Underwater Wildlife Filmakers, A Different Breed
by Mark Conlin
Most people really don't know what is involved with the making of an underwater wildlife film. To this day, my friends still think we get paid to go diving in exotic and faraway places. "So, you're off on another snorkeling trip...where to this time?" Or, "Wow, it sure would be great to be on a boat in the Caribbean for a month!" We hear a lot of this. Well, the truth is that it takes about two and a half years of hard work to produce an underwater wildlife documentary series.
Michele and Howard Hall are considered to be the world's premiere underwater filmmakers. They have won top honors in the wildlife film business, as well as seven Emmy awards. They are known for capturing the bizarre and exotic, allowing the animal's behaviors to tell the ocean's story. "Our goal," says Howard Hall, "is to capture seldom-seen behavior on film. And the trick to that is to simply spend huge amounts of time underwater." Michele and Howard's work is featured in Secrets of the Ocean Realm, a series of five, one-hour specials exploring the life and times of the ocean's most unusual inhabitants.
Long before filming ever begins, "pre-production" starts. This phase can take six months and involves researching a prospective area and the animals that live there. We usually employ a local marine biologist to help us with specific animal behaviors. My job is to go to the library and read everything I can get my hands on. The thought of going to a location and jumping in the water hoping to find something to film wakes Howard in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. This is his worst nightmare. Considerable desk work is done long before anyone gets wet. Once all the possible sequences are drawn up, a decision is made that a film is possible, and we are off and running. This research time is when the script is written. People laugh when I tell them we have a script letting hermit crabs and whale sharks know what is expected of them. Granted, this script goes through many changes once we actually start shooting.
For instance, we had a sequence about Silky shark feeding in the Caribbean. The sharks were known to school under a huge naval oceanographic buoy off Nassau. Arriving at the location, we found no buoy and no sharks. We checked the GPS, twice, when all we saw were miles of empty, open ocean. We all sat down in the galley, staring blankly at each other. Howard got out his pen and put a big "X" through the silky shark sequence and said "OK, so what is next on the list?" You can't have a successful production without a script. (We later found out the Navy had pulled the buoy for maintenance.)
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