Interview with Underwater Filmmaker Howard Hall

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I had the good fortune of catching up with Howard Hall, legendary Underwater Filmmaker. Mr. Hall keeps a relatively low profile, given his venerable track record of filming the marine world dating as far back as the late ’70s.  In all likelihood you have already seen one of his films on television or at the IMAX theatre. Some of the more well-known films he’s made are: Under the Sea 3D (2009), Deep Sea 3D (2006), Coral Reef Adventure (2003) and Island of the Sharks (1999).

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I was born in West Virginia but my family migrated to California when I was six. I went to high school in the Los Angeles area where I joined the swim team. I made the California State Championships and finished dead last.

How did you get into diving?

I learned to dive when I was sixteen (1966) and got a job in a dive shop when I was seventeen. Later, I went to San Diego State University and earned a degree in Zoology. I paid for my education by teaching diving in the San Diego area. After graduating I continued to teach diving in the San Diego area as my photography career developed. Michele and I now have a home in Del Mar just north of San Diego.

How did you get into producing underwater films, was there a specific event, dive or trip that inspired you to do so?

During my college years I worked as a diving instructor at the Diving Locker in San Diego. Chuck Nicklin was the owner. He was a successful underwater cameraman and a very inspirational figure. Through Chuck I landed a job as a shark wrangler during the making of the Peter Benchley movie, The Deep. There I met most of my underwater heroes including Stan Waterman, Jack McKenney, and Al Giddings.

What does ‘Shark Wrangling’ involve, exactly?

My job was to distribute bait and shoot fish to attract the sharks into the scenes. We did this in the Coral Sea with stunt doubles for the actors.

Moving on to the films you make- what is the process of selecting locations for upcoming projects, is there a complex or simple way you decide where to take the cameras and crew next?

Several factors go into these decisions. First is access to excellent logistical support. We’ve made several films at Cocos Island largely because the Undersea Hunter Group provides such excellent support. I also look for locations where numerous animal behavior sequences can be captured within a single area. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I chose locations where the diving should be fun and exciting.

Do you have a core team that you always work with, or does the team vary based on the project?

My team varies a bit. Bob Cranston, Mark Thurlow, Peter Kragh, and Dave Forsyth have all been with me on numerous films. As their own careers blossom, their availability becomes an issue and I sometimes have to replace them with new blood. Bob has been with me on almost every film I’ve made, but during Under the Sea 3D I had to replace him with Peter Kragh because Bob had a more attractive opportunity. And, of course, Michele [Howard’s wife] is the glue that holds our productions together. She implements all my logistical planning.

Ocean Requiem – © Howard Hall Productions, shot with HDCAM/Sony 900 camera. Music is by Alan Williams.

Please describe the process of making and distributing your films from an order of operations. That is, do you decide on a particular “theme” or script and secure funding and support of it ahead of time – or do you obtain footage from various expeditions and then later decide how best to package and distribute, who to partner with, etc?

The process begins with a location or a general theme like “Cocos Island” or “Whales.” Making location films is far simpler because most of the challenges in making marine wildlife films are logistical. A single location dramatically simplifies that and minimizes logistical costs. If the film is a theme-based film rather than a location-based film, my next step is to select locations where I can capture key sequences. Once these locations have been selected I carefully research all other relevant sequence ideas that may be captured in those locations. I never go to a location with only one sequence on my list. We usually do between three and five expeditions lasting between two and four weeks each for each film.

Once the locations and major sequences are selected, I write a very detailed shooting script. I even write the narration. The script should read like a short story or a book. If it doesn’t work on paper, it won’t work as a film. From the script I flesh out the sequences breaking them down into lists of shots. From the script I also list the transitional shots that thread the sequences together.

In the field I end up with lists of shots. I follow the lists carefully. Of course, wildlife doesn’t always take direction well, so I am constantly rewriting the script, sequence lists, and shot lists.

That’s how I make films. But part of your question was how do I sell them. Selling a film concept is very easy as long as your last film was enormously successful. I’ve been very fortunate in this regard. Most of my films were sold with a telephone call or deals scratched out on the back of cocktail napkin. I’ve never sold a film with a detailed, slick, written proposal.

Howard and crew preparing to film the reef © Michele Hall

What is the optimal balance between being out there in the water, shooting great footage, and being back in the office or studio editing and making things happen in the business world?

Most producers have no clue what it is that I do to make my films successful. They seem to think I’m a great cameraman; almost supernaturally talented in capturing animal behavior. In fact, almost all my talent is in setting up and writing the project long before going diving. We usually spend six months to a year in preproduction research, writing, and planning logistics. Other producers occasionally hire me to shoot their films with no preproduction planning. I produce very average work under these circumstances. I’ll be on the boat and a director will ask me to go down and film some animal behavior. They have no clue.

A year of preproduction is typically followed by 18 months of shooting then six months of postproduction. Believe me, the diving is the fun and easy part.

How do you juggle 18-month periods of traveling and shooting film, with general “life” type things?

First, my wife Michele works with me. We travel together. She produces the films and I direct them, though there is much overlap between our jobs. She also does most of the work where I get most of the credit. You simply could not believe how much work she does to produce an IMAX feature. Our office is at home and when we return we are often buried in catch-up work for 12 hours or more a day. Being in production is much more exhausting when we are home than when we are in the field. Again, the diving is the easy part.

The team launches the 1240 pound underwater IMAX3D camera system - © Michele Hall

Some people are saying that 3D is currently being overdone by Hollywood. Personally, I agree and I think that the technology should be reserved for films like “IMAX: Under the Sea 3D”. What does 3D technology mean to you and how has it impacted your work? Does it allow you to tell a story that otherwise would not be possible? Where do you see it going?

There is no question that we are experiencing a 3D revolution. IMAX experienced this revolution ten years ago. After several successful IMAX 3D films were released, including my Into the Deep in the early 1990s, it became evident that the audience was solidly behind 3D. Ticket sales for average 3D films easily outstripped sales for excellent 2D films. In IMAX, that enthusiasm hasn’t waned during the last fifteen years. Now it’s happening in digital cinema and I think it is here to stay.

Making 3D films is much more difficult than making 2D films. Books have been written on the reasons why this is true. The gear is complicated, the editing is difficult, it’s easy to make technical errors that make 3D viewing really unpleasant. For narrative films I am not sure it’s worth it. For 70mm IMAX 3D it’s a different story. What 70mm IMAX does best is take audiences someplace they could never physically go, like underwater. In 70MM IMAX 3D audiences experience the undersea environment in a format that is the next best thing to being there. You will have noticed I say 70mm IMAX rather than just IMAX. Today there are two IMAX formats available. Some theaters are IMAX digital, showing two streams of 2K (2,000 lines of horizontal resolution) images to create 3D. By comparison IMAX 70mm film 3D theaters show two 70mm films with an equivalent resolution of about 12K (12,000 lines of horizontal resolution) each. My IMAX films have all been captured in 70mm film.

How do you make the shots facing upward toward the surface with no bubbles in the frame? Specifically, I’m thinking of the beautifully wide shot of the hammerheads circling up above in Ocean Requiem (view film below).

Most of our diving is done with mixed-gas, closed-circuit rebreathers. They produce no bubbles.

Howard filming Australian Sea Lions in IMAX3D © 2008 Michele Hall

Along the same vein as the last question: how do you get footage of very shy animals, like the garden eels well out of their burrows? Is there special equipment involved, or knowing the behavior of the animals, or a particular technique you use?

Our rebreathers help dramatically since they make no noise. But IMAX cameras sound like lawnmowers when switched on. So the rebreather advantage is often offset by the noise of our cameras. This has certainly compromised many of our sequences. For Under the Sea 3D we filmed garden eels in Indonesia. We acclimated the eels to the sound of the camera by turning it off and on regularly for several hours – at a cost of $40 per second when the camera was on. Eventually, the eels stayed up while the camera was running.

How do you and your crew communicate underwater?

We rely heavily on Ocean Technologies Systems underwater communications gear. In cold water we use full-face masks. In warm water we use microphones embedded in the mouthpieces of our rebreathers.

How do you transport all of your equipment to destinations around the world, especially with the airlines tightening cargo restrictions? Do the costs weigh heavily, or at all, in the selection of dive or imaging equipment?

We shipped 8,000 pounds of gear around the world during the making of Under the Sea 3D and Deep Sea 3D. We boarded airplanes with only carry-on luggage. Shipping to exotic destinations required months of preparation and planning. Michele had to acquire over 60 different permits during production of Under the Sea 3D. The costs were enormous.

Between productions we have traveled with small equipment packages to shoot stock footage. We try to travel as light as possible. The gear we check is all disassembled. Housings are left open along with battery compartments. TSA has a talent for opening closed containers using pliers and hammers.

Filming sharks for Deep Sea 3D - © Michele Hall

Tell me about the camera systems you’re using to shoot your films. Are you shooting everything in 70mm IMAX or using a combination of cameras?

All of our IMAX films were shot in 70mm. In the underwater housing, this camera system weighs 1,240 pounds. It runs 2,000 feet of 70mm film through the mechanism in 3 minutes. The film load alone weighs 20 pounds and costs about $5,000 by the time it’s processed. Certainly, in the near future all films, including IMAX films, will be digital. For stock footage and television films I am now using a RED One camera. This produces fantastic images far exceeding the resolution of HD. Soon similar cameras will be available to produce full 70mm quality.

What’s different about shooting IMAX, versus the other types of formats?

IMAX 70mm gear is huge, noisy, and enormously expensive to operate. I love shooting in IMAX because it is so enormously challenging.

Do you think that consumer/prosumer technology is reaching a point where the average diver can create compelling underwater videos?

Absolutely. I’ll go one step further. Today you can make a high quality feature film with a camera that costs less than $3,000. People are already doing it. Today the cost of the camera is not a factor in successful motion picture production.

Which affordable camera system(s) would you recommend to someone wanting to try their hand at making some underwater films?

The Canon 5D Mark 2 is excellent for wide-angle work and is being used to make feature films as well as television production. You can buy one for under $3,000. However, when shooting macro subjects the very limited depth of field inherent when using a large sensor is a significant issue. Many television productions use the Sony EX-1 in Gates Underwater housings. This camera is much more versatile than a DSLR camera. It is a considerably more expensive system, but it still cost a fraction of what professional systems cost.

Any further advice for a budding underwater filmmaker?

Make your film on paper before you try to make it in the field. There is a reason why feature films are made by following storyboards.

What sort of dive training does one need to have to go on the types of filming expeditions you do?

I generally use divers who have a lifetime of diving experience. Our rebreather divers start with over a hundred hours of experience.

Hall using the RED ONE in the Arctic Circle © Bob Cranston

You shoot in some very remote locations and inhospitable conditions at times. How do you balance the tight production timelines and the desire to get prime footage with safety concerns when the conditions are less than optimal? Or, is there a compromise in this regard at all?

I never compromise. Safety is always my primary concern. I would never allow a crewmember to do anything I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing myself or which I thought carried significant risk.

Tell me about a harrowing experience you’ve had while shooting, and how you mitigated the outcome.

I tried to sneak up on a gray whale in murky water once. It smacked me with its tail breaking two ribs and my left arm. I mitigated the experience with a long boat trip home, large doses of codeine, and many weeks of recuperation. As a result, I don’t try to approach large animals in murky water much anymore.

Your films influence millions of people. I think it is fair to say that many people who are divers now first gained their appreciation of and fascination with the sea from watching your films. Is there a message you’d like to deliver to these people, beyond what is already communicated through your films? If so, please share it here.

No, my conservation messages are quite clear if often somewhat subtle. I try to make people love undersea wilderness and I hope their heightened awareness of such beauty influences everyday behavior, especially at the ballot box.

To learn more about Howard & Michele Hall and their work, please visit their web site, or view more of their films on Vimeo.

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One Comment

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    avatar Jerry Firman
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    So the storyboard is the answer to my production problems. I guess my snapshot mentality doesn’t lead to good movie making. Maybe I will try writing a short before shooting next time. Thanks for the education on underwater and IMAX movie making. Have you considered before and after chronicles of man’s destroying the environment? I wonder what a professional look at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico might reveal.

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