Did Tom disappear? Here's Tom's answer to why, after a highly visible 30 years as one of the leading underwater cinematographers, he suddenly seemed to fall of the Earth!
Recently, my partner Beth contacted my old friend and fellow photographer Steven Frink in Florida, to ask him a question. Beth was surprised by Steve’s query of, “What has Tom been doing? I don’t think he’s worked in over 10 years!” Well, it seems other people have been asking the same thing, thinking I’ve fallen off the planet and certainly out of the underwater photo and film world. We decided we should set the record straight and let everyone know that I am here, and boy, have I been busy working this past decade!
This story begins circa 2000: A representative from an International Corporation, called Zeem, contacted me to ask if I would come to Saudi Arabia to teach a young, inexperienced production crew some techniques so they could produce private videos for their boss, a prominent Saudi Sheikh, who happens to be an avid diver. The crew was an ambitious, talented group of young guys bent on pleasing their boss with the best video and still imagery possible, but they lacked the knowledge of how to do it. After spending 8 days working with them, and producing a short video project, I left feeling pretty confident they were off to a good start on their own. But it wasn’t much later that I received a call requesting me to return, asking if I would take over the production work for them. I wasn’t really interested, mostly because working in Saudi Arabia did not appeal to me and I didn’t need the work. I certainly did not want to step backwards from the large format HD I was using to the small, compressed video format they were shooting.
You can use your imagination to figure out how they convinced me to return! It was on this second trip that I was introduced to the Sheikh, reverently called “the Boss” by everyone who works for him. It was obvious that he was meticulous about quality so it didn't make sense to me to continue working in a small format, which I wasn't interested in anyway. If I was to get involved with his production company, I suggested he upgrade to a higher quality camera and make the switch to the Sony F900 large format HD camera. I showed one of the HD tapes I’d shot to the Boss to illustrate the potential for the future and the difference in quality over the small format his crew was shooting. This moment in time was the beginning of an incredible journey for my crew and me, as well as for the Boss’s young & energetic production crew, called the Danah Divers.
When the Boss asked me what was involved in moving to the high end, large format equipment, I told him that I had nearly $500,000 invested myself and it would take nearly that amount. I figured that would be the end of the conversation, our meeting, and that I’d return happily to Santa Barbara. The Boss was obviously in serious thought for perhaps 5 seconds before saying, with a gesture of excitement and commitment, “OK! Let’s get started!”
Let me digress from the story (I’ll come back to it shortly) to say that there’s a second part of this tale that is just as important to understand as it relates to some definite disadvantages of what might be considered a dream job by most of us in the production industry.
When you work for a man of such importance and status in his accomplishments, you soon learn that clients like him want things done immediately and exactly the way they want it and there is no room for excuses or even logical reasons why these things can't be done as quickly as possible. It just has to happen, and it does. Things don't happen like that in the real world of business or in the production world, and especially when working with wild animals, such as sharks. The other thing that never happens is having the luxury of saying, “I’m sorry, I’m busy with another job at the time you’d like my crew to be on location in some remote part of the world with you.”
Because I was jumping quickly to get to a location when the Boss decided he wanted to go somewhere, I began to lose jobs – work with longtime clients of mine in the production world – that conflicted with the sudden changes in my schedule. The only way I could avoid losing work, and still do the job for the Boss, was to work out some kind of retainer, which is reasonable, and the way it is often done in those types of work environments. I approached the Boss with a proposal that would benefit us both and, being an astute businessman, he agreed to my proposal and paid accordingly. I knew when I made such an agreement that it would mean some serious consequences in my future. You can pay a hefty price in your business by dropping off the grid, even for a year, much less a decade!
I couldn’t begin to tell you how many cool jobs I was offered over the decade I worked for the Boss, jobs I had to turn down, often quite reluctantly, because I was on retained to always be on standby when he wanted to go dive & film somewhere. On occasion, we'd have a trip planned and the Boss would suddenly cancel it - and I had already turned down a good job for that same time period, so I was left with nothing! The Danah Dive crew could not understand, or appreciate, being in such a position because they weren't self-employed! I remember a producer from National Geographic responding to my turning down a 5-week shoot in Africa saying, “I can’t believe this is happening! I’ve offered a shoot that anyone would die for to 3 different cinematographers and all 3 declined saying they were too busy!” She was in shock.
Another time, I was offered the job to be the director of the underwater unit for two very famous magicians in Las Vegas. It involved 6 HD cameras, closed circuit rebreather systems, and a huge paycheck. I had to decline because the dates conflicted with a scheduled out of country shoot with the Boss. I'd shot many stories for the production company Wild Things before I met the Boss. After I locked into the retainer, Wild Things called on four different occasions. Each time I had to decline as a result of my commitment to the Boss. They never called again.
There were many other great jobs I had to turn away, some from producers with whom I’d worked many times. Soon, as you might guess, the phone stopped ringing. The truth is that I knew this would happen someday, having locked myself into a position with a private client. But I had made my decision knowing the consequences.
Good friend and fellow cinematographer Howard Hall once told me while we were discussing work that unfortunately there may come a time in your career when people think you are too busy, too expensive, or not interested and people stop calling you. Howard was right!
But let me get back to my story. Am I disgruntled with my decision? Not in the least and for three major reasons:
First, working with the Boss was a new challenge and it was rewarding to see the progression made with the Danah Divers over the years. When we first started they had no concept of what a cutaway shot was, or other basic steps in putting a proper production together. They were just rolling cameras and trying to make some sense out of it. They also made the fatal mistake of showing the Boss all the material, rather than picking out the selects. You are usually judged by your worst work.
Second, meeting the Sheikh was very special. He’s an extraordinary person with a true passion for the ocean and it’s creatures. He wanted his love of the marine world, and the beauty of its inhabitants, to be revealed in the documentaries we shot and produced for him. Having said that, the Boss is a very private person who asks for no personal credit for what he does and therefore wouldn’t release the rights to show his documentaries to any television network, especially if he appeared in the show. Consequently, his documentaries are shown only to his personal acquaintances, such as the King of Saudi Arabia, and dignitaries like other Sheikhs and Sultans.
One personal 52-minute documentary I produced was shot in several different countries with the Boss, and edited at Universal Studios, in Hollywood. With Hollywood talent involved in the edit, narration, and composing, this documentary shows the level of professionalism the Boss went to in creating his shows. While this personal documentary is one that would be enjoyed by the masses, it remains part of his private collection, never to be seen by the public.
Few of the documentaries I filmed and produced for the Boss were ever allowed to be released to film festivals or public viewing. Two of them, “The Giant Mantas of San Benedicto,” and “The Dugongs on Abu Dhabi,” have garnered numerous awards, including Best of Show, Best Cinematography, Best in Nature and Environment, and more.
All of the documentaries I shot for the Boss were done on the large format Sony F900, and F900R, HD cameras. Some of our shoots involved quite a lot of aerial work, so we used the best helicopters with Tyler mounts or CineFlex systems. The whole crew, including the Boss, used AP Valves’ closed circuit rebreather (CCR) systems, beginning with the Inspiration, and later upgrading to the Evolution, units. Although I'd used various CCRs since my military diving days back in the 1960's, this was my introduction to that particular CCR system, and I brought the first one into the US. To this day, I believe it to be the best CCR on the market.
Third, in a private production meeting I had with the Boss and his divemaster, we brought up the topic of selling the documentaries to cover some of the expenses of shooting them. The Boss replied that he was not interested in making money with them. Then, between the three of us, the concept of starting a foundation came up as a viable means of creating a way to educate the public, especially children, about the importance of protecting ocean creatures, especially with a main focus on sharks. From that conversation, the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) was born. That started a whole new journey for us, changing the way we entered the production world. I introduced the concept of attending film festivals, which I’d long been involved with, to spread the word about the Foundation and its goals of using films to protect marine wildlife. Film festivals were completely uncharted ground for the Sheikh and his crew, who’d never heard of such things, but they were open to exploring this arena.
One of my responsibilities was to attend various film festivals where, in addition to offering seminars in underwater cinematography and marketing, I was a guest speaker to expand the SOSF concept of awareness. Perhaps one of the most rewarding and rare privileges was to seek out new talent and provide them with the means to expand on the programs they were working on producing, which meant giving them the financial resources they needed to succeed. At the time, it meant giving sometimes tens of thousands of dollars on no more than a handshake! In nearly all cases, the recipients delivered award-winning shows or programs that created awareness for some marine issue, as well as instantaneous recognition for the SOSF. Having worked on several instrumental environmental projects over the past 40 years made this an easy fit with the many contacts I had made over the years.
The fledgling SOSF began to make inroads into the worlds of scientific research and marine protection. Sometimes, we did not provide money but equipment, such as providing a number of scientists with the boats they needed to do their research. During the first trip the Boss made on my recommendation to Cocos Island we worked with Avi Klapher, who owns the Sea Hunter fleet in Costa Rica. Avi told me that pirate fishing fleets were illegally taking the hammerhead and other sharks off Cocos Island, but said there was no way to patrol the area. When I told the Boss about this distressing situation, he asked what he could do to help prevent this useless slaughter. I suggested a patrol vessel would be helpful. He gave the green light to finance the project. From there, I went back to my long-time friend: Avi has forgotten more about putting boats together than most people would know in a lifetime! He agreed to put the whole project together. In the end, thanks to the Boss’s concern and generosity, a beautiful patrol boat was delivered to the Cocos park rangers. Within a week or so they arrested an illegal shark fishing vessel and its crew.
It was a real honor, and a great adventure, to work with the Boss for a decade, producing documentaries fulfilling the goals he desired of creating awareness about and protection for marine wildlife and playing a role in creating a legacy for him. In a world where many people are seeking to take credit for things they don't do, or have the ability to do themselves, the Boss stands alone as a person who is willing to do so much yet not take personal credit. I've always agreed with the old saying that if it doesn't matter who takes credit there's no limit to the success you can achieve.
But by 2009, with the SOSF changing with turnovers in both dive crew and staff, I decided it was best for me to return to my former life as an independent, self-employed wildlife producer/ cinematographer.
Now, with my RED 8K digital cinema cameras, I continue to travel, filming for our stock library, working on interesting projects, and enjoying being in, around, or under the sea.