With the production of our large format movie, Wild Ocean, we had gained real experience in the field using every form of 3D movie camera available at the time: 70mm and 35mm film, and underwater, using the Pace 3D HD rig. We had chosen the Sardine Run as a striking natural event that simply had to be captured in 3D. When considering our next movie, we wanted to explore further the possibilities of shooting digitally underwater, and realised that underwater 3d macro photography had not really been seen in any format, let alone on the giant screen. Furthermore, digital photography is more successful in close up: for grand vistas and aerials, film was still untouchable, but when the subject matter is only a few inches wide, digital has ample resolution and has many advantages over film.
Inspired by the underwater macro photography of stills photographers like Dave Doubilet , our project was provisionally titled MACRO. At the time, however, there was no macro 3d underwater rig in existence, so Luke and I approached DJ Roller, underwater cinematographer with the idea of developing our own rig. To shoot 3d macro requires a beamsplitter system, which enables the two lenses needed for stereo photography to appear to be much closer to each other than they are in reality, since the cameras are shooting through a mirror. One camera sees a reflection, but the other (positioned at a right angle) sees straight through the mirror glass.
No one, to our knowledge, had ever constructed an underwater housing to enclose a beamsplitter system (the Pace rig used in Wild Ocean, and the Solido rig used by Howard Hall are both side to side, or parallel configurations). Ours was to be the first, well ahead of anyone else who may now be claiming to be first online!
Where to shoot was the next question, and the choice seemed pretty clear: Palau, 500 miles West of the Philippines in the South Pacific. For many years the waters around Palau were considered to be the most biologically diverse on the planet (that distinction is now claimed by the Raja Ampat archipelago, Indonesia). Palau had the attraction of an established dive community and infrastructure, and a film production company (Roll ‘em) already based there. Kevin Davidson was a photographer DJ had worked with before, based at Sam’s Tours in Palau, and he became our guide on the first recce trip.
On our first trip to Palau, which was really a quick visit to get to know the dive sites and search out specific locations, we kept hearing the same refrain over and over again from the old timers, be they ex pat American divers or Micronesians: you should have seen Palau twenty years ago, its not what it used to be, the reefs are disappearing. Much like our visits to South Africa, seeing the shrinking sardine shoals over the years, it seemed impossible to take on a marine subject and not be faced with some kind of ecological downturn.