the years was analog. So my library is going to be antiquated, 18th Century Fox. All these wonderful images are not going to be applicable. So I said, “I’m either going to sell it bargain basement or I’m going to contemporize.” So I started running around the world talking to everybody; and fortunately I’ve met the most wonderful tech people, Larry Thorpe from Sony and Michael Brinkman, president of Panasonic. I started chatting with all these guys asking, “Is there an instrument or magic box in existence that will allow me to take an analog electronic image and up-convert it to digital tape?”

Sylvia Earle in JIM-Suit prior to record deep dive beyond 2,000 feet, chronicled in Giddings’ special Mysteries of the Sea

It seemed logical to me, and I’m not a super tech. Could all of these millions of hours and tens of thousand of projects on tape be up-converted to digital? I’m not going to leave all of this stuff in the vault. They’re going to convert it into the digital world somehow, right? I not only wanted to go to the digital world but to go to the HD world. So while in Japan with Jim Cameron, I started talking with Larry Thorpe, then with Michael Brinkman. Everybody had a neat box. Everybody said yes. I looked at the results and was not impressed. I’m really more of a nut over definition than the image. Look at the Emmys on the wall. None of them are for programming. They’re all for cinematography and the art of film. So everybody who knows me said, “Al, you’ll never find anything that will satisfy you. Equipment that will effectively up-convert to HD doesn’t exist.” Enter Barry Clark and a couple of people said, “Are you aware of the Teranex company?”

I soon found the company and talked to the various people there. They volunteered to do a demonstration. That demonstration, which included about half a million dollars worth of equipment, took place here in Montana. Sony had the feed and record machines. Teranex had the magic up-conversion boxes. My vision is to have a system that would allow me to take my tape images, at least, the last 15 years of my career and all those titles, Blue Whales, Titanic, Galapagos, etc., and up-convert that square image to wide-screen HD. The Teranex guys said, “We can do it.” The Sony guys said, “You’re not going to be thrilled. The resulting conversion will not be brilliant, at least to your standards.” So, anyway, the Teranex guys felt confident and came here. I gave them a copy of In Celebration of Trees. They put it through the process on that now-famous Wednesday two years ago, and I was speechless. The Sony guys came into the room seconds later and slumped in their chairs in total disbelief. The Teranex system had come out of the U.S. Government surveillance world. The Teranex box not only does an up-conversion to HD but it will up-convert and down-convert from any format in the world. It doesn’t make any difference. Any tape will go in and out of that and make anything else. The box also deals with electronic noise reduction and refinements. I’m using five percent of its capability to do a magic process, and the machine is incredibly more capable. Anyway, that was the second innovative and ground-breaking moment, at least in my personal world. First was a camera re-management and all that I shared with Jeff Cree, a brilliant guy at Sony, and the second is happening right here right now.

I’m here in Pray, Montana, population 63 or whatever it is, with a system that is really space-age. I’m taking analog square images in today’s formats and up-converting to HD with seven times the pixel count resolution. The results are stunning. I have had people from NHK and the Discovery Channel to National Geographic here to see this process. I can’t tell you how pleased I was with their response. I am able to take all of these titles representing the whole history of my career along with a lot of the history of the undersea world and its animals and convert it all. It’s a thrill to go into the vault and take the 287 hours I shot for Blue Whales and convert it. Imagine the process. I went out, shot it, shipped it, viewed it briefly in the field to make sure all the parameters were technologically online and forgot about it. They cut it, sent the material back and we put it in a vault. I did that title after title after title. It’s so exciting to go through the material, up-convert, color-correct and reformat. I can’t tell you what a good thing it is, and in thousands of shots I’m saying, “I cannot believe this.” And so this year we will up-convert 20,000 to 30,000 scenes. They represent about a 6 to 1 ratio, so within the original material is another 200,000 beautiful scenes. At the end of the year we’ll have 110 or 120 categories for the library. Each one will be meticulously organized by subject matter. For instance; one tape will consist of nothing but White sharks, the next tape, all blue whales, the next, all sunsets or rattlesnakes (because I’ve also done a lot of topside stuff ). The library will include both underwater and topside shots. So to wrap it up, the second exciting, innovative, ground-breaking, pioneering effort goes on downstairs. We now have the only suite of its kind in the world (Editor’s note: as of late 2002), although other people are coming up to speed. We’re taking all of that analog video 4 x 3 and converting it to widescreen, and no information is lost because of the anamorphic process whereby the image is squeezed, top and bottom slightly, to create the wide-screen format. The pixel count, the information recorded, is there in total. The Teranex system is so refined that it extracts from the tape more information than probably any other processing super box on the planet. So these are exciting times. In the end, we will take all of the HD tapes, newly rendered with seven times the resolution and frame-grab maybe 75,000 stills from the best selects to add to our still library.

Selling the 16mm Library

Tell us about when you showed Howard Hall, who made a business decision to sell his 16mm library, the results of your magic box system.»Well, you know, Howard is a wonderful character. He and Michele were in Jackson Hole when Sony asked me to anchor their tech panel consisting of all Sony people more or less and me. It was a 90-minute panel where all the Sony guys had different facets of HD technology. At the end, they said, “Al will now blow a few minds with something that everybody has said you can’t do. I spoke for 20 minutes about my up-conversion, commenting again that there was only one downside – that I wasn’t 30 and starting my career. I then finished by showing projected images in HD, up-converted images on a Panasonic HD projector and people sucked their breath in. I mean how could you take material 13 or 14 years old, Betacam SP, analog square and in 2001 project it onto an HD wide screen 16 x 9 format image? It was unbelievable.

What was Howard’s reaction?»He said to Chuck Nicklin, “I could throw up. Goddam. Giddings comes flying out of the weeds with another outrageous approach to video.” I believe Howard knows that I have tens of thousands of hours of really wellshot material. I had Paula Lumbard in here, a very innovative pioneer in stock footage who’s opened a stock footage house in Los Angeles dedicated to HD. She heard about us from the video world. We got together, made a date and she came up about six weeks ago. I know that she would agree with this word: speechless. She sat down in our suite and said, “How can this be? How can you put a cookie in and get a chocolate éclair out?” Within a week we had a contract and she’s going to represent us in LA. She’s really brilliant and we’re sending her beautiful upconverted HD material. So I am bumping these images, refining them, creating a HD master, while simultaneously creating a digital 4 x 3 master for today’s market. In other words, when I push go on a shot, it records it in two formats simultaneously. I would bet big money in the next five years there will be refinements in the up-conversion process.

Bret Gilliam and Giddings at his Montana home, 2002

I will then take my newly up-converted tapes and refine them yet again. Teranex already has the ability to double or triple the resolution of HD. I’ve always felt that any way you cut it, no one is going to leave all of the archives unused. Howard Hall’s wonderful stuff and Stan Waterman’s wonderful stuff, and all of the material that has been shot historically over the last 40 years in any format will be beautifully up-converted. There ain’t no way NHK is going to leave a million hours of material in the vault and sign off on it. It’s their history; it’s culturally important. Every country in the world has such an archive. Are they going to leave it there? No. It’s rendered in the contemporary sense, the last 30 or 40 years, in a resolution that’s totally up-convertible by machines that are not even on the market yet. Do you know what I’m saying?

Absolutely. It’s an amazing technological break.» That also applies to stills. The Geographic’s fabulous collection will not be left on the table. I’m early in making this move, taking images to wide-screen HD, but now I’m smiling because I know that at some point there will be yet another more sophisticated box that will take what I’ve done and refine it again. Fred and I left the next morning after a meal of excesses at a nearby restaurant that caters to the jet set who fly in for the food experience. We promptly drove into another premature blizzard that ultimately closed the Yellowstone roads due to the intense snow and forced us to backtrack from Wyoming to Montana through the western exit. We then slogged across the state to the other side of the Rockies and turned south in Idaho. The storm intensified and we gradually reduced speed to less than 20 mph. As we turned east again to summit the Teton Pass that would require us to climb above 10,000 feet over a road that twisted and turned next to precipitous drop-offs, the full fury of the blizzard came on us. Cars were sliding off the mountain, accidents were everywhere and when we reached the top a local cop advised us not to even attempt the descent. We shifted into the lowest four-wheel gear and fearfully creeped down the mountain while rodents passed us making rude gestures. Fred kept his door ajar and his seat belt off in case I blundered and he was forced to bail out before we plummeted to our deaths. Nearly 15 hours after we bid Al farewell, we crawled into Jackson Hole and in weary relief, began drinking… heavily. The trip was worth it. But next time we’ll visit in the summer.