A film about Carl Brashear’s perseverance in training to become a U.S. Navy diver just wouldn’t be complete without a dip below the water’s surface. Producer Bill Badalato and 20th Century Fox were already familiar with underwater director of photography Pete Romano’s prowess from their collaboration on Alien Resurrection in 1997, and producer Robert Teitel and director George Tillman, Jr. were deeply inspired by the cinematographer’s work on The Abyss in 1989. For the lengthy shoot on Men of Honor, they requested his services again. No work actually took place in the ocean, but the production did involve three and a half weeks of shooting in two water tanks.
The tanks, a large one for set work and a smaller one for insert work, were constructed inside a hangar at the Long Beach Airport. The insert tank was used as the “murk” tank for close-ups of divers during training sequences set in a silty river.
Romano, a former Navy diver and member of Combat Camera Group, says he felt close to the film’s subject matter. “My first dive was in the old Mark V suit in San Diego,” he remembers fondly. “This was an honor, really, because Carl Brashear is an icon in the Navy as a diver and a sailor.”
The first underwater sequence was more stylized than the others; in it, a young Brashear showcases his skill in the water as he dives down to a rusted-out truck cab resting on a lakebed. “We made that a kind of magical look with a nice, direct HMI backlight,” Romano says. “It was really blue and pretty, a magical flashback moment. I really wanted to let the HMI carry the scene. However, I put two 2-foot fluorescents inside the cab so that when [young Brashear] went in there, we’d get a little light coming down as if it were coming through the window of the cab. It was still underexposed, but you could see some additional detail.”
As Brashear transitions into the cold, unfriendly confines of dive training, so does the underwater photography. During a welding exercise in the engine room of a sunken ship, a diver’s air hose becomes entangled in some metal piping when the ship begins sliding to deeper depths. The river transports a high volume of silt and debris, but visibility for this deep-water interior sequence was kept rather clear. “Because we were in a hangar that had rather low ceilings, most of our light was bounce light,” Romano details. “We were bouncing two 18K HMIs into a series of white Griffolyns hung from the ceiling, [and the light illuminated] not only the tank for all our open-water stuff, but also the small insert tank where we did the dirty-water stuff. It worked really well for all of our sequences because we could set a nice, soft ambient that would signify deep water by eliminating the ripping effect.”
Romano used an Arriflex 35-3 in a HydroFlex deep-water housing and had another standing by so the actors and crew would not have to wait for a magazine reload. John Kairis, 1st AC, and Scott Ronnow, 2nd AC, wrangled the two camera systems, while camera technician Chip Matheson assisted Romano underwater. Romano’s crack crew consisted of gaffer Pat Murray and key grip Thomas Levy as well. “We just had different lenses on them and did different setups to keep the ball rolling,” says Romano. “Because of the confines of the set in the tank, we were on the 14mm, 18mm, 25mm and the 35mm. We didn’t go for any longer than a 50mm for close-ups.”
“Behind all the set pieces of the engine-room interior,” he continues, “we had fluorescents to provide a little separation between the piece and the set wall, so it wouldn’t just go to black. They were about 2 to 2 ½ stops under base. Where the diver was doing the welding of the patch, to his immediate left we had one of our HydroFlo 4-bank softboxes just punching light in to sidelight him. Outside of the hole where he was welding, we placed four 1200s that were aimed inside and crossing so that the light wrapped in and around the set. That provided a little more exposure than we could get out of the fluorescents. To augment the overhead bounced light, we placed some fluorescents just overhead in the grating area. We had some fluorescents directed on the back of another diver who was assisting the welder. Behind him was a false hatch, where we had two 4-banks of daylight-balanced fluorescents to give Cuba Gooding, Jr. some backlight. It will be timed down to look more natural and not lit to hell, which it really was.”
Though the sliding ship violently tosses the divers inside, the engine-room set never moved during a shot Romano accomplished the effect entirely in-camera. “I was really banging and smashing the camera when I was playing the POV of one of the divers as they’re getting knocked around,” he explains. “I got a helmet and a boot right into the port of the housing on a number of occasions, which literally scratched and dinged the port up.”
Brashear’s final diving exam was photographed in extremely limited visibility in the insert tank. Fuller’s earth, milk, green dye and crushed walnut shells contributed to the “river” murkiness. Only the bounce light from above and the diver’s flashlight were used to illuminate the tank. “We couldn’t light under the water with that much junk in the water, because the junk would be lit before our subject,” Romano notes. “The flashlight was our practical [and was] used to pick up pieces and parts to give me [enough] light down there that we could shoot. If I backed up four feet, I couldn’t see him; I had to move forward to know where he was in order to frame him. Then I would pull back out of visibility, so I could then move back in to do the reveal.”
For underwater scenes in the Mediterranean deep, the Kodak Vision 200T 5274 (for digital post work) and 500T 5279 film stocks used without correction turned the HMI-lit set a deep blue. Underwater lighting units in the foreground were tungsten-balanced to provide a natural look on the diver.
Current and former Navy divers were on hand to assist with the Mark V diving suits, and they were reportedly thrilled to discover Romano was an ex-diver. “Once they found out I was one of the brethren, so to speak, the pranks began,” he admits with a smile. “[While] I was doing the reverse shot looking from outside into the ship, where the diver was welding, one of those guys taps me on the shoulder and makes the ‘look at me’ sign. He then turns around and drops his drawers, and on his ass is written, ‘Hey, Pete, shoot this!’ I laughed and said, ‘Okay, I can deal with this,’ But what I want to know is who actually wrote that there!”
by Douglas Bankston