An Interview With Film Director, Howard Hall

Leviathan from Howard Hall on Vimeo.

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Howard Hall is a groundbreaking marine and wildlife film director and cinematographer.  Howard directed the first ever underwater IMAX 3D feature film, “Into The Deep”.  Of the five highest grossing 3D films produced by IMAX Corporation, two were directed by Howard Hall.  Into the Deep has earned box office receipts of over $70 million and “Deep Sea 3D” has earned over $94 million.  The Hall’s recently released Under the Sea 3D has earned over $46 million.  Netflix recently released “Underwater”a 24 minute art video made as part of the Moving Art Series. Search for Moving Art, Underwater on Netflix.  Netflix makes the video available to watch in 4K.

Howard is not only a pioneer of film, he is also a director and filmmaker who is working to preserve marine life.  As a marine cinematographer, Howard has captured on film some of the most wondrous marine species of this planet.  By preserving many of his films, Howard may not only be preserving marine films but also preserving film of species that are fast disappearing.

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Howard Hall

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I was born in West Virginia but moved to California when I was 6. I joined the swim team in high school and learned to dive at 16. I became a dive instructor two years later and financed my college degree in zoology by teaching diving.

How did you begin as a filmmaker?

After college, I looked for ways to use my diving skills and my zoology degree to make a living. I began taking underwater photographs and writing articles for dive magazines and wildlife magazines. Eventually, this became a full-time profession and I gave up dive instruction. As I followed this path, I realized the money was better and the budgets higher in motion picture production. I built an underwater camera and began taking jobs as an underwater cameraman. After photographing nearly 100 underwater film projects, I sold an idea for my own underwater wildlife film to PBS Nature. That film became Seasons of the Sea, perhaps my best film ever.

What path led you to nature and wildlife films and in particular underwater nature films?

As a child, I always loved animals and nature. This combined with my love of diving developed into a passion for studying marine wildlife.

Can you tell us about the evolution in filmmaking from its earliest days in 16 mm to your present filmmaking techniques?

I am a member of the third generation of underwater filmmakers. Hans Haas and Jacque Cousteau were followed by Stan Waterman, Al Giddings, Jack Mckenney, and a few dozen other pioneers. I started taking underwater photographs in the early 1970’s and studied the work of these early underwater image makers. I began shooting underwater 16mm film in 1978 and made many films using 16mm. I developed an excellent library of underwater wildlife footage with outtakes from the dozen or so films my wife, Michele, and I produced and directed. In the late 1990’s I saw that high definition video was going to replace standard definition and that would greatly depreciate my 16mm library. So I sold the library to Survival Anglia. Then I started rebuilding the library in HD. By then, I had also begun working in the IMAX format. Between 1994 and today, I directed four IMAX features and was director of photography on many others. Much of the equipment we used in IMAX production was gear we built ourselves including a housing for the IMAX Mark II camera. Today, HD is being replaced by digital cinema 4K. We are holding on to our HD library but have begun aggressively capturing stock footage in 4K with RED cameras.

How are you preserving your films?

Films made in 16mm have depreciated dramatically. I have converted my best ones to HD and have even replaced original scenes with nearly identical scenes captured in HD. These are now stored as digital files on hard drives. Eventually, I will make them available online.

Of the many locations you have filmed, do you have a favorite?

Southern California (on a good day). When the California kelp forest is clear and calm, there is no better diving in the world.

What about species, are you partial to one or two?

I very much like whales of any species. I have filmed sperm whales, blues, minkes, humpbacks, and gray whales.

You have made some of the most incredible IMAX films, can you tell us about that experience?

Working in IMAX was extremely challenging when we captured the images on 70mm film. The underwater camera system for the IMAX 3D film camera weighed more that 1,200 pounds out of the water and ran for only 3 minutes before requiring a film change. It’s not hard to imagine how hard it is to capture wildlife behavior with a system like that. Today, most producers have moved to digital capture. This is a much easier format to shoot. But 3D, even with digital cameras, is bulky and very challenging.

Michele produced most of your films. What is it like to work together as a team?

Michele and I work together very well. I do most of the creative work and she implements the production plan. We almost never look over each other’s shoulders.  

What was it like directing the first underwater IMAX 3d film, Into The Deep?

Ironically, shooting Into the Deep, was a totally pressure-free experience. This was the first-ever underwater IMAX 3D film and was one of the first live-action IMAX 3D films of any kind. The producers at IMAX had very low expectations of what I could accomplish with the humongous and temperamental IMAX 3D camera. When looking at dallies, if the image was steady, in focus, and exposed properly, my executive producers were ecstatic. When we began coming back from boat trips with actual animal behavior sequences, they were totally amazed. Also, in the back of my mind, I always knew that if I failed in making this film, I could always go back to making television documentaries. That did not become necessary. Last I heard, Into the Deep had grossed more than $77 million. It was only budgeted at $4 million.

Can you tell us about photographing in the kelp forests off the California coast?

I began diving in the California kelp forest. It’s home to me. On a good day, no place is more beautiful.

Do you have a particular favorite among your IMAX films?

Into the Deep is probably my favorite because it was my first. But I also greatly enjoyed making Coral Reef Adventure. During that film, we took two IMAX cameras below 350 feet on a series of highly technical dives. I consider those dives among my most challenging accomplishments.

The footage of various whale species is simply incredible and something most people will never get to experience if it were not for films such as yours. Can you tell us about your feelings when you are filming these beautiful creatures of the deep?

Diving with whales is simply awesome. You easily sense their intelligence. Almost all the whale footage I have captured has been of whales that were curious and came to me, sometimes staying with me for hours. It is easy, however, to become complacent. Whales are big and are not infallible. I once accidentally frightened a gray whale. It struck me with its flukes breaking my left arm and two ribs.

Where do you see oceanic wildlife cinematography headed?

Despite declining populations of most marine creatures, underwater cinematographs continue to capture increasingly amazing images due to innovation in technique and the incredible advances in imaging technologies. 16mm film was a viable format for almost 100 years. Today, capture resolutions are increasing rapidly and cinematographers need to keep re-filming the remaining wildlife with ever improving technologies. This is somewhat sad in many ways since images captured in low resolutions like 16mm will seldom be seen in the future. But on the other hand, it gives me reason to repeatedly visit wonderful places with ever improving cameras.

What would be your dream project?

All of the films I have made were based upon ideas I dreamed up. So, in truth, each film was my dream project at the time. I have been overwhelmingly lucky in this regard.

More about Howard Hall:

Upcoming Expeditions

Malpascua, Philippines Thresher Shark Trip February 2016

Howard and Michele will be diving in Malapascua, Philippines for 9 days in hopes of capturing footage of Thresher Sharks.   Our plan is to dive each morning at the famous thresher shark cleaning station.  After the thresher shark dive, we will concentrate on the many coral reef subjects that Malapascua has to offer.

Underwater on Netflix

We just released Underwater on Netflix.  This is a 24 minute art video made as part of the Moving Art Series. Search for Moving Art, Underwater on Netflix.  Netflix makes the video available to watch in 4K.

You can find out more about Howard Hall and his amazing wildlife films at:

howardhall.com

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