Hidden Champion

October 27, 2016 ZEISS LENSPIRE Team

Pete Romano has been in the film business for more than 30 years. The fact that his name is not as well-known as those of Hollywood actors is little wonder: he works underwater, literally. Yet his work is admired by pretty well everyone who works in the movie industry. Proof includes the two technical Oscars he has won, one of them for inventing the 1200w HMI underwater lights for “The Abyss”. That was back in 1990, but Pete doesn’t dwell on the past. He is constantly developing and trying out new things. For example, what it’s like to use ZEISS Compact Zoom CZ.2 lenses in his Hydroflex camera housings. We talked to him about the past and future of filming underwater.

Pete Romano originally wanted to be a photographer. But he couldn’t afford the tuition for photography school, so joined the US Navy and became part of the ‘combat camera group’, specifically the underwater photo team. “I could only shoot with my camera,” jokes Pete. His first breath underwater was the start of a new life for him. “I felt a freedom I had never known before.”

After the Navy he quickly realized that taking pictures alone would not get far, so he landed up in film. He was the camera assistant at Lucasfilm for a number of films, including “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi”. But it was in 1983, while working on “Jaws 3”, that he found his calling in developing equipment. Since then, he has founded the company HydroFlex and further developed the field of underwater filming through his many inventions. These are often triggered by demanding productions, like “The Abyss”, that were only made possible through Pete’s technical developments.

 “With today’s image control we have it easy. In the past you simply held the camera in one direction and hoped you’d get good pictures.”

Pete Romano (with enormous respect for the pioneers that came before him)

 

Pete in his element: for "300: Rise of an Empire" he was Director of Photography Underwater Unit

Pete in his element: for “300: Rise of an Empire” he was Director of Photography Underwater Unit

But ever since monitors were invented for underwater work, that way of working has been consigned to the past. Peter thought that the development of the RemoteAquaCam for Kevin Costner‘s film “Message in a Bottle” was the ideal way to create an underwater housing. “Camera people who work underwater must have maximum flexibility in order to be able to react quickly. And for that, a round form works best.” This development won him his second Oscar in 2002. Speaking of development: it is different today than in the past. “There were times when people used the same film cameras over a period of 12 years. Today, with digital cameras changing often, it would be crazy to build a separate housing for every camera. This is why it’s important for us that our housings work with different cameras.”

By contrast, Pete thinks lenses are a safe investment, and for underwater films he relies on ZEISS for various reasons. First, the security it gives him. “I never have to worry about the image quality. This takes a load off my mind and allows me to concentrate on the other demands.” The lenses also have a short minimum object distance, which is ideal for using in an underwater housing with a dome port (i.e. rounded glass). Unlike filming above water, the dome port doesn’t focus on the real object, but on a virtual picture located not too far in front of the dome port.

The dome port of an underwater housing does not focus on the real object, but on a virtual image. A dome port used as a glass overlay for the underwater housing prevents pincushion distortions when using wide-angle lenses.

Always interested in gaining new experience, Pete took advantage of the opportunity to film with ZEISS Compact Zoom CZ.2 lenses. These not only have that all-important short minimum object distance, but also cover the sensor range of full-frame cameras, which is unique among cine zooms. During a test in a pool, Pete used the Compact Zoom CZ.2 15-30/T2.9 and Compact Zoom CZ.2 28-80/T2.9 attached to an ARRI Alexa. Both lenses were in turn packed inside the Alexa RemoteAquaCam camera housing. Pete explains how the possibility to change the focal length without having to change the lens alone is of huge value, because it saves time. And time filming underwater is even dearer than it is on land.

A ZEISS Compact Zoom lens in a Hydroflex underwater camera housing.

A ZEISS Compact Zoom lens in a Hydroflex underwater camera housing.

Another benefit is the fact that the Compact Zoom lenses can be operated perfectly remotely – allowing the cameraman to concentrate on image composition. Pete also highlights the lenses’ compactness – an advantage when filming underwater: “Zooms are normally long and heavy, which makes the housing longer and front heavy too. That’s not the case with the Compact Zoom lenses.”

Asked about the image quality of the zoom lenses compared to fixed focal lengths, Peter laughs, making clear that this is not someone who only thinks about the technology. “I don’t even ask myself that question. Because — beside the fact that I never have to worry about imaging quality when using ZEISS lenses, regardless of whether they have a fixed or zoom focal length — the real question should be: when talking about film, are we talking about a type of technology or an art form? I would say the latter!”

It’s a comment that underlines Pete’s motivation to be part of a story and help the director implement his or her vision. “The expectations are becoming higher, as are the challenges. What I need is a feeling of control over the uncontrollable.” And so one shouldn’t be surprised if every now and then Pete still manages to come up with another revolutionary new development.

The team during the underwater shoot by ZEISS and Hydroflex: on dry land... ...and in the pool.

About Pete Romano

Pete Romano is an award-winning Director of Photography and specialised in unterwater filming. He founded the company HydroFlex which is developing equipment for underwater filming. Pete is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS), the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and a Director of Photography in the International Cameramans Guild, Local 600 (ICG).

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