Tom Campbell is a self-taught marine cinematographer and photographer who’s been shooting for 30 years, and he’s got about 50,000 stills and a 350-tape hd library to prove it. Two of Campbell’s numerous hd one-hour one-offs recently aired on Discovery HD Channel: The Blue Realm: Giants of San Benedicte and Shark Business.
Based in Santa Barbara, Campbell was one of the first underwater cinematographers to use HD. He currently owns two Sony digital HD (24P) F900 cameras.
What would you say to those still hesitant about swimming into HD waters?
It’s a little scary for a lot of people looking to get into [high def] because they look at the equipment, and see how fast it’s evolving and think: ‘Maybe I should wait until next year when the next model comes out.’ I don’t agree with that philosophy. If you do, you could wait your whole lifetime and be passed by. That’s why I jumped into high definition five years ago, and that’s all I’ve shot since.
What was your shooting process like before you switched to HD?
If I had a little hair or a piece of dirt on the gate – tough. I wasn’t going to see it until I got home. I had six-minute loads in my 16mm camera, so every six minutes I had to come up to the boat, dry myself and the camera off, go into the bathroom and close every little area so there was nothing but darkness, unload the camera, load the camera, check the O-ring, put it back together and hope it didn’t leak because I had done everything by feel. For the first few minutes back in the water, I’d look for tiny bubbles, and if everything was ok, I’d shoot.
How did you buy your HD equipment?
I jumped into it with both feet, like jumping into quicksand and not knowing if there’s a bottom or not. I didn’t have a job and I had US$400,000 worth of camera equipment sitting on my living room floor. I sat on my couch looking at it, thinking how cool it was, but also thinking, ‘I don’t have a job.’ I didn’t even know where I was going to go with it, but I knew it was what I wanted to do and that it was the future.
The problem was, you couldn’t get on the telephone and say, ‘This part isn’t working right – what should I do?’ There was no one to talk to. And, if you were going to take it underwater, there were even less people to talk to.
What do you consider the main benefits of HD?
In the long run, it’s cheaper for us to shoot in high definition format than it is in film. And, I have to say, underwater – it’s better. I don’t think anything matches high definition underwater, and I’ve shot it all: 35mm to 16mm to three-chip videos to Super 8.
Any advice on staying safe while shooting underwater?
I have little rearview mirrors on the housing [made by Montreal-based Amphibico Inc.] to see if a shark is approaching. Sometimes the sharks bite on the back of your neck and head.