For most of his career, D.J. Roller has lived the life aquatic. The documentary filmmaker and founder of Atlanta's Liquid Pictures, Roller specializes in underwater cinematography and 3-D IMAX photography. Having traveled to all seven continents, Roller served as director of underwater photography for Fernbank's latest IMAX documentary, Wild Ocean, which captures the feeding frenzies of the spectacular sardine runs off Africa's Eastern Coast. On land, Roller lives with his wife and two children and has worked on such films as U2 3-D and Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D.
How did you get started in this field? What are some of your favorite places?
I've been diving since I was 12, and started filming underwater right off the bat. When I took my first diving course, I bought a 35-mm still camera with money I saved up. And it just kind of hit me one day: "Some people make a living doing this." Even when I'm not filming [professionally], I take a camera in the water with me.
What are some of your favorite places?
That's a tough one, because I've been in so many beautiful places, but definitely Antarctica, Patagonia, Morocco. Closer to home, the Yucatan Peninsula. I enjoy cave diving and the water's amazing there. There are places you can dive where you can see Mayan ruins and artifacts underwater. Caves are some of the last frontiers on Earth, so diving in one is like climbing a mountain for the first time.
Is it challenging to find new subjects or "frontiers" for documentaries?
Yes and no. It's hard filming a [fictional] story, because every story has been told before, and it's the same with documentaries. It seems like everything's been shot before, but with the advent of 3-D, everything that's been done before can be done again in 3-D. 3-D IMAX photography brings the audience closer to the unattainable image. You can capture for the audience what it was like for you to experience something. I know divers who saw Wild Ocean and told me afterward that while they were watching it, they forgot that they weren't underwater. One of them said, "I started doing my breathing patterns like I was diving."
How heavy are IMAX cameras? Why don't you just sink to the bottom?
The cameras are so huge, it takes two people to lift them out of the water, but they're balanced so well that it's not a problem in the water. You have to manhandle it to move it on the surface, but in the water, you have to be very delicate and precise with it when you're filming. It's still a large mass, so even moving it underwater takes a lot of energy. It's a workout – we eat well every night, because we work up such big appetites.
What's it like to swim with sharks?
In Wild Ocean – that's probably the most sharks I've been with in the water. We know that sharks aren't as dangerous as the media portrays them in movies like Jaws, but they're very capable of biting you. We think of them as an "acceptable risk." Sharks are really sexy, cool creatures, and they were more interested in the sardines than in us. Sometimes the sardines or the dolphins would use us as barriers for the sharks. Sharks have very tough skin compared to dolphins, so if one bumps into you, the friction can almost spin you, and you really have to work to hold the camera steady. I bought a rear-view mirror at an Atlanta bicycle shop that I mounted on my camera, so I can always check to see if anything's coming up behind me.
What's the most dangerous thing you've done for a film?
A lot of things could be considered dangerous – I could name a thousand of them. In South Africa, a lot of things could've gone wrong getting in and out of the water, since there were a lot of sharks that were all keyed up. In Antarctica, when you're diving under the ice, you have to bring enough back-up air for you and your buddy if something goes wrong. Plus, the water is 28.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest water on Earth. Your regulators can freeze and stop working, so you need redundant regulators. I also worked with Aquarius Undersea Lab off Key Largo on missions that were up to 16 days long. There you basically live underwater. If you go underwater for a certain time, you absorb nitrogen in your bloodstream, so you stay underwater so you don't have to decompress. But if you tried to surface too fast, the bubbles would expand and cause pain, especially in your joints. It's like shaking up a Coke bottle and opening the top.
What's the hardest part about making underwater documentaries?
We're at the mercy of nature. Sometimes something we'll want to film will be happening, and as soon as we hit the water, it'll stop. It can be like Murphy's Law. But sometimes it's the opposite. In the "battle scene" of Wild Ocean, when the birds were diving and the dolphins and sharks were feeding, sometimes that went on long enough for us to come out of the water, change cameras and go back down again. The battle scene was a culmination of three to four months down there in 2006 and 2007. The sounds of the birds splashing was like artillery shells. It was like the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan.
The Dark Knight just set a record for IMAX attendance. Will IMAX ever become the industry standard for conventional movies?
I definitely think IMAX could be one of the standards in the future. They're definitely building more and more IMAX theaters. I think there will be a trend for larger theaters, to get people back to the movies. There's more going on with the new digital 3-D revolution than most people realize. Some studios will shoot a film in 3-D, release it in 2-D and "bank" the 3-D version to release later.
Was it really different for you to shoot the U2 concert film?
The U2 film was an amazing experience. The main part of the film was concerts in Argentina, where there would be well over 200,000 people in stadiums, so they were packed floor to ceiling. One of the concerts was a "phantom" concert without the crowd present, so we could put the cameras in places that would have really pissed off the crowd. They were the most easy-going, nice guys you could meet – if they weren't U2, you'd just think they were regular guys in a band. I think Bono said in an interview that when they watched the finished film, they felt like it was the first time that they'd actually gone to one of their own concerts.