Creative Analysis: Part 20 - Cinematographer Pete Romano On Underwater Filming

There aren’t many positions in the film industry which have the prerequisite of spending an hour sunken in the waters off San Diego in a classic diving suit with a blacked-out helmet. To be fair, it wasn’t so much the film industry that made Pete Romano do that; it was the U. S. Navy, who were interested in finding out if prospective dive school candidates could handle confinement.

Romano passed the test, embarking him on a career which would eventually combine photography, engineering and diving. It led to involvement in some of the best-known underwater photography of the last few decades, starting with 1983’s Jaws 3 and moving through The Abyss, Waterworld, Pearl Harbor, Inception and Edge of Tomorrow, to pick almost at random from a huge list.

Romano’s route to the top – or rather the bottom of the Pacific – began, he says, “through sheer boredom. I grew up in Boston. My family was into the printing industry; when I got out of high school I was running Linotype machines. Ultimately, my uncle sold his business, and I ended up working for some of his friends around the time that printing was going from hot lead to phototypesetting.” While working in print, Romano had already become interested in still photography. “I was going to Boston College and going out and taking pictures, but it wasn’t enough, and I couldn’t afford to go to school.”

Instead, Romano looked to the military. “It was around the end of the Vietnam war. I went to boot camp in Orlando and ended up in Pensacola, where they had the photo center.” Romano found himself stationed at Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California, where he “was aircrew, in the plane taking pictures of Russian convoys. I also used to have to take pictures of a grip-and-grin, you know what a grip-and-grin is?” Here, Romano refers to the press photos of public figures exchanging a handshake and a convincing smile used to publicize the signing of an agreement or someone’s appointment to a new role. It was, Romano admits, “extremely boring. Boredom has been my enemy since day one. I couldn’t take it.”

“I tried out for the Navy diver thing,” Romano continues. “In order to become a Navy diver, one of the tests I had to take was to drive down to San Diego, and get dressed up in 1940-something hard hat equipment – the canvas suit and the breastplate. They put the pot over my head, and all the glass windows in that helmet were painted black. Then they leave you in the water in San Diego harbor for an hour to see if you're claustrophobic.” Military diving involved some exploits which were as hair-raising as they were formative: “I was part of the combat camera group underwater photo team. I did some crazy stuff working with [explosive ordnance disposal], and with the USS Grayback, in the Philippines. As the submarine was underway they flooded this room, opened up the big hatch and you could literally walk out on the deck of the sub in front of the sail and not get blown off.”

Perhaps surprisingly, upon leaving the Navy, Romano didn’t segue directly into underwater camerawork. Having been turned down for a long-desired job, Romano was advised that machine shop skills would improve his employability, and “I enrolled that day in San Diego city college for a two-year apprenticeship in machining.” This, in Romano’s new hometown of San Francisco, quickly led to a well-known name in film. “I ended up getting hired at ILM because of my machining background and my camerawork, so I ended up on Return of the Jedi, Poltergeist, ET, that sort of stuff.” During this time, Romano would shoot his first underwater commercial, on 16mm, in a swimming pool, and immediately felt he could improve the available equipment.

The name Hydroflex was trademarked in 1982. Probably the best-known underwater housing was built for the Arri 35-3, in 1985, and has formed the basis for designs used to this day. The treadmill of camera models, Romano realized, made per-camera housings impractical. “In the end, in my world, trying to build for every camera you'd go crazy or broke. After the 35-3 came the 435, then Alexa came out, and I built an Alexa-specific housing. Then at that point I realized I couldn't do this. With new cameras coming out every couple of months it's just insane.”

While Hydroflex has options to accommodate everything up to and including the mighty Alexa 65, the tendency for cameras to generally shrink in size has made universal housings possible. “With film cameras the magazine would come up on top. For the 35-3, I had to have a company called SL Cine make magazines. Now we have low profile cameras. These rental houses put all kinds of cages and mounts around them, so they just have to strip it down for the basic camera body and we're ready to go.”

Despite his success in engineering, though, Romano has always been current in both engineering and camera. “It was way late in life that got that mechanical aptitude,” he says, “and I enjoy it immensely, but I also enjoy shooting. The first dive I had with a camera was in 1973. I still love to do it.” He identifies two gateway moments. “My first real feature credit was Jaws: The Revenge. I was so afraid and overwhelmed by the pressure of having to perform, I was afraid to move the camera, afraid to swim. That was probably my first major deal that lasted for months. But I think The Abyss was the one where I got a good handle on my confidence.”

James Cameron’s sub-aqua sci-fi is famous not only for its spectacular visuals, but for the sheer effort involved in its production. Romano accepts, as have many of those involved, that it was “a tough shoot. I ran a second unit and we had to work nights for four months. It was a lot of hours in the water, but at least they kept it warm! Jim is a visionary.”

Romano tells a similar story of Insomnia, an early Christopher Nolan film. “I love Chris,” Romano recalls. “he's one of the most buttoned-up, dapper directors we have out there, British sense of humor, a take-no-prisoners kind of guy. If you blow it, own it. Don't deflect.” The film includes a sequence during which the protagonist, played by Al Pacino, becomes trapped beneath floating logs. “It was shot in Vancouver in the university pool,” Romano recalls, “in an inside pool they took over completely. The physical effects guys had rigged up these real logs. They had these movers that were pounding these things around and we're looking at them crashing together over our heads!”

For productions just like The Abyss, though, more things than camera must move underwater. With lighting technology in flux, Romano has designed solutions to put a wide variety of lighting underwater, perhaps most recently Arri’s SkyPanel S30. The larger S60, he says, was requested but simply too bulky, requiring an impractically large housing and too much ballast to achieve neutral buoyancy. “We're still very big on incandescent,” he says. “I also have the LitraStudio LED in our rentals, which has very solid construction and the ability to go down to thirty feet underwater out of the box. I was able to bring it to a shoot, an underwater scene for the new TV show, Made for Love. We were filming the lead actress, Cristin Milioti, in front of a green screen for a dream sequence and the LitraStudio was the perfect tool to add a little fill on our actresses face. Being able to adjust the color temperature on the fly makes it versatile.”

That sort of flexibility is increasingly the norm, Romano confirms. “Between the Quasars and the Asteras we've had to step up and build more equipment, with surface-supplied power and DMX capability. On SkyPanels you have full function. I think the SkyPanels are about the most powerful LED we can use down there. The 4000W is the largest HMI and I haven't gone any bigger than that because of the heat issues.”

Equipment, of course, implies crew, and as with any specialist Romano has developed an experienced team. “We use people who are certified, they have probably an instructor type certification. In LA I have people who I use on a regular basis who are great in the water and know how I work, know my hand signals. There's grip and electric and then stunts and it becomes a group of people you've worked with for many years. At the same time I do travel a lot, and a lot of times a budget doesn't allow a grip and electric crew to follow me, so I have to bring in someone from the local area. Ninety-nine per cent of the time they're ready and willing.”

Filmmaking is famously a team sport, but that’s even more crucial when people may not even be able to speak to each other. Romano reports using “an underwater speaker up on the surface and the director, ADs, even camera techs can talk to anyone on the crew. If questions are asked on a yes or no basis you can shake the camera or nod it, you can have a slate and write on it.” While it might seem that masks or helmets, as seen on screen in The Abyss, which allow crew to speak might be useful, Romano prefers to keep things simple. “There are people who want to wear the full-face masks. The problem is when I come up I have to pull the whole mask off. I bounce dive way too much but it's the only way to keep that communications level going. From all these years of diving I think my eardrums are more elastic than most because of the pressure in and out!”

Romano and his company have received an armload of awards for technical work but confirms “we're still building new stuff. I've started a defense contract for a high-speed camera that is considerably smaller than the movie cameras we use, so I’ve designed a smaller remote Aquacam. That's been my covid project.” In the end, Romano seems keen to remember modest beginnings in what he describes as “a twenty-by-thirty foot space with a lathe and a mill,” and finishes “I saw what wasn't available and that allowed me to work on shows and build gear. I wasn't the first and I won't be the last.”

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