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Reader's Digest World Presents The Living Edens Palau-Paradise of the Pacific
A Titanic Interview
 

Diver with boysOver the course of his 30 year career, "The Living Edens: Palau" co-producer and cinematographer Al Giddings has established himself as one of the premier underwater filmmakers in the entertainment industry. Best known for his recent work as a co-producer and the director of underwater photography for "Titanic," Giddings resume also includes work on "The Deep," "For Your Eyes Only," "Never Say Never Again," "The Abyss," "The River Wild" and "Striking Distance".

The following is a transcript of a phone interview recently conducting with Giddings about his work on "The Living Edens: Palau" and more generally, about his filmmaking career.

Q: Twenty five years ago, you filmed a short documentary on Palau. What are the most significant changes to the region since then?

A.: Twenty five years ago I did, strangely enough, a short film called "The Sea of Eden," and in fact used that title, and shot Palau at a time when very few people had been diving there. The most significant change that I have seen has not been to the environment, which is still really wonderful, at least all of the underwater sites -- jellyfish lake, and blue corner and all of that. I guess the biggest change is in the number of people diving there. When I was first there, again, 25 years ago, I was the first to dive Blue Corner and very few [people], if anyone, had been on the outer reefs. Today they're seeing a lot of tourists. The year we shot the Edens show, they had about 33,000 divers -- for the most part Japanese -- on the island. So it has changed really from the standpoint of the amount of interest in diving there. When I was there 25 years ago, recreational diving was hardly known, and almost every place that we went was sort of totally new. We were the first to really swim jellyfish lake and some of the other lakes, and do any sort of photography.

The reefs are still in wonderful shape. I was impressed that this great onslaught of snorkeling and diving had not affected the area, at least as far as I could see, in a negative way.

Diver with cameraQ.: How did your career in film begin?

A.: I started my career in Northern California diving the north coast in the time when people were shooting with spear guns and there were just a handful of divers. I thought it would be more interesting to shoot with a camera and started doing stills. The Geographic [National Geographic] got interested in some of those stills, and the possibilities expanded. I had a retail diving operation early on and I was sort of shooting on the side. Anyway, I got involved in shooting film. Sixteen millimeter at first, sort of natural history projects, then some 35mm. Did a show for United Artists way back in Australia, some shooting for a feature that lead to "The Deep." I directed and shot that somewhat classic film with Jacqueline Bisset, [Nick] Nolte, Sean [Connery], and [Louis] Gossett and others. Then "Your Eyes Only" and "The Abyss," "Titanic." However, my first love and interest has always been natural history, non-fiction. I continue to work more actively in that than in anything else. I am very excited about high definition TV and the future. And large format. I'm off now to Galapagos for seven weeks directing and shooting a 3D IMAX show for Smithsonian and IMAX.

Q.: What is your next IMAX film about?

A.: We're doing a show that's really built around Carol Baldwin, a young Ph.D. from Smithsonian, a young woman and her first visit to Galapagos in the wake or footsteps of Darwin. However, we will be there with a 220 foot ship, 45 people and a submersible capable of 3,000 feet. We will be shooting 2D and 3D IMAX, 3D for the most part. We have a 1,700 lb. system and we'll be shooting for seven weeks. It's really about the Galapagos and the magic of these wonderful islands, and the adventures through the eyes of oceans and experiences of Dr. Carol Baldwin.

Fish in coralQ.: Are you going to be filming underwater? What are the challenges of underwater cinematography?

A.: Oh yes. You know, I am directing and producing with David Clarke, and we'll be shooting daily with two underwater systems. Those systems are really intimidating because the biggest of the systems, the 3D IMAX system, is again 1,700 lb. in air, about 2 lb.. ballasted well underwater. I was involved in the building of these two systems. However, moving this around and trying to cover natural history subjects, although it has a built-in propulsion, it'll still be a daunting task to connect with the schools of hammerheads, and whale sharks, and marine iguanas, and all that I have filmed on a number of occasions in the past. I did a show -- perhaps you saw it -- for Discovery a few years ago called "Galapagos: Beyond Darwin." And it's that same ship submersible and general MO that we will engage and put on-line to do this 40 minute 3D IMAX show for Smithsonian.

Q.: You were also a co-producer and director of underwater photography for the movie "Titanic." How did your past film experiences lead you to your production role in that movie?

A.: Jim Cameron, the director, is a dear friend, and Jim directed "The Abyss," and I was DP underwater, and shot most of the underwater action for "The Abyss." I met Jim 6 to 7 years ago, and "The Abyss" was the result of that collaboration for Fox. Then in '92, I shot a show for CBS on Titanic, worked with the Russians and the system that we used again on "Titanic." I invited Jim Cameron to come to an academy screening in Los Angeles in '92 -- he was then involved in "True Lies." He came to the screening and was blown away by the excitement of the Titanic. Jim said "Al, I've got to do Titanic," and that started the Titanic theatrical ball rolling. That's how I was involved in "Titanic" as a producer, and shooting the underwater stuff. And I really have to add that I played a role in the opening scene. If you remember, the two submarines are skirting across the bottom, and [Bill] Paxton is talking to somebody saying, "Mir 2, what's your position?", which is the other submarine, and I'm the guy that's responding. Then we get into the wreck and I deploy the ROV, and we start hammering the safe and all that stuff.

Diver with cameraQ.: What kind of special equipment is necessary for underwater filming?

A.: I shot the Edens show with a very high end Sony BetaCam system, one that I had really affected with respect to chroma and black levels, and just the general look. That camera produced really lush, wonderful images that I think [are] every bit as interesting as film, and I have had a lot of experience with all formats in the film world. However, now I am shooting HD [High Definition] exclusively for television. Tape gave us the ability to playback in the field, to look at our material every night, and to hopefully produce something with close-ups and zooms, and lots of moves and whatever, [shots] beyond the typical wide-angle lens approach that is used underwater. Now I'll shoot all others exclusively with an electronic camera.

Q.: How much time does it take to film a program like "The Living Edens: Palau"?

A.: We made four dives a day and I think we were there 34 days. So to do the underwater action -- I didn't shoot the topside -- to do the underwater action, we made about 140 dives night and day. And we were there about five weeks.

Q.: Do you need special permission to film in areas like Palau?

A.: Actually, no. I've spent a lot of time in Micronesia and I have lots of friends there, so it was very comfortable. I didn't really have to go through any special permits. I just have a good relationship with the government people there and so on, so it was not a problem shooting there.

Fish in coralQ. What precautions are taken to keep the areas that are filmed unharmed while shooting?

A.: Well, I'm always very conscious and cautious on the reef, and I don't wear fins a lot. And when we're working on the bottom, we're weighted, so we have the ability to walk on the bottom. That doesn't mean on the corals, but avoiding the corals by walking pretty much on the sandy areas. Traditionally, I wear 30 or 40 lbs. of weights, so I can easily walk on the sea floor and avoid drifting into things. We always have a couple of very capable people in mid-water handling cables and lighting and all of that. I'm very sensitive to these beautiful, pristine reefs, and part of our everyday task is to not create problems or destroy anything.

Q. What precautions were taken during the filming of the barracudas, jellyfish and sharks?

A.: Those jellyfish don't have a sting that is enough to really be a problem, and I know that. I'm familiar [enough] with the marine environment to know when precautions are necessary. However, I always -- even in the tropics -- wear a full suit. Even though it is [only] 1/8 inch thick -- pretty lightweight . You do get stung around the lips and sometimes on your face. You can, for the most part, avoid that. And those jellyfish, although they sting, cannot penetrate human skin except in those thin places like around your lips and sometimes your ears, and so on. The barracuda and shark issue -- I am very comfortable with those guys, they are not the big problem in that part of the world. In fact, sharks generally are not a big problem, unless the circumstances are special and the shark is particularly special. There's only a couple in the world that can be serious problems, such as Great White sharks in Australia, but for the most part -- overrated.

Diver with cameraQ. What was the most enjoyable aspect of the Palau shoot?

A.: Working at night on the bottom. Again, because I have had so much exposure to the reef, during the day I'm sort of worn out on that subject, but night is always very riveting. There are always all kinds of animals and all kinds of behavior, and all kinds of wonderful things happening at night. Like the cuttlefish shots and spawning eggs. So I really like Palau because of its very lush, super-tropical environments. It is especially provocative at night. The lakes at night, the general open ocean at night, always produces exciting new stuff -- animals and behaviors that I haven't seen before. So probably the most exciting dives, for me personally, were some of the night dives.


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