Exclusive: Ocean Man Bob Talbot

Like mine, Bob Talbot’s earliest childhood was reflected in the waters of Long Island Sound. Later, in Southern California, his freediving career began at age 8 and his scuba career at 13. Bob Talbot has made the ocean his life and his living. His still photos, especially of marine mammals, have earned him a global reputation, and his film career has recently culminated in the breathtaking IMAX feature Ocean Men.

Bob generously made time for DeeperBlue.net during the frenetic DEMA trade show in Miami. I knew what most of us know about Bob’s achievements, but I was curious to know which ones he would point to as career highlights.

“Career highlights ?” he mused. “Free Willy, for sure. That film had reach, and changed attitudes. That has brought me a lot of satisfaction..”

And, well, Ocean Men ?

“Ocean Men !” Bob grinned. ” Yes ! Mostly because I had total creative control, from A to Z.”

I asked Bob about the status of the film, since I’d not seen it playing recently. I rather presumptuously suggested I represented the hopes and dreams of the huddled masses of divers around the world, all of us in need of another cinematic fix.

Bob laughed.

“I know what you mean. I’d like to see it again, too. Believe it or not, I don’t even have a copy of the final cut myself. It’s still in release, technically speaking, but the German production company that made it went bust.”

Hope sprung in my fevered breast. A DVD on the way, perhaps ?

Bob shrugged. ” I sure hope so. I know I want one.” He wasn’t optimistic, though, about the immediate prospects of a release on any medium for home viewing. Something about untangling and resolving all the issues around the belly-up production company. “Don’t hold your breath !” he advised. “But the DVD could have some neat added features. There are some neat outtakes, like one of Umberto just sitting on the bottom for 4 minutes.”

I had to ask : Constant Ballast or No Limits ? I’d always wondered which one he, the director, had preferred. The film, it seemed to me, had not played a favorite.

Bob shares the view widely-held in the freediving community, namely, that Constant Ballast is the purer discipline. However, and somewhat to my surprise, the man of cinema has a strong preference for the visuals of No Limits.

“No Limits is simply more interesting, visually”, he explained. ” The imagery is more effective in conveying a sense of depth. The sled’s descent is fast ! The safety divers fly through the frame, bottom to top, and the light fades rapidly with depth.”

I asked about something that has been troubling and puzzling me for years. Pressure, after all, is really the most overwhelming of the sensations in deep freediving, and it had always seemed to me something inherently difficult to convey through a visual medium. You can show the darkening water, and everyone knows what the urge to breathe feels like, but how can a movie make the viewer experience pressure ?

Bob grinned mysteriously.

“You’re right. It’s essentially impossible to communicate pressure with images, at least the kind of images I was interested in for Ocean Men.”

I guessed he was referring to the film’s device of showing an animation of Pipin’s lungs being compressed. I’d thought it was kind of hokey, like a high-school science movie. Bob agreed, and revealed that he’d been resistant to the idea of using the animation at all. It clashed, in his view, with the otherwise rather poetic director’s vision. In the end, he conceded the point but minimized the animated sequence.

So ? How was it I felt the pressure while watching Pipin’s dives on the IMAX screen ?

“Sound.” Bob intoned. “The score. Music. Layering on strings, building tension and the sense of building pressure through sound. Coupled with the visual imagery, it is quite effective.”

It certainly did seem to work in the film, which brought me around to the more general matter of communicating the freediving experience in media. If we are candid, we must acknowledge that nobody has yet managed to produce a fim or video of competitive freediving that would interest anybody besides the competitors and their near kin. We, who do it or are close to those who do, think it is terribly exciting to watch a few dozen people swim down a rope and back, but it has not exactly fired the passions of the spectating masses.

Since we know that media exposure is the key to the sport’s health and prosperity, I asked Bob if he had thought about better, more compelling ways to depict competitive freedivng and thus grab the attention of large audiences.

Bob Talbot thought it over. “I come at it from a different angle”, he said. “I don’t know that there are any big solutions to the media portrayal problem. For example, divers always talk about the hugeness the ocean. There really isn’t any way to show this in film or TV, not even on the IMAX screen. I think the answer is in the minds of the viewers. Media isn’t going to drive the growth of freediving. If the dive industry embraced freediving, with education, training, and so on, then participation will become more widespread. The key is a more knowledgeable audience. They will supply the interest that will drive media to meet it.”

Lets see: dive industry throws its weight behind freediving, the one market segment that is actually growing despite the economic doldrums and industry indifference. Hmmm. More and more people start learning and doing freediving. Ah-ha !. Pretty soon, there’s one in every family, then two…. Yes ! No need for Lucasfilms special effects to make freediving content interesting to these people : they’re already interested ! Just show it and they’ll tune in. And buy the video. And the T-shirt. And the spectator boat tickets for the 2005 Sony Classic……but wait, perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Be that as it may, Bob is on to something there. But how to convince the dive industry ?

Bob shrugged. “Hard to say what will capture a culture’s interest at any given point. Something gets hot, then wanes. Businesses like certainty. The trick, I think is bringing industry people into the freediving environment.”

Industry people, consider yourselves invited !