The Water Dance

By John Calhoun

With its high ceilings and inviting light, the Los Angeles headquarters of HydroFlex, Inc. is an unexpectedly airy environment for a company specializing in underwater film equipment. Of course, signs of the facility’s purpose are everywhere, from the camera splash bags being readied for transport to Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away production, to the underwater-themed movie posters on the walls. A number of HydroFlex projects – True Lies, Waterworld, Titantic – are among the one-sheets, as well as things like Transatlantic Tunnel and Creature From the Black Lagoon. Company founder Pete Romano likes to collect the older posters, perhaps in a nod to what preceded him.

Which typically was: “Deep-submergence lights for vehicles, 1,000W doubled-ended quartz lights with a reflector, a thick piece of glass, and a cast aluminum housing. There was no way to scrim them, no way to filter or barndoor them, no way to diffuse them, no way to control them.” As far as cameras went, “There were no housings that had video assist, reflex viewing was minimal, and whatever viewfinder there was not correct.” There were, of course, pioneering underwater cameramen like Lamar Boren and Al Giddings, as well as Jacques Cousteau. But Romano says, “There were a lot of casualties in underwater filming over the years. Producers would look at it and say, too long, too much, and I get nothing out of it.’ You look at older films and see, they got an image, but there was hardly any framing, and there was no reflex; it’s all over the place.”

Romano, along with his former partner Richard Mula, have to take some of the credit for changing that. Two major HydroFlex innovations have been recognized with industry honors. In 1991, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences bestowed a Technical Achievement Award on Romano and Mula for developing the SeaPar 1200W HMI, a portable fixture for wet or dry sets equipped with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) for safety. And in 1996, the Society of Operating Cameramen presented its own Technical Achievement Award to HydroFlex for introducing the 35-3 underwater camera housing system.

Both pieces of equipment contributed to the innovative underwater work done on James Cameron’s 1989 The Abyss. But Romano had been getting his feet wet for a long time before that. When he entered the U.S. Navy years ago, he was already a still photographer and darkroom expert who quickly got stuck processing and printing “grip-and-grins” – photos from awards ceremonies. It was when Romano became a Navy diver that things came together. “I became part of a combat camera group stationed in San Diego,” he says. “I worked with SEALs and Underwater Demolition Teams, and even photographed dolphins at Point Loma. It was 16mm, pre-focused; you set your stop, point, and shoot.”

By this time, Romano had found his calling, but the way was not clear. So he called San Francisco-based Al Giddings, then a preeminent underwater cameraman. “He sort of blew me off, but when I was hanging up, I said, ‘What would be a skill that would be valuable for future employment?’ He thought for a minute and said, ‘Machining.’ I did not know what a lathe and mill was, but the day I got out of the Navy in June 1976, I enrolled in San Diego City College in their two-year machining course.” He called Giddings again, and this time got a job building underwater camera equipment; eventually, he racked up a first camera assistant credit on For Your Eyes Only.

Romano then flirted with several career paths. His mechanical training got him an effects photography job at ILM under Richard Edlund, learning all about greenscreen and bluescreen and motion control on movies like E.T., Poltergeist, and Return of the Jedi. “I decided motion control, one frame at a time, just wasn’t my cup of tea,” he says. Returning to his first love, he built equipment for Jordan Klein’s underwater work on Never Say Never Again and Jaws 3-D, and shot second camera on Splash. For awhile, he went back to work for Edlund, who had left ILM to start Boss Films. “And then, in 1986, I decided to concentrate solely on underwater.”

The HydroFlex name had been conceived earlier, when Romano built his first 16mm camera in ILM’s machine shop. But the business itself got underway in 1985: “I had my own little shop, one mill and one lathe and a little bandsaw and table. I was building my own equipment and shooting anything I could get my hands on – commercials, pieces of TV and features. I’d go out with my rig, and be my own assistant, just to fit into their budget.” Working on Jaws 3-D, Romano had developed the underwater housing for Arri’s 35-3 camera with a viewfinder and a 3D lens. He adds, “I built this stuff because I needed to shoot with it: it wasn’t available.”

One of Romano’s first independent underwater credits was on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, shooting miniature whales built by Walt Conti. (Romano and Conti would go on to work together many times, on Anaconda, Deep Blue Sea, and all the Free Willys.) At the same time, he started developing equipment for Jacques Cousteau. “I built his last 35mm camera housings,” says Romano. “It was similar to the RemoteAquaCam we have now.” Later, HydroFlex also built camera equipment and lighting for Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel.

Lighting developments came to the forefront when Romano partnered with Mula, who left the company in 1992. “First we built our HydroPar® 650s, and then we built the HMI 1200s for The Abyss,” says Romano. After Mula’s departure, the HMI product line was expanded to 8,000W, while incandescent units go from 10,000W down to MR-16s. The lighting systems, which grew to include HydroFlos about the time of Alien Resurrection, in 1997, are distinguished by several features. A combination of modular components, underwater mateable connectors and GFCIs make them both safe and easy to use. The lamps are lightweight, and can be fitted with all the standard above-water accessories, from barndoors to gels. One possible inconvenience is that beam patterns can only be adjusted by changing lenses or globes inside the sealed head, because diffusing power is diminished if both sides of the lens are immersed in water. All lights are rated to a depth of 100’ (30m), though most of HydroFlex’s feature work takes place in shallow water – 20’ (6m) or less.

The line of HydroFlos, which range from 6’ to 9″ fixtures, have become particularly popular, says Romano. “I saw the need to come up with a fluorescent light that could work out of the water and in the water, and provide a gorgeous, close soft source.” He buys Kino Flo ballasts for the same reason he sticks with Arri HMI ballasts: “It’s the industry standard. I can send my cables and lamp fixtures to anyone in the world and they can plug it into their ballast. The specific challenge of underwater lighting is making available a product that is user-friendly and compatible with studio lighting, but waterproof. There’s no way I’m going to go out there and build ballasts; I’m an underwater guy.”

HydroFlex, which moved to its present 9,000 sq. ft. (810 sq. m) facility in 1993, and has grown from one basic staff member, general manager Matt Brown, to now include nine employees, has supplied equipment to hundreds of feature, television, commercial, and music video productions, from Titanic and The Perfect Storm to Love Boat TV movies. But Romano’s personal credits as an underwater cameraman, or underwater director of photography (the credit can have a diplomatic component) are nothing to sniff at – they include Waterworld, Amistad, Tomorrow Never Dies, the upcoming Navy Diver and summer 2001’s massive production Pearl Harbor. For Armageddon, Romano even got to dive and shoot in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, after the Oscar-winning SeaPars also passed muster with the space program.

HydroFlex has continued to expand its camera line, to include the distinctively conical Remote AquaCam housings for Arri 435s and 35-3s, and deep water housings for 435s and 35-3s, VistaVision, Panavision 65, Iwerks 8-perf 65, and IMAX IW5 cameras, among others. The company also offers a range of camera support products, including underwater video monitors, follow-focus and pan-and-tilt accessories, and waterproof exposure meter housings. The zippered camera splash bags with clear panels, which were used in such great numbers on The Perfect Storm, are a big advance on previously rudimentary wet stage protection. “The idea was starting to kick around on Waterworld,” says Romano; a water disaster on the set of Deep Blue Sea, which destroyed several hundred thousand dollars worth of camera equipment, shot the concept into overdrive. A major innovation on the bags, which are available for about a dozen different camera and lens types, were spray deflector systems, either air-powered or spinning-disc versions.

Romano thanks the industry for helping place HydroFlex where it is today. “My specialty allows me to work on many, many projects,” he says. “I go in for a day, a week, two weeks, so my credit list is impressive. But it’s allowed me to work with the people on the cutting edge of the business – the cameramen, the technicians, the assistants, the directors.” Romano gives credit where it’s due – The HydroFlo Mick Light, for example, is named after Deep Blue Sea gaffer Mick Morris. “It’s having an ability to listen to them, to cut through the stuff I know is not going to work, but to implement the stuff I know is valid.”