Perhaps Rosenthal’s greatest challenge to date is his current project Hot Tuna, a documentary about one of the only known semi-warmblooded fish in the sea, the giant bluefin tuna. The bluefin is also one of the largest ocean fish and is highly prized for its flesh — single fish suitable for sushi markets in the U.S. and Japan fetch tens of thousands of dollars, with one fish recently selling for $400,000 in Tokyo. With prices like that on their heads, bluefins are among the most heavily hunted animals on the planet, making them increasingly rare to find. Just getting close to one takes great patience and skill.
When Rosenthal commenced filming Hot Tuna with Wild Logic Producer Katya Shirokow, they had no idea how much footage of free-swimming wild tuna they would be able to capture for this one-hour TV documentary. “I didn’t want this to be another depressing story about the demise of bluefins, about how they’re being fished to the brink of extinction,” says Rosenthal. “Instead I wanted this film to bring awareness to this marvelous creature. I wanted to take the tuna out of the can or sushi roll so people could see for the first time what the fish they pay so much to eat is like before it is landed, when it’s swimming free with other animals in the wild ocean.”
Rosenthal realized that this had never been done before (he already tried to capture such footage for the National Geographic Channel in 1998) and there were limited shots of free-swimming bluefins in existence. Furthermore, the BBC Natural History Unit spent a great deal of time and resources on trying to film bluefins in the wild with very little success. Nevertheless, several co-production partners, including the National Geographic Channel, NHK/Japan, NDR/Germany, ORF/Austria and ARTE/France and others, were counting on Rosenthal to deliver dramatic footage of wild, free-swimming bluefins versus the farm-raised tunas enclosed in nets. “I really wanted to avoid that in Hot Tuna but had no certainty that we could, hence, we incorporated several other species of tuna [yellowfin and skipjack] in the film to contrast with bluefins,” the DP explains. “The tuna family includes numerous species with big differences in behavior and biology. In doing so we hoped to expand the scope of the story and the variety of visuals.”
In terms of bluefins, Rosenthal’s core challenge was simply getting within camera range of these fast, elusive fish capable of swimming in bursts of 50+ miles per hour. “A mellow, trusting 30-year-old bluefin is not easy to find,” Rosanthal notes. “They quickly learn to avoid hooks, fishing lines and people in general, so just getting close enough for a decent shot was a challenge. Pound for pound, bluefins are the most valuable animals on earth. At those prices, every bluefin has a pretty big bounty on its head and hence has been hotly pursued by fishermen from several different countries. Hence, they’re naturally wary of boats.”
Atlantic bluefins range widely and may migrate north to Iceland and the Canadian Maritimes, south to the Gulf of Mexico, out to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge or even into the Mediterranean Sea. “There is a lot we still don’t know about their biology and life cycle,” Rosenthal says. “However, we do know some of their historic haunts, especially where they’ve been caught in the past. So I started by working with key scientists and, most importantly, with professional tuna fishermen and spotter pilots who’ve been successful in finding them over the years.” But even with the latest scientific information, the odds were still stacked against finding them. “Weather was also a huge factor,” Rosenthal notes. “Strong wind and waves can keep you pinned down in port for days on end. On one trip to Cape Hatteras last winter, it snowed the day before I arrived and there were only 2 days out of 14 that were even suitable for camera work. Fishing with a camera is not for the impatient or feint of heart. Typically we spent more time waiting for favorable windows in the weather to happen than we did filming.”
The DP nearly missed his opportunity to film on one spring voyage to the Azores and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, when the ocean was just too rough to travel any distance for 16 days before letting up. “A Nat Geo photographer had to leave before the weather broke and predicted our luck would turn soon thereafter,” Rosenthal recalls. “Sure enough, two days later we found a spot with a lot of mackerel and bluefins leaping out of the water amidst them. When we got closer we saw the bluefins were herding the mackerel into tight ‘bait balls.’ Then, they’d swim up through the confused fish shoals like torpedos and swallow as many as possible. They worked up a head of speed in the process and many leapt clear of the water in the process. It was an amazing spectacle both above and below the sea surface.”
As the bluefins focused on the mackerel, Rosenthal was able to swim among them with his camera to film the feeding frenzy. “It was amazing,” he exclaims. “I was right in the thick of the mackerel and the tuna, close enough to touch them. In fact, I was afraid of these 160-to-600-pound bluefins colliding with me as they charged through the mackerel, especially with the poor visibility. Several times I was rocked by their wake as they swooshed by just inches from my face mask and camera. It was amazing how they could pinpoint my location in that murky water, especially at the speed [of 30+ miles per hour] they were swimming, but they never touched me.”
Still, Rosenthal was glad to be using a larger camera at the time — for stability amid the turbulence and for protection from collisions. His “A” camera was his old reliable Sony CineAlta F900 camera ensconced in PACE/Giddings underwater housing. “Its weight [of 70+ pounds] slows me down, getting into and out of the water, but once in the water it provided stability in the waves and swirling fish, plus a buffer from feeding bluefins and large predators,” Rosenthal explains.
To take full advantage of his variable, mostly short windows of opportunity, the DP utilized several different cameras, including a Sony EX3 together with Convergent Design’s compact nanoFlash digital recorder. “I was able to record a much higher-resolution image with the nanoFlash linked to the EX3, [having] 200+ Mbps versus the 35 Mbps built into the EX3,” he says. “It was also lighter, less bulky and easier to handle on a rocking boat than say the F900, without being too light.” Having a DSLR along also proved invaluable. “The [Canon] 5D Mark II wasn’t my principal camera, but it was indispensable, especially when I needed to slip into the water quickly and quietly while swimming among the bluefins,” Rosenthal notes. “It was also easier to maneuver close to the bluefins with the 5D without spooking them. I got some of the best footage of this project with it. Still, I can’t wait until there is a more video-friendly version of the 5D, more like the RED EPIC, that can be incorporated into an underwater housing.”
Another surprising technological twist was using a film camera (like an ARRI SR 16 rather than a Vision Research Phantom or another digital high-speed camera) to capture many of the slow-motion shots. “Our prolonged shoots of up to a month at a time made renting a Phantom a budget-buster,” says Rosenthal. “Considering the limited use it would actually get on a given trip, it would’ve cost more than several thousand dollars a day. Instead, I already own an ARRI HSR 16 film camera and have converted a lot of footage shot with it to HD for broadcast with great results.” And one brand-new tool played a key supporting role on the shoot: the high-capacity lithium-ion underwater LED lights by Gates/Sub Aqua. “One sequence I used them for was a deepwater lobster battle which looked bright and beautifully balanced thanks to these LED lights,” Rosenthal says. “The lights lasted for over two hours when switched on and off. We could never do that with older tungsten lighting.”
In the end, by using a variety of old and newer cameras and other key tools (both old and new), Rosenthal got much more underwater footage of bluefins and other tunas in the wild ocean than he ever imagined possible. “You could say we got lucky, but we really did our homework and diligently prepped our gear to capitalize on our brief windows of opportunity,” the DP explains. “I hope people will be wowed by and want to protect these amazing fish from overfishing, especially after seeing them in action, up close in their watery realm.”