Shooter: Pete Zuccarini

Whenever I watch a movie with underwater scenes in it, I always stay to the very end to watch the credits roll. There are only a handful of underwater cinematographers who might have been responsible for the footage, and on an impressively long list of feature films (including all four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Life of PiInto the BlueAct of ValorDolphin TalePiranhaJumperThe Motorcycle Diaries, the upcoming The Lone Ranger and more) one name appears again and again as director of photography or cameraman for the underwater unit: Pete Zuccarini.

Headshot of Zuccarini
Zuccarini, with his housed digital Arri Alexa cameras, shoots on location in the Bahamas.

I met Zuccarini years ago on the dock at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, where he was preparing to shoot a commercial that involved mermaids and sharks. I was there on an editorial project for a dive magazine, and we shared a boat that day. It was my first insight into the complexities and underwater choreography required for such a shoot. We have crossed paths on other projects since then, including a massive promotional production for the Bahamas’ Atlantis Paradise Island resort with director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour and X-Men movies). I was there to shoot the underwater stills, and Zuccarini was responsible for the underwater video. We came full circle again this August, coincidentally meeting on the dock at Stuart Cove’s as Zuccarini wrapped a major feature film that involved shark footage. When you consider the hundreds of millions of people who see his work projected on big screens, he is no doubt among the most visible and influential shooters of the underwater world.

When he was a child in Key Biscayne, Fla., the beach was his playground. His earliest memories are of walking along the water’s edge and shaking small creatures out of the sargassum that washed ashore. That quickly evolved into a passion for snorkeling, and he began to hunt lobster and to fish at a very early age. But what resonated most with the young Zuccarini was his father’s great passion for photography and, especially, filmmaking. By the time he was 11 he had his own Pentax K1000 camera, and by 12 he was a certified scuba diver.

Zuccarini also had access to his father’s sophisticated Super 8mm movie cameras to shoot slow-motion and reverse-sequence shots. He and his brother filmed each other in simulated hurricanes, which they created using an oscillating fan and a garden hose. Bristol’s Camera on Key Biscayne became his fantasy world, and he would wander through the store dreaming of owning the Nikonos cameras and SLR housings on display there. But the humble Pentax was his first underwater tool. Protected in an Ikelite housing and lit with a Substrobe M, it was always with him as he patrolled the worm-rock reef in the shallows near his home, capturing tropical reef animals on film.

As a teenager in Miami he found many opportunities to interact with the sea, and like many other invincible youths, Zuccarini took chances. He and his buddies told their parents they were going to camp overnight on nearby Elliott Key, but they all piled into a 17-foot Boston Whaler to cross the Gulf Stream and live on Gun Cay just south of Bimini in the Bahamas. There on the uninhabited sand spit, they camped and fished and threw the fish carcasses into the water to watch sharks eagerly devour the remains.

He bought a 14-foot bass boat with a 25-horsepower Evinrude engine; he named the boat “Shark Bait” and almost became just that one time when he was buzzed by a massive hammerhead. Its enormous dorsal fin rose well above his diminutive gunwale; the event was an early “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” moment for him. He saw Jaws when he was only 9, and even then he knew sharks don’t really act like the one in the movie. But on that day with that hammerhead, Zuccarini was paralyzed by fear and filled with profound respect.

Zuccarini was passionately dedicated to freediving and remains so today. He was always athletic, and freediving came naturally to him. As a teenager he often took pictures of his friends and the marine life on breath-hold dives. When he began to combine filmmaking with his love for all things aquatic, it was a winning combination.

As he grew to 6′ 3″, his height and athleticism helped him become a Junior Olympics decathlon champion. He pole vaulted, ran track and played football, but he also excelled at academics, which made him highly recruited by Ivy League colleges including Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Brown University won out, and Zuccarini enrolled in a cross-registration program with Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. Combining aquatic biology with film school served him well, and in 1988 he earned his bachelor’s degree in the arcane field of art and semiotics.

Underwater cinematographer gets footage of a lazy whale
Zuccarini has always loved filming megafauna; he is most in his element when projects allow interaction with marine life in their natural environment.

STEPHEN FRINK// In the late 1980s you emerged from college with a film degree. For many that goes nowhere; how did you build on that to travel down your career path?

PETE ZUCCARINI// Actually, I worked on a movie even before graduation. I was home in Miami for the summer in 1986, and I read that a movie called Midnight Crossing was being shot on location there. I wanted to see how movies were made, so I got a job as a production assistant. They quickly upgraded me to camera intern, and I was soon loading film magazines and providing other assistance. That was a pivotal opportunity that allowed me to see all the pieces that go into a big motion picture. The summer after graduation I saw that the James Bond movie License to Kill was being shot in Key West, and I managed to get on that one as a camera assistant, too. So early on I had at least some semblance of a résumé.

If you look at the kinds of films I shoot now you might assume that’s all I ever wanted to do, but I was always motivated to shoot nature as well. I’d heard about grouper spawns in the Bahamas where 100,000 fish would congregate, and that’s what I dreamed of filming. I also did a lot of work with Sam Gruber, Ph.D., of the University of Miami at the Bimini Biological Field Station. I’d be there with him when various news and documentary crews came through, and if they had a cameraman who couldn’t or wouldn’t get in there with the sharks, I would get the shot. That’s how I met folks from Disney, too; Roy Disney wanted to shoot sharks on 35mm cinema film in the Bahamas. Their familiarity with my work allowed me to pitch them the idea of a wildlife show based in the Everglades. For 150 days spread out over two years we focused on one mother alligator and filmed three generations of young. This was pretty exciting stuff for a kid fresh out of college.

By the early 1990s I was getting work as director of photography on a lot of low-budget features. Some were pretty bad, and others portrayed sharks or other marine creatures in a light I was not comfortable with. So I had a conversation with myself and concluded I didn’t want to do any more jobs that didn’t allow me to work with wildlife or be underwater — those were my two parameters.

Team of divers surround a shipwreck and group of sharks
The Ray of Hope, sunk by Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas off New Providence, has served as the underwater set for several of Zuccarini’s film projects.

SF// It seems you are the go-to guy when it comes to filming aquatic hazards, including marine life perceived to be dangerous. How did that develop?

PZ// Aside from the sharks in Bimini, the first call to solve a potentially hazardous marine problem came on The Motorcycle Diaries, a film depicting revolutionary Che Guevara as a teenager bumming around South America. There was a shot in which the actor was to swim across the Amazon River in Peru at night, but local lore suggested there were tiny fish in the river that could swim up your urethra and eat your brain. Crocodiles and piranha were also in the river, so they called me — the crazy kid. But I was never really crazy. I learned that a wetsuit would keep the parasitic fish out and that piranha weren’t nocturnal, and we stayed away from the drag-outs where the crocodiles were. I managed the risk and got the shot. That has been a guiding principle throughout my career.

Underwater cinematographer Zuccarini gets a head-on shot of Captain Jack Sparrow. Both bodies are fully submerged in water, but heads are sticking out
All four Pirates of the Caribbean movies had underwater sequences, and all were shot by Zuccarini. Here he captures a water-level portrait of Captain Jack Sparrow in Dominica.

SF// That shot must have been in the days of 35mm film. With an actor swimming at night and you having to nail the exposure and make sure water drops didn’t land on the dome and obscure his face, there must have been myriad issues that could have killed the job for you.

PZ// Yes, and we were in a location where they could not easily FedEx the unprocessed film and get “rushes” back the next day. I had to nail it, and I think that’s a big part of why I continue to get a lot of work. There is so much riding on these scenes that the guy who is deemed the most trustworthy gets the job. On a shoot like Pirates of the Caribbean, where my job is to follow Captain Jack Sparrow from underwater to topside, I don’t want to be the cameraman who forces the director to tell Johnny Depp he has to reshoot a take because a big drop of water covered his face during the whole topside sequence.

With digital the “rushes” are immediate. The director could always see the action live on a remote monitor, but with film there was ambiguity that goes away with digital confirmation. Even today with all the digital technology, feature-film cinematography is a team effort that requires credible, predictable performance in an often difficult lighting scenario with the many physical challenges that come with bringing cameras and talent together underwater.

Underwater film crew approaches the set of a sunken DC3 airplane
Into the Blue, starring Jessica Alba and Paul Walker, was filmed on location in the Bahamas and featured stunning freediving sequences. In this shot a sunken DC3 serves as the set.

SF// Do you have much influence in the storylines you shoot these days?

PZ// To an extent, I am able to influence by educating directors about possibilities. For example, I’ll have an art director come to a meeting armed with 14 images she’s clipped from magazines as concepts. A dozen are macro shots with exquisite color, but the subjects are inch-long shrimps, and my job is to light an underwater set the size of a submarine. We have to mold expectations to physical reality of being underwater.

I am also very sensitive about portraying marine life in realistic and respectful ways. Many production designers are well educated and have done their homework, and that really makes the process easier.

Couple embraces in the shallows of tropical waters, a cinematographer is nearby filming them
In the Bollywood action-thriller Blue, the beautiful waters of the Bahamas were the setting for romance and intrigue.

SF//Alert Diver features issues of dive safety. Have you ever gotten yourself in trouble on a movie set due to a dive-related injury?

PZ// Sharks and other “dangerous” marine animals have never been an issue for me, but I have experienced dive-related challenges. While working with Bob Talbot on the IMAX film Ocean Men: Extreme Dive, we had to do mixed-gas dives to 300 feet to get the shots of Pipin Ferreras and Umberto Pelizzari on their ultradeep freedives. We quickly learned a healthy respect for the effects of nitrogen narcosis. We called it “meter lock” when assistants were confounded by simple tasks such as confirming light-meter readings. Sometimes they would perform miserably at depth tasks that were second nature in shallow water. Before filming we always discuss possible hazards and how to get the shot safely.

Underwater cinematographer is submerged underwater to get footage of a swimming anaconda
Zuccarini filmed this giant anaconda for an Animal Planet production about creatures of the Amazon. Anacondas can weigh more than 200 pounds, and reports exist of much larger snakes. They are fast swimmers and formidable aquatic predators.

On the science-fiction film Jumper I had to show a guy being swept underneath a frozen river. We could pull him rapidly with a cable to simulate the current, but we had to do it laterally since he was breathing compressed air, as we couldn’t risk an embolism with quick depth changes. Sometimes we simply can’t use compressed air for either the talent or me, and that’s where my freediving skills help. On Ocean Men we had to show Pelizzari during his final ascent to the surface. The challenge was getting a massive 300-pound IMAX camera to track straight up to the surface alongside him. The solution was to make the camera neutrally buoyant at 60 feet using a weight pack that could be jettisoned. My assistant took the camera down on scuba, and as Pelizzari swam up from the depths I swam down on a breath-hold dive, grabbed the camera, released the weights and swam the now positively buoyant IMAX camera to the surface along with Pelizzari. I hope it sounds easier than it really was; those days were physically exhausting. I never mix days of scuba diving with arduous freediving. I know better and so does our dive-safety crew.

My latest dive-related health conundrum is not a matter of depth but of time. Sometimes we work in controlled environments, like the tank in Mexico in which much of Titanic was shot. I may be in only 15 feet of water, but I’m working for 12 hours at a time, and the dry compressed air can be really hard on my lungs. I know I’m not going to get bent though, and if the production calls for a cameraman to shoot for 12 hours straight, then that is what is expected of me. But too many consecutive days of that are arduous. I’m talking to some of DAN’s pulmonary specialists about it right now, in fact.

SF// I know you have been involved with some very big-budget and high-profile movies, but when I think of your career I always recall the lifestyle scenes in Into the Blue — at the beginning of the movie when Paul Walker and Jessica Alba were having fun in that magic, blue Bahamian water before the bad guys sneaked into the plot. Your lighting actually shocked me when I saw it on the big screen. It was so rich and vibrant, and the flesh tones were so believable. I wasn’t used to seeing that in a theatrical release.

PZ// Thanks for noticing. Most of my work is story-driven, of course, but I often get an opportunity to mold the direction or communicate the simple joy of being underwater. I think we managed that on Into the Blue; on the shoot we saw an unusual aggregation of eagle rays, and I was able to talk the producer into budgeting three more shoot days for Walker and Alba to swim with the rays. It was a totally propitious opportunity that they let me work with. As a person who loves the ocean and its wildlife, I have a bit of my own agenda: I want the audience to love the wildlife, too. I know I’m not shooting Blue Planet when I do a mainstream movie, but I can hope to build in a sense of ocean advocacy, and the reach of these movies is enormous.

SF// Watching you work with your crew suggests real synergy. How do you manage that?

PZ// A lot of it is simple familiarity. My assistant, Peter Manno, and I have been working together for nearly 20 years. When we communicate using hand signals underwater, it isn’t random charades — he knows what I want. Also, we use communications systems, among ourselves and with the director, who is watching the action live on the boat (either through my camera or a separate “witness” camera). So much expense rides on every day of production, we have to be very efficient, and we plan each shot well in advance, from basic aesthetics to the mechanics of how we can achieve the right look.

Zuccarini and film assistant shoot a commercial in a pool. The subjects are two men in soccer uniforms.
Although much of Zuccarini’s work is for theatrical release, he also shoots commercials, as in this underwater soccer sequence for a sporting apparel campaign.

SF// What kind of gear does it take to shoot a major motion picture these days? I assume it is transitioning from 35mm Panavision to digital.

PZ// You’d be right except there are famously outspoken advocates for film, including Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight Rises. The first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies were all shot on film, as was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I have a project that we’ll shoot on film this year as well. But the fourth Pirates was shot digitally, and The Hobbit was as well, so clearly a trend embracing digital has emerged. It may not be as universal as in still photography, but in the film business digital has the momentum.

For my underwater projects I work with Steve Ogles of Watershot on my housing designs, and lately I am using the Arri Alexa for much of my theatrical work. My housings have custom multicoated parts (both flat and dome), a milled aluminum front module and a carbon-fiber rear section. I make sure to find the tool that the shot requires. When I was working on Act of Valor, a film depicting the exploits of real-life Navy SEALs, we shot almost the entire film with Canon EOS 5D Mark II cameras. A heavy camera like the Arri couldn’t be mounted to SEALs’ helmets as they deployed down a line from a helicopter onto a moving submarine. The small form factor of the 1080P digital SLR was the right solution, and now the 5D Mark III is everywhere in Hollywood. Whenever an “expendable” camera is called for to be mounted to the frame of a moving motorcycle or the hood of a car going off a bridge into the water, they would be more inclined to risk a 5D Mark III than a $70,000 Alexa with a $30,000 lens. And the smaller cameras are conducive to movements with marine mammals or quickly swimming around talent on breath-hold dives. The big cameras and housings do offer mass though, which is important on a movie like Life of Pi, in which the camera has to hold steady as a tiger leaps into the water above me, creating a buffeting wave. The housed 3-D Alexa rig moved as if it was on a dolly — smooth and clean, the inertia holding the tracking shot steady. The barrier the big housing offers against hazardous marine life is often welcome as well.

Cameras are getting better and smaller, which makes 3-D image capture easier, too. But it’s still all about the story and communicating visually with a large audience. The specific tool will always evolve, but the ability to tell a story that involves the underwater world is the core of what I do.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2012