When image-makers collide
When three of the worlds great underwater photographers and cinematographers first ran into one another, the picture shifted for each of them. Brendan O'Brien talks to them
If the paths of Howard Hall, David Doubilet and Stanton Waterman had never crossed, their stellar careers in underwater film-making and photography might have taken very different courses. I have been talking to the three celebrated American lensmen to find out how their successes came about and, what up-and-coming image-makers might learn from their experiences.
Hall the hunter
Howard Hall was a zoology student when he got a job as a support diver at Chuck Nicklins Diving Locker in San Diego, California. He had plans to do a PhD in marine biology but knew it wouldnt interest him for long, so started to look for other ways to make a living in the marine environment.
Chuck was achieving success as an underwater photographer and I was an avid spearfisherman, he told me. I soon realised that taking photos was about the same thing, except that I didnt have to kill anything. I kinda liked the idea of hunting with a camera. Diving is just a way of getting you under water. You can only swim around and look at stuff for so long - still photography gave me the challenge I needed.
When Nicklin became a cameraman on the movie The Deep, he was asked if he could bring someone along who could attract sharks. That person was Hall. Stan Waterman was co-director for the underwater footage with Al Giddings, he says. Despite being in awe of Stan, we soon became friends.
Hall set about building a 16mm underwater camera. It took a year and used up all the money from The Deep. I could only afford to buy three rolls of film, and couldnt bring myself to test it in a swimming pool, so I shot the tests with blue sharks in a cage.
Soon afterwards Waterman told Hall he was after a contract with Survival to do a film on sharks. I asked him if hed ever filmed blue sharks - he told me he hadnt.
Opportunity knocked. I told him I had film of blue sharks. He said he didnt know I was a cameraman, and I remember replying confidently:Oh, indeed I am! On the strength of that film Stan got the Survival contract. We spent three weeks in California filming blue and mako sharks and he hired me as a second cameraman.
Kinda funny, really - it wasnt until years later that I told him the footage was from the only three rolls Id ever shot. He couldnt believe it!
Hall continued to shoot film for other people, mostly for the Wild Kingdom series. We just sat around dreaming up these great expeditions, and Wild Kingdom would just say:Go for it! We were the first to film the Socorro islands, grey whales in Mexico, all sorts of stuff. It was great, always better than working for a living!
In 1988 he produced, directed and filmed the award-winning Seasons in the Sea, the first film over which he had total control. Most of the films in the80s had been what I callshow and tell. They would show some footage of a manatee and tell you about their mating, feeding and social behaviour, but you never saw that behaviour.
I remember watching wildlife films and seeing things like a gazelle being taken down by a lion. I kept asking myself: Why doesnt anyone do that under water I knew the answer - it was too hard! Eventually his wife Michele stepped in. She just told me to get off my ass and do it!
Hall became famous in the films that followed for his ability to capture unusual behaviour under water. Its all about being prepared, he says. For example, we wanted to get footage of mantis shrimps, which are elusive and very hard to film. So we took advantage of what other people knew.
A professor at Catalina island in California had, it turned out, done all the necessary research.
The other way is to spend hours under water looking for one thing and being able to take advantage of any situation should it arise. Early in my career I was off La Jolla cove in San Diego, teaching some students, when a grey whale came past us six times, in viz of about 30m. No one had ever photographed one before and I had an extension tube on my camera! The opportunity was there but I wasnt prepared.
Years later I was trying to film sarcastic fringeheads courting. Id spent hours under water and hadnt found any. This was really depressing, as the boat was costing me $3000 a day. Then one of the support boats found a grey whale doing some unusual stuff in some kelp. This time I was prepared.
We were using underwater communication systems so we could be recalled. For the next four hours we got an amazing sequence that could have taken 10 days for us to get any other time.
Was that mere luck Luck is about the meeting of opportunity with preparation. We never talk about the times when it doesnt work out - they just never happened!
In 1996 Hall was asked to direct the worlds first 3D IMAX film. I thought one of my buddies was playing a joke - the idea seemed ludicrous. The 3D IMAX camera is usually carried on the back of a truck, its that large. Then I was told that IMAX had spent $3m on a miniature - only 350lb and the size of a large refrigerator. Eventually I accepted the contract.
But the project was fraught with problems. We had to make a special housing for the camera, and an underwater tripod. When we got it in the water for the first five days, the film kept breaking.
Eventually we got it working, but the system was so complicated we had to go for shots we knew we could get.
Hall took the team to locations where he was familiar with the animals. It took nine weeks to make, but Into the Deep was an instant hit all over the world. Since then Halls production team has made another multi-million dollar IMAX film about the sharks of Cocos island.
What keeps Hall so enthusiastic Its simple - the diving. We still get to go to great places. We get a boat to ourselves and lots of time in one place. Its the films that allow me to do this.
The diving isnt really work, I look on it as a vacation. Out of the water is where the work is. Preparation, post-production - all of this can be tedious and boring.
What advice would he offer for wannabe Howard Halls Boy, thats a tough oneÃ‰ the media industry is constantly changing. I guess Id go for digital video - it can produce excellent images.
Start by shooting wildlife behaviour stuff. It might take five years of work, but if you capture some aspect of an animal or location that is unusual and interesting, youll have a chance. Look closely at wildlife documentaries. Copy their ideas and the format they use. Try to apply this to subjects youre familiar with.
And advice for stills photographers Im still amazed at the insatiable demand for images. Dont try to compete with the likes of David Doubilet, go and shoot something he hasnt done.
Try to sell the images to magazines on a personal basis with articles to go with them. If its unusual and a professional job, some magazine will buy it.
Is it really that simple OK, the hard part isnt diving, its when you get to the office, the phone calls, the letter-writing, the cataloguing, the personal visits - the rejections!
Howard Hall found out what worked for him years ago, yet still manages to find new ways of working. When I met David Doubilet I asked him to pinpoint the difference between their approaches.
He started laughing: If I were to fall on my knees and pray fiercely that Howard doesnt want to be a still photographer, I imagine he falls down on his knees and prays I dont want to become a cinematographer! Howards still photography is brilliant, but his films are the best in the world - its very simple.
How did Doubilets accolade-studded career begin I was snorkelling when I was 10 and took my first picture when I was 12, with a camera in a rubber bag. It was just some fish and stuff off New Jersey. I knew that this was what I wanted to do - work in the sea and take pictures. I have never really had another job, just things in the diving world to support my photography.
My dream was to work for National Geographic, and in 1971 I got my first story, about garden eels in the Red Sea. His stunning work for the magazine and his books inspired photographers all over the world. What Howard does is to reveal something fabulous - a vista, perhaps. He also deals in time, whereas I deal in a single picture. I have to create a picture that alludes to movement.
Under water were dealing with fish, and frankly fish dont have much depth of personality. You have to figure out how to give that picture a personality. You can achieve this by unusual lighting and by trying to capture the intimacy that youd have when you photograph a person.
The direction Im going in now is to get the hardest single picture in the world, the one that has all qualities within it: extraordinary behaviour; the captured moment; colour and composition. I want to capture that and put myself in it; it will be my personal vision.
I wonder how Doubilets work will be seen by others in 50 years time. Does he see himself as an archivist for the oceans Fifty years! Its even more frightening than that. In 1978 I did a story on bluefin tuna in Nova Scotia. At that time the Canadians didnt even eat this fish. It was used for fertiliser.
Then they discovered the Japanese market. Now, there are no bluefin tuna left in this area. Theyve been wiped out.
Weve been so worried about pollution that weve missed whats really important: GPS, sounders. Weve got so good at fishing that were wiping out whole populations.
Why dont Doubilets photographs reflect his clearly strong feelings about ecology They do! Environmental messages are difficult to include without banging people on the head - it just turns people off. You just cant do pictures of pollution and sewage, but you can do a reef system in all its glory and say:This is what we have to protect.
Howard does the same thing. This is why nature photographers have probably been the most effective environmentalists. We illustrate whats there to protect. The sea is the last place humans hunt, the last place weve really discovered.
Weve been going on about lots of easy solutions - all these bleeding-heart reef greenies!Dont touch the coral, itll die, they say, and then they order the swordfish!Dont touch the coral isnt the solution. I say, look at the coral. Take people to look at the coral.
In fact, take a million snorkellors to look at the coral - the more the merrier! The more people kicking over the coral the better. Theyll bring in the tourist dollars and theyll say to the villagers, leave this area alone, let it grow. Let us pay to come and see it. Thats what will protect the environment.
Doubilet has a final environmental message: Howard and I always say: If you want to save the seas, eat a hamburger. Dont eat the fish, have a little mad cow on toast!
Stanton Waterman brought the shark world to our TV screens with his pioneering work. He was one of the first to film pelagic sharks outside of a cage, for the 1968 documentary, Blue Water, White Death, which he says was one of the most frightening moments in his life. And he has continued to produce and film documentaries about the underwater world. The Discovery Channel even made a two-hour special on his life called The Man Who Loves Sharks.
Waterman has received numerous awards and honours, including five Emmys. Now in his 70s, he still cant resist the lure of the ocean, which is about the only place you can pin him down long enough for an interview. I caught up with him on a live-aboard off Hawaii.
Does he mind being called the man who loves sharks Actually, its all my doing. I was asked to provide suggestions for the documentarys title, and I added it to my list as a joke. Much to my horror, they loved that title!
A more serious suggestion had been The Road Less Travelled. Is that how Waterman sees his life I like to think so. It all started with rockpools and my imagination running wild. In 1936 I used a Japanese Ama divers mask in Florida, and that really opened my eyes to what was under the surface.
After graduating in English, Waterman became a blueberry farmer, but still dreamt of diving. With the introduction of Jacques Cousteaus aqualung he found the way. I bought the first aqualung in Maine and went on to pioneer scuba-diving in the state.
And it was after reading an article by Cousteau that he was inspired to build a boat and take it to the Bahamas, where he set up one of the first diving operations in the islands. If he hadnt taken this risk I guess Id still be picking blueberries for a living!
Waterman started to capture his experiences on 16mm film and in 1965 took another bold step - taking his wife and children to Tahiti for a year-long ocean adventure. He sold the film of their exploits to National Geographic, and following his initial success con-tinued to film his adventures all over the world.
Then he saw Peter Benchley, author of The Deep and Jaws, in Time magazine, standing by a picture of a white shark. I wrote to him, as I was the man who knew all about white sharks. We met and became good friends.
He introduced me to Steven Spielberg. I was so fascinated by him that I kept getting his name wrong - Harry, Henry, Tom! He must have forgiven me, because we soon met again!
He wanted to know what it sounded like when a great white shark bites into something. I told him it sounded like a baseball hitting a water melon. Maybe he used that in his film - I dont know.
The meeting with Benchley led him to meet Howard Hall on the set of The Deep. Howard told me about his bunch of friends doing crazy things with blue sharks in California. After seeing what he had, I even sent him a cheque as an advance!
I remember meeting up with Howard and Marty Snyderman. They were in awe of me and I got a bit carried away with it all. So much so that I forgot to put my tank on. As I was about to get into the water, Marty was nudging Howard, asking him if I knew something they didnt. It was Howard who whispered to me that something was missing!
For all Watermans successes, he seems happy to talk about when things go wrong. I remember going to Vancouver to do a film called The Jaws of Death, all about orcas. We were completely unsuccessful, and ended up using a rather sorry-looking orca from an aquarium.
To liven it up we went looking for the Pacific giant octopus. We did eventually find one of these rather fierce-looking creatures, but when we tried to flush it from its hole one tentacle crept out, then the rest of it sped out like a giant claw. It knocked me flying and swam off. Of course, I got no shot at all!
He and Peter Benchley returned to Vancouver to film a documentary called The Beast. Once again we couldnt find what we were looking for, so we ended up borrowing two 50lb octopus from the aquarium. It all went horrible when we couldnt work out the controls on our drysuits properly. We ended up bobbing on the surface looking like Michelin men, after shooting up like Polaris missiles.
I had an idea that Waterman had played a part in David Doubilets life too, and asked when their paths had crossed. I went to do a talk at my old boarding school about what I was doing. This student whod done all the photographs for the yearbook stood up and asked me:How do you get into this business anyway
That was David. Once hed graduated from Boston University, where he majored in photography, I took him with me to the Red Sea with Dr Eugenie Clark. The story and the stills he produced about the trip were so good that National Geographic published it. Hes never looked back. Hes had so many stories and cover shots published in that magazine. His work is amazing.
What is Stan Watermans advice for budding film-makers He shows me his Sony digital camera and housing made by Light and Motion Industries - its tiny, even with the dual lights. This is the future, he explains. With its macro and super macro lens you can get really close to the small stuff.
So what happened to the man who loved big marine creatures Ive filmed so much big stuff - now I just want to concentrate on the small things. My tip would be to find out from the divemaster whats down there and where. Then go after the target.
Get as much footage as possible, take it to film festivals, but dont think about amy week in Cozumel approach. Find a theme: small invertebrates, unusual marine life, that sort of thing.
During the week I see Waterman filming all kinds of marine invertebrates. At one point a shark swims past and he ignores it. Im sorry to seem blasÅ½, but Ive got so much footage of sharks. Hes a man with a new mission.
One afternoon, towards the end of a dive in a shallow and fairly uninteresting spot, I see a monster nudibranch. Having heard Waterman go on all week about nudibranchs, I catch him as hes taking his gear off. His face lights up, and he insists that I take him to the site, where he spends ten minutes filming it.
Hes so excited that he gets back on the boat to change the port on his camera and goes back for more. That night he replays his footage and announces that it was perhaps the best dive of the trip.
A few days later we find 15 turtles resting on a pinnacle at a cleaning station. Waterman spends a few minutes filming their unusual behaviour, then spies a nudibranch on a rock in the middle of the pinnacle. He spends the rest of the dive filming it. Back on the boat the talk is of turtles until he exclaims: Yes, but did you see that nudibranch
Stan Waterman continues to run expeditions to far-flung places. His life is a continuation of the adventure that he started in his youth. Like Howard Hall and David Doubilet, he continues to touch the lives of all who come into contact with him. His fascination with the underwater world is constant - except that now he is The Man Who Loves Nudibranchs!