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Pete Romano – Underwater Shooting for Pearl Harbor

Written By Pauline Rogers

May 2001

“It was one of the best movie experiences I’ve ever had,” says underwater specialist Pete Romano regarding the making of director Michael Bay’s version of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I’ve worked several times with John Schwartzman and his team ­ but, by far, this was the best. Part of the reason ­ it was like working with an extended family on a historic and patriotic project. But, most of all, it was because I was able to become deeply involved in above water as well as below water shots. And, we even created new equipment to bring Michael’s vision to the screen.”

When Romano got the call to work on the picture, he was right in the middle of constructing HydroHead, his first pan and tilt underwater head. “When Michael Bay and John Schwartzman got wind of this, the new equipment became the ‘toy’ of choice for this project,” Romano laughs. “Now they could have the camera dive and breach with a full range of booms, pans and tilts, in, out and over the water. We designed a truly waterproof head, but not wanting to totally re-invent the wheel, we called on A & C Services, who manufacture the Power Pod. With their help, we adapted their electronics and hand wheels which already had a lot of experience and familiarity within the industry, to complete our package. We now can offer a fully remote, waterproof head and camera combination that can work underwater, in heavy rain, in a dump tank, or in high moisture areas.”

Yes, Pete Romano was psyched that his new technology would help bring some of Michael’s vision to the big screen. “Of course,” he notes, “then it’s up to us to make it work.” One memory still fresh in Romano’s mind is a series of shots with the Oklahoma set on location at the Fox Baja Film Studios. “John Schwartzman was using the HydroHead with RemoteAquaCam on a Giraffe crane to start the shot underwater with a close up of a sailor’s face who is injured and on a litter. Only when the sailor is hoisted out of the water with the camera following do you realize the shot had started underwater. The camera then pulls back to reveal the mayhem in the background ­ smoke, fire and panic. It shows the depth of death and destruction, as sailors covered with oil clamor over the hull trying to pull their injured shipmates out of the water,” Romano explains. “This was the first ever shot for HydroHead, and to really amp up the pressure, it was the first shot up on the first day of shooting at the Fox Baja Studios.”

“I think one of the most haunting memories I will ever have is when I went down to scout the U.S.S. Arizona. After going through tons of paperwork with the Navy and the National Park Service, Michael and I were allowed to dive down to this underwater tomb. As we moved through the murky water, I tried to prepare myself for the experience. I knew that close to a thousand men had lost their lives, when this ship was sunk. Still, nothing really prepared me for the magnitude of this experience. Although we couldn’t penetrate the hull of the ship, we could look through the portholes and down hatchways. I could see pans and forks and knives strewn about the deck near where the galley was and there were phone receivers floating off their cradles. The twisted steel ladders and armor plate throughout the ship really told the story of sudden destruction.”

For Romano, as well as the rest of the crew, seeing things like this made bringing the reality of this tragic event to the screen even more significant. Now, when they re-created the event the real story was always clearly in their minds because they were actually on location in Pearl Harbor. “Soon I was plunged in the middle of our version of this reality, doing above water photography using the RemoteAquacam. It was wild floating on the surface of the water, capturing the panic and terror as several hundred extras took hits, were set on fire, and dodged bullets as planes flew overhead. It was almost a little too real. I was dressed in the uniform of the period, so that the other cameras could shoot me ­ and I wouldn’t stick out. The camera was an Arri 35-3 with SL Cine magazines and Preston controls on the Panavision 30mm “C” series anamorphic lens and we draped canvas over the housing to conceal it. Eric Traml was my 1st assistant cameraman and really pulled off some amazing focus and stop changes while I fought my way through all the extras. These point-of-view shots are almost as haunting as what I saw deep below the water on the USS Arizona.”

“Then there was the underwater shot where I used the RemoteAquacam, looking at the Oklahoma set upside down, That’s because the ship flipped over when it sank.” he adds. “The camera was balanced properly so I could start the shot with myself and the camera upside down, framing on the name ‘Oklahoma’, reading it as if it were right side up. Half a dozen ex-Navy Seals dropped down below camera. As we rolled camera, they started floating up into frame. This made them look like they were dropping down into my frame when they were actually rising to the surface. As they hit the middle of my frame, I and the camera spun upright keeping the legend in frame,” he explains. “This became the point-of-view of a drowning sailor as we rose up through dead bodies and panicked sailors trying to climb up on the hull of the Oklahoma. The camera broke the surface to reveal the rescue attempts, then went back under into the mayhem of drowning sailors. It was pretty impossible to avoid getting kicked and punched in the process. The RemoteAquaCam with an Arri 35-3 and a Panavision “C” series anamorphic lens controlled by Jay Herron, 1st assistant cameraman, was truly the only way this shot could be accomplished. There was no way an assistant could have stayed next to the camera for this and many other shots in this movie, and we had to pull focus and iris as we went in and out of the water.”

Ask Pete Romano about other shots and he laughs. He could write a book on the work done on Pearl Harbor. “Some of my most vivid memories, outside the scout of the sunken Arizona, are the personal moments. There was the underwater shot where I was looking up to see Cuba Gooding Jr. pull the flag off the wreckage of the Arizona. And, there is the shot where Ben Afleck is escaping from a plane crash. They both felt so real.”

“Then there is also the Flag shot that appears in the trailer. It was a very dramatic visual from underwater looking up as 60 extras are treading water, legs and arms flailing. The sun was going down and we were losing our light. John had the Musco truck back up to the tank and we were able to get some serious back light on the scene. In the middle of the shot two extras release a very distressed American flag torn, burned and riddled with bullet holes. With some lucky timing and the Musco back light, it became a shot that I will always remember as Old Glory floated down through the frame.”

“Yes, Michael Bay does know how to capture death and destruction on film,” admits Pete Romano. “But, with Pearl Harbor he was always adamant that this was going to be a picture about people ­ not just about blowing things up just for the sake of destruction. I think we really captured that ­ even if there were just a few heart tugging moments. We tried never to lose sight of that human element ­ even when we were pulling out all the stops, using all of our cinematic tools to capture this part of our history.”

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