Filming with Blues
View Howard Hall Profile
Note: I have often been asked how I got into the underwater film business. This is the story of how it happened. The story also recounts events that took place during my first film assignment back in 1978. At that time blue sharks were so numerous off the coast of San Diego that dozens could be attracted with small quantities of bait any time of the year with one hundred percent certainty. Today gill nets have decimated the blue shark population. If you want to get video or stills of blue sharks you should consider calling Doc Anes at San Diego Shark Diving soon, before it's too late.
I remember many details from that first morning fifteen years ago. The sea was placid and cool with a gentle six-foot swell rolling by from the west. San Clemente Island, its shoreline still concealed by the lifting fog, seemed suspended in a cloud ten miles away. The chill morning air was heavy with the scent of life at sea; ancient waterlogged wood, rusting metal, decaying seaweed, salt brine, and a touch of Pine Sol detergent. Most of these odors emanated from the dive boat, Bottom Scratcher. But when you spend much of your life at sea on boats, the smell of boats and the smell of the sea become inseparable.
It was July of 1978 and the beginning of a three-week expedition to film California sharks for a prime-time CBS Television Special. It would be my first prime-time television special. It would also be my first 16mm cameraman assignment. In fact, it would be my first assignment to film anything for anybody in any format.
I finished building my first underwater 16mm movie camera in 1977 using almost every last dime I had. When the camera was ready for sea trials I shot three rolls of film through it as a test. Because 16mm film was almost prohibitively expensive, I couldn't' bring myself to waste it shooting tests in a swimming pool. So I shot my tests in the ocean with blue sharks as test subjects. Since the footage came out sharp and revealed no technical flaws, I'd kept the film as library footage. Perhaps, someday, I could use it to convince someone to hire me as a cameraman. Looking at the footage, a prospective employer would have to be a bit naive, and not too picky about technique. In other words, only a sucker would hire me based on the footage, since I had no other qualifications or experience. They say there's a sucker born every minute. A few months later, however, I found myself talking to just such a person on the phone. Realizing I had the fish of a lifetime on the line, I played him as carefully as I could.
"I've been asked to make a film for NBC about sharks, but I'm having a hard time coming up with any new ideas," the man on the phone said with a polished Dartmouth accent. "Have you ever seen any underwater footage of blue sharks?" I asked. "We see lots of them off the coast of San Diego. And you can get really close. You can actually hand feed them." Remember this is 1978. At that time hand feeding any sharks was considered suicidal madness. "It's amazing and very predictable; a sure thing," I said with voluptuous enthusiasm. "I could send you some footage I've shot, to sort of give you an idea of what's possible, if you like." There was the baited hook. "Oh God," I thought, "I hope I haven't overplayed it."
" Oh, I didn't know you were a cameraman! Do you shoot in 16mm?" the man said taking the bait and swallowing it like a large-mouth bass. I had to be really careful with the choice of my next few words.
" Oh, sure", I said matter-of-factly. "I've got my own underwater 16mm system and everything". Now, setting the hook hard.
" Very interesting, indeed," he said. "Why don't you send me a selection of your blue shark footage and let me have a look. Sounds like it could be an interesting sequence. Maybe we can work together on this thing in some way."
Oh, God! I really had a fish on. Now, if he's just not too picky about details like technique. And if he doesn't find out my career as an underwater cameraman has, so far, been limited to three rolls of test film and that the "selection of blue shark footage" I'm sending him is actually all the film I have ever shot. And if he doesn't check to see if I have any experience.
Ten days later Stan Waterman called back saying he liked the blue shark footage and asked if I would consider working for him as second cameraman on his NBC Shark Special. Fortunately, Stan is simply too nice a guy to be suspicious of even the most obvious deception. And so I got my first film job shooting as second camera for Stan Waterman on an NBC one hour special about sharks. It was the Peter Principle gone berserk.
After the requisite three cups of coffee needed to cut the morning chill, Larry Cochrane, Marty Snyderman, and Steve Early began lowering the shark cage into the water. I held on to a heavy rope tether that would prevent the cage from drifting too far from the boat. As soon as the cage hit the water, it sank fifteen feet before its descent was arrested by a large orange buoy attached by a rope to the top of the cage. Looking down into the water, the bright aluminum bars of the cage seemed to glow brilliantly against the dark water of the deep open ocean. The bottom was another two thousand feet below the cage.
Stan Waterman decided to make an early dive to check out his gear and have a look at the two or three blue sharks that had been attracted to the bucket of bait suspended over the side. Normally, we would begin diving in the early afternoon after a dozen or more sharks had been attracted to the bait. But this was our first day, and Stan was anxious for a first look.
Of course, the rest of us were in awe of Stan. Among his many accomplishments he had been one of the cameramen during the making of "Blue Water, White Death," a film made in a different reality from that of our unworthy existence. To us, Stan was a combination hero and God. In his shadow, we felt miniscule, inept, and pathetic, of less value than swarm of scurrying sand fleas. As he pulled on his wet suit and gathered his gear, we stood around like puppies, eager to roll over, beg, play dead, or do anything to please.
Larry Cochrane drew the honor of making that first dive with Stan. In order to avoid any chance of inconveniencing Stan by keeping him waiting, Larry was already completely dressed in full scuba before Stan finished pulling on his wetsuit. Larry stood on the swim step and waited.
Stan finished donning his wet suit, strapped on his weight belt, slipped on his fins, and then spat in his dive mask. He walked to the swim step, pulled on his mask and asked Marty to pass his movie camera. We were all dumbstruck. Stan had not bothered to put on a tank!
Marty hesitated with Stan's camera and looked at me in bewilderment. Larry glanced toward the shark cage to make sure that it was, indeed, fifteen feet below the surface. Steve Early and I glanced at each other nervously. How would Stan breathe without a tank inside a shark cage fifteen feet below the surface? No question that the man who filmed "Blue Water White Death," "The Deep," and countless other underwater spectaculars knows what he's doing. But what are we missing here? How will he do what seems impossible to us?
With hesitant, unsure, halting steps, Marty carried the movie camera to Stan. Steve and I stood and watched in slack-jawed befuddlement. Stan took the camera and glanced at Larry for an ok. Larry hesitated and a ghostly silence seemed to fall over the eastern Pacific. Sea gulls seemed to cease their aerial wheeling and cawing and seemed to hang motionless in the sky. Even the Bottom Scratcher seemed to pause in mid-roll. Finally Larry could not contain his uncertainty, unwilling to begin a dive in shark-infested waters with someone whose dive plan was obviously completely beyond his comprehension. He blurted out the unspeakable. "But Stan, ah, aren't you gonna ah, well you know ah, aren't you gonna wear a tank?"
"Oh shit!" spoke the great man. "But, well, of course I'm going to wear a tank. For Christ sake, I would have jumped in without it! Somebody please pass me my tank. Oh, shit."
Although that incident was convincing evidence that Stan was human, it took most of us several days to completely accept the fact.
Stan proved his humanity beyond all question when he later botched the best shot in the film. Stan was in the shark cage with Marty acting as a safety diver. I was outside the cage and down current in the chum line with Steve Early. This was several years before anti-shark suits were developed and the only thing preventing the sharks from biting me as they swam up the chum line toward the shark cage was Steve and his shark stick. Steve was also handling the cable to my surface supplied movie lights. The idea was to film sharks as they passed me and swam to the shark cage.
Steve kept busy with his dual responsibilities. He diligently prodded sharks away that seemed intent on removing a bit of flesh from my backside and his, and at the same time managed to keep a little slack in the light cable which allowed me to hold my camera steady. Stan was leaning out the window of the shark cage and filming Steve and me at work.
Things were going quite well until I noticed Stan frantically pointing at something behind me. It looked like good action so I continued to roll film as Stan waved and pointed. A moment later, however, I felt a strong tug on the light cable. The tug on the light cable ruined my shot. So I shut off the camera and turned to Steve in order to give him a gesture signaling him to pay attention.
Steve was paying attention, but not to keeping a bit of slack in my light cables. He was paying attention to the shark that had him by the head. At first, I thought the scene was rather comical. Steve seemed to be rocketing around through the water like a cartoon of a human shaped balloon with air rushing out of his feet. Of course, this rocket-like movement was generated by the large shark that was dragging him around by the head. Still, it looked rather funny. Fortunately for Steve, his wet suit hood had slipped upwards when the shark bit down leaving the shark with a mouthful of foam neoprene. Unfortunately, the action had dislodged Steve's mask and regulator. Any humorous qualities the experience may have had were soon lost on Steve as he contemplated drowning on national television and as he wondered just how much of the top of his head had been removed.
I found myself in a convenient position after recovering from my irrational attack of the giggles. I reached out and grabbed the pectoral fin of the shark and began tugging vigorously. The shark let go of Steve and swam away. Steve was quick to recover his regulator and equally quick to swim back to the boat where he retired to his bunk and refused to speak to anyone for two days. Fortunately, his injuries consisted of only minor cuts in a circular formation encompassing his skull just above the ears.
The important thing is that Stan, perfectly positioned in the shark cage with camera in hand, missed the shot! Unthinking, he wasted this great moment with frantic gestures in an effort to get my attention. A true professional would have captured the event on film and then later lamented the loss of a dear friend and comrade during his acceptance speech at the Golden Hero Awards Banquet and Film Festival.
That evening aboard the Bottom Scratcher, we had a great time reviewing the scene as each told the story from his own unique perspective. Beers were consumed toasting each telling of the story, and the sheltered cove at San Clemente Island reverberated with the sound of raucous laughter. It was a great time for all. Except Steve, who remained in his bunk quietly muttering obscenities about idiots and sharks.
I only saw Stan get angry once during the expedition. In fact, it's the only time I've seen him angry in the more than twenty-five years I've known him. Fortunately, he was not angry with me. The target of his wrath was Marty.
The incident came at the end of the shoot. Our bait consisted of albacore heads and guts contained in nicely sealed five gallon pickle barrels. Unfortunately, we had long since run out of ice. Six of these pickle barrels had been sitting out in the summer sun for nearly eight days. Now they stood stacked against the stern with bowed tops and distended sides looking more dangerous than nuclear warheads.
"They have to go," Larry said as he eyed the barrels suspiciously.
" Yeah, but I don't wanna be within a hundred miles when someone opens one of those things," Steve said.
" We'll each do one," Stan suggested magnanimously. As the producer, he could have skipped this particular job, hidden his nose in a handkerchief soaked with diesel oil while facing into the wind on the bow, and maybe avoided the attack of nausea that was certain to overcome anyone within a mile of one of those barrels when the seal was broken. "Come on, we'll each do one and it will be over in no time".
" Ok," Larry said, inspired by Stan's show of courage. He lifted one of the barrels and pulled off the lid.
The gas that belched out of that barrel was worse than can be imagined. Each of us found our lunch in our throats. Any one of us would have gladly breathed mustard gas if it could have saved us from the vile fumes that flooded out from that barrel.
Larry's knees buckled, but he struggled out on to the swim step and gently poured the disgusting contents overboard. Then he dipped the barrel into the water and rinsed it. Shaken, he walked back onto the deck and collapsed next to the gunwale with his head in his hands.
Each of us took his turn completing the task with ashen complexions and glassy eyes. Stan also took his turn, despite Larry volunteering to relieve him of his unnecessary participation. But Stan refused and did what he said was "his fair share".
Last to step into the breach was Marty. He rehearsed his moves in his mind. Take a deep breath, pull off the lid, walk quickly to the stern, pour, rinse, and escape. But when he pulled the lid off and the seal was broken, the horrible fumes stung his eyes so badly that it caused him to gasp. Suddenly he was in trouble and needed a shortcut. He stood quickly and with a mighty heave, threw the contents over the stern rail. Or, more accurately, almost over the stern rail. The terrible contents crashed against the stern and splashed all over Stan Waterman, producer, hero, mentor, oceanic god, and the most unwelcome enemy any young underwater photographer could ever encounter.
We all stood in stunned silence. Marty was catatonic. Stan's face flushed, then his color deepened to a dark demonic red. He turned to Marty and pointed to his head with a horribly soiled forefinger. "The reason that I am the producer and you are the insignificant insectivorous creature that you are, is brains," Stan said, continuing to point to his head, which was spattered with foul, decomposed, organic matter. "I have brains."
Five minutes later, the distant cliffs of San Clemente Island once again reverberated with the sound of raucous laughter.
Disclaimer: Stock Footage and Video Clips are licensed by Footage Search. Footage Search provides high quality video clips of wildlife, outdoor sports, and travel destinations to provide value to our customers. All of our video footage and footagesearch pictures are copyrighted and may not taken without a media license and/or written approval. Thank you for visiting Footage Search.