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DiverWire Profile: Meet Jack Gittings – underwater imaging pioneer

(DiverWire) From his unassuming demeanor, you probably wouldn’t guess that Jack Gittings has spent the last 40 years pioneering the field of underwater imaging.  He’s worked on major film sets, trained movie stars, and made technical breakthroughs in optics and lighting.  The Northern California native is constantly cracking jokes learned during his days as a radio DJ, but behind the laid-back exterior lies a sharply-honed technical mind that has driven Gittings to push the boundaries of what is possible underwater.

Gittings spent his early years on his parents boat, snorkeling in Lake Shasta, and watching classic underwater shows like Aquanauts, Sea Hunt, and Voyage to The Bottom of the Sea.  This laid the foundation for his later fascination with underwater work.  He became a scuba instructor in college, diving in between film and photography classes at San Diego State University.  Land work wasn’t enough for Gittings though.  “My grandfather was a photographer,” says Gittings. “By the time I was 5 years old I was shooting and developing my own pictures.”  He wanted more of a challenge, so he combined his interests and started taking cameras underwater.

There were few underwater camera housings available in the early 70’s, so Gittings made his own from raw Plexiglas.  He had an ongoing fascination with the idea of making a person underwater look dry, with the same glamour they’d have walking on land.  Inspired by the innovative underwater images of Bruce Mozert, Lamar Boren, and J. Berry Heron, Gittings set about capturing the underwater world as he envisioned it.

Around the same time, producers in Hollywood were looking to improve the quality of underwater scenes.  The anamorphic lenses used for films created distorted images underwater due to their interactions with camera housings of the era.  Gittings teamed up with fellow cinematographers Jack McKinney, Al Giddings, and Stan Waterman and spent years solving the problem.
The result was a dome port that revolutionized underwater optics.  The technology was first used on the 1977 film The Deep. The film was also Gittings’ first big Hollywood break; he was asked to work on-set training Jacqueline Bisset to dive.

From there Gittings went on work on Scuba, his first film working solo as a cinematographer. The film was funded by the scuba dive gear company Dacor, and narrated by Sea Hunt actor Lloyd Bridges.  “The movie Scuba was amazing for it’s time,” recalls Gittings.  “There were no underwater lights you could buy, so we literally made our own.  We used outdoor sealed-beam floodlights.  We completely waterproofed them and took these 110 volts lights underwater at serious danger of electrocution.  It was very primitive, and actually very dangerous.  But we lived.”

Over the next couple of decades, Gittings continued working underwater on numerous TV shows and films, including the 1984 comedy Splash. He had moved to L.A. after school and was teaching diving at a local shop. Ron Howard found Gittings there and asked him to shoot test footage of Splash’s prototype mermaid tails.  One of Gittings’ dive masters was a striking blonde named Darryl Hannah, who was in acting school at the time.  Shooting had started on Splash, but the lead female still hadn’t been cast.  Gittings knew Hannah would be great for the role, and convinced her to go to a casting.  She got the part.  Hannah was so good in the water that she ended up doing her own stunts.  Gittings fondly recalls that Hannah would often out-swim her safety divers, then float around in the water waiting for them to catch up.

Gittings has a knack for helping people become comfortable in the water, and has trained numerous actors and models over the years.  Underwater work is difficult and dangerous, so directors often hire stunt doubles.  Having a double do a scene isn’t always possible however, as was the case with Bisset.  “As a cinematographer, and particularly an underwater cinematographer, you’re in the second unit group.  You don’t usually work with the big stars, you’re usually working with their stunt doubles.  Working with Jacqueline Bisset, Elke Sommer, and Darryl Hannah, was really a treat,” says Gittings.

Gittings hadn’t forgotten his love of still photography while working in Hollywood.  He was selling his still images to publications, so in 1982 he decided to start his own company.  Fathom Films was born.  The company evolved from focusing on photography to a broader range of underwater work.  “Because of my involvement in the film industry, we started doing more video material.  We were some of the first people who actually shot underwater video.  We carried a huge 100lb underwater housing system back in the early 80’s.  Everybody thought we were nuts, which I’m sure we were,” Gittings laughs.  “The camera ran for all of ten minutes before the battery died.  That’s where the technology was.”

Through the 80’s and 90’s, Fathom Films would grow to be a leading underwater video and still photography company.  The company has provided photos to publications as diverse as Millimeter, Diver Magazine, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic, as well video footage to numerous TV shows and movies.  Gittings continues to pursue his passion for underwater work through Fathom Films, which he now co-runs with business partner Iara Mandyn.

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