(In 2006, I had the opportunity to chat with legendary underwater film-makers, Howard and Michelle Hall. The following interview was first published in April of that year. )
For filmmaker, Howard Hall, diving and photographing the undersea world has been a lifelong passion. While his writing and photographs have been published internationally in hundreds of books and magazines, he is best known for his underwater cinematographic work.
Working together with wife Michelle in producing, directing and filming many award-winning underwater wildlife documentaries for television, (the pair have won seven Emmy Awards) Howard Hall was invited by the co-founder of IMAX to share his superlative skills and knowledge and take on the technical challenges of making the first-ever IMAX undersea motion picture, the 1994 IMAX 3-D title, ‘Into The Deep’.
Designing and building underwater housings and lighting systems made specifically for the IMAX giant screen format, Howard and Michelle Hall have subsequently produced and directed several IMAX underwater films, with Howard working as an cinematographer on several more, including the ‘Living Sea’ and ‘Journey Into Amazing Caves’.
Produced and Directed by Howard and Michelle Hal, with narration by Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, the prolific filmmaking duo’s latest IMAX film, ‘Deep Sea 3D’ – that opened in Melbourne on April 6th (2006) – is a spectacular underwater journey of discovery filmed in nine different locations and featuring creatures that have seldom been seen before.
While they were resting between projects, I recently had the opportunity to talk with Howard and Michelle Hall about their work.
Q. When did you first take up diving and Photography?
I got certified as a scuba diver in Los Angles in 1966. That was when I was sixteen years old. Before that I had done some snorkelling, but at the time you couldn’t get certified until you were sixteen.
Later, in 1973, I began with underwater stills photography and then began shooting motion picture work in 1977.
Q. Who were the people who exercised the greatest influence in your choice of career as an U/W photographer and filmmaker?
Certainly Stan Waterman would be one, as well as Jack McKenney and Ron and Valerie Taylor. Those people were the most influential figures for me.
Q. You and Michelle have an outstanding number of award winning documentary films to your credit. Is there a particular film – or films – that you are proudest of?
Our first television film was ‘Seasons Of The Sea’, in 1990. That was the film that really kicked off our career, and in the television world that would probably be my favourite because it was the first – and most successful – of its kind.
As far as IMAX films are concerned, it’s hard to say! I think Deep Sea 3D would probably be my favourite, largely because it’s the most recent and in many ways the most contemporary work.
Coral Reef Adventure, which we made in 2000, would be second.
Q. What are the technical difficulties of filming IMAX underwater in 3D?
The biggest problem is that the IMAX 3D camera is enormous. Together with the underwater housing the whole system weighs 1,300 pounds, so it’s a massive machine to work with. And because it’s so big, one diver really can’t handle it by himself. That really complicates the diving operations tremendously because people cannot lift it, it has to be lifted by crane or some kind of a davit system; you cannot work in any kind of current or ocean surge, and the size of it makes it extremely difficult to get close to animals, so it’s a very cumbersome and difficult format to work with.
In addition to that, the 3D format has idiosyncrasies that are specific to 3D. You have additional factors other than the things like focus and exposure that you have to contend with in normal filmmaking. You have to worry about things like proximity and convergence and a variety of technical details that you can’t see easily until you’re back in an IMAX theatre.
Q. That must make completion of 3D IMAX movie a lot longer than a conventional film?
Theoretically, it does. We spend a lot of time underwater making these films and it certainly requires more people and larger boats. The thing about doing wild-life work is that you’ll use whatever amount of time you’re afforded. The longer the time, the better the film’s going to be.
If I’m given a hundred-days to do a film or video, I’ll spend all of it trying to get the best film that I can, and if I get a hundred days to do an IMAX film, then the same thing applies.
Q. Making the transition from more conventional U/W film-making to IMAX must have been quite a challenge. What was the attraction of the IMAX format?
It was the challenge of working with the massive gear. The diving operations aren’t terribly complicated when you’re working in television and handling a camera that one diver can swim around with and easily operate.
With IMAX 3D, the diving operations are extremely complicated and require a crew of twelve or more people. I like the technical challenges of making that work. It’s a lot of fun.
Q. Juggling the demands of technical diving with filming in the IMAX format is obviously not an easy task. What – if any – difficulties did you first encounter when filming in the IMAX format?
Well, the biggest thing is just the task loading. Most of our dives are longer than two-hours duration. Almost all of our diving is done with mixed gas using closed circuit rebreathers, so we’re not only obligated to watch our life support systems very carefully but we’re also managing all of the camera gear too, so there’s an awful lot to do.
When you’re underwater you’re heavily task loaded with managing your diving systems, managing the environment that you’re in, and managing all of the complicated camera gear. Sometimes it’s hard to remember to make sure that you cover every step, both with the camera and with your diving gear.
Q. What sort of depths do you operate in when making IMAX movies?
With the making of Deep Sea 3D, the deepest that we worked was a 120 feet. We did a series of dives off North Carolina where we were at 120 feet for two-hours at a time with an additional two-and-a-half hours spent decompressing on ascent. Those were our deepest and longest dives during the making of that film .
When we did Coral Reef Adventure we made dives in excess of 370 feet. That was really almost overwhelming considering the amount of stuff that we had to get done in a short period of time. The dives were only 30-minutes long followed by three-and-a-half hours of decompression. Normally it takes us about two hours to shoot a roll of film on a dive and we had to get it done in 30-minutes on our deep dives.
Q. When filming Deep Sea 3D, how did you decide which creatures you wanted to film?
Mostly we were looking for interactions between species. I chose animals that I thought would be interesting characters; animals that hadn’t been seen by people – at least not very much – animals that were unusual and a bit weird, and animals that would tolerate the activity of filming them with this massive camera. Some animals are, predictably, going to swim away from all the gear. But some animals, having worked with them before, I knew would tolerate the bulky gear and lights.
Q. Having filmed so many marine creatures over the years, are there any that you regard as particular favourites?
Yes, and several of them are in the film. I really love Wolf Eels, they’re just amazing characters and have fascinating behaviour. I really enjoy those. And I really enjoy filming sharks. That’s always interesting. The sand tiger sharks of North Carolina are spectacular. Manta Rays are one of Michelle’s favourites. In Deep Sea 3D we have at least three of my favourite animals.
My favourite sequence in the film is the one on the Mantis Shrimp. It’s a fascinating animal with fascinating behaviour and its morphology is just indescribable. It’s a strange, strange animal.
Q. I understand that during the filming of Deep Sea 3D you had a close encounter with a Tiger shark in the Bahamas. What happened?
Most of the encounters with the tiger sharks weren’t really scary although they’re certainly one of the animals with the potential to hurt you pretty badly. The only misadventure that we had was when I was descending on the reef. We knew that there was a tiger shark down there as we had been filming them for several days, but on the way down I became distracted while setting up my light meter. (You really shouldn’t look away from where the sharks are when you’re descending. The sharks tend to approach you when you’re high in the water column.)
The next thing I knew, I had this tiger shark right up against me and there’s nothing I could have done about it, he was within a few inches of my shoulder when I first noticed him and that was pretty disquieting.
Q. I suppose the IMAX camera is a bit too hefty to use as a defensive weapon?
The Imax camera was down on the bottom waiting for me. Although it’s so big that the sharks would have to eat an awful lot of aluminium to get to you.
Q. What were your most memorable moments during the filming of Deep Sea 3D?
We did a sequence with the Humboldt Squid that was pretty exciting. We were working in the open ocean in the middle of night at a spot where it was too deep to anchor, so we were just adrift in the open ocean. That was pretty exciting, just having the camera and being suspended over dark water while working from a drifting boat.
The squid would come up, but because they don’t like lights it was difficult to get shots of them on camera because they tended to shy away. But behind the camera, where it was darker, the squid were just going nuts. We had safety divers behind us beating them off with sticks and a couple of us actually had the squid grab onto us. They have hooks on their sucker disks so when they grab on they tend to dig in a little bit and draw blood.
Both of us got nipped here and there. Michelle had one grab her by the head and nip her forehead – those were pretty exciting dives.
Q. How did you feel about that, Michelle?
It was great! I wanted to go back and do it some more.
Q. Michelle, because you and Howard spend so much time underwater in the course of your work, do you ever get to dive purely for pleasure?
When we’re in production – typically between expeditions – we don’t have much time to get out because there’s so much office work to be done. When we’re in production we’ll go out into the field – that’s anywhere between two to four weeks – then come home, deal with office work and get ready for the next field trip.
But between projects, certainly we do and we have a variety of diving expeditions for fun scheduled for this summer and fall. We’ll just go out with friends and shoot with our high-def camera for our stock-footage library.
Q. Howard, what type of diving do you do?
I’ll use my rebreather when we’re out working. When we’re doing our pleasure diving we’re still doing animal wild-life work. That’s the fun part of the job for us. Whether we’re working on an IMAX film or whether we’re shooting for ourselves, when we’re on the boat and actually doing the diving, that’s fun – working or not.
If we’re just gathering stock footage, very often we’ll be using rebreathers and it’ll be full-on technical diving. Sometimes we don’t get as much of it in as we’d like when we’re between projects, but I’ll probably get 75 to 100 days of diving in the next eighteen months.
Q. What rebreather do you use?
We have a system made by Bio-Marine based on the US Military. It’s a hybrid between the Mk15 and the Mk 16 called the Mk 15.5
It’s a very good rebreather, although we’ve had to replace and re-design all of the electronic systems. But now that we’ve done that it’s a fantastic system.
Q. Have you any more IMAX films in the pipeline?
There’s nothing for sure. We have a series of ideas that we would like to pursue. One of the things that we’d like is to do some filming in Australia in IMAX 3D. So we’re going to propose a film in Australia and the Indonesia area next, and if that happens it’ll be great, although it’ll probably be a year or two away. But I hope that our paths cross sometime in the next couple of years.