A View From Down Under

by George B. Stephenson, SOC

Though he chooses to remain somewhat anonymous, Pete Romano’s name and HydroFlex, Inc. are synonymous. Located near Marina del Rey, California, the HydroFlex facility is where Romano designs and manufactures state-of-the-art underwater camera housings as well as submersible lighting instruments. As a former U.S. Navy underwater cameraman, Romano has been shooting film underwater since 1973, and has been an underwater Director of Photography since 1986. Pete has a long list of credits including The Abyss, Saving Private Ryan, Alien Resurrection, Waterworld, Free Willy 1,2 and 3, True Lies, 007 Tomorrow Never Dies and most recently, Navy Diver and Pearl Harbor. In 1996 Pete received the Technical Achievement Award from the Society of Operating Cameramen for the Development of the HydroFlex (Arri) 35-3 System.

Pete is the first to admit that he is not a one-man band. With the support of his fine machinists and technicians, the company is guided by Matt Brown, Operations Manager, who has been with HydroFlex for 12 years. The day-to-day business of equipment rentals and production coordinating is carried out by Scott Greene. Scott works closely with camera assistants and production companies, ensuring a smooth operation from conception to completion. He’ll be the first person you deal with when you “make that call.”

On Message in a Bottle, Director of Photography, Caleb Deschanel ASC, requested a specific adaptation for a HydroFlex housing, which became the 35-3 RAC. Pete and crew designed and manufactured the RemoteAquaCam™ [photo from HydroFlex] for Caleb in less than 30 days! Herein lies the key to HydroFlex’s success. They are adept at meeting the special needs of cinematographers and creating specialized adaptations based on existing systems.

One of Pete Romano’s earlier assignments after the Navy was with George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic in San Raphael, California. It was not an underwater job however, for he was hired as a first assistant cameraman by DP Bill Neil. While at ILM Pete heard of a local company that manufactured swimming pool sweep devices which was in need of a commercial. He contacted them and offered his services as an underwater cameraman. Using a 16mm Bolex underwater housing from Adolph Gasser’s rental house in San Francisco, he successfully shot the commercial. The housing had a sportfinder since an underwater reflex viewing system didn’t exist at the time. This is what motivated Romano to devise an accurate viewing system, which he created while working at ILM. By the way, when you visit HydroFlex, look for an original Bolex underwater housing on display.

After working as a camera assistant for several years, Romano was eager to return to diving. He contacted Jordan Klein, a pioneer in underwater photography, who hired him as an assistant on the James Bond film, Never Say Never Again (1983). Romano’s ability to build as well as operate underwater camera equipment advanced his career to new levels. He was asked to design the underwater housings to be used in Jaws 3D for an Arriflex 35-3 camera and its Arrivision 18mm over/under 3D lens. After that came Splash, also with Klein and Don Peterman ASC. Later, Romano joined Richard Edlund, ASC at Boss Films, where he gained his special effects talents. While at Boss Films he developed his first two HydroFlex 35-3 Deep Water housings. By 1985 he was a full-fledged cameraman and established his own machine shop in Marina del Rey, neé HydroFlex, Inc. He moved his company to its current location in 1993.

Working underwater has some unique parameters that don’t exist in normal above water film production methods. “Camera has to make it happen.” Romano explains. “You can’t just stand still and expect the shot to happen. The actors are without air and probably without underwater experience. And, there are no marks underwater! So you have to make it work for talent. Talent is dealing with a primal fear of being underwater with no mask, no air, no fins. They must be able to hold their breath for a long time. They may be claustrophobic.” These are some of the delicate situations Romano encounters with actors underwater. His experience helps him instill confidence in an actor, enabling them to function in a potentially dangerous and intimating environment.

Romano continues, “One of my most rewarding experiences was with Steven Spielberg and Janus Kaminski on both Saving Private Ryan and Amistad. I discussed the shots with both of them and they sent me on my way to head up a second unit. Those are some of the most powerful frames I’ve ever put on film.”

Romano talks excitedly about his latest creations, the RemoteAquaCam™ for the Arri 435 and Arri 35-3 and the HydroHead™ for the same cameras. “The RemoteAquaCam is a low profile tubular housing that can be moved very fast underwater.”, Romano explains. “It is hydrodynamically superior.” Another announcement Romano made is the introduction of a new catalog in the style of Kodak’s “flip book”. “This belongs in every AC’s ditty bag!”, he insists.

Underwater Lighting

Romano is notably proud of HydroFlex’s unique underwater lighting systems. “Safety is key.”, he affirms. “We go the extra mile and that’s why we had our special underwater connectors designed.” They consist of an extended ground male connector which makes contact prior to the “hot” connector in order to avoid shocks and shorts. They can be connected while in the water, but for safety’s sake it’s best to power down prior to connecting and disconnecting. When disconnecting, the hot connector, being shorter, is extracted first, followed by the ground, thus making for a “Mate First/Break Last” scenario.

The 1200w HMI underwater pars are the workhorses of HydroFlex’s inventory along with their equivalent in tungsten balanced lights. Romano has also developed a 4K HMI and a 5K Incandescent using a special quartz envelope around the globe which dissipates the heat.

And what would underwater lighting be without underwater light meters? Romano has designed underwater housings for the Minolta Spot Meter, the Minolta Auto IV and the Spectra Pro IV.

Splash Bags

During the recent production of Perfect Storm, HydroFlex worked side by side with 1st AC Trevor Loomis and DP John Seale ASC, ACS in developing a family of splash bags to protect the camera lenses and film from torrents of water cascading from wave generators and dump tanks. Both air-powered and spinner spray deflectors work on these splash bags to evacuate water droplets from in front of the lenses. There was zero water damage to camera and lenses due to these superior splash bags during six months of continuous filming. This is yet another example of the close collaboration between HydroFlex and cinematographers.

When asked what he attributed to HydroFlex’s success as a company, Pete had this to say: “I spend a lot of time in the field in order to see what’s needed; listening to input from DP’s, Gaffers, AC’s; continually making improvements. We believe in giving out information freely, conducting seminars, educating our customers, listening to their feedback. We have 12 employees and we’re all focused on attention to detail.”

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