Ever since he was a little boy, watching Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt, Richard Theiss has been fascinated by the ocean.
He has spent over 12 years in the television commercial and motion picture field providing video services for a diverse roster of major clients including Paramount, Castle Rock, and Orion Pictures. He worked on national commercials ranging from McDonald’s, Pepsi, and Coors to Disney Studios, Nissan, and Wesson Oil.
Theiss has delivered footage for National Geographic’s Wild Chronicles on global warming, PBS, Discovery Communications, Animal Planet, the History Channel’s Modern Marvels, and more. His work has been published by HD VideoPro, Lifestyle International, and Discover Diving magazines; PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), Divers Alert Network, Playboy.com, and The Seattle Aquarium.
He has also filmed projects for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, in addition to nationally recognized research organizations, aquariums, and zoos. A professional diver for over 25 years, Theiss has worked as a safety diver for television and motion pictures including Orion Pictures Navy SEALs. He is a certified scuba instructor, lecturer, consultant on ecotourism for Sharkdivers.com, contributes to the RTSea nature blog, and is a national member of the prestigious Explorers Club. 1
I caught up with him one day recently to ask him about his career as an ocean conservationist, diver, cinematographer/wildlife photographer and media consultant.
Q: What first piqued your interest in the ocean and how did you get your start professionally?
A: It may sound a bit corny, but it all started when I was a kid watching the Sea Hunt television series and Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The images of the Nautilus crew strolling about the bottom really had an impact on me, as did seeing Lloyd Bridges, aka Mike Nelson, jump off his small dinghy whenever he was supposedly in jungle waters. (You see, those scenes were filmed at the Arcadia Arboretum just down the street from where I lived. I could ride my bike right past the lagoon they filmed at. Lloyd was a brave man for jumping into that murky little lagoon!)
Still, the idea of spending time underwater seemed pretty remote to me even though I grew up in Southern California an hour from the beach and my favorite amusement park was Marineland in Palos Verdes. At Marineland, I could spend all day peering through the windows into their large central exhibit, watching the hard-hat diver feed the sharks and other fish. It was a dream world to me but something which “other” people did; that couldn’t possibly be me.
It wasn’t until I started working in the motion picture and television industry, operating a video service company, that I learned to scuba dive. And from that point on I couldn’t get enough of diving. I learned underwater still photography but didn’t try my hand at underwater video or film cinematography until later. I broke into the field professionally with my white shark documentary, Island of the Great White Shark. It was well-received in the shark conservation community and that started to open some doors and lead to other professional opportunities. Now I focus on both film assignments and media communications consulting (a result of my decade spent in media communications on the “corporate” side).
Q: You have provided footage for a whole assortment of well-known companies, including National Geographic, PBS and Animal Planet. What type of ocean-related shoots are your favorite? Is it always the sharks, or are there other marine animals that have captured your attention as a cinematographer?
A: While my work portraying sharks in a natural context (not over-excited or agitated due to excessive chumming or other stimuli) has brought me some of my greatest recognition, I enjoy shooting a wide range of subjects, both underwater and topside. In fact, being regarded as a “shark shooter” is a label I try to avoid because it can be rather confining or limiting professionally. I do enjoy shooting large marine animals as their size makes them so impressive, but my background from television commercials to wildlife documentaries today makes me open to a variety of subjects, from people to landscapes to animals big and small. It’s the power of the image and the story it can tell that excites me, whatever the subject matter.
As any cameraman, still or video, will tell you, you also have to be ready for the unexpected. And that can be challenging because our attention becomes very focused on what we are seeing through the viewfinder or monitor – that little image becomes our underwater world. When I am filming white sharks, I have to remind myself to put the camera down for a moment and take in the magnificence of these animals. A 16-footer is an inch and a half in my viewfinder, so every once in a while I’ll peer over the top of the camera just to remind myself of the size of these great predators.
One time I was collecting some stock footage off Catalina Island in Southern California and was filming a mat of purple sea urchins covering a large rock. I was fixated on their wriggling tubular feet, which people sometimes miss because of the more obvious spines, when a large 200-pound black sea bass approached, curious as to what I was looking at. My dive buddy was about 15 feet away, having trouble keeping in his regulator for all his laughter, as I continued to be engrossed in the urchins, oblivious to this enormous fish right across from me asking, “Whatcha lookin’ at?” I looked up just in time to get a fleeting shot of his tail as it swam away, eventually bored with me.
Q: You have also worked as a safety diver for a number of intriguing figures, including long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. What was the most interesting/challenging dive you’ve done in this capacity?
A: What was the most challenging aspect of working with Diana? Keeping up with her! Mentally and physically, she is one of the most unrelenting people I have ever met. As a safety diver/shark spotter on her 2011 Extreme Dream team, I worked with my friend and marine biologist, Luke Tipple, and two others which rounded out a team that would work in four to six hour shifts round the clock. We would scan the water from atop the main support vessel and do free dives to check to see if we had any unwanted visitors cruising down deep. It was grueling work but nothing compared to what Diana was putting herself through. If we had any unannounced company, we were prepared to ward them off with “pokey sticks” which would not harm the shark. In fact, those were our ground rules that we laid down with Diana and her team: we would not harm any shark. As it turned out, we didn’t have to put that to the test as no sharks appeared.
However, what was an issue, and particularly with Diana’s recent attempt this past summer, was the presence of sea jellies. As Diana said to the press after her last attempt, the oceans are not the same as when she swam thirty years ago. Sharks are nowhere near as prevalent, but it would seem there is a definite increase in the number of sea jellies between Cuba and Florida. Shark spotters and electronic shark shields have probably got the concern for a possible shark attack sewn up. The challenge now for someone like Diana or any other ocean endurance swimmer is how to withstand the onslaught of stinging sea jellies. All because the oceans are changing.
A: Absolutely! With regards to many ocean issues, we are at a critical juncture, a tipping point as it were, where action must be taken now to prevent a catastrophe further down the road. Nature is different from other man-made issues like, say, the economy in that it has a momentum of its own that cannot be easily arrested if we wait too long. Think of a large tanker approaching port. It starts braking many, many miles at sea because its momentum is such that if the captain waits until he sees the dock, well, that’s just too late and there’s going to be a horrendous crash regardless of what he does at that point. Nature is like that freighter and we need to act sooner than later to protect it.
To carry that metaphor a bit further, imagine that the captain is our policy makers, the crew is the general populace. Science is then the navigator, setting the proper course to follow. The captain will make the decision and the crew will follow suit. But if the navigator remains silent… So, science needs to communicate its findings in a way that reaches both the decision or policy makers and the general populace. But that doesn’t mean the actual execution has to be entirely on their shoulders. In a paper I wrote on the subject, I said, “Scientists, researchers, and academics spend years developing the skills to study, hypothesize, and analyze. They are trained to make science but not necessarily to sell it. To effectively communicate in today’s world requires scientists and researchers to consider an additional discipline to their work, one that understandably may not be a part of their background or comfort level: Media Communications.”
Scientists don’t need to know the ins and outs of media communications any more than they need to know how to build their own lab equipment or construct their own ships or submersibles. They need to call upon those with expertise in the field. I have been involved in media communications for over 15 years and I can tell you it takes more than just setting up a blog or posting a few items on Facebook or YouTube. There needs to be a complete strategy behind the effort, whether large or small. Today, we have a tremendous variety of communication channels and it takes some planning to determine the appropriate ones that would prove to be the most effective.
Media communications requires executing a strategy and, unfortunately, that incurs some expense. When I speak with scientists this is the point where, no matter how enthused they are about the concept, they let out a mournful sigh. More money added to my grant! But, to use some basic business terminology, it’s good ROI – Return on Investment. Whether working with a private investor, foundation, NGO, or government agency, if you present a project proposal that results in a paper published in a scientific journal or, instead, a project that results in a published paper plus A, B, and C media vehicles reaching X number of people and X number of policy makers, you are offering a much greater “bang for the buck” with the latter approach. And that will be remembered the next time you seek funding for your next project.
Q: With regard to marine science in particular, what do you see as the most pressing issue that both the public and policy makers should be aware of and what can be done to better articulate that issue to the general public?
A: I have been fortunate to have met and gotten to know many leading ocean advocates, learning what issues trouble them the most. And I have researched and written on a variety of issues in my blog (www.rtseablog.blogspot.com). Because of that, it’s hard to select one issue – which speaks to the unfortunate state of our national or even worldwide attitude regarding the environment. So you can take your pick.
Because of my work with sharks, shark conservation is near and dear to me. There has been some definite progress but it’s an uphill fight with a long way to go. Ocean acidification is also a major issue as a somewhat recently discovered component of climate change. It’s an insidious side effect of CO2 emissions that we are learning more and more about. Plastic pollution is also an important issue because it is something that the general populace can truly get involved in and make a difference. What concerns me most with plastic discarded in the ocean is not the obvious pieces – the floating plastic bottles, bags, and such – but the micro particles and all the chemicals that are released as the plastic breaks down.
The key focus for me with any issue you choose is that we need to make sure we are being as proactive as possible. Science sometimes operates within an academia bubble. Ocean advocates often discuss amongst themselves via social media (which is fine as it helps to keep morale and commitment high). However, while peer recognition and supporting the base of the ocean movement are important, it is also critical to translate science into issues, implications and solutions and get that under the noses of those who are unaware or disinterested, be they policy makers or the general public. That would truly be a sign of effective media communications.
Q: What is your favorite high definition camera system?
A: I typically work with cameras that meet broadcast standards which can mean more than just “1080 hi def.”. Often that also means some rather large cameras, which are fine in most cases as they provide a very stable platform for shooting. The other side of the coin though is that they are impractical for, say, keeping up with a passing whale shark. That’s when an HDV camcorder, an SLR with video capability, or even the latest generation of Go Pro can come in real handy. Networks will accept a percentage per show of below broadcast standard footage but don’t expect to shoot an entire show with a GoPro.
I’ve worked with various camera systems, both underwater and topside or in the studio, from RED to Sony to Canon to GoPro, and each has their own particular pluses and minuses. It depends on what you are trying to achieve with the end result. You can get some stunning results with a RED Epic, Arri Alexa, or Canon C500 but the cost of those cameras can really set up back when you add in all the accessories, from underwater housings to lenses, and more.
It’s an exciting but very tumultuous period for professional video technology. Camera systems are advancing at a very fast pace, so the $80,000 or more that you spend for a top-of-the-line camera today could be yesterday’s news six months to a year from now. Maybe we will reach a temporary plateau in terms of video quality, but for the moment things are changing rapidly.
In general, it seems the video industry has swung from high price video cameras to lower priced video cameras a decade ago, and now we’re back to higher priced systems like RED and Alexa. With the low price cameras, video rental houses took a big hit because videographers could afford to own their own gear. Now the rental houses are making a comeback. My current personal camera is a Sony EX-3 with a Nanoflash recorder, but I am shopping for an upgrade. In the end, what I actually end up shooting with on assignment depends on the particular production, the budget, and what kind of results the production company is looking for – big cinematic or rough documentary style.
Q: What is the deepest depth you’ve ever filmed at?
A: I’ve been to 200 feet, but on scuba you’re there for such a very short time that working within a submersible or using an ROV can prove to be more practical for extended filming. As divers know, the greatest abundance of sea life, visually, is within the first 50 to 60 feet and so photographers and videographer have a tendency to gravitate to those depths unless one has a very specific purpose in mind or specific shot to get that requires the additional depth. At shallower depths, video lights can act as fill lights whereas at greater depths they become your primary light source and then you often need plenty of light unless you want to look like you’re groping in the dark with a flashlight. More lights mean more equipment which means a more complicated dive that requires plenty of planning.
Q: What is your advice to young people wanting to make ocean cinematography a career?
A: You can read up on camera and equipment specs so you know all about the various toys you can play with, but my first recommendation would be to learn the art of cinematography and the art of storytelling – these two are critical. Just about anyone can point a video camera in the right direction and capture an image but, unlike a still photograph that captures a moment in time, with video you are capturing motion. And that means movement that leads from one scene to another and must make coherent sense to the viewer. When I am filming, I am always thinking about the entire scene and its context within the story. Now this can be challenging when shooting a nature film as animals have a tendency to not read scripts! But when you understand cinematography and storytelling, whether you are shooting with elaborate broadcast cameras or a $200 GoPro, the idea of context infuses your creative thinking at all times. It’s not what you are shooting, it’s why.
The other piece of advice I would give is to remind the beginner that it is a business, particularly if you wish to see your work shown on television or in theaters. You may be a very dedicated ocean conservationist or studious marine advocate, but many of the people who you will be dealing with regarding the distribution of your work for broadcast, cable, or online programming, are business people. They are running a business and you need to understand how that business works. It’s not necessarily a bad thing and these people are not the “enemy.” However, regardless of how noble your intentions, if you wish to pursue it professionally, you need to understand the business that supports your work.
Written by Mike Bear, Science Diving Editor, California Diver Magazine
Mike is a PADI Master Diver with over 1000 cold-water dives in California. He is also an active Science Diver with the American Academy of Underwater Sciences [AAUS] and founder of Sevengill Shark Sightings at: http://sevengillsharksightings.org
1 Openwaterpedia.com: http://openwaterpedia.com/index.php?title=Richard_Theiss