Water World: Tom Boyd

Whether it's following wild dolphins through the Amazon or who's willing to gross-out the most on Fear Factor, underwater camera operator Tom Boyd is making a splash.


Tom Boyd’s coworkers can be killers. One false move and his will tear you limb from limb. But that’s all in a day’s work for an underwater camera operator who’s gone swimming with reef and lemon sharks for The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, recreated shipwrecks for National Geographic TV, and traveled throughout the world hoping to capture the secrets that lie just beneath the ocean’s surface. But having a sustainable career in underwater camerawork isn’t just about chasing nature. Boyd’s roster of jobs includes substantial work for land-based projects like Little Miss Sunshine, NCIS, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Big Love, Cold Case, and perhaps the scariest assignment of all—the reboot of American Gladiators.

Before picking up a camera, Boyd was an undergrad at Northeastern University who loved recreational diving so much he worked at the New England Aquarium and spent his student financial aid on SCUBA certification. After getting certified, Boyd bought an underwater still camera and started taking dive photos. Boyd transferred to the University of Florida, and then to Stetson University where he finished his degree before enrolling in Full Sail’s Technical Associate Degree in Film program in 1990. Armed with two degrees and thousands of dive hours, Boyd landed a camera assistant position with Jordan Klein, a Florida-based filmmaker who specializes in underwater and aerial work. In 1992, Boyd headed out to LA where he worked as a production assistant on various projects until his big break—an entry-level position in the underwater unit of the 1995 film, Crimson Tide.

” …It turned out that I had more underwater experience than some of the camera crew,” Boyd recalls. Which is why he quickly went from filling air tanks and loading cameras to setting up underwater shoots to operating a camera himself. Since then, Boyd has served as both an underwater camera operator and as a much-needed resource for land-locked directors who aren’t sure exactly how to get their feet wet.

Get In Media: Do you feel like it’s necessary for an underwater camera operator to be able to do on land as well?

Tom Boyd: I think my interests are so varied that that’s why I do it all, and for me, it’s what keeps me busy. Being an underwater person, because you’re highly specialized, you don’t get many calls all the time. If you have a year where Hollywood has decided “Well, underwater, we’re doing everything underwater,” then you’re busy all the time. There have been years where I’ve worked every week and now all of a sudden you don’t see many underwater jobs, so it’s not like you work all the time. You’ve got a lot of feast and famine going on.

Someone who’s a dry operator, a dry cinematographer, might work all the time because there’s always land jobs. You’re kind of compartmentalized and it’s easy for producers and production managers to go “Oh, Tom Boyd, he’s underwater so we put him over here, and Joe Blow, he does explosion shots of high-speed cinematography or whatever.” So you get kind of compartmentalized in that regard and usually when they ask me if I can dry operate, it’s because as an underwater operator, we tend to be more expensive in terms of cost. So when they hear our rate, they go “Oh.”

If they’re savvy, they know they’re going to pay a lot for an underwater operator, but if they don’t and you give them your day rate, they go “Oh, we have another shot later on in the day. Could you stick around and shoot another camera for us?” I’m like “Yeah, sure.” They’re maximizing their dollar. I run into that…some friends of mine who are underwater, they won’t do anything but the underwater shot.

GIM: How does the rate of a typical underwater camera operator stack up to the day rate of one on land?

TB: It varies. I kind of work within the budgets. If you’re doing reality TV, it’s substantially lower than commercials or features. Commercials especially, they usually have a better budget, obviously, than a reality show. My negotiation, if they don’t want to pay my day rate, I kind of will negotiate a kit rental in there to kind of make it up because it’s a different line item in their budget. More often than not though, I won’t charge the production for my equipment. That’s the way I work. I don’t know if other people do that, but I probably should start charging for my equipment more because I have to replace it because of the usage it gets. I try to be fair, but I don’t want to get screwed. On the same token, I also know that I make more in a day than some people will make in a week, sometimes in a month.

GIM: When people think about underwater cinematography, their minds immediately jump to nature shows, but you’ve done a good bit of work in non-nature programs. When you look at the landscape of underwater cinematography, how much is nature shows versus other work?

TB: As far as I’m concerned, there’s not enough nature because that’s where I think I am really well suited. I would say [for me] it’s about two-thirds Hollywood, if you want to call it that, and then the other third is wildlife, Discovery Channel, environmental groups.

GIM: When you’re working on a nature job, what is the process of setting that up and scouting that project?

TB: A lot depends on the subject matter and what they’re trying to achieve. When I shot the IMAX film Manatee, the producer and I sat down. Because I had lived in Florida for quite a few years, I had a lot of experience dealing with manatees in the past and I knew the time of year that was best to shoot them. I knew where we could go to get the best, hopefully, the best water and things like that. We planned our logistics and everything like that and I knew that the best time of year to be down there would be the winter in Florida. When we arrived, everything was perfect in terms of the environment. Everything was cold. Usually when there’s a cold snap, the manatees will be closer to the spring areas.

Our camera hadn’t arrived yet from Canada, so we were waiting for that to pass through customs. We were waiting for that and we had all these cold days. And then the day the camera arrived, it was still cold, but we had to prep it. We had to prep the housing and then all of a sudden, they went into a heat wave in Florida. Trying to find a manatee in or around the springs was really difficult, and that’s what happens sometimes when you’re dealing with wildlife. Nothing is the same. The producer that was with me, he had certain shots he wanted and I had to keep reminding him, you can’t tell a wild animal to go back to one. It’s not like an actor where you say, “OK, we’re going to do this and this and explain what you want.” I said, “An animal is going to do what it wants. We’ll try to get those shots. That’s your wish list, basically.”

You just have to do a lot of research and sometimes you have to wait it out. In this case, you get a heat wave and then the animals go out into the river so they’re harder to find. You just kind of wait it out and then all of a sudden you get another cold snap and you get your shot. That’s one of the problems or challenges of wildlife documentaries, is that you can do a lot of research, but the environment and the weather and the animal itself can change its mind and do something differently.

GIM: If you’re looking to film a specific underwater animal or phenomenon and it’s just not happening, how do you deal with that?

TB: You can pull the plug if your budget is such. If you have a decent budget, it may be that they’ll say “OK, let’s pull back for a little bit. We need to refinance or re-fund ourselves and then we’ll go back.” Sometimes they’ll have people all over the world. I know Planet Ocean, those films, they have guys all over the world shooting and it may be that they get lucky and they get the sequence that they’re looking for and then they just kind of adjust the story. A lot of times with documentaries, the story evolves. They may have an outline of what they hope to achieve and then the story evolves or something happens.

GIM: How do you communicate underwater?

TB: In tank work and sometimes if you’re in close proximity to a boat, we’ll put a hydrophone in and that way you can communicate. The surface can talk to us underwater. Most of the cameras I operate on a production basis – not necessarily a wildlife shoot, but in production world – I have a video tap to the surface. So more often than not, they can see where my framing is. Everything that you communicate on land like “Action!” and “Roll camera” and all that, it’s all done with a speaker system underwater. Sometimes you have what we call communication units, where it’s like a full facemask and you can communicate with a crew underwater. I can talk to them, they can talk to me, and we can all hear. We use a lot of hand signals, which we will go over before we go underwater. I’ll talk to the talent. When I’m trying to shoot something, I’ll go over my hand signals so they understand if I want them to repeat something or hold or stay in a particular position. Sometimes if they just don’t get it, they don’t get what I’m trying to communicate, I will also have an underwater display with me that I can write on.

GIM: What do you recommend for someone who wants to do underwater cinematography?

TB: The first step is obviously get certified as a diver. Get really, really comfortable in the water. It’s got to be so second nature when you’re underwater.

GIM: What about the cinematography portion?
TB: Just understand lighting, what happens to light when it goes underwater. Colors, you have to understand that colors get washed out. And you have to understand that reds get washed out first, then the oranges, then the yellows, etc. and this happens depending on how deep. The first ten feet, most of the reds are out. As you go further, further down underwater, more colors [disappear]. You have to understand that if you’re shooting things and you want to see things that are colorful, then obviously you need to be bringing some kind of lighting in. You really need to get a feel for the different kinds of lighting instruments that you would use and how you would use them. That’s important. Lenses operate differently underwater. [A cinematographer] would really have to get attuned to what happens to that camera. What happens to those lenses that you use underwater and how that changes everything. You can’t just show up and say, “Oh you want to put a 75 [mm] underwater? Oh great, no problem” and you just do it and you find out that you can’t get the shot. You really need to understand camera systems and how they operate underwater. You have to be really, really technical in a way.


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