The PIG and the Process
Bob Cranston and Howard Hall prepare their rebreathers.
by Peter Tyson
September 29, 1998
There's a splash as second assistant Mark Thurlow falls backward into the
water. He's followed momentarily by director-cinematographer Howard Hall and
first assistant Bob Cranston. All three wear 80-pound rebreathers, a
specialized type of scuba gear whose chief benefits to underwater filmmakers
are increased bottom time and an absence of bubbles, which can frighten fish.
The final shooting expedition for the IMAX film "Island of the Sharks" has
As the rest of the film crew waits for them to descend to the bottom, I look
around and get my bearings. We're off the west side of Manuelita Island (see
Explore the Island). At Bajo Alcyone, our first choice for this morning's
inaugural shoot, the visibility was too poor, and at Dirty Rock, our second
choice, the current proved too strong. So we've settled on Manuelita. Its
vertical cliffs rise overhead. Wherever the angle of inclination is less than
90 degrees, tufts of grass and bushy, mangrove-like trees cling to the lava
face, their long roots dangling in the air like stringy hair. Every piece of
vegetation, it seems, holds a bird, either a brown or red-footed booby, a
downy booby chick, or a snow-white fairy tern. The cliffs plunge straight down
into the sea a few wave lengths from our two pangas, the Undersea Hunter's 22-
and 24-foot skiffs.
Just to the south, Cocos Island rears overhead, a mountain shrouded in
cushiony clouds. Through the light rain sweeping horizontally across Weston
Bay and into our faces, I can see perhaps half a mile inland before the
ubiquitous green gives way to a soft, obscuring white. Closer in, veils of
streaky clouds reveal a downpour, while on the island's periphery, waterfalls
spill down cliffs many stories high. Cocos has but three ingredients: green
plants, gray stone, and clear water. Overall, the island on a wet day like
today looks like some great green ice-cream cake in full melt.
The intercom on our panga crackles. A disembodied voice comes up as if from
deep inside a cave, or from some kind of time warp. It doesn't sound human,
but it's Hall, saying he's ready for the camera.
Wrestling with the PIG (from left, Billy Holdson, Mark Conlin, Mark Thurlow,
Bob Cranston, and Lance Milbrand).
"Roger that," replies Mark Conlin, face pressed close to the intercom. "Lance
is coming down with the camera." He speaks slowly and enunciates every word;
there's a hundred feet of turbulent water between him and Hall. Seconds later,
Lance Milbrand is in the water, scuba-ready, and IMAX specialist Billy Holdson
is swinging the 250-pound camera over the port gunwale with the help of a
miniature crane mounted on the deck. On the camera's aluminum chassis, which
is spray-painted in camouflage blue, Hall has affixed in black tape the word
PIG. It stands for "Ponderous IMAX Gizmo."
As Milbrand vanishes out of sight with the camera, Peter Kragh settles on the
bow of the other boat with producer Michele Hall. Kragh palms a yellow cable
that angles into the depths. At the other end of that cable lie three sealed-
beam, 650-watt tungsten lamps, which Hall will mount onto the camera or have
Cranston hold off to one side to light the scene. Meanwhile, Jose Luis "Pepe"
Monge Garcia and Reiner Solano Cambronero, our Costa Rican drivers, deftly
hold the pangas in position above the submarine film crew.
Milbrand soon reappears in a burst of bubbles. He climbs the ladder onto our
panga and immediately switches to a fresh scuba tank. He's only used up a
small portion of his air, but he has to be ready with a full tank whenever
Hall calls him back down, for he never knows what tasks he'll have to perform.
Once or twice, he says, he's come unnervingly close to running out of air.
The intercom crackles again. "Surface here," Conlin says. "Go ahead, Howard."
Hall's strangely high-pitched squawking is incomprehensible to me, but Conlin
has been doing this for ten years. "Roger that, we'll head back towards Cocos.
Pepe!" Conlin signals to Monge in the other boat to put it in reverse and move
south along Manuelita. Apparently the pangas are in danger of being in the
The underwater communication system has transformed Hall's film work.
Previously, divers would have to return to the surface to relay the simplest
of commands. Now they don't have to move an inch. When Hall, for instance,
wants to speak, he replaces his rebreather mouthpiece with a special
communication mouthpiece he keeps clipped to his buoyancy compensator (the
inflatable vest that all divers wear and that helps maintain neutral buoyancy
at depth). Before he can say a word—or breath, for that matter—he has to
clear the mouthpiece of seawater by blowing into it. This creates an air space
in the device. He then pushes a button and speaks normally into the
mouthpiece, which fits around his entire mouth. A transducer hung over the
side of our boat picks up his words and relays Conlin's response, which Hall
picks up with another, listen-only device mounted near his ear.
The first panga heads out along Manuelita.
Hall can also use this system to converse with his assistants, Cranston and
Thurlow. But the threesome have found it much easier to simply grunt through
the rebreather mouthpiece. "It's very Neanderthalesque," Conlin tells me.
"When I'm down there, I have no idea what they're saying, but they do, and
that's all that counts."
Now that Hall has the PIG, we settle in for a long wait. It usually takes
Hall an hour and a half to shoot a single three-minute roll of IMAX film. To
replace a roll, the camera must be brought to the surface, where Holdson
stands by ready to reload and give the camera a once-over before sending it
back down with Milbrand or Conlin (who periodically switch jobs).
But the visibility is not great even here, and within 45 minutes, Hall's
disembodied voice again is heard over the intercom. "Roger, copy that," Conlin
says carefully. "You are done and would like Lance to get the camera. He is on
his way down. Is it okay to let Michele and Peter dive now?"
That's what I've been waiting for. I feel privileged to have witnessed The
Process, but now it's time to hit the water.
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
Hammerheads or Bust (Sept. 23)
Get Used To It (Sept. 25)
Nature Reigns at Cocos (Sept. 27)
The PIG and the Process (Sept. 29)
Hammerheads Sighted (Oct. 1)
Assault on Cocos (Oct. 3)
The Director's Cut (Oct. 5)
Swimming with Whitetip Reef Sharks (Oct. 7)
The Magnificent Seven (Oct. 9)
The Search for Lake Cocos (Oct. 11)
Courtship of the Marbled Rays (Oct. 13)
Of Booby and Beebe (Oct. 15)
Taken by Surprise (Oct. 17)
"This is Cocos, This is Cool" (Oct. 19)
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