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Coral Reef Interview: Howard and Michele Hall's Adventure


Michele Hall proves that cleaner shrimp, known for cleaning parasites from the mouths of fish, will enter the mouths of humans as well.

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: January 2003

In CORAL REEF ADVENTURE, MacGillivray Freeman Films' latest Big Movie, renowned diver/filmmakers Howard and Michele Hall are the first IMAX camerapersons to be subjects in a film they shot. BMZ caught up with the two of them to hear about their two-year long effort to capture the beautfiul yet imperiled coral reefs for the Giant Screen.


Category: Interviews

When leading Big Movie producer/director Greg MacGillivray (Everest, The Living Sea and some 25 others) decided to make a film about coral reefs, a subject close to his heart, he knew that Howard Hall and his wife Michele would be the ideal candidates to help him capture the beautiful but endangered reefs for the giant IMAX screen.

Howard and Michele are two of the world's most recognized and accomplished divers and underwater filmmakers. Between them, they have received seven Emmys® for films produced for television, and their TV special, Seasons in the Sea, received the Golden Panda award, the most prestigious award in natural history filmmaking. The Halls also have authored several books, and Howard is a contributing editor to wildlife and underwater magazines.

Howard (Director of Underwater Photography), his wife (production manager Michele) and a large crew spent two years over five expeditions to fulfill MacGillivray's vision for CORAL REEF ADVENTURE (click herefor main film page).  BMZ recently had the opportunity to ask the Hall's about their remarkable lives and their work on this remarkable film.

BMZ: Where did you grow up and when did you first develop a love of diving? (Howard and Michelle)

Howard Hall: I grew up in Los Angeles. I took a diving certification course while a junior in high school at age 16. Got a summer job that year working in a dive shop. Became a diving instructor at age 18.

Michele Hall: I grew up on the East Coast, in the mid-west, south Florida, and Michigan (my dad was in the retail business and we moved frequently). In 1973, a year after graduating from nursing school, I moved to San Diego and have been here ever since. In 1975 I took diving lessons and was enthralled with the underwater from the first moment.

BMZ: How and when did you begin filming underwater? Did you do anything else for work before this? (Howard)

HH: In 1976 while working as a diving instructor in San Diego, I was hired to work as a spearfisherman to attract sharks during the Hollywood film The Deep. I took the money I earned and built an underwater 16mm camera system. Prior to working as an underwater cameraman I earned a living as a diving instructor, underwater photojournalist, and occasional stuntman. I doubled for Patrick Duffy on several episodes of Man from Atlantis and on several other low quality television productions.

BMZ: You had filmed with IMAX cameras for 2 or 3 previous films, and have also worked with Greg MacGillivray on several projects. What led to your first IMAX project, and what about it made you come back for more? How did you connect with Greg for this one? (Howard)

HH: I made a television film for the PBS series Nature in 1990 that won numerous awards and was ultimately seen by Imax founder, Graeme Ferguson. Imax had just developed the Imax 3D technology and was busy building a compact (345 pounds) Imax 3D camera. Having seen the PBS film, which was called Seasons in the Sea, he called and asked me to direct the first-ever underwater Imax 3D film. At first I thought he was joking. But eventually we went on to make Into the Deep, which has become the most profitable Imax 3D film ever made.

I enjoyed the challenge of working with the huge and technically complicated gear underwater. The 3D camera weighed 1,500 pounds in the underwater housing. Working in the open ocean, in currents and surge was really difficult. My film crew and I absolutely loved the challenges it presented.

About the time we were in pre-production for Into the Deep I got a call from Greg MacGillivray asking me to be underwater DP on The Living Sea. I don't know where he got my name. I should ask him sometime. But I ended up shooting the underwater portions of the film. Greg was later nominated for an Oscar for directing the film. It was a highly successful film and Greg and I enjoyed working together on it. In addition to Coral Reef Adventure Greg also asked me to work on Journey into Amazing Caves.

BMZ: Obviously (from the title), audiences will get to see a lot of coral reefs in the film – but what's the film's storyline? (Howard and/or Michelle)

MH: The film reveals the ecology of coral reefs. The story follows Howard, me and our film crew as we explore reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, in Fiji, Tahiti and Rangiroa. The audience will see the beautiful reefs and some of their inhabitants, and will learn about some of the perils that the reefs are facing such as over fishing and global warming. An important underlying theme is that of partnerships: not only the partnerships between the reef and its inhabitants, but the significant partnership between reefs and humans. All of this is an attempt to increase audience appreciation for the ocean, the reefs and underwater wildlife, and raise their awareness for the plight of coral reefs.

BMZ: Tell us about the locations, and why they were chosen. (Howard and/or Michelle)

MH: One really can't make a film about coral reefs and not include the largest of them all, the Great Barrier Reef - so going there was a no-brainer. As the journey continued, we included Fiji because it's considered the soft coral capital of the world, and because it has fantastic hard coral reefs as well. This is where our ‘deep dive team' made twenty-one dives deeper than 300 feet (some to 370 feet) on reefs where no human had ever dived. We were drawn to Rangiroa for the sharks - the grey reef sharks that form enormous schools at the entrance to this second largest atoll in the world.

BMZ: What are some of the most remarkable aspects of coral reefs, their ecosystems (and their surrounding lifeforms) that people will learn about in the film? (Howard and/or Michelle)

HH: Of course, what people will learn will be determined by how much they know when they come into the theater. Most patrons of Imax theaters are pretty well educated. So some people may not be surprised to learn that crown-of-thorns seastars are preyed upon by Triton Trumpet snails. Others may learn a lot from the individual animal behavior sequences in the film. But, most importantly, people will learn just how threatened coral reefs are and what environmental problems are causing reefs to die.

BMZ: Tell us about the vessels you lived on and conditions during filming. (Howard and/or Michelle)

MH: Our diving support platform was the Undersea Hunter, a 90-foot vessel that hails from Costa Rica, but which also had prior experience traveling in the South Pacific. We've used this boat as our support vessel for other films, including our IMAX film "Island of the Sharks." So we knew that it had the necessary crew support and deck space to accommodate the massive amounts of camera equipment, accessories and dive equipment we would bring to location. Even with as many as twelve film crew members and seven boat crew on board, conditions were comfortable.

BMZ: You've worked on a couple other other IMAX films – ISLAND OF THE SHARKS and OCEAN OASIS. Did you feel like you had the process of filming underwater w/ an IMAX camera "down pat"? What makes IMAX more challenging than regular cameras? (Howard and/or Michelle)

HH: I've worked on six or seven Imax films, but not Ocean Oasis. The underwater DP for that film was Bob Cranston who worked on Coral Reef Adventure as second cameraman. Anyway, there are several factors making Imax the most complicated of film formats underwater. The size and bulk of the camera systems is problematic. Just moving such big gear underwater is exhausting work. The camera makes a great deal of noise, which often frightens away the marine life. The depth-of-field of the lenses used for Imax is tiny making focus very critical and difficult. And the run time of the magazine load is only three minutes. It's tough to get animal behavior when the camera runs out of film after only three minutes, especially when the sound of the camera often disturbs the animals as soon as you turn it on. It is said that practice makes perfect. Well, we're a long way from doing perfect films underwater in Imax, but certainly the experience of directing and shooting a half dozen of these films has made me better at it.

BMZ: For CORAL REEFS, you took the IMAX camera deeper than its ever been – 370 feet. Tell us about this. Why go so deep and what were you capturing? (Howard)

HH: Since Greg planned to call the film Coral Reef Adventure, I wanted the adventure to be real. I decided to make a sequence of Dr. Richard Pyle exploring the deep reefs at depths more than twice the limit for sport diving. To do this we would need to use complicated rebreather diving gear. We would also need to breathe an exotic gas mix called trimix (a combination of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen). Compressed air is poisonous at 370 feet. Similarly, the trimix gas we breathed at depth would not support life on the surface. Technically, these dives were extremely complicated and dangerous. Experts told us that taking Imax cameras to those depths would be completely crazy. Some experts told us our chances of getting a serious decompression sickness hit on any one dive below 350 feet was thirty percent. Making these dives and capturing the action in Imax certainly qualified as an adventure. It was the most challenging diving I have ever done. Moreover, capturing Dr. Pyle as he explored these reefs in search of new fish species was a good story. While making these dives, Pyle discovered five new species that no human had ever seen before.

BMZ: Problems/incidents down there? Any other major disasters or close calls while filming in general? (Howard and/or Michelle)

MH: Howard got decompression sickness during one of the deep dives. We'd been advised that on any given dive below 350 feet there was a 30% chance that a diver would get bent, with the risk increasing as depth increased. But our dive team is so cautious and conscientious that I think we (at least I) believed that this wouldn't happen. When Howard experienced diaphragmatic pain during a 50-foot decompression stop from a dive to 365 feet, he knew he was in trouble. Since he was diving a closed circuit missed gas rebreather which provided nearly unlimited breathing gases, he had enough gas to allow him to extend his decompression time for that dive. He felt fine after surfacing and thought the problem was resolved. Later that afternoon other symptoms appeared: first a tingling sensation in his foot and then numbness. Despite the administration of oxygen, these symptoms progressed and soon developed into weakness of the leg. Following an Australian protocol for in-water recompression, he went back into the water with another diver for 3_ hours. After I consulted with DAN (Diver's Alert Network in the U.S.) we motored all night to the closest recompression chamber in Suva, Fiji for evaluation and additional treatment.

It was all quite scary. Without appropriate and early treatment this could have developed into a life-threatening situation. After the in-water recompression treatment we felt that the worst was past. But we were still faced with the possibility of a medical recommendation that Howard never dive again. Diving is not only Howard's livelihood, it's his life, so that would have been a very difficult situation to deal with. Luckily his condition improved and he was back in the water a month later working on the film.

BMZ: Was this the first time that those doing some of the filming underwater were in turn filmed with another IMAX Camera? How did this idea come about? Did it make the project considerably more difficult, and if so, was it worth it? (Howard and/or Michelle)

HH: It was Greg's idea to make a film showing our underwater Imax crew at work. Certainly this was an unusual approach. But watching divers work with this gear can be fascinating. This was the first time an Imax audience will see an Imax crew in action. This storyline did make the project more complicated. We needed two of everything. We had two underwater Imax cameras running even at depths below 300 feet. The audience will tell us if it was worth it.

BMZ: From the log I read of your expeditions, it seems that you encountered sharks quite frequently. Do they ever scare you? What creatures, if any, do scare you underwater and what are some of the scariest encounters you've had? (Howard and/or Michelle)

MH: Actually, we had trouble finding and getting close enough to some of the sharks we wanted to film. We dived a site in Fiji where we successfully baited in bull sharks. But the IMAX camera makes so much noise when it's pushing film through the mechanism that the sharks fled. Later we had difficulty finding the grey reef sharks we wanted to film in Rangiroa. We finally found them, but it was arduous. Frankly, what scares me the most about diving is stormy weather and strong currents that could impede my safe return from a dive.

BMZ: The two of you work closely together on most all of your expeditions, right? How/when did you first meet, and when did you begin working together? Describe the roles each of you play and how they complement each other. (Howard and/or Michelle)

MH: Howard and I met in 1975 when I signed up for a scuba diving class and he was my instructor. We were friends first and didn't start dating for some time. 6 years later we got married. At the time, and until 1991, I worked as a nurse. Diving and taking underwater photos was my hobby. Still, I often spent my vacation time on location with Howard for one film project or another. In the meantime Howard was working as a cameraman-for-hire and later began producing his own films. As his business expanded he needed assistance handling the growing amount of office and film production responsibilities. By 1991 I was ready for a career change and I joined the family business.

Our talents compliment each other because there are many things that he's good at that I'm not, and vice versa. So it works out well. Howard handles the creative side of the business and I implement the plans. I run the office and produce the films; he directs and shoots them, and oversees building the necessary equipment and accessories (for example we use custom built housings for our film and video cameras), etc.

BMZ: What would you say to children considering a career in diving or the study of the oceans? (Howard and/or Michelle)

MH: If you love diving, the ocean and animals, there are many types of work that you can get into. It's good to expose yourself to a variety of activities so that you can decide what you'd like to specialize in. Becoming a certified scuba diver helps, but depending on what you want to do it's not mandatory: I have a friend who is a marine biologist and teaches at a University, but he doesn't dive.

If your passion is animals then take every opportunity to learn all that you can: volunteer and/or take jobs as you're growing up that will give you hands-on experience while learning.

Education is really important. A college education gives you credentials and confidence. Almost all jobs and careers require communication skills, written and/or verbal, so don't neglect those areas in your education.

Follow your passion. Love what you do so that you can do what you love. It's not always an easy road, and if you don't love the journey, you're likely to be unhappy and not do a good job.

BMZ: What do you hope audiences will take away from CORAL REEF ADVENTURE? What are the biggest threats to reefs and what can "the average person" do to help? (Howard and/or Michelle)

HH: The biggest threats to coral reefs are global warming, thinning of the ozone layer, over-fishing, siltation caused by development and deforestation. These are all exacerbated by over-population. It is important that people know what is causing coral reefs to die. But I think the most important contribution our film might make to coral reef conservation is to show people just how spectacularly beautiful these reefs are. If you love this undersea wilderness, you will be more inclined to protect it. By being aware of coral reef conservation issues, the public can make informed decisions when selecting leaders, contributing to environmental causes, and joining conservation organizations.

BMZ: Are there any other scenes or activities above water (or besides diving) worth noting (e.g. hang gliding?) (Howard and/or Michelle)

HH: Well, the hang gliding sequence is very short, but was extremely challenging. I've been flying hang gliders for thirty years. Still, I'm not a pro. Flying within a few yards of a helicopter while at 12,000 feet over the Sierra mountains was terrifying and great fun.

BMZ: Did you meet any of the "locals" who live near the reefs explored in the film? What has been their relationship or interaction with the reefs?

MH: We worked with quite a few Fijians while making the film. Rusi Vulakoro was our local Fijian guide and on-camera talent. He's a colorful character who has had a long-time relationship with the reefs, as his father was a fisherman who taught him to fish as a youth. We learned a lot from Rusi and I miss him. We also spent some time in one of the 3 villages on the island of Gau (pronounced Now) where we did a lot of the filming. Each time we returned to the village I was greeted as if I were a long-lost family member who was returning home after months away. Everyone was very warm and welcoming, opening their homes and hearts to us. They even allowed us to film them as they proceeded with their various activities on a Sunday, a day that's devoted to worship and family when they normally don't see visitors.

I so enjoyed watching the villagers interact with each other and with the ocean that surrounds their home. Although the coral reef is just off-shore, the children rarely venture out to it. We took some of the 5 to 9 year olds out to the reef, and Jean Michel Cousteau and Rusi took them into the water. They play almost daily in the water at the village's dock, so they were avid swimmers. But they'd never seen the coral reef. They were so excited! We taught them how to use masks and snorkels and how to dive down to have a closer look at the reef. They could hardly contain their exhilaration and joy. That evening when the village elders prepared a splendid dinner for our crew, thanking us for including them in our film, the children were recognized for their rite of passage on the reef earlier that day. It was a memorable day for all of us.

BMZ: What are you passionate about at the moment? Future IMAX films? (Howard and/or Michelle)

HH: We look forward to our next underwater film production. We're not sure what this will be or where. It could be Imax or high definition video. Regardless of the format, what is most important to us is being out in the field doing the diving. It's a wonderful profession and a wonderful life.

BMZ: Any comments on the increasing prevalence of "non-traditional" Big Movies such as Disney animation or re-formatted Hollywood live-action films? (Howard and/or Michelle)

HH: The jury is still out on these developments. The leaders at Imax may be right in their view that showing non-traditional Imax films on the giant screen will be good for Imax shareholders. Personally, I think it confuses the audience. I fear people will no longer associate Imax films with documentary, educational, family entertainment. I think once you begin repurposing 35mm films to be shown in Imax theaters, Imax simply becomes a big screen and nothing more. I don't think the audience comes to Imax theaters just because the screens are big. Imax used to represent much more than a big screen.
(Click herefor main film page.)

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