Every week or so I receive an email from someone requesting my advice on how one might pursue a career in underwater filmmaking. I hate these emails. I hate them because I don’t have any easy answers. I hate them because I seldom have time for a proper response requiring many pages of thoughtful writing. And I hate them because I feel compelled to answer them (an ethical infection I believe I contracted from Stan Waterman). Those of you who might have written to me with a question of this nature can attest that I, or my wife Michele, do answer these emails. You can also attest that my answers are rather insipid, lame and probably not much help. Although I might have been noble enough to answer, I was probably too busy or too lazy to produce the effort the task requires. So I am going to try to fix that now. In the future I will send a copy of this to those who write for advice. The extent of my personalized answer will probably be something like “see the attachment, Howard.” But my best shot at answering this very tough question will lie herein.
In the following pages I will do my best to lay down my thoughts regarding the business of underwater filmmaking and the business of underwater photography. I will describe how I broke-in and will offer some advice on matters that I believe contributed to my success. Certainly, this business has been very good to me. It has been rewarding in every possible way. I’ve had a life filled with adventure and I made enough money to achieve a comfortable state of financial independence.
Breaking into this business is, however, extraordinarily difficult. If it were not so, there would be more professional underwater photographers than lawyers. My success at breaking-in was less that I was smarter than the average toadfish and more that I was in the right place at the right time with the right idea. I was not brilliant. It has been said that it is better to be lucky than smart. Indeed, I was very lucky.
I graduated college with a B.S. degree in zoology. I paid for my college education by teaching scuba diving at the Diving Locker Stores in San Diego, CA. Fortunately, the Diving Locker was owned by Chuck Nicklin who was not only an amazingly charismatic dive store owner, but was then, and continues to be, an accomplished underwater photographer and cinematographer. Though Chuck regularly warned his growing menagerie of hopeful clones that it was not possible to make a living in underwater photography, he had difficulty convincing those hopelessly optimistic employees who were too dense to appreciate his advice. Chuck, however, simply hadn’t foreseen the explosion in media and natural history film that was on the horizon. And certainly, neither had I.
By the late Seventies, the Diving Locker swarmed with talented young divers and photographers including Marty Snyderman, Mark Thurlow, Bob Cranston, Flip Nicklin, Steve Early, and myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe Chuck’s warning about pursuing a career as an underwater photographer, it was simply that I didn’t care. Shooting fish with a camera was more fun than shooting them with a speargun. Selling the photographs electrified my ego and helped justify the cost of cameras, film, and processing. People can tell you that your photos or videos are great, but make no mistake, the only sincere form of flattery is a check.
I didn’t care that I might never break even or, more remotely, make a living as an underwater photographer. I loved shooting photos and I loved occasionally seeing one in print. It was a great time in my life and it didn’t matter that one day I would have to grow up and become a stockbroker or bank teller. Every year I got better, purchased more gear, sold more photographs, made more money, and had more fun. I never intended to become a “professional.” I never intended to make my living in underwater photography. But one day in 1978 I discovered that the business I had drifted into had become so time-consuming and, surprisingly, profitable that I could no longer afford the time to work in the dive store. I had to choose between selling snorkels for a living and selling underwater images. From the day I won my first underwater photo contest, it took six years for me to graduate to pursuing the business full-time. Six years! But these were not six long years of deprivation and sacrifice. These were some of the most fun-filled years of my career. My goal was not to make a living taking photos. My goal was to make the next dive more fun than the last.
Two very remarkable things happened in 1976 that really gave my developing career a huge boost. One cold and foggy morning in January I found a California gray whale in a kelp forest off the San Diego Coast. The photos I took of this animal resulted in two double-page spreads in National Geographic. To my knowledge, they were the first underwater photos of a gray whale. I was instantly considered a whale expert and an underwater photographic wunderkind.
One sure fire way to “break in” is to photograph or film something spectacular that no one has seen before. Gray whales have already been photographed, but there are still mysterious subjects swimming around out there. Go out and get a great shot of a giant squid and National Geographic will be dialing your number. Get a video sequence of white sharks mating, and you will have Discovery eating out of your hand. Or go out and capture something no one has thought about or knows about. All that takes is luck. But remember, “luck” is the combination of opportunity and preparedness. You are not likely to get lucky unless you spend enormous amounts of time underwater. And when opportunity presents itself, you better be prepared with your finger on the shutter release of a professional quality camera and ready with the knowledge of how to use it.
A year after the magazine published the still images of the gray whale National Geographic Television asked me to shoot a film sequence on grays for a National Geographic Special. I turned them down. Even had I been given a year of assignment time and known how to use a 16mm movie camera, I doubted I could recreate the conditions that allowed me to capture the images that were published in the magazine. In a business where many would have taken the money and run, I decided to pass. Geographic got someone else. He spent three months chasing gray whales and never got a shot. I think I was respected for my decision and in 1981 I was asked to direct the underwater photography for a National Geographic Special on Sharks. I took that job and for many years the show remained the highest rated show PBS has ever aired.
The second thing that happened in 1976 was Peter Benchley’s motion picture The Deep. Al Giddings and Stan Waterman had been hired as co-directors of underwater cinematography. Al decided he needed a good spear fisherman to help attract sharks for the shark sequences in the film. For a recommendation, Al asked Chuck Nicklin who was on board as a cameraman and who happened to own a dive shop full of over-eager snorkel-suckers who would work for nothing or less. Chuck suggested me. I was young, a good diver, a good spear fisherman, and was not smart enough to say no if asked to jump into an ocean filled with frenzied sharks. I got the job.
I soon found myself on an airplane en route to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef with many of the industries’ most legendary figures. The all-star underwater crew included Chuck Nicklin, Al Giddings, Stan Waterman, and Jack McKenney. Chuck had already been influential in my career and his recommendation that got me the job on The Deep was hugely important. Watching Al Giddings direct the film was a revelation. He was simply the most powerful underwater director in the world. But meeting and becoming friends with Stan Waterman and Jack McKenney literally made my career. In the years that followed, both hired me for film projects and later passed on projects they were too busy (or too smart) to accept. If it were not for the hugely lucky break of meeting Stan Waterman and Jack McKenney, I would doubtless be canceling checks in that bank teller’s window.
For many years I made a good living by selling still photos and natural history stories to magazines and by doing assignment cinematography for television productions like American Sportsman and Wild Kingdom (I eventually directed sixteen episodes of Wild Kingdom). I did not learn about shooting and directing motion pictures by going to film school. I learned by watching films and by studying the works of superstars like Jack McKenney. If you want a course in making a good film, study a good film. It’s as easy as that, at least it was for me. It’s not necessary to go to film school. Just turn on your television, select the kind of film you want to make, and study the film for technique.
I used to watch natural history films on PBS sometimes holding a stopwatch to measure the length of shots and sequences. One day in 1987, while intensely studying an African wildlife documentary by Alan Root, I began to wonder why no one was making underwater animal behavior films. As I watched, I repeatedly complained to Michele, “I could do that underwater.” Many documentaries later, Michele, suggested I shut-up, stop talking about it, and just go do it. So I wrote a letter to David Heely, a man I had never met and the Executive Producer at PBS Nature, suggesting an underwater animal behavior film set in the California kelp forest. He wrote back and saying the last thing in the world I expected him to say. He said, “Okay.” I was thunderstruck. There is a “Catch-22” in filmmaking. The problem is that no one will employ you to produce a film until you have successfully run a budget in a responsible way and produced a good film. So, how do you make that first film? Catch-22. I was just offered a back door entrance to a business that, for a first-time filmmaker, has no front door.
I made a film called “Seasons in the Sea” which was released in 1990. There was no stroke of genius that revealed to me that the television market was ripe for this kind of film. There was no epiphany driving me to make a film, my “vision,” that would catapult me into the rarified company of the world’s most sought-after wildlife filmmakers. Right up until the time it aired, I was afraid that the film would be a dismal failure; the laughable result of an uninspired novice; just a boring watery film about fish behavior. Sure, this subject interested me, but I had no idea if it would interest anyone else. I had made it simply because making it was within my nature. By pure dumb luck, Seasons in the Sea turned out to be the right film at the right time.
Seasons was spectacularly successful. Although this was my first film, it didn’t win the newcomer award at the Wildscreen and Jackson Hole wildlife film festivals (the major business events in wildlife filmmaking). Instead it won Best of Show at both events. The Wildscreen award was the first time an underwater film or an American film had ever won.
Season in the Sea’s impact on my career is inestimable. National Geographic asked me to produce a special for them. I had to tell them to wait a year because I had already accepted a contract to make another film for PBS Nature (at more than double the Seasons budget). Geographic waited and in 1993 Michele and I were employed to produce a Special at more than three times the Seasons budget. Graeme Ferguson, founder of IMAX, came to San Diego to ask me to direct an underwater IMAX 3D film that later became Into the Deep. He came to San Diego just to see me! I was flabbergasted. I was so shocked to be asked by this legendary filmmaker to direct an IMAX 3D film with a camera system that would weigh 1,500 pounds that, at the end of our meeting, I left him standing at the curb holding his bags and drove away having forgotten that I was supposed to drive him to the airport. The enormous success of Seasons in the Sea gave birth to a film production career that never had a hungry moment or a difficult contract negotiation. I was the right guy at the right time with the right idea. The timing of it was critical. And the timing of it was pure dumb luck.
Okay, that’s how I went from selling snorkels in a dive store to where I am today. Maybe this will help you in your quest, but probably it won’t. My path has already been well-trodden and no longer leads to a successful career. Gray whales are well photographed and wildlife behavior films have fallen out of favor. If I sent the query for Seasons in the Sea out to broadcasters today, I doubt anyone would be interested. The market has changed.
Perhaps you will find something I used in my path to help you find yours but probably not. If, however, you are still hungry for the last dregs of advice I can muster, then read on.
Sure education is important, but perhaps not in the way you think. More than anything else, college taught me how to locate, manage, present, and communicate information. This is not something you pick up easily. It takes years and college is the best way to gain that experience. Should you major in marine biology? Sure, if you want to, but no client has ever seemed to care that I have a degree in zoology. Certainly, knowing the basic classification of animals, especially marine species is very useful and probably critical. But this is something you could pick up in under-graduate classes or by checking out the appropriate books from the library. Majoring in film or photography might be a good idea, but I think you can learn more by watching and studying television. So what is important?
Learn to write. You’ll find success elusive without good writing skills. Acquiring them takes both education and a great deal of practice. I get emails like the following gem:
“i see your films and they are great. i want to be a underwater photographer too. can you tell me how i should go about getting into the underwater photo bissness.”
Such an eloquent request hardly inspires a three-page essay on breaking into the wildlife film industry. Nevertheless, Michele shamed me into answering even this one, though she vetoed my first response (“Get underwater camera. Take pictures of fish. Sell ‘em). In the future, of course, I can simply write, “see attachment.” Anyway, the point is that writing is how you will present yourself to clients. If the writing sounds stupid, uneducated, and especially lazy, that is how the reader will imagine you. Do not write a query letter on your cell phone without capitalization, punctuation, and accepted grammar conventions. Do not send it as a text message. Writing magazine articles is a great way to advance your career and is also a great way to sell still photographs. By supplying both article and photos, you make it easy for an editor.
Learn computer skills. Know how to use word processing, spreadsheets and database programs. Learn how to type, and not just with your thumbs.
If you’re interested in filmmaking, learn how to use a computer editing programs. I suggest you learn Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premier, Da Vinci Resolve, CatDV, and/or Avid Media Composer. I don’t think it greatly matters what major you pursue in college. But I can think of good reasons why classes in biology, marine biology, creative writing, computers, film, journalism, engineering, and business would all be appropriate for a career in underwater photography or filmmaking.
What about post-graduate work? Well, a master’s degree is nice but not particularly useful in this business. A PhD, however, is something of value. A PhD following your name as author of a wildlife article or on the proposal for a film carries great weight with magazine editors and film producers. A PhD after your name makes you attractive as on-camera talent leading to opportunities to appear in or host television films. A PhD would help you acquire grants that might be used for making films. But, of course, a PhD requires a painful amount of mind-numbing work that will eat up years you might otherwise spend diving and building a library of underwater images or footage and having tons of fun.
I receive even more emails from people asking to work as an apprentice on film productions than from those interested in career advice. But finding a position on a film crew, especially mine, is very difficult. An applicant writing from out-of-town doesn’t appreciate that suggesting someone relocate their home to become part of a film crew requires an unacceptable commitment on the part of the film producer. I would never suggest someone move their home on the off chance that I might find them useful enough to include as part of my crew for a two-week shoot. Using someone who lives out of town is also not practical since my crews’ most valuable skills are those used in preparing for underwater work during the preproduction phase of the film.
Another reason finding a position as an apprentice is difficult is that most of us working in this business already have crews we have used for years and to whom we are loyal. We simply have neither the room nor the need for extra help especially from people we don’t know.
If, however, you should meet a professional to whom you would like to offer your service, consider what skills a professional might find valuable. I never hired a crewmember because he was a good underwater photographer. Photographers are the last things I need on a shoot. Following is a great story that illustrates my point. I have invented the dialog, but I believe the story is true in essence.
In the mid-1970s Al Giddings was constructing a 240-foot research expedition ship that he intended to use making underwater films throughout the world’s oceans. Pete Romano was a young man working as a deckhand on a dive boat and dreaming about a career in underwater film. Learning of the enormous project Giddings was undertaking, Pete decided to drive up to San Francisco and offer his services. He knocked on Al’s door and said, “Mr. Giddings, my name is Pete Romano and I would like a job.”
Giddings replied, “What do you do, Pete?”
“I’m a diver and an underwater cameraman,” Pete, who had learned underwater camerawork in the Navy, replied proudly.” Without mercy, Giddings immediately eviscerated Pete’s hopes.
“Look at this ship, Pete! The last thing in the world I need is more divers. And I sure as hell don’t need underwater photographers. Divers and underwater photographers are dime a dozen and besides, that’s my job so why would I need you? I need ship fitters, electricians, welders, video technicians, machinists, and engineers. Get off my ship!” Well perhaps it didn’t go exactly like that, but you get the drift.
Pete was deflated but not deaf. Instead of giving up he enrolled in a series of machinist classes. Six months later Pete returned to San Francisco and again knocked on Al’s door.
“Mr. Giddings, my name is Peter Romano and I would like a job.”
“What do you do, Pete?” asked Giddings not remembering Pete from before.
“I’m a machinist,” Pete replied.
For many years Pete worked for Al Giddings building underwater housings and lighting equipment. Eventually, Pete founded Hydroflex, a company that specializes providing underwater film equipment and services to Hollywood. Pete is now the most successful underwater cinematographer in the feature film business.
One way to dive with and lean from professionals is to sign up for dive tours aboard live-aboard boats. Many professionals build their libraries by booking space on dive boats. Sign up and then ask to help. Holding light cables for someone like me can be painfully boring especially after paying a lot of money to go on a dive vacation, but it is a step in the right direction. Michele and I occasionally book space aboard live-aboards to make films or build our library. When Michele and I book commercial live-aboards with space available, we post the dates on our website.
How you deal with money will make you or break you in almost any business. John Heywood’s ancient proverb “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” is very wrong when it comes to money. The most valuable thing money can provide is financial security and, ultimately, financial independence. You can only acquire these things by not spending your money.
I have two suggestions where money is concerned. First, save your money. Michele and I earned everything we have within this business and we have reached a comfortable degree of financial independence largely by simply saving our money. Saving money is a good idea for anyone, but is especially important to freelancers. Since the freelance film and photography business never guarantees a regular paycheck, you must set money aside during good months to help ward off starvation during lean ones. Sure, this is obvious common sense. But I suggest you take it a bit further. Always save 20% of your gross income. No matter what, always pay your savings account first, then pay your other bills. Put 20% in the bank and eventually into an investment portfolio. Never take it out. When you get windfall money from a big sale, put it in the bank. Leave it there. Never spend it. Consider this payment toward the purchase of financial security. As a freelancer, you can get by on 80% of what you make. Someday you will think that the 20% you put away was the smartest thing you have ever done.
My second suggestion is to not over-invest in equipment. Many photographers and filmmakers insist on having the latest, finest, most expensive gear. They never get out from under the debt this gear incurs. You can get perfectly adequate and professional images with last year’s technology and, often, using prosumer cameras. When my competitors were taking out loans to buy $60,000 Arriflex movie cameras, I was winning awards using twenty-year-old Éclair cameras I purchased for less than $10,000. Your gear needs to be professional quality, but it does not need to be the latest and greatest. Begrudge the money you spend on gear, don’t rejoice in the ownership of the most expensive equipment out there.
When dealing with clients, you can be an aggressive negotiator, or you can be a pushover. You can be parsimonious or you can be generous. You can demand every cent you deserve or you can be munificent in the way you charge for your services and expenses. You can think only of yourself or you can empathize with your clients. My policy has always been to provide more than the client expects and charge less than the client can afford to pay. For the most part, our clients think we are great to work with, and so they come back to us year after year. If there is a dispute over money, we almost always let it go in favor of the client. If we are treated unfairly by a client, we don’t get angry. Instead we raise our day-rate the next time we are called. Michele and I know freelancers who charge the highest possible rate, argue for every cent they deserve and struggle to stay employed. Michele and I charge healthy rates, but are pushovers when negotiating the details. We work as much as we want.
Most successful underwater filmmakers and photographers are great divers. Initially, diving skills are far more important than camera skills. The best underwater filmmakers and photographers started out as highly experienced divers who eventually picked up cameras to document an environment that was already enormously familiar to them. Successful underwater photographers and filmmakers do not start as photographers or filmmakers then learn to dive. Learning to dive well enough and learning the undersea environment well enough to be a great underwater photographer or filmmaker takes many years. Learning how to use a camera is a simple technical skill that can be learned in months. It’s no surprise that nearly all successful underwater photographers and filmmakers were once dive instructors, spear fishermen, or dive resort dive masters. Teaching diving and/or working aboard a live-aboard dive boat or at a diving resort is a great way to start. It’s also a great way to meet and dive with professionals.
Finally, one last word about priorities and goals. If it is your goal to make money in underwater photography, then pursue another career. If it is your goal to make a living as an underwater filmmaker, then find another vocation. If it is your goal to quit your day job and capture underwater images full-time, think twice. I believe setting these goals predisposes one to frustration, disappointment and failure. Make no mistake, most of the people who follow this dream fail. But even failing can be fun if you have the right attitude.
Conversely, if your goal is to dive, explore, and photograph the marine wilderness because it is your passion; if seeing your still or motion picture images published produces a joy independent of the money it earns; if you find selling your work is fun because it results in seeing your images published; if you simply don’t care that you may never succeed at making your avocation your vocation, then you might one day find, as I did, that you can no longer afford to do anything else.
The First Step
The first step is always tough. The novice filmmaker suffers from the Catch-22 I described earlier. Without the financing of a broadcaster or other executive producer, it is very difficult to make a video that will compete with the hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions of dollars invested in a professionally made product. In a motion picture, the last 10% of polish costs 90% of the money. Without it, however, your video is simply amateur. So what to do?
First, study how natural history films are made. Learn how a sequence is constructed. Work side by side with an editor. Better still, learn to be an editor. Make YouTube and Vimeo videos. When these are good enough to receive many thousands of “likes,” then consider moving on to longer productions. If you want to make a major documentary, I suggest you spend at least 100 days of diving to capture the footage for your first hour-long film. Assemble your film into a rough-cut stage. Do not try to finish it. Make sure this rough cut demonstrates a clear story. Then take your video and start knocking on doors. Go see National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, any market you can identify. Don’t send letters and copies of your film. No one will read them and no one will watch your videos. Believe me, they won’t. Instead, go see these people. Show them your video and explain how, with their help, it could be made into a commercial program. Alternately, figure out how to make money selling your films on the web. That is where the future of filmmaking is going. I can’t tell you how to make money on the web because I don’t know. Hell, I come from a generation that made motion pictures with chemistry! Invent or learn of a web business model that works for you media. Figure it out.
Attend the Wildscreen International Wildlife Film Festival and/or the Jackson Hole International Wildlife Film Festival. You won’t believe how expensive it is and you will almost certainly accomplish nothing your first year. But eventually you will begin to become part of the community. It takes years. Don’t expect people to look at your rough cut or demo reel at these festivals. Don’t even bring it. Every wannabe there will be trying to do that and executives find it a pain. Instead, get an address and plan a visit later after the festival is long over. Your willingness to travel and spend the time and money should earn you some attention.
If you’re a still photographer, spend a year shooting your photo story, not just a dive trip. Make sure it is a story, not just pretty images. Write an article that is supported by your images. Distill what you have shot down to 100 or less photographs. Then take them to the various magazines where you would like to see them printed. If your images are good, doing this in person will probably result in a sale. Don’t start with National Geographic. Start with realistic goals. Don’t bother with diving magazines. They see tons of great underwater images and can get them for nothing. Go to magazines that may not often see good underwater material. What magazines are these? Go to a bookstore and look through the magazine racks. If you must write instead of calling on them personally, then write a one-page query letter. Write it well. Don’t write more than two pages. Don’t send your images. First ask if they are interested. If they say no, then it was hopeless to start with no matter how good your stuff is. If they say yes, then you have received some minor commitment that will probably insure they actually look at your pictures and read your story. When negotiating price, ask what your client’s budget is and accept it. Make buying from you easy.
Finally, remember why you’re doing this. Pursuing a career in underwater images is great way to enhance your diving adventures. It’s a wonderful excuse to spend thousands of hours underwater. Remember to love the diving. More than anything, it’s about making the dive.