Learning the Ropes
I dropped out of school in the 10th grade when, while taking a test, I raised my hand to ask a question about something I didn’t understand. My math teacher, loud enough for the whole class to hear, said “Well, maybe you’re just not smart enough to do this.” That was my last day of school. I embarked on a new career apprenticing as an auto mechanic, for two years, during which time I went diving every weekend, even when it was snowing!
Following my six years in the Marine Corps, I obtained my GED and went on to get a college degree in Criminal Law and Business, which led into a successful career with the California Highway Patrol. Throughout all these years, I continued to be an avid photographer.
I never had the opportunity to attend a film or photography school. I learned the craft by watching other people who were better at it than me, and who knew more than I did. Does that mean you shouldn’t go to film school? Not necessarily. It just means that you should carefully consider what you want to do, the field you want to go into, and what steps are necessary to reach your goal. Even though you can learn a lot of technical and artistic things at film or photo school, one thing you will not learn is how to get a job! I am surprised at how many young people I meet who have recently graduated from such a program who not only are deep in debt but also never learned how to break into the industry or make photography or filmmaking into a business!
One thing I like to emphasize is that you study the works of the top pros who make a living with their craft. If you are interested in filmmaking, I once would have suggested that you turn on the TV and watch some wildlife films. I wouldn’t say that now. There’s so much reality TV on now that is badly shot, narrated, and scripted. Heaven help us if you want to learn those bad habits!
If you are interested in wildlife filming, whether topside or underwater, I highly recommend you read Chris Palmer’s books, “Shooting in the Wild,” and "Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker," both of which are available on Amazon.com. These books gives a true perspective on where this industry has come from, where it is now, and where it is going. I would strongly advise not to get wrapped up in the reality type of shooting because, in many cases, there’s no reason to have the camera in focus, steady, or even have the framing right! Any little kid can produce that kind of stuff.
If you want to pursue still photography, I once would have said the same thing: look at the work the pros do. That is still good advice, but now you have to be careful. I stopped shooting stills when the digital age came upon us. I firmly believe that you need to know the fundamentals of good photography, and should make it your goal to take the photo correctly from the get-go. Now, it is impossible to know what image has been tweaked with Photoshop...and none of us will ever know, from here on out, what is real or not. I recently saw a photo of a whale shark and a hippopotamus in the same shot. Were I a small child looking at that, the image tells me those animals live together. Most of us know that would be a rare occurrence and a very valuable photo if you could capture a whale shark and hippo in the same frame! I’ve seen similar images where two underwater creatures are placed in a situation you’d never see in the real world. Anything is possible with Photoshop – you don’t even have to be a good photographer anymore.
While it is rare that an opportunity comes up to bring on someone else, especially someone we don’t know who may have little or no experience in our business, it may surprise you to know that film or photo skills are not key factors when we need to hire someone. In fact, I didn’t get started in this business thanks to my photographic skills. I got hired because I was an excellent dive guide who could do anything in the water, day or night, and knew the Channel Islands very well. A film crew hired me for a shoot in the islands. When I mentioned I was a cinematographer, albeit a new one, they allowed me to bring my camera along (That is also rare; on professional shoots, as a rule you do not bring your own camera along! You are there to do a job, not to be taking your own pictures.) On this shoot, I was the dive guide and they called me the “3rd cameraman.” Third cameramen specialize in fixing things, delivering coffee, and scurrying around taking care of every little thing no one else wants to do. However, I got lucky. The 1st cameraman ran out of bottom time, the second cameraman got a cold, and there I was, low down on the totem pole, being asked to shoot something. It was a shot the crew had been trying to get for weeks, but hadn’t nailed down. I got the shot and, all of a sudden, I looked like a pretty good cameraman!
Harbor seal in kelp forest, Channel Islands, CA
Another lucky break I had took place in 1983. David Weiss, a producer from Los Angeles, contacted me regarding a film he was doing in the Channel Islands that was to be called, “Ocean of Dreams.” He needed a solid diver, a good guide, and someone who could shoot good still images. He explained I’d be working with another photographer, who would be shooting film, a guy named Howard Hall. Most everyone knew about Howard, because he was well on his way to becoming one of the top professionals at that point in time. He’d already written a book that I’d read from cover to cover, so I realized it was a pretty cool opportunity to work with the guy who actually “wrote the book” on underwater photography. Howard and I worked for several weeks, often shooting at night, taking images of animals trapped in the devastating gill nets.· I took advantage of that project to learn everything I could by watching Howard. I watched how he set up his camera gear, how he selected and framed his shots, even how he spit.
A year or so later, I had the good fortune to be hired as a guide to the Channel Islands and second cameraman to the famous Japanese photographer/ cinematographer Koji Nakamura to photograph harbor seals in the kelp forests. A true mentor and one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with, Koji felt that if you stay with one animal long enough it will provide you with the opportunities to photograph or film what it does naturally. We had a great time, and got some terrific images of seals.
A final example, to illustrate the point of offering someone your skills, is a story about a young editor, Justin, who worked on editing my demo reel years ago. He really admired the work we did and the lifestyle we led. He sat in an office all the time and one day sheepishly asked if he could come along to help. His timing was good, as we needed someone for general help on a production. Justin was hired and did exactly what I think the key to success is: he came on the crew willing to do anything and everything that needed to be done. He made himself an invaluable part of our team. Everything he did exceeded our expectations. He never complained about doing the most menial of tasks and was careful in handling camera equipment. When I needed something he was right there with it. I didn’t even have to think about it. Eventually, he had a position with us, traveling around the world to many places as an essential part of the team.
Dennis Coffman, my second cameraman, worked with me over 15 years. An excellent diver, he began as a technician and exceptional repairman who could do anything and everything, whether it was lifting boxes, logging tapes, or organizing things in town or on the boat. Like Justin, he never complained and did anything necessary to accomplish our mission. Eventually he acquired enough experience with the camera that he was shooting something on every production & was my right-hand man on the team.
And that brings us back to the beginning, when I get asked, “How can I become an underwater filmmaker?” In the next article, I’ll discuss how to take your diving and photo skills and start on the path to that goal.