The Arri HSR2 Super 16 film cameras make a beautiful noise. They whirr like a really fast, super smooth, sowing machines. And actually they sort of are sowing machines. Film cameras have a little claws that pull down each frame of film and expose it (in the gate) before pulling down the next one. Normally this happens 25 times a second. If we are shooting high speed, for slow motion, the film cameras we commonly use can pull down and expose up to 150 little pictures a second. Once a roll of film is finished it is put in a lightproof can and sent to get developed – just like a roll of film out of a stills camera. Once its developed the last stage is to pass it through a machine called a Telecini. The Telecini turns the film into video that can be edited on a computer.
Everyone in TV has a big break story. This is mine.
I got a job as an assistant on the BBC’s wildlife landmark series “The Blue Planet”. I was mainly assisting open ocean specialist Rick Rosenthal. In November 1999 Rick, myself, cameraman David Reichert and producer Andy Byatt found ourselves working off the Pacific side of Mexico. After 4 years of filming it was the last trip of the series. Our main target was Striped Marlin feeding on bait balls. We did very well. We had a month and by the end of week three we had some beautiful material of the Marlin feeding aggressively on big bait balls. In the best traditions of these sorts of stories, it was the last days filming not only of the trip but of the entire Blue Planet series. For several days Rick had me using his film camera housing in the water whilst he covered topside action from the bow of the boat. I had already had some great experiences with the Marlin when David and I jumped on a small bait ball that was being decimated by 10-20ib Yellowfin tuna. We were working the scene pretty close together when suddenly the tuna left the bait ball and went down deep. I sensed David move fast behind me, spun round, and rolled the camera as a 45 foot, 15 ton Sei Whale passed within six feet of us. It had seen the bait ball and wanted in on the action. The next 15 minutes were the most intense of my life. The whale came into feed 8 times. She seemed to be trying for surface lunges mainly. Swimming shallow and fast at the bait-ball and, when she got close enough, engulfing as much of the bait ball as she could. I was pretty pumped up by the action. A couple of times I got perfectly underneath her and got really close.
After seven passes I looked at the film counter. It said I had ten feet left. The counters on the old Arri HSR2 cameras are pretty inacurate but I guessed I had about 15-20 seconds of film time left. I ducked dived down to about 20 feet below the bait ball and waited. Within 30 seconds I spoted the whale again. But this time it was different. She was deep, perhaps 150 feet below me, and swiming straight towards the surface. She was going so fast for a moment it looked like she was going to do a breach. I started rolling the camera – click whirrrrrrrrrr – I could hear the film running through. She kept coming straight up and fast, passing me about 12 feet away.
Then I heard it. Whirrrrrrrrrrclick,click,click,click. The sound of the end of the film coming off the core of the spool and loosly running throug the gate of the camera. At the last second the whale opened it’s mouth and engulfed what it could of the bait ball. It then fell away from me and with a single kick left frame. My lungs burned. I kicked to the surface to breath. I looked at the camera. It was out of film that was for sure. But when?
Back on board I told producer Andy I thought we had some petty nice stuff but was not sure about the last shot. To make it worse David had filmed me filming the last lunge by the whale. So everybody new it had happened. Question was did I record it on film. I put the exposed film in a can for procesing back in England. All over the can I wrote “PLEASE PRESERVE THE END”. When a roll is film is procesed and prepared for a telecini the lab technicians stick a plastic leader on the end of the exposed film. Usually the last foot or so of the film is lost with this process. By writing “preseve the end” on the film can I was asking then to stick the leader on as little of the exposed film as possible. I had a feeling every frame was going to count.
About 3 weeks after getting back from the trip the film was procesed and reafdy for the telecini. I was at home in Bristiol so I went through to see the material going through. My whale roll, because it was the last roll exposed on the trip, was the last to go though. The first 7 passing shots went though. I was really excited. Some of them were super close and really impressive. Then the last lunge came up. My heart was pounding. The whale came up throug frame, opened it’s pleats, engulfed the shoal, fell away from me, beat it’s tail, the tail left frame…..and then black. I was stunned for a moment and then went absolutely nuts. It was like scoring a goal in the FA cup final. I hugged the Telicini operator and then knocked over the mints as I lept onto the sofa screaming and punching the air. People from the sound room next door even came in to see if anything was wrong. Happy does not even begin to describe it. I wanted to see the end of the film. The telecine operator took the film of the machine and we had a look. From the frame the tail of the whale left frame to the end of the film there was 12 empty frames. 12 frames. About 3 inches of film. The lab technician had glued the leader onto the last few milimeters of the roll.