Friday, June 19, 2009 | When Howard Hall goes to work, he is swimming with sharks — literally. He is also cavorting with turtles, eels and cuttlefish.
It’s Hall’s job to get inches away from sea creatures that the rest of us have never been near, but that have been touched by our actions. The Del Mar-based nature documentarian has logged thousands of hours in some of the most remote places in the world and come back to tell tales of man’s impact on nature’s wonder.
Hall’s most recent project, “IMAX Under the Sea,” which is playing at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, is a film about marine wildlife in the waters of South Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. The film has rare footage of great white sharks and some marine species that science had not discovered. It also shows in stark detail how climate change has left its mark.
“IMAX Under the Sea” has been out for a couple months, and Hall, who got his start as a camera man for “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” and “American Sportsman,” and now has 11 films to his credit, is currently between projects. He took some time recently to talk about the film, and what its like to haul a 1,300-pound camera around the ocean floor.
You talk about climate change as an underlying theme to the film. You’ve been doing this for more than 30 years. What is the most dramatic effect of climate change that you have seen in your 30 years under the water?
That is a very difficult question to answer, because what is taking place in the marine environment is not caused by any one thing. But to narrow down, the effects of climate change on coral reefs, for example, to one thing, would probably not be accurate. When you add all the things that are going on together, the changes I have seen are dramatic. Those factors include the warming of water temperature, increased acidity of water.
Certainly, over-fishing has had the most dramatic change on our ocean ecology of any single factor I could think of. There are water quality issues that have had a dramatic impact on marine ecosystems. Not just pollution, but runoff of fertilizers, which has caused dead zones, and siltation from development that has made water cloudier and covered up coral reefs. It’s numerous things working in concert to degrade the marine environment, and each of our films tries to focus on one aspect of this.
And what aspect is “Under the Sea” focusing on?
The idea was to talk about climate change in a very general way, but then introduce the term ocean acidification. Most people don’t know what that is, and haven’t heard about it. And we want to bring it to people’s attention. It is one of the effects of increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. In addition to greenhouse effects, carbon dioxide dissolving into sea water makes the ocean more acidic. And that acidification inhibits the formation of calcium carbonate. And calcium carbonate is the main building blocks of structures in the ocean — coral reefs are made out of calcium carbonate, the shells of mollusks and other animals are made of calcium carbonate. So if it is more difficult to make this stuff, then those animals will be more impacted by it.
You said you spent time in Australia, in New Guinea. How did you divide your time?
We had five one-month expeditions. We spend one month right at the southern end of Australia, in the cold water down there. We spent a month on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns. We did two expeditions to different parts of Papua, New Guinea. And then our last expedition, which was our longest — six weeks — was in the Komodo Park area of Indonesia.
When you are out on one of these expeditions, how much of your time are you actually down under the water with the cameras rolling?
Unless the boat is actually moving, then we dive every day. And we typically average between four and five hours under water each day.
And how much of the time are you actually rolling under the water?
Well, we could figure that out. During the making of under the sea, we shot just under 10 hours of footage. But each time we shoot with the 3-D IMAX camera, it is a three minute load. And a three minute load is 2,000 feet of 70mm film, and it costs about $6,000. So we try not to be cavalier about how we shoot the film. A
lso, it takes a great deal of time to get the cameras set up and get the animals acclimated and everything ready, so when you push the button you know that you are actually getting something that is worthy of the money you are spending. To shoot three minutes, it often takes us about an hour-and-a-half or two hours under water. So during the making of this film, I spend more than 360 hours under the water, and of that time we shot just under 10 hours of film.
Is it harder to work with an IMAX camera in this situation than with a standard camera?
Its certainly logistically more difficult. Every thing is huge. The underwater system we used to make “Under the Sea” weighs 1,300 pounds out of the water. You can imagine the logistical challenges: Getting it to the locations, getting it in the country, getting it to the dock, getting it to a boat in isolated locations. Then once it is on the boat we have to have a crane to get it in and out of the water.
Then moving it underwater takes a team of divers. And using it in any conditions where we have to deal with surge or current becomes very difficult. It’s a very difficult format to work in, but frankly that is part of what it makes if fun for me. I enjoy the logistical challenges, and my team of divers enjoys the challenge of making difficult technologies work under water. There are a lot of things you are not going to do with a camera that weighs 1,300 pounds. You obviously aren’t going to move quickly. Depth of field is tiny in 70mm, so it is very difficult to keep things in focus. The camera makes a lot of noise, so animals that are sensitive to noise, and many animals are — simply run from it. Another thing is that it takes four seconds for the camera to ramp up to speed. So from the time you actually hit the run switch it’s three-to-four seconds before you are capturing a usable image. So you have to anticipate the animal behavior long before that, and that really makes it tough.
You worked with great white sharks in this film. Give me the lowdown on that.
Well, we did capture a nice sequence of great white sharks in the film. Great whites are one of the few sharks where it really is prudent to have a shark cage. But the IMAX camera is so big that putting the camera inside a cage is just not practical. So what we did is have a special cage built, and it had one side that opened up with big barn doors. We lowered that cage to the bottom with four divers in it, including myself. Then once we were situated on the bottom we brought the camera down. We operated the camera in front of the cage with the doors open. So of course the sharks would have had to eat a huge camera to actually get at any of us, so we were pretty well protected just by all the gear in front of us.
So the sharks are obviously swimming around the whole time you are doing this huge setup
Yes, they were there. And it was a very exciting part of our project. We loved doing that part of it — it was an adrenaline rush. These are huge animals, they are 3,000 pound sharks. And they were literally crashing into the camera at times. There was never a moment that I felt I was in any danger at all. But certainly when you are dealing with animals like that, the possibility of something unusual happening is there. We had four divers on the bottom, and we were all keyed up and having a great time. And nothing happened, which made it even better.