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The Life Aquatic Howard Hall Is an Underwater Man

By Bob Fisher

Howard Hall and IMAX film crew using IMAX 3-D camera underwater during making of 'Deep Sea 3-D'

What are the differences between shooting documentaries for the IMAX screen and for television? Of all the filmmakers, Howard Hall is probably among the most qualified to answer that question. Hall learned to scuba dive at age 16, primarily because of his fascination with underwater wildlife. He studied zoology and earned a degree from San Diego State University. He launched his career shooting still photos and writing articles for magazines and books about the behavior of marine life.

Hall shot his first 16mm film around 1978 using a Bell & Howell camera that he had modified for underwater cinematography. During the early days of his career, he shot and directed underwater documentaries for The American Sportsman and Wild Kingdom television series and has worked on more than 100 TV documentaries as a producer, director and/or cinematographer. Hall has earned six Emmy Awards for his cinematography, five of which were for films about underwater wildlife. The other was for filming skiers and skaters at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France, a favor for a friend.

"I only recently realized that I'm now better known for my IMAX films than for my television documentaries," Hall confesses. "That surprised me because I don't characterize myself as either a television filmmaker or an IMAX filmmaker."

Hall recently received the Kodak Vision Award at the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) Conference in Los Angeles. The award is presented annually to a filmmaker who has been recognized by his peers for exceptional and consistent artistry in large format storytelling. Three of his IMAX credits are for underwater cinematography films directed by Greg MacGillivray: The Living Sea (1995), Journey into Amazing Caves (2001) and Coral Reef Adventure (2003). Hall also directed and shot the first IMAX 3-D film, Into the Deep, in 1994. His other large format ventures include Island of the Sharks (1999) and Deep Sea 3-D, which is currently on some 55 IMAX screens around the globe.

Hall says that it typically takes two years or longer to produce an IMAX film, which has limited the time he has available for television documentaries. However, he works on TV programs about wildlife and underwater places that pique his interest between IMAX projects. Either way, most of his work is done underwater.

"Whether it's an IMAX film or a television documentary, it always begins with intensive research," Hall says. "I learn as much as I can about the animal's behavior by reading books, magazine articles and whatever research is available. I speak with local people who have observed the wildlife and with scientific experts. We try to get estimates about the numbers of animals and how predictable their presence is at different times of year. We spend a lot of time researching their behavior. And we try to determine what the wildlife typically will do when divers approach them. If any of the scientists know how to dive, I usually invite them to accompany and advise us while we're filming."

Shooting an IMAX film, particularly in 3-D, is obviously much more complicated than a television documentary, but Hall says that he doesn't approach them differently. He explains that the challenges are basically the same: getting a boatload of people and gear to the right place, putting the camera and crew where they are needed underwater at the right time, and staying there long enough to film the animals.

Hall writes detailed verbal storyboards before he starts shooting. He knows the animals won't do exactly what he anticipates, but his preparations make it easier to react.

"I shoot as much film as possible," he says. "Animals aren't actors. You can't tell them exactly what you want them to do, so you can never capture their behavior as perfectly and as completely as you would like. So the more you shoot, the richer and more detailed the story becomes."

There are significant differences between composing documentaries for IMAX and television screens. "When I'm shooting a television documentary, I usually compose wide, medium and close-ups shots in center frame," Hall says. "I tend to compose medium, wide and super-wide angle shots for IMAX films mostly in the lower half of the frame. I avoid tight close-ups in IMAX because the screen is seven stories high. The audience is also in stadium seating on an eyeline with the lower third of the screen. That's the sweet spot. In IMAX, a big close-up might occupy the lower two-thirds of the height of the screen. In television, that's a badly composed medium shot."

Regardless of format, Hall notes that underwater lighting is used very differently than when lighting above water. He uses artificial light primarily to bring out the warm colors otherwise filtered out as sunlight passes through salt water. He concentrates on balancing foreground and background light to get true tones without making it obvious to the audience that artificial light was employed. Most underwater cinematographers use HMI light underwater. Hall prefers using tungsten lamps, sometimes with an 85 or red color-correction filter on the lens in high ambient light conditions.

"The balance of colors underwater is so distorted towards blue that most of the time you need to add red," he explains. "We use various filters depending on the balance we want to achieve between ambient and artificial light."

When Al Gore was vice president, he predicted that the new digital television standard in the United States would open up an "information superhighway" that would provide hundreds of new channels and more varied content. It sounded like nirvana for documentary filmmakers, but Hall observes that the splintering of the television audience has a downside. There are more wildlife documentaries but the budgets are much smaller, so they tend towards being "adventure shows" rather than in-depth portraits.

Hall sees the potential for a brighter future on the horizon. He believes that the increasing number of home theaters and high-definition TV sets in homes will whet the public's appetite for documentaries that enable them to experience wildlife in wilderness environments in much more detail than ever before.

"More people will expect visually spectacular documentaries that air in HD format," he says. "That can make a big difference. When you are producing documentaries about wildlife, the whole point is to let the audience see and feel what it's like to be in that environment as if you are there with the animals."

Hall is frequently contacted by new filmmakers who ask him to share the secret of his success. His short form reply is, "Do it for the love of the work and don't expect to make money. If you love it enough and stay with it, you might one day discover you're making a living at it." He has written an essay dealing with this topic, entitled "Breaking In," and has posted it on his website,