Michael Pitts is one of Britain’s foremost underwater camera people, having worked on numerous projects around the world. He is also equally adept at shooting on the surface of even from the air. Michael Pitts has been recognised with a plethora of awards, including receiving Emmys for cinematography on two BBC landmark series: David Attenborough’s ‘Private Life of Plants’ and ‘Blue Planet’. In 2012 Michael Pitts was responsible for the underwater filming of the Sir David Attenborough 3D series on the Galapagos produced by Sky/Colossus. Michael has over 20 years experience of making wildlife and science documentaries for the BBC and Independent Companies. He works with a variety of camera systems including the RED Epic, the Arri Alexa and the Arri 435. Michael Pitts is now moving into the world of 3D acquisition. Michael Pitts also shoots stills and his work has appeared in numerous publications and books. Please enjoy my interview with the wildly talented Michael Pitts…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I describe myself as an underwater cameraman and producer of films although I shoot many land based sequences my preference is to shoot underwater – it’s more of a challenge, it’s what I specialise in and I’m particularly good at. However, as a freelance cameraman, I have to be flexible enough to take on sequences or films that have little or no water element.
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson. A historical drama based on fact about the voyage of HMS Beagle with Captain Robert Fitzroy and Charles Darwin as the two central characters. A brilliant read which I have just finished for the second time. I have also been to many of the places the Beagle went so it has particular importance to me.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
Probably my earliest books were some of the children’s classics that have stood the test of time. The Wind in the Willows by A.A. Milne is a favourite and one I have read many times to my own children. I was lucky enough to have a Mother that put great emphasis on reading and as such, I loved reading as a child. It was also an escape for me as my Father was in the Air Force and as a result, we moved many times. Reading was the anchor and retreat that was there for me.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
Depending on the age, of course, I would recommend anything to do with the natural world and also books that have a little of escapism in. The Borrowers by Mary Norton a fantasy novel was a favourite and I remember reading the whole set as I was hooked from that first book. Another, Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne a story about three boys that survive a shipwreck and are marooned on a coral Island was also a classic and set me thinking about going to the Pacific.
When did you fall in love with photography?
My first real attempts at photography were when I joined the Army as a boy apprentice at the age of 15. My Father gave me a German Voigtlander camera to take snaps on. I loved taking pictures on it and still do although sadly I do not have the camera anymore.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve had a few ‘worst jobs’ but you try and forget those moments but I can honestly say the hardest job I have ever had was working as a commercial diver in the Arabian Gulf on an American Brown and Root pipe-laying barge. I spent nearly five months on that vessel which resembled something out of Blade Runner with red necks from North Carolina and Louisiana all chewing tobacco. The noise was constant 24 hours a day. The barge was lit like a city at night and the heat incredible during those summer months.
I brushed with death on three dives during the time I was on board. The closest when an oil pipeline I was cutting at over 100-foot depth with Oxyacetylene blew up and caught fire. It blew me backwards and all I can remember is waking up on the seabed with a raging inferno in front of me. I was very lucky to survive and my helmet saved me as although unconscious I could still breathe.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring photographer?
My younger son is currently taking a photographic degree and has just completed his second year of studies. I know just how tough it is for young people to start out but what I tell Ollie is – persevere and don’t give up. It’s out there for those that are determined enough to succeed. But, I do know how much has changed over the last decades with the advent of digital photography and just how many people wish to pursue photography or filmmaking. Flexibility and being able to drop everything and head off on assignment are essential attributes.
Who would you say are the three photographers that continue to inspire you?
Don McCullin as a war photographer is still producing incredible landscape pictures at 80 years of age so I like to think I can too. Neil Lucas a Bristol based photographer and a dear friend of mine is an incredible photographer and his ‘still life’s’ are works of art. Like McCullin Neil is brilliant with Black and White.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
I tend to read more on assignment when at the end of the day like many people you can escape into another world. Be it on a small yacht being tossed about in the Southern Atlantic Ocean or in a high rise hotel in Hong Kong. It’s a great way of unwinding from the intensity of filmmaking.
What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path?
I don’t have a library full of photographic books but I do love Ansell Adams images and have one large book of his. My career path started really through shooting Super 8mm and making mistakes and learning from that. The best lessons I have learnt in this business is through my own mistakes especially so when you have to pay for them out of your own pocket. Nothing can teach you so well.
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. I just enjoy going back to books I read when I was so much younger. My Father took me to see the Kon-Tiki raft in Norway when I was around 11 years old. It inspired me about adventures on the high seas and I remember making a Balsa wood model of it as soon as I got home.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Tough question. But I would put down, South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton and although I have not been to the Antarctic Peninsula I have spent nearly two months on South Georgia so can imagine some of the hardships Shackleton and is crew endured. As a story of bravery and determination, there is nothing quite like it.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
True adventure, World War Two history in the Pacific with particular emphasis on The US Navy and US Marine Corp beach landings. I have been to many of the landing beaches where men form both sides died. I also find diving on the shipwrecks from that war especially poignant especially when you read about the battle action beforehand.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
I can’t even contemplate that question but the world we know now would not be like it is without books. Take the Bible for instance.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
My wife is a member of a book reading club and she recommends authors who she thinks I would like. Troubles: The Seige of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell – brilliant.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
I am of the generation that still loves to go into book shops and browse the shelves for two hours and then wonder what I went in there for in the first place. But, I don’t knock at all the digital book choice. On my commute to the edit suite, I see many people both old and young reading from tablets. Perhaps I will soon switch allegiances but at the moment I am too busy on other film productions so will stick with the old.
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
1984 by George Orwell. Reading this novel sets out a scene of a future in a world of perpetual war and total government surveillance. Looking out how our world is rapidly changing with conflict in the Middle East in Africa and a dictator in North Korea it’s not hard to imagine and see what might happen. 1984 reflects that. So too Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, another novel that anticipates the future.
Without a doubt – The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau; It inspired me to be a diver and an underwater cinematographer.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I’d also include, The Mosquito Coast, The Happy Isles of Oceania, and O-Zone by Paul Theroux. I’d also include The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze by Simon Winchester, an absolutely brilliant read if you want to learn about one of the worlds greatest rivers.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Books that have been given as presents and remain unread: Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Batavia’s Graveyard by Mike Dash and to dip back into A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
It’s already underway and I have written a number of chapters. The book will be based on my diving and filming career and based on locations. Darwin’s Arch in the Galapagos and being surrounded by a huge school of Hammerhead sharks – Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef and experiencing and seeing the aftermath of a massive storm– The Sumatran Rainforest in search of a rare plant with Sir David Attenborough. No title yet but I’m working on it.