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Shooting for IMAX: Interview with Michele Hall
By Lia Barrett, March 14, 2015 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

In this latest article in The Guide, DPG’s Photo Editor Lia Barrett talks to Michele Hall, one half of award-winning IMAX film production company, Howard Hall Productions.

Underwater Director of Photographer Howard Hall films a humpback whale mother and calf in Tonga, for MacGillivray Freeman Films’ “Humpback Whales” IMAX film

I like to think that our films have influenced many conservation efforts.
—Michele Hall

DPG: First of all, let’s get to the important questions: How much does an IMAX camera weigh, and how in the heck do you transport that thing?

Michele Hall: For the 2D IMAX films we’ve made, the film camera system, including the underwater housing, weighs 250 pounds. The IMAX 3D film camera—just the camera—weighs 350 pounds. When the camera is in the underwater housing, the whole package weighs 1,300 pounds!

For our IMAX 3D films, Deep Sea 3D and Under the Sea 3D, we shipped 8,000 pounds of equipment from North America to each location. There were seven expeditions during the making of Deep Sea 3D, and five on Under the Sea 3D. We shipped the gear ahead by Air Cargo, hiring a broker to handle the logistics. 

At the end of each expedition, the exposed film was sent to Los Angeles for processing, and another 1,000 pounds of film was shipped to the next filming location. Each roll of film weighs 10 pounds (the 3D camera requires two rolls of film, one for each eye), and lasts three minutes.

But digital technology is changing IMAX production. Filmmakers are increasingly using digital cinema cameras that capture 4K, 5K and 6K resolution. Today, more than half of IMAX films are captured digitally.

Howard Hall and IMAX 3D camera in North Carolina during the making of the IMAX feature “Deep Sea 3D”

Howard Hall films a great hammerhead in Bimini using a RED Epic digital cinema camera in a Gates underwater housing

DPG: Tell us about the process of taking a film from an idea to an internationally acclaimed, multi-million dollar success? What is the biggest challenge?

MH: The first step is coming up with an idea—that part is easy, and takes about 10 minutes! Howard then writes a one- or two-page concept. The next step is much tougher, and that’s raising the money. Sometimes that has taken as long as 10 years. But it has helped us dramatically that our IMAX films have been highly profitable. Most IMAX films are not.

Once the budget is secure, Howard fleshes out the story idea and creates a detailed script. While Howard works on the script and sequence lists, I begin booking boats and organizing logistics for the filming expeditions, and start applying for permits. Over the course of making Under the Sea 3D, I procured about 60 work and film permits. This preproduction process takes between six months and a year.

Then we get to go diving. We usually do between five and seven month-long expeditions over an 18-month period. The last expedition is followed by six months or more of postproduction.

Spinner dolphins glide past in perfect formation in Kealakekua Bay, Kona, Hawaii

Australian sea lions swim playfully while being filmed for the IMAX feature “Under the Sea 3D”

Enjoying the elegance of an oceanic whitetip shark at Cat Island in the Bahamas

DPG: What is it like on location on a typical day of filming an IMAX movie? What is your role?

MH: A typical day begins for me between 5 and 6am. I enjoy the quiet of the early morning on the boat’s deck. Howard joins me a little later. Over a half dozen or so cups of coffee and while enjoying the morning light, we discuss the day’s diving and filming plan, bringing the crew in for a team production meeting. 

We use two teams of divers. Howard and the camera team are generally diving rebreathers. The second team is dedicated to launching and recovering the camera. They dive open circuit. A typical dive day may only consist of two or three dives. But these can be very long dives, averaging close to three hours and sometimes extending beyond six hours. During these dives, the launch and recovery team might return the camera to the surface several times for film loads and lens changes. Night dives are added as needed. Our crew size varies, with up to 12 people for 3D productions.

Once in the field my main responsibilities turn to those of production manager and behind-the-scenes still photographer. I love the challenge of working in the field. I have a great crew, most of whom have worked with us on multiple projects over the years, and we all work well together.

Giant cuttlefish mating in shallow water near Whyalla, South Australia

Schooling catfish gather under a ledge at TK1 in Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi, Indonesia

In a few years everyone’s television will be 4K, and wildlife images captured on 16mm film will no longer be viewed.

DPG: What is the most memorable underwater experience of your career?

MH: On August 30, 1980, I was on a filming expedition for an American Sportsman television show with Howard, Stan Waterman and Peter Benchley. We were diving on the Marisla Seamount in the Sea of Cortez. I saw a giant Pacific Manta Ray badly entangled in fishing net. The lines were cutting deeply into its flesh.

The ray approached and hovered below me, allowing me to gently rest on its back and pull away the fishing gear. Then the magnificent creature took me for a “ride” around the seamount. There were moments I wasn’t sure I would be able to find my way back to the boat, but amazingly the ray took me back to the anchor line. To our knowledge, this is the first time a manta ray exhibited such behavior. The experience inspired Peter to write The Girl of the Sea of Cortez.

DPG: During the span of your underwater career, what would you say has changed the most within diving and/or image-making?

MH: Certainly, the overall trend in our oceans’ health is down. But there are some bright spots in ocean conservation. Coral reefs in the South Pacific suffered tremendous bleaching in the late 1990s due to an intense El Nino/La Nina, but many are quite healthy again. Fish populations have dwindled in some areas, and returned in others. For example, black sea bass populations off the coast of southern California took a plunge a few decades ago, and thanks to protection status their numbers have increased dramatically in recent years. People around the world have expressed their outrage over shark finning, and reports reveal a decrease in finning and a decrease in demand for shark fin soup. I like to think that our films have influenced many conservation efforts. 

For 100 years images were captured on film. Film archives many decades old remained watchable on the most modern film projectors. But high-resolution digital technologies are increasingly incompatible with film archives. Older digital technologies are already obsolete, and the images captured on these technologies are being lost. In a few years everyone’s television will be 4K, and wildlife images captured on 16mm film will no longer be viewed. 

A pink skunk clownfish or pink anemonefish (Amphiprion perideraion) peaks out of its host anemone in the Solomon Islands

It looks likes predation, but it was actually just a lucky image capture as a whitebelly toby puffer swam by!

DPG: What advice would you give to aspiring female underwater image-makers?

MH: My advice to those wanting to work in the underwater world is to first figure out where your passions lie. Pursue an education to complement your passions, whether it be with adult education and/or online classes, or a certificate or degree program. Practice, practice, practice your craft, not because you want to make money, but because you love it. Volunteer to gain more experience. Join local clubs to meet like-minded individuals whom you can share with and learn from.

Apply for scholarships and grants, such as: Women Divers Hall of Fame, Our World Underwater, American Academy of Underwater Sciences, and Beneath the Sea. Apply for internships: an Internet search will reveal what’s available, including Boston Sea Rovers Summer Internship.

If you’re an aspiring photographer, examine award-winning photos and figure out how they were made. Enter photo contests. Contact magazines where you’d like to see your photos published. Ask to be put on their “request for images” mailing list. Learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom. If you’re a good photographer, learn to write. Go on diving and filming expeditions with trip leaders who are either offering or will be willing to critique your work.

A banded tozeuma shrimp on a whip coral, at Laha 3 in Ambon, Indonesia. Do you see its little friend under its belly, sitting on the whip?

A lone anthias on Sardine Reef, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

DPG: Anything you would like to add? Future projects?

MH: My future plans include more travel and more diving! 

A big part of our business model is our stock footage library. Since the early days of our filmmaking careers, we’ve retained the rights to footage we’ve shot for our television films, and of course while diving on our own. Through our stock footage library business, we license that footage to other productions, exhibits and such. 

Due to the ever-changing quality of image capture, footage that we captured years ago does not meet current industry standards. So we’re (happily) faced with returning to many favorite locations to dive, recapturing images in higher quality. That’s not a bad challenge to be faced with!

Michele with the IMAX 2D underwater camera system in Misool, Raja Ampat, Indonesia, while on location for MacGillivray Freeman Films’ “Journey to the South Pacific” IMAX film

To find out more about Michele and Howard’s exploits, visit Howard Hall Productions.


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