Underwater With HydroFlex’s Pete Romano

By Jay Ankeney
Monday March13, 2000, 12:10 AM PST

Pete Romano, owner of HydroFlex, Inc., has risen to the top ranks of underwater feature-film cinematographers by mastering skills that combine his deep love of photography with a talent for creating special effects and an ingenious ability to build the tools that he needs when none exist. One of the most acclaimed underwater cameramen in Hollywood, Romano was honored with a Scientific and Technical Achievement Award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in 1992, and in 1996 HydroFlex received another Scientific and Technical Achievement Award from the Society of Operating Cameramen (SOC).

But it hasn’t been an easy swim, even for this ex-Navy diver. When Universal Studios called Romano in June 1987 to do the principal underwater photography on his first large-scale feature, Jaws: The Revenge, Romano almost swallowed his snorkel. “This was my big break,” he said, “and I was so scared, I lost sleep over it. Eventually, I spent two months working on the film in the waters off the Bahamas, and it helped establish my reputation.”

Jaws: The Revenge may not be on everyone’s top-10 list, but it did give Romano an opportunity to bring the skills he’d been developing to a challenging project. After falling in love with the art of taking pictures in high school, he took advantage of the U.S. Navy’s “Guaranteed School” offer to enroll in the photographic-training program. Desperate to escape an endlessly boring assignment projecting top secret films to Navy brass, Romano applied for training as a Navy diver. “I loved the underwater experience,” he said, “so when I got out of the Navy in 1976, I headed for Hollywood to break into the film business as an underwater photographer.”

After running up against employment obstacles in Hollywood, a documentary cameraman, Al Giddings (underwater DP on Titanic), surprised Romano with the suggestion that the best way to further his career would be to learn machine-shop skills so he could make his own tools. It proved to be a worthwhile recommendation which led him to a two-year course at San Diego City College, where he found he had a real aptitude for working with metal. He maintained his underwater skills working weekends on a diving charter boat until 1980, when some assistant camera jobs opened up for him on TV shows such as “That’s Incredible!” and “Real People.”

In the ‘80s when work was slow for Romano, his skills as a machinist came into play again. “A camera-assistant friend of mine, Selwyn Eddy, told me that George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was looking for a camera assistant with a mechanical background,” he said. “So I headed up to San Francisco, where I met with director of photography Bill Neil, who hired me the next day.”

Romano got his union card working as an assistant on Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982), and went on to learn stop motion photography on Return of the Jedi (1983). Wanting to return to diving, he contacted underwater cameraman Jordan Klein, who hired him as the assistant on the James Bond film, Never Say Never Again (1983), shot in the Bahamas. Once again, Romano’s ability to build as well as operate camera equipment propelled his career, when 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 working on Disney’s Splash with Klein, Romano joined Richard Edlund at Boss Films to polish his special-effects talents. Then he left his assistant days behind him and established his own company, HydroFlex, to develop underwater-photographic equipment. In 1988, director James Cameron asked him to bid on the underwater-lighting package for his film The Abyss. To provide greater flexibility while illuminating the depths than is possible with conventional underwater 10K incandescent lamps, Romano sold Cameron on the new 1.2K HMI lighting technology. The success of this pioneering innovation earned him and his then-partner, Richard Mula, a Scientific and Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1991 for designing and building the SeaPar 1200W HMI system.

Romano has been busy ever since, doing the underwater photography for, among others, Sleeping With the Enemy (1991), Cape Fear (1991), Dracula (1992), and all three of the Free Willy films. Universal’s 1995 Waterworld gave Romano plenty of time beneath the waves of director of photography under the direction of Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler, ACS, ASC. In 1996 he was also called upon to shoot the underwater scenes in Fox’s Alien: Resurrection. That year, the SOC presented HydroFlex with a technical achievement award for the introduction and development of the HydroFlex 35-3 underwater camera housing for the Arriflex 35-3 camera systems. The award testified that the HydroFlex 35-3 “significantly contributes to the art and craft of the camera operator.”

In 1997, Romano was again recruited by James Cameron for all the underwater greenscreens in the massive hit Titanic, and in the same year he dove into a NASA tank to film the water-assisted astronaut-training scenes in Disney’s Armageddon. “I loved that experience and have developed a close relationship with the people at NASA,” he said. In fact, he returned to their underwater facility to shoot scenes for the soon-to-be-released Clint Eastwood film, Space Cowboys.

Sometimes the inherently dramatic dynamics of a film’s plot can result in especially rigorous assignments. “I did some of the most horrific underwater photography ever for Steven Spielberg’s Amistad in ’97,” he said, “which was a challenge surpassed only by the chaos during the underwater opening of Spielberg’s classic Saving Private Ryan that same year. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

In a splash of moviemaking irony, the last feature film Romano worked on, 20th Century Fox’s Navy Diver (due out later this year), brings his career to date full circle. It’s the story of Carl Brashear, who had to overcome entrenched prejudice to become the first black Navy diver. With a lot of Navy divers on the set, Romano was given a full-body deep-sea diver’s suit complete with surface-supplied air hose to accompany them on the ocean floor. “It was funny, and really a hoot for me,” he said. “There I was, using my new state-of-the-art camera equipment, while that ‘hard hat’ outfit was taking us back 60 years in technology. We needed to do it to re-create Carl Brashear’s early training, and since the guys knew I’d been a Navy diver myself, they made arrangements for me to do it in a real diving suit. I actually still have one of those old brass Mark V rigs on display in the HydroFlex lobby.”

Through his HydroFlex company, Romano has augmented his own photographic career by creating new underwater camera tools that have become cornerstones of the industry. From camera housings to new lighting gear, he has expanded the palette of creative tools available to underwater directors of photography. But perhaps the greatest tribute the film industry has given Romano’s career is that today, when a producer or director wants the best in underwater photographic equipment, they don’t bother choosing out of a catalog. They call out, “Get me a HydroFlex!”