A LOOK BACK: Shooting The BIG Submarine

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A US Navy Trident submarine flanked by Navy tugs. The sub is even larger than it looks.

Twenty years ago, we began shooting The BIG Submarine. My camera assistant, Tom Sorlie, and I went to the Kings Bay Navel station to go out on a US Navy Trident submarine. A tug took us to meet the sub off Cumberland Island. Here are some initial impressions that I wrote at the time…

 4-14-96 – 8 AM

 We saw the submarine from miles away. It was coming out of the sun and looked very small. Then it got closer — from a small T to a looming vessel. Closer still, it finally dawned on me how LARGE this sub is. It finally pulled alongside our tug and it was HUGE. As with many unique experiences, everything happened very quickly. We walked across a portable bridge and along the football-field-size missile deck to the hatch and dropped down into the close confines of the ship (or “boat” as the submariners call it.) The first thing I noticed was the smell – a mechanical small, just like that of the aircraft carrier. Interior hallways were the same colorless gray and off-white with miles of twisted cables running everywhere. It was the same spotless clean as the carrier, but it was much smaller.

We followed the leader down ladders and through passageways to the single Crew Mess. It was a fraction of the size of the ones on the carrier, but felt more high-tech. Everything was built-in and tied down. The Captain welcomed us on board and showed us some videos — one of Joan Lunden doing a GMA piece on a submarine.

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The captain explains the workings of the submarine.

After our welcome briefing, we took a tour of the sub. It was much smaller than the carrier, and much easier to get around. We filmed some very quick hand-held stuff with the wide-angle (about the only lens that would work because of light levels and the claustrophobic environment.) We then went to the control deck where the periscopes are. It looked just like a Hollywood submarine, with lots of lights and gauges and high-tech screens. The crew people were all very professional.

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Director Bill VanDerKloot shoots into the periscope with his camera, and a crew member looks on.

We cruised out to sea for hours and before we submerged, I was allowed up on the bridge — the little platform on top of the sail –the tall vertical portion of the boat. That is an extraordinary vantage point. You sit as if in a crow’s nest high above the sea with the wind in your face and the splashing waves below. The boat displaces a huge amount of water and it falls off the rounded deck. There is incredible power, but there is no mechanical sound or vibration. You only hear the crashing of the waves as they break against the sub’s bow.

I filmed for about an hour up there — including donning a harness and standing on the very top of the sail between the periscopes. This gave a dramatic perspective. I shot almost all the film I had in my camera, save for about 50 feet, and then headed down the forty-foot ladder to the control room.   When I was halfway down, the lookout yelled “dolphins!” I raced up the ladder to the bridge to see three dolphins playing in the bow wake. When I was filming them, all three jumped out of the waves in unison. It was incredible.   I felt it meant good luck.

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The sail of the Trident submarine.

Then we dove underwater to over 700 feet. It was a lot like the Hollywood subs, except everything moves much slower and more deliberately. We filmed and then met in the mess for dinner and then filmed again. At the end of the night, I was exhausted, but the five gallon tub of Haagen-Daz Butter Pecan ice made everything OK!

At 10PM, we gathered in the mess to watch a movie — Crimson Tide. — a movie about ‘the most powerful military machine ever built, the Trident Nuclear Sub’ and we were watching it on a Trident Nuclear Sub. It was the best way to see that film. Sailors from various departments portrayed in the film, would howl at certain scenes. It was a great education in what is real and what is just dramatic invention.

Then it was time to sleep — nine people, three levels of bunks on each wall of a 7’X7’ room. It was hardly enough room to change your expression, but it was an adventure. There was only 2’ of vertical space between the bunks, so I could not sit up. Actually, I could not even bend my knees! In order to scratch my toes, I had to turn sideways and stick my leg out into the room.

Unlike the carrier, the sub is very quiet — no machine noise and virtually no vibration. I had no sensation that we were 700 feet under the ocean. During the night, we had surfaced, and in the morning, we asked if we could film the sunrise from the missile deck — on the outside of the sub. They gathered the crew, including Navy swimmers, and we went topside.

It was awesome….. standing on top of this big black thing rushing through the water. The only sound was the water against the hull. There was nothing on the horizon, just ocean and a beautiful sunrise.

What a way to greet the day.

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