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'Ocean Men' Director Bob Talbot


Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: April 2002

BMZ interviews world-reknown marine photographer/cinematographer Bob Talbot, who takes on a new underwater subject -- humans -- in the new Big Movie "Ocean Men."


Category: Interviews

Q : When did your love for the ocean start?

BOB : That goes back as far as I can remember. When I was a kid the first house I lived in, in New York was right on the water, off Long Island Sound. From the time I was five until the time I was around nineteen or so I lived in Eagle Rock in L.A., and as soon as I could, I moved closer to the ocean. I lived in Redondo Beach and then Rancho Palos Verdes until just recently, when I moved to Monterey. I’ve always been around the ocean. As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the ocean.

Q : When did you realize you wanted to incorporate your love of the ocean into your career?

BOB : I started freediving when I was eight, and scuba diving when I was thirteen. When I was fourteen I got a camera, just kind of something to do when I was in the water. I seemed to have a knack, a little natural ability. And I realized from watching Cousteau films and that sort of thing, that this might be the best way to do what I wanted to do -- something to help the ocean. So it was kind of a natural progression from there.

Q : You’ve done very famous still photography, and you’ve done T.V. and feature films, before getting into Large Format or IMAX. How did you first get involved with Large Format?

BOB : Well it’s funny… In 1990 I was doing this little film of my own called "Dolphins and Orcas" – just music and imagery,– and I was filming up in the San Juan Islands when I ran into an old buddy of mine Leonard Aube, who’s with the California Science Center. And he mentioned that he wanted to do an IMAX film about Orcas.

Some years later we hooked up on that and tried to develop a project. I wound up in Greg MacGillivray’s office (who by then was already at work on an IMAX film about dolphins), and I ended up directing and shooting the underwater sequences in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos for "Dolphins."

Ocean Men came after that. But, I’ve always been fascinated and intrigued by Large Format. So much of what I’ve done has been trying to put people "there" -- to put people into whatever environment, or close to whatever animal I was photographing. And, of course, no format does that better than the Giant Screen. So for me, as taxing as it is to work in this format from a technical and logistical standpoint, it’s much more than made up for by the feeling of "being there".

Q : Ocean Men was conceived of by the German company H5B5, is that right? How did you hook up?

BOB : Pipin Ferreras (one of the stars in the film) had recommended me to H5B5. As I mentioned, freediving has been a big part of my love for the ocean. It’s a different way to explore the ocean. And ever since I saw "The Big Blue" [Luc Besson’s 1988 feature film about freediving pioneers Enzo Majorca and Jacques Mayol] I was inspired to do my own freediving film. So when I was presented with this opportunity I jumped at it.

It’s a little bit out of the arena I normally work in, which is to say, it wasn’t dealing primarily with animals and it didn’t have a real environmental message to it. But it was great to be able to tell a human story, especially about freediving.

Q : You mentioned Pipin Ferreras as one of the stars. Can you tell us about the main characters in the film, and why they were chosen?

BOB : Almut Saygin [producer, H5B5 Media AG] came up with the idea for the film. She was at a freediving competition in Europe, and ran into Umberto Pelizzari [Ocean Men’s other star freediver]. She was a television producer, so she started doing some research and hatched the idea of doing a Large Format follow up to the "Big Blue" movie, which was the story of Jacques Mayol and Enzo Majorca (famous old-time freedivers).

Pipin Ferreras and Umberto Pelizzari are really the Jacques Mayol and Enzo Majorca of today -- the new generation if you will. What made the new story interesting and what you pick up on right away is just how different these two individuals are – in their technique, their philosophy and their diving style. It wasn’t just about a couple of guys who were trying to go deep, it’s about a couple of guys who each had a history, and shared completely different philosophies.

Pipin believes in using a sled to go as deep as he can, while Umberto who believes in using only his fins.

Q: The story is definitely far more than an afterthought.

BOB : That was my first real challenge on this film-to get past the, "they go down, they come up, they go down, they come up"… then what? We really started on the film without a solid story.

Ally and I were in were in Cozumel when Pipin was going for his world record in 2000. After he set the record, we went back to the hotel and had a story meeting.

So I said to Ally – just tell me some stories about these guys. We worked in the hotel room for a couple of hours, and I put together the storyline for the film. It was just one of those great moments where everything fell into place. With all the research Ally had done I was able to put something together in my head that I thought would work visually on the giant screen.

Q : Where are the 2 main divers from?

BOB : Pipin Ferreras is from Cuba, and Umberto Pelizarri is from Milan, Italy. The locations we shot for the film range everywhere from the Bahamas, to Italy (Sardinia), Mexico, Munich, L.A. -- I’m sure I’m missing some. We did a lot of traveling. So, it was a pretty crazy shoot. We covered a lot of ground, and we had an international crew. Ally and I figured it out once… I think there were seven different languages being spoken by the crew at one point, which made for interesting times. But everybody got along wonderfully, and it was a great experience. It was a tough experience, but it was a great experience.

Q : Now, the dives were fairly deep, but not as deep as they might have been if the divers had a tank. What were some of the challenges, both technically and from a human standpoint, of the production?

BOB : Well it’s funny you mention that because it was actually harder on the divers with tanks -- from a physiological standpoint – than it was for the freedivers. I shouldn’t say harder, but it was more dangerous for the divers with tanks than it was for freedivers. The freedivers didn’t have to worry about decompression sickness and, of course, we did.

So that made it very difficult to film because we would be limited to only one deep dive a day. And then we’d have to do shallow work, or work top side.

In some scenes we had to use a lot of divers. And once we got everyone in place, if something happened -- a camera jam or, or a light wouldn’t come up… that was it for the day. The divers were spent.

This film is really a testament to the crew because it was done under very difficult conditions. There were a lot strong divers in the water that worked very hard. And I could give you a whole list of guys who worked top side as well but I know you probably don’t have room for all that. For me the whole experience is about the crew and without them there would be no film.

Q : Now could you just briefly summarize what the story line is for the film?

BOB : The story in a nutshell starts with Jacques Mayol, who pretty much explains the history of freediving. Then describes his competition with Enzo Majorca in the early days for freediving records. Because Jacques and Enzo were actually the ones who started the sport of going for records.

At that point the narrator comes in and introduces the modern day characters – Pipin Ferreras and Umberto Pelizarri - and we see their personalities and how they got into the sport. We see how Umberto was afraid of the water as a child and Pipin was actually indoctrinated to the seas by Olo Kun, a Santeria God.

And how they finally met, became friends, then began competing against each other. Then how each went off to explore their own discipline that they felt was the purest form of freediving.

Q : Was it hard to create drama with the two?

BOB : That’s a really good question because you know Allie had first come up with this concept of telling a story with two guys. But what her production company wanted to achieve with the film was a more or less a knock down, drag out competition between the divers. Well, neither of the divers was interested in going head to head in the same discipline.

So we had them doing two different disciplines and at the same time, the production company wanted a story of this intense rivalry. Which at first I thought was impossible because - it’s like having a rivalry between a drag racing driver and a formula one driver. They’re two just totally different things.

So, it forced me to get more into the story of the two guys and where their heads were at and why they both were going after different disciplines. And from the get-go Ocean Men was an opportunity for me as a filmmaker to tell a story in an environment that I knew and loved. So the story was very important – it was a step for me to go from shooting wildlife to telling a human story.

Q : I know you’re very much inspired by conservation and environmental concerns, and you said this was somewhat of a stray from that. But, would you say there’s still an underlying message – of people seeing something so beautiful and wanting to conserve it?

BOB : I hope that when people see beautiful imagery in the sea no matter who makes it or what medium it’s in, it encourages them to be more conscientious the ocean. I wish I could say there was some kind of environmental message in this film. About the only one I could sneak in there was the thing about Sharks not being monsters, but companions.

It was tough. Really, if you look at the big picture of what I’m trying to achieve, it was to tell a human story, and use that as a stepping stone to tell other human stories that have to do with the ocean. I want to really bring out issues that face the ocean through human stories, and this is a great step in that direction. Does that make sense?

Q : Perfect sense. That said, in terms of market realities was there any attempt to orient this film towards the typical "child audience" of Large Format?

BOB : You know I remember being in elementary school and my friends and I practically passing out in class while we held our breath on our desks to see who could go the longest. I don’t think there’s a kid on the planet that hasn’t held their breath to see how long they can. So I think kids are naturally fascinated by that and I think kids are naturally fascinated by the ocean.

And I think kids are often inspired and moved by music, which was a very important component in the film. Cliff Eidelmann’s score is in many ways the soul of the film. So I think, yes, I was thinking about the kids.

But, I certainly wasn’t thinking about doing a film that spoke down to children. It was more about showing kids that they can challenge themselves, and really do whatever they want to do in life if they work hard enough at it.

At the same time, I wanted to make sure that kids understood that this is an extremely dangerous sport. A couple of my freediving friends mentioned that they thought the film was a little on the dark side because I showed a black-out and I mentioned that people died while freediving.

I was very nervous about encouraging kids to go out and freedive without being properly trained. I want them to understand that this is something that should only be done with instruction and a buddy. That yes, you can die doing this if you’re not careful.

Q : Have you had any close calls in your own experience?

BOB : Yeah, but I’ve tried to be smart and freedive with friends. If you’re freediving with someone else the odds of you seriously injuring yourself are much less.

It’s when you’re out there alone that’s the most dangerous, because your biggest enemy is shallow water blackout. If you’re with someone when you blackout the odds are you’ll be fine. If you’re alone and you blackout it’s pretty much a done deal.

If I am alone, I try to make sure I’m well within my limits.

Q Any more Big Movies in the works right now?

BOB : Actually, one of the projects I’m thinking about right now is a Large Format film that has do with the ocean.

Whenever I’m working on a Large format film I swear I’ll never do another. But, once they’re done and you see them on the big screen you just can’t help but want to get back out there and do it again. It’s a remarkable medium and there really isn’t any other format that compares.

Q : What do you think of the current state of IMAX movies? Where do you think they’re going? And where do you think they should go?

BOB : Well, I don’t know if there’s a "should." I think these things just find their natural balance. But I’m glad to see that there’s some commercial films being made because I think Large Format films -- as wonderful as they’ve been – in many ways have reached a limited audience with a limited expectation as to subjects and stories. I feel that the Large Format experience can be even more compelling than it’s been if we take beyond the classic documentary style and tell better stories.

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(Bob Talbot Biography)

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