As champions of men, SCRUBD are passionate about helping men to be masters in every area of their life. Every month we interview a true master, who is making a difference in the world around him.
Usually found behind the camera, this month the spotlight is on wildlife and underwater cameraman Mark Sharman who has worked on some of the most exciting wildlife documentaries of our time including the award-winning Jago a Life Underwater and Blue Planet II which has recently aired on BBC One.
How did you get involved in underwater filming and how did it feel filming underwater for the first time?
I have been fascinated by scuba diving and the underwater world since I was a child. Scuba diving was a natural step for me as I was a competitive swimmer as a teenager and was always in and around the water growing up. I studied Television Production at university and after this I got my first jobs in the industry, as well as my first decent time diving on a conservation project. I put my two interests of camerawork and scuba diving together for a job in the Red Sea filming tourists and selling them a DVD of their week of diving. I felt a great sense of accomplishment getting to a place where I could put my two main interests together, and proud that I was on the way to achieving what I had set out to do.
What are the most important skills needed to master underwater filming?
Early on before I embarked on my career I was given the advice that you can’t create good underwater camerawork unless you have mastered neutral buoyancy, which is the most important part of being a scuba diver. The only way to do this is to get hundreds of dives under your belt in various conditions. The underwater filming process involves your scuba diving reflexes becoming automatic, so you can concentrate 100% on what you’re filming, without thinking about your position in the water. That, and manoeuvring around extremely delicate corals on the reef is an important part of the job, and the training and practice is endless.
Natural History programmes have evolved with advances in technology – what new skills have you had to develop to maintain your craft?
I’ve continually developed my craft and pushed new boundaries to keep up my skills as an all round cameraman, both on the land and underwater. Becoming a rebreather diver was a important step, as it is allows you to spend a lot more time underwater and get closer to certain marine life. That was like learning diving from scratch, and requires neutral buoyancy to be re-learned in a new way.
This year I’ve developed my drone flying skills to be able to fly and film aerial shots, and these skills need constant refinement and practice to be able to perform and deliver on demand right when the action is happening. There are not often second chances, so you have to be ready when the action starts, which takes a lot of dedication and time to achieve.
‘Jago a Life Underwater’ is an award-winning film about the life story of an old Bajau man. What was it like to work with these underwater masters and film them in their element?
Jago was an amazing production to work on; a low-budget, self-funded passion project by directors James Reed and James Morgan. It was the first time I’d met any Bajau people, or sea gypsies, and being able to tell a story from their point of view was special. They were incredible in the water, able to hold their breath for several minutes as they hunted with a spear-gun. Being able to work with people so adept in their environment was quite something, and really satisfying to be a part of such a small project which has received some of the biggest awards in the industry.
Capturing the natural world on camera can be time consuming. How long would you spend filming in order to get all the footage required for a sequence?
Shoots are generally between two and five weeks, three weeks is about average for a sequence you might see in a programme like Blue Planet II. Sometimes you get nothing for the first two weeks and everything happens on the last day….there have been a few of those. Developing patience and remaining upbeat and positive when the chips are down are key skills to master.
What is your most memorable moment and have you had any scary encounters filming in the wild?
Filming large marine life has been the most thrilling so far, it really reminds you of your size and place. I’ve filmed beside Whale Sharks, Sperm Whales, Humpback Whales and Orcas which were all incredibly memorable experiences. I’ve also had a brown Bear mother walk her two young cubs right past where I was sitting. In my experience all of these wild animals are generally quite shy and move away from you, so when the odd one allows you to stay close and film for a few minutes, they are really special moments. I don’t see the natural world as a scary place; wildlife is often misunderstood and sensationalised in the media, so I have a healthy respect for something which could do me harm. Ultimately you are in their domain so you have to move and act accordingly, and take advice from experts, and everyone is happy. The only time I’ve genuinely been threatened in the wild, is an encounter with poachers, whilst on patrol with eco guards in Gabon, filming the capture of a poacher and being shot at by the guys who ran away. I filmed the whole thing and it wasn’t until after the adrenaline wore off did I think of the danger we were in.
What advice would you give to aspiring documentary makers?
It’s going to be a long haul, so building resilience to set backs is key. There will always be double the amount of knock backs as there will be big breaks, so you’ve just got to keep going and keep finding different angles in. It’s a very competitive area to get into, so a deep and unshakable passion is needed. Getting any experience in the industry is a good move, taking every opportunity to learn and develop the craft with hands-on experience. Meet as many people as possible in the industry and keep in touch with them. Most of my work comes from recommendation, by reputation and from people I already know, so the bigger the network, the more chance there is of work coming in. People like working with nice people, so being easy and fun to work with is also something to consider.
How do you master your day?
Going to the pool or gym in the morning, with a walk back home along the coast sets things up well. If there’s a lot of admin to do, getting fresh air, either with a walk, run or a drone flight by the sea is good for clearing the head. Getting through my list of things to do keeps everything ticking over and on track.
If you could have dinner with three male masters, who would they be and why?
David Attenborough, Ernest Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock. Three men’s work I’ve greatly enjoyed and admired. All story-tellers by trade, it would be a masterclass.
The best piece of advice you have ever received?
Stay focussed and keep going.