Friday, October 31, 2008

IMAXing - Somebody's got to do it!

Maurine and I are back in Bali after a month at sea filming with Howard and Michele Hall and their stellar IMAX crew. We worked with them, last April in PNG, on the initial shoot for the film and now on the final leg in Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara region. That area, if you’re geographically challenged, begins, more or less, east of Bali includes Komodo National Park and continues east to Timor and the Banda Sea. We covered over 1000 nautical miles on our journey!

On the first night of the trip Howard showed us a rough “video” cut of the film compiled of footage from the four previous shoots (two in PNG and two in Australia). The film that audiences will see is shot on 70mm film stock with the IMAX 3D camera. (There are only three of these cameras in existence and we had two with us.) Even at that stage the film looked great, but Howard pointed out segments he wanted to strengthen. On the last night of our cruise he showed us a new rough cut. It was absolutely amazing to see how much stronger the film became during our month of filming. To be a part of the evolution of a 3D IMAX movie was a thrill that words can hardly convey (but I’ll try)!

The film titled, Under the Sea - 3D, is due for release in late February ’09. Although we worked very hard capturing images of animals and their behavior (at times the film crew was underwater for 6 hours without a break), for Howard and Michele the grunt work of the film lies ahead. Between now and February they will spend countless hours in dark rooms, writing and rewriting script, editing and reediting the footage, recording music and narration. If you are interested in learning more about the process visit the Hall’s website,; then to find out when the film will be in an IMAX theater near you follow the link to IMAX’s website.

Filming in IMAX, especially 3D IMAX, and specifically underwater 3D IMAX is very difficult. Howard often jokes that there has never been a less friendly, more cumbersome, challenging format invented. Frequently words like idiotic and stupid get tossed in. But Howard has been doing this a long time and seemly has infinite patience. No one does it better. The camera is heavy, add the housing, and it’s much heavier, bulky and awkward. Depth of field is about 4 inches and you have to be within about 3 feet of the subject. There are hundreds of feet of cable, snaking through the water column for powering the surface-supplied movie lights, which must be dealt with. The bulbs explode from time to time, which is always startling to crew and subject. A team of between 4-6 divers is required underwater to operate the camera and keep all the equipment sorted out. Most of the film crew use re-breathers, in lieu of SCUBA, so they can stay down for extended periods and avoid long decompression times. Once everything is set the film rolls…for a whopping 3 minutes! Once those 3 minutes are exposed the camera has to be “recovered” (by another team of divers) hauled to the surface, returned to the mother ship, and winched on board for a film change. Then the camera is re-launched and delivered to the site for another 3 minutes of filming. A film change alone usually takes about an hour. Contending with current is a major factor so for camera delivery and retrieval underwater scooters are employed. All this is taking place while the subject patiently waits for his queue, NOT!

On September 27th we boarded the live-aboard Seven Seas in Benoa Harbor, Bali and headed east. Before I begin the trip log I’d like to say a few words about Seven Seas. Maurine and I have been on quite a few Phinisi vessels in Indonesia and Seven Seas,, is one of the best. Owners Mark Heighs and Jos Pet know what they are doing and it really shows. They built the boat for the comfort of divers and photographers based on their years of experience in the industry. It is very seaworthy, the cabins are spacious and the food is delicious. Most importantly, and anyone who has ever sailed on a Phinisi will know what I’m talking about, Seven Seas deck’s don’t leak! The crew is outstanding! Mark began diving in Indonesia, with his aunt Valerie Taylor, in the early ‘80s. For years Jos worked with TNC and is in large part responsible for the successful marine conservation efforts in Komodo National Park (KNP).

We sailed east for two days stopping first at Sangeang Island just west of KNP. Those two travel days allowed us to get our sea legs and sort out the 7 tons of gear required for filming. The camera weighs several hundred pounds but when it’s placed in the housing it tops the scales at 1300 pounds. Needless to say you don’t chase after the marine life! At Sangeang, an incredibly beautiful volcanic island that towers to nearly 7000 feet, we were after garden eels. I know what your thinking garden eels, everyone has seen garden eels. Well not in 3D they haven’t. The eels will appear to be right in your face, so close you’ll think you can touch them. With the 3D effect, they will tower over and around you. The footage is awesome!

After the eels we continued east into KNP. M and I spent many years exploring this region during the early and mid ‘90s. We have over a 1000 dives in the park but we haven’t spent much time there in the last few years. Captain Mark and his crew know it intimately however and many of their sites were new to us. We concentrated our efforts in the north, where the water is warm and clear. The focus was to capture beautiful, vibrantly healthy reef panoramas with swirling, schooling fish life. Northern Komodo has this in spades. The conservation efforts begun there in the mid 90s, initiated by TNC (Jos was head of the field station at the time) have really paid off. Fish bombing is a thing of the past and the fish life is outstanding. Diving is much better now in KNP than when we spent time there a decade ago. If you’ve never been to Komodo or haven’t been lately; definitely GO or go again! It’s a premier, world-class destination. Many of the northern sites not only have masses of schooling reef fish, but there are big fish as well…tunas, mackerel, and GTs (giant trevally). One site has a resident pod of dolphin and sharks are making a strong comeback. Mantas are seen at numerous locations throughout the park and the critter life is the best in Indonesia outside Lembeh.

Another sequence that Howard wanted to film was anemone fish. Komodo is home to an abundance of anemonefish species. Again you might say anemonefish, how common can you get. Well go see the film. You’ll quickly develop a love affair with numerous species of these lovable dancing fish.

After Komodo we continued sailing east past the islands of Flores, Lembata, and Alor; our next destination, Gunung Api (Fire Mountain) in the Banda Sea. Gunung Api is only a speck of land, actually the tip of a volcano. It sits alone in the middle of the Banda Sea and is home to an amazing variety of birds including shearwaters, terns, boobies, frigates and red-tailed tropic birds to mention a few. But we didn’t go all that way for the birds. We came for the snakes, sea snakes! For some reason this island in the middle of nowhere is home to hundreds if not thousands of sea snakes. They are in the cobra family and highly venomous. Fortunately they have very small teeth set far back in their small mouths but more comforting is the fact that they virtually ignore divers. Actually that’s not true. They are curious and swim right for you, especially to your feet for some odd reason. It seems like every time you look down there is a snake or two poking around your fin tips. They also wind around your legs, swim up your back and over your shoulder. It’s a bit unnerving initially; hell it’s unnerving period. But you quickly learn they are treating you as part of their environment and have no malicious intent. Forget “Snakes on a Plane” wait until you see sea snakes in 3D!

By the time we’d spent days filming the snakes, believe it or not, nearly a month had passed so we headed west back to Maurmere on Flores Island where we were scheduled to fly back to Bali. But flights kept getting rescheduled or cancelled. Some of the crew had international flights to catch so Michele chartered a plane and the next stop was where we began, Bali.

M and I have been showing some of the crew the sites of Bali for the last few days. A number of them had never visited this lovely island so instead of leaving immediately they wisely decided to spend a few days of R&R. They’ve been wining and dining, getting massages, shopping, visiting temples and photographing 1000 year old terraced ricefield…shopping. Did I mention shopping? Bali is the handicraft capital of the world. The dollar is strong right now and you just wish you were on one of the crew’s Christmas gift list! Today, Halloween, we attended a massive cremation. The gaudily decorated cremation tower was 4-5 stories tall. It required at least a hundred or more bearers to carry it down the streets of Ubud to the cremation grounds where the body was removed from the tower and placed into a 20 foot tall Bull effigy; then everything was set on fire. It was a grand party and a blazing farewell for the deceased. Not a tear was shed, the kids had a fine time, and what a photo opportunity.

Maurine and I will be home, in Ubud, for the month of November working on the Raja Ampat guidebook, the real reason we are living here. At the beginning of December we will take a short break from Indonesia and visit the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Then in the middle of December we fly back to Papua for another 3 months that will complete the diving portion of the book project. Our home in Papua will be a series of live-aboards and land-based resorts. It’s hard work but somebody’s got to do it!

Best Fishes,
Burt and Maurine