Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures

Expedition Team Bios
Diving Technology
Underwater HD Filming


Meet the Expedition Team

Paul Atkins, Director of Photography

Paul Atkins

Paul Atkins, an Emmy-winning cinematographer with more than 20 years of experience, combines his technical expertise, knowledge of oceans and artistic eye to capture superb imagery on film.

As a former marine biologist and current resident of Honolulu, Paul is no stranger to the sea. He has created films about dolphins, sharks, Hawaii, Monterey Bay and numerous other topics for PBS, the National Geographic Society, the Discovery Channel and several networks. In addition to his Emmy-winning films Great White Shark and Hawaii: Strangers in Paradise, Paul's work has been recognized at film festivals and by CINE, an organization that honors excellence in documentaries.

Interview with Paul Atkins

How is filming underwater unique?

Take the problems encountered filming above water, multiply them tenfold, and you have an idea of what it's like to film underwater. Everything is more challenging, even basics normally taken for granted such as breathing, or changing film (or tape) in the camera. As air-breathing mammals, we don't really belong down there. We have to take down our own air supply and whether it involves scuba or the closed-circuit rebreathers, which we used on Voyage to Kure, the safe use of this life support must be mastered completely. Diving skills have to become second nature before you can operate an underwater camera and concentrate on framing, composition, exposure, lighting, and the myriad of other mental details that preoccupy a filmmaker. Underwater, we have to become fairly competent technicians before we can apply our art.

Cinematographers are constantly concerned with the amount and quality of light, and when filming underwater the medium itself imposes unique challenges for photography. Beyond a certain depth the only remaining natural light is a narrow band of blue-green wavelengths, and only artificial lighting will work to improve the image. As soon as we add our lights, the brilliant reds, oranges and yellows of sponges and corals "pop" like magic.

Visibility in water, especially ocean water, is always less than in air and that affects our choice of lenses in an interesting way. Only in the clearest water can we have the luxury of keeping our distance and zooming in with a longer lens. So we are often faced with trying to get close, sometimes dangerously close, to sharks, leopard seals and other predators underwater.

Much of directing is really about communicating your vision, and working with large crews in the underwater world poses daunting problems for even the simplest communication. On Voyage to Kure we had two cameramen, a diver holding lights for each cameraman, divers tending the lighting cables, as well as our subject divers. The potential for chaos in the situation is enormous. Cameramen and lighting crew must know their assignments to avoid getting in each other's way. For example, one camera concentrates on close-ups while the other goes for wider shots, or one focuses on the divers and the other on wildlife. Careful planning before the dive is essential, but anything can (and does) happen in the ocean and the careful plan often goes out the window. Then you must be prepared to communicate underwater, through agreed upon hand signals, writing slates, or com masks that allow divers to talk underwater. After working with someone for a long time, communication becomes easier, almost like telepathy, as you learn subtle signals of posture and facial expression.

What kinds of education/experiences have you had to get you where you are today professionally?

I majored in biology as an undergraduate at Florida State University and, following a desire to be closer to blue ocean and coral reefs, moved to Hawaii for graduate studies in zoology and marine biology. Working on my Ph.D. at University of Hawaii, I learned the basics of filming underwater while using video to record and analyze reef fish behavior. Then, I borrowed the Zoology Department's super-8mm camera and film splicer and began to make my own home movies -- not just underwater but topside as well, using friends as actors. The experience of watching these little movies with an audience (again, my friends) had an immediate impact on me...I was bitten by the filmmaking "bug." I knew then that filmmaking was my passion.

It's one thing to have a vision, yet another to pull it off. I was a dreamer and not a very practical, business-minded person. Then I met my future wife and partner, Gracie, and together we formed a documentary film company, Moana Productions, Inc. She brought the business side; I brought the creative to the table. She was the sound mixer and I the cameraman. Teamwork and partnerships are everything in this business. It's a collaborative medium like no other and requires a variety of people with diverse skills and abilities. Teamwork in conjunction with passion allows you to overcome any obstacle.

What were your chief responsibilities on the Ocean Adventures Kure expedition?

I served as director of photography on the Kure expedition. In addition to shooting much of the footage for the special, my duties included organizing and directing the camera team, and determining the "look" of the high definition (HD) footage we shot. I needed to develop a technical and creative aesthetic for the film we were making. It was a big responsibility on a big expedition and an amazing adventure.

My team included two talented cameramen who had worked extensively on Cousteau expeditions in the past -- Yves Lefevre on underwater camera, and Antoine Rosset shooting topside. As a cameraman, I switched between underwater and topside filming depending on the circumstances each day. My longtime friend and camera assistant, Mark Gerasimenko, served as HD technician and was responsible for maintaining three Sony 900 HD cameras, three underwater housings, as well as logging all the tapes each day. Matt Ferraro and chief diver Blair Mott rounded out the camera team as underwater lighting techs.

Along with Jean-Michel and Don Santee, I planned camera assignments and how to film the day's activities, whether it involved hiking up the remote religious site of Mokumanamana, diving in the central lake of Laysan Island, or night diving with sharks and huge jacks at Kure Atoll. Flexibility was the order of the day: Jean-Michel likes to go with his instincts, and I soon learned to keep things loose to accommodate last minute changes.