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Howard Hall has enjoyed huge success as a filmmaker. That may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. And even that concise praise would 425 probably make him wince. Because, in spite of being blessed with an innate talent and instinct for creative filming that perhaps is only shared with an iconic figure like Al Giddings, Howard is the epitome of reticence a seemingly shy, almost reluctant hero. a seemingly shy, almost reluctant hero. Having been privileged to share stages with him over the years and to spend time in the field with him on an IMAX shoot, I can attest to both his striking intelligence, as well as his private gracious generosity. And he possesses a delightful sense of ironic and understated humor. Like Stan Waterman, an evening spent with Howard over dinner and wine is both entertaining and profound.

He got his start in film by spearing fish for Giddings on The Deep back in 1976, Howard has forged ahead to be recognized as one of the finest and most creative underwater cinematographers in the world. As a team, he and wife Michele have received seven Emmys for television specials. And they are considered the best to use the IMAX format underwater. Back in the summer of 1998, I caught up with them when we rendezvoused off Cocos Island where they were on their fifth three week expedition filming a new IMAX production, Island of the Sharks. They had chartered the 90-ft. Undersea Hunter while I had the 120-ft. Sea Hunter with an eager crew of rebreather divers aboard for the month. I invited Howard’s crew over for dinner and drinks on our ship and a good time was had by all. Howard agreed to sit down with me and let the tape recorder run later in the week. So a few nights later I braved a typical Cocos downpour to drop in for the interview. All of us had spent about seven hours underwater that day thanks to the rebreathers and with the help of a few memorable bottles of red wine, I got Howard to talk about his work and how he got started. In a world that is frequently populated with more than its fair share of pretentious, arrogant, pain in the ass, “I’m so important” types… Howard and Michele are almost impossibly nice. As attractive a couple as you’ll ever want to meet, they’re also incredibly patient and gracious. I watched Howard get backed into a corner the night he visited us aboard Sea Hunter by an over-eager tech diver who interrogated him without letup for nearly an hour.

Howard Hall

Poor Howard couldn’t even eat his dinner. Finally, Michele and I interrupted Howard’s crossexamination and banished the offender to the upper deck on the promise that he could bend a technician’s ear about reconfiguring his rebreather unit. I apologized to Howard for being subjected to such a barrage of questions. He replied that “it wasn’t a problem with the volume of questions, it’s just that he wasn’t listening completely to my answers.” How’s that for a complaint? I love this guy. Even Michele threw her hands up and told him to finish his dinner already. So on the promise that I would listen carefully and completely to all responses, the interview began while the rain deluge splashed occasionally into our wineglasses.

Howard Hall

Made a Career Working in the Water

Okay, the obvious first question, when did you start diving?»When I was six, my parents took a trip to Guaymas Mexico and we would go snorkeling. I didn’t know how to swim, but I learned to snorkel dive. I had one of those full-face masks with the pair of attached snorkels with the little cages holding ping-pong balls. I remember using that before I could swim and my parents watching over me from the pier while I tried to catch starfish in six feet of water. I snorkeled often after that. When I was in high school I took up competitive swimming and in my junior year took a LA County Scuba class. When did you start to work in diving?»Almost immediately. I got a job at LA County Skin Diving Schools in Whittier and got my instructors certificate when I was a senior in high school. Then I went off to college in San Diego and found job at San Diego Divers Supply. Working as a diving instructor paid my way through college. I later moved over to the Diving Locker and worked there from 1972 through 1978.When I started at the Diving Locker I was inspired by Chuck Nicklin who was supplementing his living by selling underwater photos as well as film assignments. A lot of pros came from the Diving Locker, Marty Snyderman, Steve Early, Flip Nicklin, Mark Thurlow – a bunch of guys got their start there. I started taking still photographs, writing stories for diving magazines and by 1978 I was able to make it a full time job.


I remember that one of you first jobs in professional film was on The Deep; you went on from there to do other things. Tell us about the progression of projects that you got into from there.»After the NBC Shark Special with Waterman, I went to work with Stan on several American Sportsman episodes. I produced a couple myself, one of which popularized the Marisula Seamount in Baja where Stan and I filmed schooling hammerheads and people riding manta rays. I then directed 16 episodes of Wild Kingdom over the next five or six years. Marlin Perkins was with us on about half of those shows. Tom Allen who was a rep for Scubapro was with us on the other half.

Black sea bass trophy circa 1973

Marty worked on many of them as second cameraman. I was with Marlin on his last dive during the winter off Catalina Island for a film about squid. He was 80 years old. He was a great guy. Jack McKenney was also instrumental in my career progression. He was very generous with his advice and support. He also recommended me to Hardy Jones for a film about dolphins on the Bahamas Banks. Hardy had already made one film out there using Jack. But Jack was already booked when Hardy called him the second time. So Jack suggested me. I got the call from Hardy and we eventually did a whole series of important films together. He was the first person to produce a film about the spotted dolphins of the Bahamas Banks. Hardy later went on to become an accomplished filmmaker and an important marine mammal conservationist. Both Stan and Jack were important as far as getting me started, making it easy for me to get jobs, promoting me as a young cameraman. I worked with Stan on many different things and Jack recommended me on a variety of projects. I learned a great deal from both men. I learned a lot about professionalism from Stan, how to work with people and keep everything in proper perspective. Stan once said, “Every time I see someone else achieve something great, a little piece of me dies.” Then he laughed. He was making a joke, but there was a lot of truth to the statement. It’s easy to envy another’s success, but it’s a laughably stupid emotion. Stan handles it better than anyone I know. What I learned from Jack was much different. I studied Jack’s camerawork. Jack was doing things that even today most underwater cameramen can’t begin to figure out. He was a genius with an underwater camera.

Such as?»Jack was the first guy I ever saw to use a tripod and bright surface powered lights to do macro cinematography underwater. I remember seeing one of his films at a film festival in San Diego and there was this spectacular close up shot of a nudibranch crawling across the reef. It was full frame, unbelievably colorful and rock steady. I’d never seen colors like it. So I learned how he did it. It was done with tripods, heavy weights, and lots of light and special macro lenses. He went to a great deal of trouble. Most underwater photographers would have just hand held the shot, but Jack was a perfectionist. Jack was doing the most sophisticated underwater wildlife work of his time.

Filming Hammerheads at Cocos Island for Secrets of the Ocean Realm, 1993

Looking through Different Dimensions

Speaking of state of the art camerawork, you went from 16mm to larger format to IMAX. What was it like to do the first underwater IMAX 3D production?»Graeme Ferguson, one of the founders of IMAX, called me up one day. He had seen Seasons in the Sea, a film I produced that won best of show at the Wildscreen International Film Festival. Graeme wanted me to do the first ever IMAX 3D film underwater. I couldn’t believe it. At first I thought it was a joke. He wanted me to write the script, set up the logistics, go where ever I wanted to go, just do it. It wasn’t until after Michele and I met with him that I really began to believe it was going to happen. The problems were almost overwhelming. The camera was just being finished at a cost of 3 million dollars. Bob Cranston and I booked a trip to Toronto to see it and to create the concept for the underwater housing. The camera itself weighed 340 pounds with a full load of film. The housing was going to come in at around a ton. To our surprise IMAX did a fabulous job of building the housing based on our design concept. Of course, it should be a good piece of work, the cost was $350,000. It was possibly the most expensive underwater housing that was ever produced.

Let’s talk just a minute about the dimensions and the weight of this thing.»The housing weighed about 1,300 pounds depending upon how it was rigged. It was loaded with two 2,500-ft. rolls of 70mm film. That’s 5,000 feet of film. The weight of the film load alone was 50 pounds. By the time you purchased the film, processed it, and printed it to IMAX, that single load cost $25,000! And that single load of film ran for only seven minutes. It cost $60 a second to run the camera and it took five seconds for the camera to come up to speed and another five for it to ramp down. That’s about $600 just to pull the trigger to see if it will run. The whole thing was just about half the size of a Volkswagen beetle.

So how did you move it around underwater?» Slowly. If there was any kind of current at all, it was impossible. We couldn’t work in current. Surge was problematic too. We made the film in California where surge is a given. If you got caught between the camera and a rock, it could crush a hand or break ribs. Usually, we took the thing down and mounted it on a tripod. In some cases where there was dead calm, two of us would handle the camera and do slow moving shots. There were some shots where we pushed it through a kelp forest. But once you got it going, it was pretty much out of control. We spent over $50,000 building a thruster system to propel the camera. But I simply didn’t have time to learn to fly the thing. We made one dive with it, crashed a few times, and gave it up. We worked at Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Catalina, San Clemente, San Miguel, and even off La Jolla. The nice thing about it was I figured I was fail-proof. The film was being made for a single theater in Osaka, Japan. I never dreamed the film would be shown in the United States. But by the time it was done, there were 12 IMAX 3D theaters in the US and all of them had booked the film. It debuted at the new Sony IMAX Theater on Broadway at Lincoln Center and it sold out! It was the highest grossing single screen in North America during Thanksgiving of 1994. It was still playing on Broadway four years later and highest grossing IMAX 3D film ever made at the time. Incredible. Today it still ranks in the top three or four highest grossing IMAX 3D films and is still playing.

The massive IMAX 3D camera and housing in the California kelp, Into the Deep, 1994

The Deep

There are very few couples that have been able to make their careers work as well as you and Michele. When did you guys meet?»Michele and I met in May of 1975. She had decided to learn how to scuba dive, found Chuck Nicklin’s Dive Locker in San Diego and signed up for lessons. Marty Snyderman signed her up and put her into my class. I started at the Diving Locker in 1973. The Deep came along in ’76. That was probably my first big break. I had already been shooting still photographs, recently published my first photos in National Geographic magazine, which was a major milestone for me. Chuck Nicklin got me involved in The Deep. I was basically a gopher, my job was to spear fish and attract sharks in order create the shark sequences for the movie. I was a very minor player. You worked on one of the best action sequences in The Deep out in the Indian Ocean or the Coral Sea, right?»It was the Coral Sea and that is the only part of the production in which I was involved. I was there only to do the shark work; I never met Jackie Bissett, Robert Shaw or any of the other actors.

Did you know Al Giddings prior to The Deep?»I had never met Giddings, Stan Waterman or Jack McKenney. I met all those people in the airport as we departed for Australia. Jack and Stan became incredibly important in the years that followed, in developing my career. Stan has been a mentor for me. I learned a great deal about underwater cinematography technique from Jack McKenney, he was way ahead of his time. Both of those guys bent over backwards to help me get started in this business. During The Deep I learned a lot about leadership from Al. And, of course, Chuck Nicklin was my original inspiration and got me the job in the first place. Well, I guess that Stan actually remembers your name then?»(laughing) Well, about once a year he does. I guess you met him about the same time I did and I think he remembers you more often than me. Bret, it’s interesting to reflect that when you and I met Al Giddings we both thought he was this legendary older guy who had been around forever. He was only 39 and we’re both now about a decade older than he was then.

Aerial Photography

Back to technology advances, we are sitting here talking to you underneath the wing of a specially designed mini-plane on floats.»Well, the ultralight is a solution to a difficult problem. Giant format films typically contain aerial photography; there is almost no IMAX film that has been made without this type of photography. Producers of large format films tend to feel that aerial shots are sort of a must. Everyone, myself included, wanted aerials but to get a conventional aircraft to Cocos Island is not practical. When we were in the pre-production stages of the film there was a float plane that flew out to bring passengers to a sportfishing operation in Cocos. That organization has closed business and the float plane is no longer in Costa Rica. A round trip flight from the mainland to Cocos Island is 600 miles. So, therefore to fly from the mainland to Cocos with the IMAX camera and shoot a three-minute load of film and then return to the mainland would be out of the question.

Ultralight aircraft used for aerial sequences at Cocos Island during Island of Sharks, 1998; Mark Collin

Almost any helicopter or float plane that flew to Cocos would have to refuel by landing on a boat or on floats, weather permitting. I considered all of these options and in the end an ultralight presented itself as the most practical solution to the IMAX camera problem. Obtaining, testing and the shipping of an aircraft of this caliber to Cocos would not be easy. To make the project happen we recruited John Dunham, a good friend of mine, to help collaborate on the preparation plans. John is qualified to operate a wide variety of aircraft including the ultralights. This Cocos film was an opportunity to get John involved in productions, so I commissioned him to buy an aircraft, rig and test it for the handling of IMAX aerial camerawork. It was an expensive production to get the aircraft to Cocos, but it has worked out great. We have shot ten rolls of film to date and have had no technical problems to speak of.

Ultralight aircraft used for aerial sequences at Cocos Island during Island of Sharks, 1998; Bret Gilliam

Rebreathers and Filmakers

In addition to the aircraft and the very technical camera systems utilized in this project you were one of the first crews to embrace the use of rebreathers.»We became interested in rebreathers when we completed a film on the Sea of Cortez in the late 1980s. The film contained an important sequence on hammerheads, these sharks will spook at the sound of scuba bubbles and were extremely difficult to approach. I had been down there many times before, filming hammerheads, for programs such as Wild Kingdom and American Sportsman. For all of those films, I had free dived to get into the schools of hammerheads, which was tough. Swimming down sixty or seventy feet, with a 50-lb. movie camera, and remaining long enough to get a usable shot of twenty to thirty seconds is very hard. Swimming back to the surface after taking the shot is much more dangerous and difficult. For this film I wanted to find a way to get into the school of sharks and remain filming for a while.

The film we were making was called Shadows in a Desert Sea, which was made for the PBS series Nature. Anyway, I dreamed of having a closed circuit rebreather for getting into the schools of Hammerheads without spooking them. I remembered seeing the Electro Lung advertised in Skin Diver magazine back in 1969 and wanted one ever since. Of course, Electro Lungs were not on the market long, a half dozen divers were killed almost immediately and the lawyers shut the product down. In the late 1980’s, there were no rebreathers available to civilians so I began to look for ways of getting my hands on a Navy Mark 15. Unfortunately, at the time one could only obtain a Navy Mark 15 by stealing it from the U.S. Navy and that was not going to work. I began working with Bob Cranston who had some military contractor experience from his days working for DUI (dry suit manufacturer). Bob knew some individuals involved in the Mark 15 program and it just so happened that our timing was perfect. Biomarine (manufacturer of the Mark 15) had just lost their bid to build the new Mark 16.

Mark Thurlow, Bob Cranston and Hall aboard Undersea Hunter with IMAX camera

As part of their bid for the Mark 16 contract they had built a prototype called the Mark 15.5 or Mark 155. When Biomarine lost the contract for the Mark 16, that left the prototype rigs in limbo. We started out by leasing a pair of 155s from Biomarine for use during the filming of the Shadows project. Later we managed to purchase two of the units. Initially, we were terrified of the things; everyone told us that we were going to kill ourselves. During each dive we made a dive, the list of people who had died on the Electro Lung ran through my mind. We memorized the manual, developed our own equivalent air depth tables, and taught ourselves along the way. It took about 50 hours underwater before we began to feel comfortable. But eventually, we got great schooling hammerhead footage including the first record of mating hammerheads ever filmed.

Rebreather Modifications

Have you modified the rebreathers for your use since then or are you basically using them the way they were?»Our Mark 155s are now highly modified. It would be easier to list the parts that we haven’t changed rather than list the modified parts. We’ve modified the plumbing to provide low-pressure diluent and oxygen for BC inflation and emergency open circuit. We’ve created a mounting system, modified the mouthpiece design, and dramatically altered the static balance. We’ve altered the counter lung size, changed the primary electronic logic circuit, and gone to LED displays. Mark Thurlow is now working on a new secondary display that will incorporate an alarm system. The 155 is not an easy system to use right out of the box, there is no facility for BC inflation and no open circuit back up. With our system, if you need to go to open circuit, you have about 20 cubic feet of diluent to breathe and then you can switch a valve and breathe about 20 cubic feet of oxygen. The units are now working extremely well; I personally have logged just over 715 hours (as of 2007 more than 1900 hours) and feel more comfortable and safer on my rebreather than I do on standard scuba.

How much of your shooting are you doing on rebreathers as opposed to open circuit?»We are doing almost all of our shooting on rebreathers now. About 95%. The primary reason we are using rebreathers would probably surprise you, it surprises everyone else. The silence of bubble-free rebreathers is not the major advantage in wildlife film work. Certainly, there is a difference between the way animals react to you when using a rebreather as opposed to open circuit, but the difference is not so great that it justifies the huge additional logistical hassles that come with rebreathers. The reason we use closed circuit rebreathers is because we get an optimized gas mix at any depth we go to. Our decompression is minimized, and the life support capacity is essentially unlimited. We can potentially stay down up to twelve hours on any dive we make. That’s a really big deal. We no longer determine what we are going to photograph based upon how much air we have in our tanks. We simply stay down until we get the shot or until we are physically exhausted. The air supply clock no longer runs against us. Unlimited dive duration – for natural history film work, that’s a giant advantage!

Howard and Michele Hall with IMAX camera, Cocos Island, 1998

What was your typical working bottom time on this shoot?»Typically, it takes us an hour and a half to shoot a single roll of IMAX 2D film. That may seem surprising since each roll is only 3 minutes long. But the shortness of the running time is balanced by the cost. Those three-minute rolls cost over $3,000 to buy, process, and print. It takes a long time to set up each shot and we try to wait until everything is perfect before we press the run switch. Depth of field is a big problem in 70mm photography, so we do much of our camera work from a tripod. The tripod weighs 65 pounds and we usually anchor it down with an additional 50 pounds of lead weight. When things are going well, Cranston, Thurlow and I will often stay underwater while our surface crew recovers and reloads the camera. We have had mornings when things happen much faster, one time we shot five rolls on a single dive and stayed underwater for nearly four hours. To date, we’ve shot 242 rolls of film here at Cocos (some of which was above water wildlife and aerial photography) and I’ve logged 271 rebreather hours and 197 dives. And we have one more 22-day trip to go.

Hyperoxic-induced Myopia

I understand you have had some vision problems,»I accumulated more than 90 hours underwater during our first 22 days of shooting out here in Cocos. Towards the end of that trip I began to notice significant problems with my eyes and by the time we were on our way home, I couldn’t see well enough to get around the airport terminal. Michele called DAN as soon as we got home and no one knew what the problem could be. Finally we found a doctor in Pensacola, Florida who knew what was causing my vision problems. Dr. Frank Butler, a Captain in the Navy who works a lot with the SEAL Teams, said I had hyperoxic-induced myopia. It’s a condition that is not uncommon among patients treated for burns or skin disorders in hyperbaric chambers under high partial pressures of oxygen for long periods. Although it had never been seen in divers, to his knowledge, he was sure it was induced myopia. Hyperbaric patients are generally treated daily for 90 minutes or so at oxygen pressures well over 2 atmospheres, much higher exposures than we are getting on our rigs. But 22 days at four hours a day at 1.3 atmospheres of oxygen was enough to cause my vision problems. He suggested that hyperoxic induced myopia has not been seen in divers because nobody has put in so much time at 1.3 atmospheres for so many days straight. The good news is that it usually goes away after a few weeks once out of the water. It took three weeks for my eyes to normalize after that first trip.

Island of the Sharks

Tell me about the film you are making now.» The film we are doing now will be titled Island of the Sharks. It is being produced by Michele and is directed by me. It’s a Howard Hall Productions endeavor and our diving crew includes Bob Cranston, Mark Thurlow, Mark Conlin, and Lance Milbrand. We’re also getting some diving help from the Undersea Hunter’s dive master, Peter Kragh and from Avi Klapfer. We are making the film for WGBH Nova Large Format Films; they produce the PBS series Nova and have made a number of giant format films including Special Effects that received an Academy Award nomination. Susanne Simpson was the director of Special Effects and is now our Executive Producer. We began discussing this project with Nova about four years ago and received the contract to make the film about two years ago – long before El Niño began to raise its ugly head. Had you done anything with Nova or is this a new company that you are working with?»No, I have never done anything with Nova before, although Susanne and I discussed the idea of making a large format film as far back as 10 years ago. It has actually taken us this long to make it happen which is typical in the film business. Our projects usually take several years of development and then six months of pre-production followed by a couple of years of production before they are finished. We actually began building the IMAX camera housing for this film before we started production of our recent television series, Secrets of the Ocean Realm. What’s the budget on this film?»It’s in the neighborhood of five million dollars. It’s a little hard to be specific because there are a variety of parts to the budget including promotion and educational outreach. To do the actually filming and postproduction, we will spend about four million dollars.

Mark Thurlow tends Howard in the current at Alcyone pinnacle at 125 feet, Cocos Island, 1998

Howard shooting from the top of the bird rookery at Manuelita Island, off Chatham Bay, Cocos Island, 1998


Is that a pretty large budget for a documentary film or is that standard?»That would be a really big budget for a television documentary; large format film budgets typically run between three and six million. If the film were to be shot in 3D, the budget would be more like about $8 million. Island of the Sharks is a 2D film; our budget is right about in the middle for a project of this dimension. Typically, what people do is not create a script and then cost it out to come up with the budget, instead an average budget amount and what the market will bear will determine the cost. On Island of the Sharks, we will spend over 130 days in the field, most of which will be diving at Cocos Island. I could probably get by with less time out here, but because I have so much time, the film should be terrific. If it’s not terrific, I have no excuse.


In this case you are doing this entire film at Cocos. Tell us why you picked Cocos as a spot for production and how you picked your support facilities.»Obviously, Cocos is a great place to dive and there are some spectacular animals here. But really the decision to make a film at Cocos is a combination of what the site has to offer and the logistics available. The logistics are incredibly important whether I’m doing a television film, but especially, if I’m doing a giant format film. What Cocos had to offer was good diving, good marine life, and an excellent logistical support. Our support vessel, the Undersea Hunter, is ideal for this operation. Avi Klapfer’s operation is very slick and professional, the vessel is capable of handling the huge IMAX camera equipment and there is space for crew and all our stuff. And we bring tons of stuff, literally. We fill up one entire cabin on the boat with just film; we bring 800 pounds of 70mm film with us on every expedition! We’ll spend nearly a million dollars on film, processing and printing and the boat cost is also substantial… but we needed a substantial vessel. It was crucial to have a crane that can lift a 250-lb. camera system into the skiff, and skiffs that could hoist the camera on and off-board. We couldn’t do it from inflatables. Logistics was a big part of the decision to work at Cocos. If the Undersea Hunter were stationed in the Galapagos, we would be making the film there.

Undersea Hunter anchored in the lee of Manuelita, 1998

But here in Cocos you pretty much have the whole place to yourself, don’t you?»Well that’s partly true. Other divers seldom get in our way. Mostly, everybody has been quite courteous about diving where we were trying to work. The disadvantage to Cocos is that there is not a lot on the reef, very little invertebrate growth and not many small animals. It has been hard to get a lot of color and variety into the film.

You have ex-military rebreathers, an ultralight aircraft, and state of the art camera systems. What else do you want? If you could look into your wishing ball, what would take your filming another step forward?»My life is already over-complicated. The older you get, the more of this stuff you accumulate. I look back on the days when I would go spearfishing with fondness. I would put on a weight belt, mask, fins and snorkel and go diving. It was so simple; it could be done in an afternoon not an entire month. Now, my diving is always a major logistical production.

Of course, you didn’t get $4 million to go out spearfishing either.»No that’s true. I’m not knocking it. Anybody who feels sorry for me is completely crazy. I might say that I would really like to have a 120-ft. ship with a submersible on the back. But the truth is, I don’t want that. Things are as complicated as I want them to get now. Having said that, my next film will probably be an IMAX 3D film. I’ve already directed one of those and it’s considerably more difficult than what we are doing here.

IMAX on Silver Bank

You also did some IMAX work with humpbacks on the Silver Bank; tell us a bit about that experience.»It’s been my experience that the only way to get close to whales is if it is their idea. Typically, what we do is go out in our boat and approach the whales as close as we can without disturbing them. We put the boat in idle so they knew where we were and would wait to see if they get friendly. Usually, they move off on their way. In order to get anything good, the whales have to cooperate. During the weeks we were on the Silver Bank, we had one or two very good days. On one day the whales followed us around all day. We used open circuit to film the whales on the bottom at ninety feet. Anyway, we went through two tanks of air and four rolls of film each, Cranston and I. When we went back to the Coral Star, our liveaboard, the whales followed us and we dived with them the rest of the afternoon right under the big boat. You couldn’t scare them away. Michele shot some terrific stills. The whales were having a ball.

You have how many trips scheduled on the Undersea Hunter out here to Cocos?»Each trip is 28 days long and we get 22 full days of diving at Cocos. This is spread out from January through October so that gives us time for the seasons to change. Bait balls tend to occur at one time of year versus another, birds tend to nest seasonally. By spreading out the expeditions it gives us a chance for best weather and our best chance at the marine life. If we get skunked on one trip, then we have a chance to catch up.

The sun sets between Cocos and Manuelita over Chatham Bay, 1998

El Niño

This year in particular because of the El Niño, you must have had some fairly twitchy moments when you didn’t have marine life that you might normally have expected.»We picked the worst year in meteorological history to make this film. There is no question about that. When I saw you at the Boston Sea Rovers in March you were asking me about the prognosis for your own rebreather expedition coming up for the month of August. At that time I hadn’t even seen a shark. In fact, until this week when you showed up I still hadn’t seen a hammerhead. Now they’re all over the place again. Timing is everything. I must be your good luck charm.»Yeah, I guess so. But our advantage is the type of scheduling we do when we make a film; spreading it out over a period of a year or a year and a half with very long expeditions in evenly plotted spaces throughout the year. Even in a really bad year, like this one, we are bound to get some good stuff. We were here sixty-six days before I saw my first hammerhead! But they’re back now and the stuff we got when the hammers were gone is all good material. This is going to be the best film we’ve ever made. Hammerheads are important to the film, but there are many other things in the film besides hammerheads.

After 110 days of diving you are going to accurately depict diving at Cocos, even though you have had some slim pickings in the beginning due to El Niño.»I think we are going to get everything that Cocos has to offer. We may not get the whale sharks or manta rays. They may not come back in time. But we will certainly get the hammerheads, they are back now and we have a lot of other very good stuff that even people who have dived here for years haven’t seen. We have a bait ball sequence that will completely amaze you. How much time have you allowed yourself to cut and edit this film. Are you going to spend a lot of time in a dark, air-conditioned studio somewhere?»We have allowed from October 20 until April 1 of next year to cut the film. Fortunately, our studio is in our home. We’re walking distance from an excellent reef break in Del Mar and when editing I almost always start the day with two hours of surfing. That’s how I stay sane.

Bait-ball stimulates wild feeding activity, Cocos Island, 1998

“The small and the weird”

Many people would say that you have an ideal job. You basically had an unlimited budget, you’ve picked one of the best film and dive crews and you’re working from the best support vessel available maybe in the world. Where else could you go to hope to do better?»Cocos is a special place. There is no question about that. But I’m happy making films almost anywhere where the ocean is natural and there are not too many people. I suspect that our next project will be a coral reef film, shot substantially in the Caribbean. Probably much of the work will be done in the Bahamas. I’m happy diving the Caribbean but I am actually just as interested in the small animals as I am the big stuff. It’s great to see a school of hammerheads, but I get as big a thrill out of seeing some unusual small animal behavior. That stuff fascinates me and I get a real charge out of seeing something new and unusual even if it’s small and the behavior is very esoteric. My films tend to reflect my passion for the small and the weird.

Howard and Michele with bob Cranston, surface from lengthy dive session to one of the infamous cocos rain downpours

What about terrestrial stuff?»We climbed all over the island, on Manuelita and completed work on nesting birds. The plan is to do more in October when the brown boobies are nesting, we have already filmed red-footed boobies nesting and we did a fabulous sequence on fairy terns. Any of the wild pigs?»No pigs. The pigs, deer, cats, and rats on the island are feral and we’re trying to keep the wildlife as natural has possible. Basically, that leaves birds and crabs. Do you know what your next film will be?»Well, it won’t be pigs. I’ll do us all a favor and stick to fish.

I concluded that interview back in 1998 and waited until 2001 to pick up again. In the last three years Howard had managed to indulge every diver’s dream with a trans-Pacific itinerary that included just about every atoll and island James Michener ever thought about as they worked on a challenging new film project. This time I cornered Howard and pushed him to share his candid musings on everything from the sensationalism of The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week to unchecked human population growth. It’s a side of Howard most people haven’t seen and you’ll appreciate his candor and informed perspective on a slew of topics pertinent to divers… including his frustration at finding a parking spot at the beach. 

Schooling Hammerheads at Alycone pinnacle

Diving Perspective

You started out in San Diego as an instructor and dive store employee. How has the area changed since l969 from a diving perspective?»I came to San Diego in 1969, got a job teaching scuba diving and enrolled at San Diego State University. Dive instruction financed my college education and I have been diving in San Diego waters ever since. How has the diving changed? For the most part there is simply less of everything. There are less lobsters, abalone, moray eels, schooling fish, Blue sharks, Mako sharks, and just about everything that swims, floats, or crawls on the bottom. There are some major exceptions. A moratorium on killing giant sea bass seems to have worked wonders. Now we often see giant sea bass where we almost never saw them 30 years ago. Harbor seals and sea lions seem more plentiful since people began expressing displeasure with fishermen for shooting their heads off every time they took a fish off a line. But for the most part, wildlife populations are in steep decline. Everywhere. Water quality is also in decline. Visibility averages much less here than it did a few decades ago. Perhaps as disturbing as wilderness decline is the reduced access to our beaches. Today getting a parking place on a weekday is a major achievement. Forget about it on the weekend. Traffic congestion getting to the beach is so bad it’s often more fun to stay home and watch a Sea Hunt rerun. Almost all beach parking is now metered. In the summer you have to walk over the bodies of sunbathers to get to the water. With all your diving gear on you crush a few in process, but it doesn’t matter much because there are so many no one really notices.

IMAX film crew descends over Fiji dropoff during Coral Reef Adventure, 2001

Howard and Valerie Taylor with wild pig friends, circa 1978

Tell us about some of the movie productions you’ve worked on.»Sphere was a film we did in 1997 with Warner Bros. It was a lot of fun and very interesting to work with the movie people again. We designed the  equipment to work in front of the camera. The whole idea was to allow the camera to see the diver’s face in full – from the side and front view. We worked on the microphones to get studio-quality voice communication underwater. That was really tricky because you have backpressure resistance. All underwater breathing apparatus, including our helmets, have backpressure. We designed it so that when the actor divers talked on camera, we could tap off their microphone so that the production soundmen could take the sound directly from the helmet microphones. It was the first time the quality of sound was there and it didn’t have to be dubbed in. We lowered the resistance for exhalation to the point of where they could act and enunciate and have no forced breathing resistance or forced vocal resistance. It made a big change.

San Diego Environment

What is the most serious environmental problem threatening San Diego waters?»Almost any winter day within a week of the most recent rainstorm you can find “Polluted waters. No swimming” signs posted on numerous California beaches. The list of environmental problems and their severity becomes larger every day. Pollution, beach erosion, over-fishing, introduced alien species, all impact diving here as they do in virtually all ocean environments. Anyone who has been diving longer than 10 years can attest to the fact that the ocean wilderness is in decline. In general, all environmental problems are related to one single factor. Population. As long as global human population continues to increase, all other efforts to save our environment is just pissing against the wind. Ironically, population would be the easiest environmental problem for governments to solve. With tax incentives, social pressure, and education, governments could affect population reduction. But no one dares talk about that very much. Religion is a wonderful thing, often corrupted by greed and stupidity.

Many people questioned whether the planet could handle six billion people when we reached that level a few years ago. When the Earth didn’t implode immediately as population passed six billion, conservatives said, “See, no problem.” But when you get a terminal disease you don’t necessarily die immediately. Sometimes years may pass before you feel symptoms. I believe Earth cannot support our present population, let alone continued population growth. Imagine today’s rate of deforestation, global warming, decline in natural resources, loss of biodiversity, environmental pollution. Then look ahead 500 years and try to imagine half a millennium of today’s rate of environmental impact. That certainly produces a horrible mental image! Sure, everyone says, “Well, something will happen to solve these problems by then.” Well, certainly they’re right. Something will happen, but I doubt anyone will like the solution when Mother Nature decides to dish it out. The stupidity of ignoring population growth as the number one most critical environmental problem amazes me. It’s unequivocal proof that there is no intelligent life on this planet. Well, except for you and me, people who agree with me and, of course, the dolphins and whales.

Sea turtle admires his reflection in the camera dome as Howard films Coral Reef Adventure, 2001

Decrease in Nature Exploration

How has California diving changed from a business perspective?»I’m not really tuned into the sport diving business today. But I sense that there is a decline in the spirit of adventure that seemed to inspire our generation. I think young people stay at home watching TV and playing video games and explore their natural world much less then our generation was compelled to do. Certainly, there is less exploration left to be done. Hell, now they’re leading tours for the blind to the top of Everest! That’s great for blind people, but it does take some of the romance out of mountain climbing for young people. As for diving in San Diego, there seem to be fewer dive boats, dive shops, and beach divers. But maybe I just haven’t been looking. I can’t get a parking place at the beach. One reason young people are less interested in nature is that their parents don’t let them out of the house. Television media has completely terrorized parents by sensationalizing every horrible child abduction and abuse case. The media is commercializing these sordid tales, selling soap using other people’s misery and their audience’s fear. Certainly these terrible things happen. But they are not happening with any greater statistical frequency than when you and I were growing up. But the effect is that parents are terrified to let their children out of their sight. Even those parents not terrified by the media would today be ostracized if they “neglected” their children by letting them go outdoors to play. A recent study showed that children who have unsupervised wilderness experience grow up to be much more environmentally concerned than those whose wilderness experience is either limited or supervised. So in addition to everything else, we are producing a generation that won’t care about environmental issues as much as we do.

Fiji reef scene on Coral Reef Adventure, 2001

Do you still like southern California life style or do you long for a 4,000-acre ranch in Montana or to live on an island in Maine?»I occasionally fantasize about “going Giddings.” Al has a fabulous ranch hidden away in Montana somewhere. You live in splendor in Maine. Anyway, I’d like either location. But I have to be near the water. I like to dive locally and I surf several times a week. Southern California is great for both. When the crowds eventually threaten our sanity, Michele and I may move northeast. But for now life is still great in Del Mar.

Preparing for shark’s dive on The Deep, Coral Sea, 1976

From Photography to Film

After starting as a still photographer, what led you to film?»Money. Back when I worked at the Diving Locker, owner Chuck Nicklin could often be heard saying, “You can’t make a full-time living as an underwater photographer.” He would sell photos to dive magazines, general interest publications, occasionally National Geographic and it seemed true that this income only represented a nice supplement. But then he’d get these three-week gigs to go off filming something in 16mm making real money. The potential was obvious. So after developing a reputation as a still photographer and photojournalist, I began setting my sights on 16mm assignment work – where the money was. The trick was breaking into the tiny fraternity of underwater cameramen. Chuck provided me with the opportunity. He got me a position as “shark advisor” during the filming of Peter Benchley’s The Deep. “Shark Advisor” was my credit in the film. But I didn’t advise any sharks. I speared fish to attract them. And I did whatever else Al Giddings asked me to do. I earned $125 per day and made a total of $2,500. When I got back to San Diego I commissioned a machinist to build me an underwater 16mm camera fashioned after the old Cousteau torpedo cameras. It took a year to get the camera ready to go in the water. I had almost no money and couldn’t justify just shooting tests in a pool because 16mm film was and is extraordinarily expensive to purchase, develop and print. So, along with my friend Larry Cochrane, I went out and shot three rolls of Blue sharks. That was 1977. The test was successful and I had about 30 minutes of shark footage in the can as a bonus. A few months later I was talking to Stan Waterman on the phone. Stan had been co-director of underwater cinematography on The Deep along with Giddings. He complained that he had been offered a contract to make a film about sharks but couldn’t think of anything new to do. I asked if he had ever seen footage of Blue sharks before. When he said he hadn’t, I offered to send him my three rolls. “Oh, I didn’t know you were a film cameraman,” he said with surprise. “Oh, sure I am,” I said, deciding that this was not technically a complete bald-faced lie. Anyway, the long and short of it is that the footage had some really new and exciting things on it – people hand feeding sharks, which was completely new then. Stan showed the footage to his clients in England and was awarded the contract. He hired me as second camera and never asked about my film experience. The film was shown on prime time and my film career was off and running.

Howard in the Philippines, 1985

Directing and Producing

Doing assignment camera work is one thing, producing and directing your own films is quite another. When did you start making your own films?»The best way to learn an art is to study someone else’s work. If you want to learn underwater film work, just watch television. If you don’t understand a specific technique, write it down and ask someone. But most of the answers are obvious by just watching other films. I used to do that all the time. I would watch animal behavior films made in Africa by Des and Jen Bartlett or by Alan Root and sit on the couch as say.“I could do that underwater.” Or, “Why doesn’t anyone do that underwater?” Or, “I could make great behavioral films underwater.” Blah, blah, blah. Michele finally got sick of it and one evening said, “Well, why don’t you just shut-up and go do it?” So I wrote a one-page letter to the executive producer at PBS Nature suggesting I do a film about the kelp forests of California.

Hard Work and Dedication

I never expected to get a response, but figured that would get Michele off my back. As it turned out, I had recently been underwater cameraman on a very popular episode of Nature called The Coral Triangle. David Heely, then executive producer for Nature, decided I was worth taking a risk. His two-page letter in response to mine said basically, “Ok.” I almost went into shock. I spent two years making the film on a budget of $135,000 excluding post-production costs that I traded out for distribution rights with a company in England. The film, Seasons in the Sea, was the first true underwater animal behavior film. It won a Golden Panda award for best of show at the Wildscreen film festival which is, for natural history film producers, just like winning best picture at the Academy Awards. Winning that was like being given a credit card with no credit limit or obligation to pay the money back. My career went from pushing a load of bricks uphill in a wheel barrel to flying a jet.

You obviously made a brilliant film.»Actually, let me tell you how that works. I came along with the right idea at the right time. I didn’t evaluate business demand and say to myself, “the market is primed for a good underwater behavior film.” I just happened to have a talent for capturing good behavioral stories on film. Just like a frog has a talent for catching flies with its tongue. No genius to it. I didn’t know I would be any good at it until I saw the film’s success. I also had a coincidental passion to make a behavioral film that had nothing whatsoever to do with market demand or timing. I just wanted to do it. It just turned out that I made my film at that single best moment in history when it was most in demand. No one was more amazed by its success than me. I can’t compare myself to Bill Gates, but imagine if Bill were 10 years younger and started his career 10 years later. What do you think he would be doing for a living? Running Microsoft? I suspect he would be just another computer geek writing programs for someone else’s operating system. He came along with the right idea at the right time. Seasons in the Sea was the right film to make at the right time to make it. I was very damn lucky!

Howard swimming into position at Cocos Island of the Sharks 1998

IMAX crew, Fiji, Coral Reef Adventure, 2001

 Team work makes the dream work

Your wife, Michele, has obviously played a huge role in the success of your company. How do you keep work and play separate and who handles what duties in the business?»Well, that “shut up and just do it” comment certainly had something to do with kick-starting my filmmaking career. Actually, our talents and strengths complement each other almost perfectly. I do the creative work and she handles the business operation. She now produces the films we make and I direct them. I select a filming location; she constructs the logistical plan for getting there and handles all the details. I create and oversee the film budgets. She writes the checks and balances the books. I edit the films; she handles the incredibly complicated business of post-production. When we finally get out on the boat to start filming (which is the easiest part of the filmmaking business) I do most of the camera work and Michele shoots most of the production stills. She has now become a more prolific still photographer than I.

Filming top side sequences in French Polynesia,2001

If she wears the pants in the business side of things, how do you look in a dress?»Actually, I am not forced to become that submissive. Well, not often anyway. We almost never question each other’s decisions. We almost never argue. Even I find that incredible when you consider that we produce IMAX films entirely in-house with multi-million dollar budgets and without any additional office help. It’s just Michele and me. Most IMAX films are produced with a staff of 20 or more.

Natural History Business

How has the nature film business changed in the last five years?»As I mentioned earlier, I got started in the natural history film production business at just the right time for an underwater animal behavioralist. If I went fishing with my proposal to do Seasons in the Sea today, no one would be biting. Pure animal behavior films, where you only see the natural wilderness and rarely see humans, are called (in the natural history business) blue chip natural history films.

Michele and Howard, 2005

A few years ago, blue chip fell out of favor. Now, Crocodile Hunter is in. This change in audience demand is probably a result of over-production in blue chip natural history and the proliferation of animal channels. Just over 10 years ago we only had the Nature series and National Geographic specials. Now we have numerous channels dedicated to natural history. I guess people got tired of seeing lions catching zebras and eagles feeding their young. Like any other business, however, I think this one is cyclical. I think blue chip natural history will come back. I hope so because, like the frog and his tongue, I’m not sure I have any talent for doing anything else.

Howard working on Deep Sea 3D, 2005

Shark school at Cocos Island, 1998

HD is more then a fad

We’re familiar with your incredible IMAX work but understand that you are shooting a lot now with the HD format. How do you like this and is it the wave of the future or simply the next fad?»I have about a quarter million dollars invested that says High Definition Video is more than a fad! I’m invested up to my neck. The gear is phenomenally expensive. The camera is about $90,000. If you want a lens that’s another $25,000. How about a battery? $800. And, gee, you want to look at what you shoot? Better get a monitor – $15,000. But don’t worry. It won’t take up much space. It’s only a 14-inch monitor. You want a big monitor? Belly up! How about a tape deck? Don’t even think about it! So yeah, I think HD is more than a fad.

Is that why you recently sold off all your old l6mm library?»Certainly, that is part of the reason. I believe that footage originated on 16mm won’t measure up when HD goes mainstream. Michele and I didn’t want to watch all our magnificent wildlife footage depreciate. So we sold it and are now starting over in a format with much higher resolution. We had also produced Secrets of the Ocean Realm largely from our library footage. Producing our own series was one of our reasons for building the library. Now that was done. We were offered a great price. And frankly, I now really look forward to revisiting all those locations and animals with my new camera. Between film contracts Michele and I will be running trips all over the oceans capturing sequences.

Island of the Sharks got great reviews and everyone who saw it was impressed. Did IMAX do as good a job as you would have liked in promoting it and getting it in as many theaters as possible?»Ah, politics! The answer is no. It was probably a mistake selecting IMAX as a distributor. Especially at that time, a couple years ago. At that time IMAX stock was selling at over $30 and they were riding high on the promise of the IMAX format being accepted as the new Hollywood format for narrative films.

Within a few short years, there were as many commercial IMAX theaters (usually in feature film megaplexes) as there were institutional theaters (like at natural history museums and aquariums). There was talk of major film directors making their next films in IMAX. IMAX preferentially promoted and distributed their Hollywood style films over their educational library. Island of the Sharks was not promoted well by IMAX. Making narrative films is extraordinarily difficult even with mega-budgets. IMAX is a much more expensive production process than the typical Hollywood feature and, yet, to be profitable IMAX films had to be made with a fraction the average Hollywood budget. Making “Hollywood” features in IMAX is like trying to win the Indianapolis 500 with bicycle! I admire IMAX’s ambition, but they came to a gunfight with a pee-shooter. Earlier we were talking about “the right idea at the right time?” Well, I think IMAX simply had the wrong idea at the wrong time. Anyway, the upshot is that Island of the Sharks sat on the distributor’s shelf while IMAX’s feature attempts were promoted. Actually, the film is now beginning to play more widely and perhaps it will emerge as a sleeper. It’s not a perfect film. The writing is poor and the story jumps backwards in some places. But it was reviewed very well and filled theaters where it was shown.

“Money often creates more problems than it solves.”

What happened? I didn’t think the writing was that bad?»It wasn’t good. Still you would think that if you spent five million dollars you would always be able to make a good film. You may wonder why so many Hollywood films are so bad. Well, it’s perfectly clear to me. Money often creates more problems than it solves. When you have a budget of five million, you have lots of people involved in positions of influence. All of them think they are writers and directors. And they have rights of approval. I don’t wonder how Hollywood films (or other IMAX films for that matter) get to be so badly made. I understand that completely. What I don’t understand is how a large budget film ever manages to be good. That’s a miracle and I don’t have a clue how it happens. Few people do.

Capturing aerial sequences over Tahiti for coral Reef Adventure, 2001

Amazing Caves

Tell us about your role in the IMAX Amazing Caves project. Did you enjoy working with Wes Skiles?»That’s a funny story. Greg MacGillivray, producer of Journey Into Amazing Caves, wanted the best underwater crew he could get. He wanted Wes because he was the best at filming in caves. He wanted me because Wes had no experience with IMAX cameras and because I own the best IMAX camera housing for the job. When Wes learned that I was coming along as cameraman, I think he was worried. Maybe horrified is a better word. Because I was already a big-time IMAX director, he figured I might want to run the show. Because I had no experience in caves (hell, I’m not even cave certified), he figured my insisting on running the show would be a very bad idea. I think Wes also felt he needed to prove himself with the camera. He wanted to be “the  cameraman.” Wes and I had never worked together before, so his trepidations were justified. Anyway, I didn’t run the show. I did just what I was told by the underwater director, Mr. Wes Skiles. In the real world of major film production, the director has all the talent, makes all the decisions, composes the image, and outlines all the camera moves. The cameraman pushes the “on” button when the director says, “Roll camera,” and pushes the “off” button when the director says, “Cut.” Get the picture? When you see Amazing Caves, you’re looking at Wes’ work despite the fact that I held the camera.

So, did Wes quickly settle into his role as Director?»It took Wes a few days and I’m not sure he ever was happy not holding the camera. But it did work very well. Wes dove with an AGA mask and the rest of us used Buddy Phones to hear what he was saying. I had an OTS mouth mask I could use when I needed to ask Wes a question or tell him I had screwed up and we needed to do a shot over. But most of the time Wes did all the talking. Sometimes he never stopped. During our 1/5 of a mile swims in and out of the Dos Ojos cave system, he would regal his mute crew with jokes and his philosophy on life. You could take your Buddy Phone off, but then you’d risk putting it back only to find Wes screaming, “Hey stupid, I’m talking to you.” Did Wes ever handle the camera?»Yeah, and that was a major point of irritation to me. After years of experience handling the IMAX system, I knew that it took a practiced talent to do good work with it. Then Wes insisted on doing a couple shots where there simply wasn’t room for both of us in the hole. Instead of botching the shots or being overwhelmed by the camera, he did the shots gracefully and perfectly the first time, completely validating his premise that my presence on the project was entirely unnecessary.

MacGillivray Freeman’s Coral Reef Adventure

Is he really a relative of that guy from Deliverance or does he just sound that way?»Wes carries around a set of artificial teeth that he inserts when addressing his crew during less serious moments. The teeth and his associated manifestations make him seem like someone deprived of oxygen at birth and raised by the guy from Deliverance. It’s both funny and terrifying. Without the teeth, he becomes a completely normal guy – for a backwoods hick from the Florida swamp.

So, how did you like cave diving?»Actually, I had no appetite for cave diving whatsoever until I saw a television film Wes had made showing how beautiful some of these caves are. If I hadn’t seen that show, I might not have taken the job when Greg offered it to me. Anyway, I found cave diving disorienting at first, but then I began to become accustomed to the protocols and then it started to be fun. During my first day I began a cave dive class with Dan Lin. We never finished and I never got certified. Wes decided we all had more pressing obligations than teaching me enough to know what I was doing. While taking the class, I watched Dan put a line arrow on backwards. That scared the hell out of me. He caught the mistake a moment later, but I can see how easily cave diving can get spooky. After a few days, I was doing the long swims in and out of the cave unsupervised. I really enjoyed it.

And do you think cave divers are crazy?

»Of course, they’re completely nuts. But they’re not stupid. In that element, they are superior divers. In the ocean I almost never see someone with better buoyancy control than me. In Dos Ojos, all of the divers had better buoyancy control than me. Tell us about your most recent project that took you across the Pacific including Fiji?»The film will be called Coral Reef Adventure. It’s another IMAX film and is produced by MacGillivray Freeman films, producer of Amazing Caves. Michele and my roles in this film are a bit unusual for us. I directed the underwater sequences and Michele was the line producer. We will also appear in the film. In fact, the film is largely about us and how we make underwater IMAX films. Greg MacGillivray is the director and has the unenviable task of trying to make us look good on film. Despite the questionable on-camera talent, I think it’s going to be a great film.

Yes, but will it be an “adventure?”»You know, “adventure” might be defined as an exquisite balance between the passion for exploring the unknown and the fear of it. In fact, this film was more an adventure than most of the films we’ve made. We wanted to justify the Coral Reef Adventure title by legitimately pushing our personal limitations and the limits of underwater film production. We did both. We pushed the envelope way out there. For example?»A lot of our filming was done with air diluent below 200 feet. And we went deeper than that. Below 250 feet we went to trimix. And believe me, shooting IMAX below 300 feet is really out there. What were you filming down there?»We did one sequence on Gray Reef sharks at the mouth of the Rangiroa pass. Those were all air dives to between 200 and 250. But our deepest dives were in Fiji filming Richard Pyle capturing undiscovered species of fish in what he’s calls “the twilight zone.”

Dr. Richard Pyle with collected specimens, 2001

Richard Pyle

Richard Pyle is the ichthyologist who dives a Cis- Lunar rebreather?»Right. Richard’s logged over 50 dives deeper than 350 feet where he has discovered numerous new species. With us, he logged a few more. On one of his dives he descended below 400 feet.

Dr. Richard Pyle with collected specimens, 2001

Did you follow him down to 400 feet?»No. I made several dives below 350 and my deepest was just over 370 feet. But keep in mind these were not simple technical dives (if trimix dives can ever be simple). Not only were we carrying trimix rebreathers and emergency bailout gas, but we were also carrying not one but two IMAX camera systems! One IMAX camera weighed over 100 pounds and the other was over 250 pounds. We also were equipped with special experimental OTS underwater communications, underwater lights, and all of Richard’s capture gear. As you know, over-exertion can be a serious problem doing deep trimix dives. Well, try swimming around with a 250-lb. camera system and a few bailout tanks along with an 80-lb. rebreather! Try it in a current!

The Cameras Even Felt the Pressure

Who were the other divers?»I carried the larger IMAX camera with Mark Thurlow assisting. Bob Cranston carried the second camera with Dave Forsythe. And, of course, Richard was in front of the cameras. That makes five. I didn’t know your IMAX housing could go that deep.»Well, it can’t! In fact, the other housing, the 100-lb. system, was housed in a 1/16-inch thick aluminum splash housing. Both would have crushed like paper cups if we took them below 200 feet. The splash housing was only rated to 10 feet!

You did take them down, didn’t you?»Yeah, but we modified them first. We attached air tanks to the housings and pressurized them during descent. That’s how we shot IMAX at 350 feet using a splash housing. The camera was always at ambient pressure. Well, that seems like a simple enough solution. It seems to have worked?»Not without problems. These cameras were not designed to work surrounded by gas at more than 10 atmospheres. That’s pretty thick stuff. The smaller camera nearly always jammed below 300 feet. It just couldn’t move the film through gas that dense. The larger camera failed to run 50 percent of the time, but the problem was electrical. We spent months trying to figure it out. The camera would simply not ramp up to speed when at depth. But would then run fine as we ascended to shallower water. After 21 trimix dives, we finally solved the problem before our last deep dive of the project. It turned out to be a small cork clutch that was compressing and causing the electrical switch failures. Ironically, on this last deep dive with the problem solved, the camera jammed anyway for an entirely unrelated reason.

That must have been massively frustrating?»Yes, but it was also great fun making the dives. Still, dedicating an entire day and obligating a crew of five deep divers to four hours of decompression only to have both cameras jam as soon as they were switched on did cause some jaw clenching. Fortunately, for each dive the camera jammed, we made a dive where it ran flawlessly. We did get the footage we needed to make a great sequence. Certainly, that is the deepest divers have ever used IMAX cameras. Did Richard catch any new species?»Actually, he did.

Yosy Naamen and Howard launch IMAX camera from Undersea Hunter, 2001

He caught a beautiful new species of wrasse about six inches long. It was pink and yellow. And when he caught it the camera was running and it didn’t jam. It makes a great sequence. How did you like diving in the “twilight zone?”»I loved it. Funny, earlier we were talking about the lack of places to explore for young people. Well, below 200 feet almost every reef is unexplored. The potential is spectacular. And it is different down there. You see animals you’ve never seen before and many are undescribed. No one has ever seen them before.

What was the most exciting thing you saw on a deep dive?»Well, there were two spectacular encounters. We saw a Thresher shark swim by 20 feet away at about 300 feet. The camera jammed on that one, for sure. And on one dive we saw an enormous school of Hammerheads – more than 200 sharks. As far as I know, schooling Hammerheads were not known to occur in Fiji. Well, they do below 300 feet! I was out of film for that one.

Undersea Hunter

You chartered the Undersea Hunter, your support vessel from the Cocos film project. How did you convince Avi Klapfer to send it half way around the world and back?»Money. No, actually, Avi loves this kind of challenge. Given the choice, he would use the Undersea Hunter full-time for film production all around the world. Unfortunately, these mega-budget underwater documentaries are few and far between. I’ve been fortunate to be able to bring two to Avi. But it could be a long time before there is another project that can justify such expense. I’d love to do it again and will keep my eyes open for any opportunity. Working with Avi and the Undersea Hunter has been a superb experience. The boat is extremely well run and well maintained. Avi is also quick to make major modifications in order to accommodate IMAX equipment and even the ultralight aircraft we used for shooting aerials.

Why not charter locally in each region?»Well, we did that too. We also used the Nai’a in Fiji. Rob Barrel and Cat Holloway were our guides and the Nai’a supported some of our crew on one of the expeditions. Nai’a is a beautiful vessel and a more comfortable boat than Undersea Hunter. But it is not configured well for IMAX production. Launching, recovering, and maintaining the IMAX system and all the other IMAX gear would have been difficult on Nai’a.

Howard films reef scene for Coral Reef Adventure, 2001

Ouch! That’s a loaded question. Personally, I think it’s stupid and tragic. Professionally, as an underwater filmmaker, it’s great for business. Certainly there have been a few spectacular attacks this year. Due to those unique cases, however, every shark encounter is now major news. The number of shark bites in Florida was Howard films reef scene for Coral Reef Adventure, 2001 no greater this year than last. But this year, get bit by a halibut on your big toe and you’re on prime-time news! It’s good for underwater photographers, but it’s bad for the dive business and it’s bad for sharks. And don’t you think there’s something fishy about the story of the little boy who tragically lost his arm to a Bull shark in Florida? Do you know any human being powerful enough to wrestle a healthy sevenfoot Bull shark to shore barehanded? I don’t. I sure couldn’t do it. I suspect there is more to that story than we are being told.

The Success of Shark Week

Has the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week series degenerated into a freak show of bad science in pursuit of a reality show audience?»No, definitely not. It has always been a freak show of bad science in pursuit of a reality show audience! This is largely due to the poor budgets most of the film producers have to work with. But Discovery doesn’t always limit their production to low budget programming. Occasionally, there are some real gems on Discovery’s Shark Week. The high-budget shows made by talented professionals can be really well done. I watched several of the Shark Week shows and thought they were excellent. Unfortunately, you never know which you’re going to see when you tune in. More unfortunately, the audience may not always be able to tell the difference. What is your dream film project?»A dream project? Well, I’d like to get a film contract to make 10 high definition films in the locations of my choice… California, Cocos, British Columbia, the Tropical Pacific. The budgets would be enormous allowing me to bring all my friends along on only the best boats. The contract would specify that I own all the footage rights for my library. I would have 10 years to do the work and would not be obligated to deliver anything worth a damn. What person or persons have been your greatest influence?»As an underwater cameraman, two individuals stand out. Stan Waterman and Jack McKenney. Stan taught me a lot about the business and professional attitude. Jack was the best technician I’ve ever seen. I fashioned my photographic style much after Jack’s work. As a filmmaker, Des and Jen Bartlett, Alan Root, and Hugo van Lawick taught me much about capturing animal behavior sequences on film and making that into a compelling story.

You’ve been doing this a long time, what advice can you impart to the next generation of aspiring underwater filmmakers?»The best advice I can give may be not to take any advice too seriously. Natural history filmmaking is a passion. The odds of being successful at breaking in are enormously against you. Still, if the passion is overwhelming, the odds don’t matter. Go with your heart and enjoy the process. It’s the process that really matters. The true reward is finding justification for being out in the wilderness appreciating beauty purely for the sake of beauty itself, not in seeing your pictures in print or on television or in cashing a check.