Into 'The Abyss' : The Excitement Ran Deep in Cameraman's Latest Film Project

As one of the country's most respected underwater cameramen, Chuck Nicklin has swum with sharks, spent long days and nights in the Bahamas with Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset and shared air, compressed air, with Bond, James Bond.

But he has never had an experience quite like falling into "The Abyss," his latest Hollywood film project.

"We did things on 'Abyss' that I didn't believe," said Nicklin, 61, a veteran of almost every conceivable type of underwater photography.

Expected to be one of the hottest movies of this summer, "The Abyss" is an action-adventure extravaganza under the direction of James Cameron ("Aliens," "The Terminator") with a price tag already in the $40-million range. Nicklin recently spent three months on location in South Carolina working on the film's complex underwater sequences.

For 12 weeks, he spent an average of 12 hours a day working in huge water tanks built in an abandoned atomic reactor. Armies of divers were choreographed with submarines, missiles and a dozen other technical props. Nicklin would often spend five hours at a time underwater, driven by a director who "knows what he wants and is always right."

"A lot of time we would be tired . . . but he would work harder than anybody," Nicklin said of Cameron.

There was no escape in South Carolina for the crews, who were housed in a "truck stop" hotel. Nicklin describes it as the toughest film project he has ever worked on.

"Still, when it comes out, I know I can be proud to say I was part of that thing," he said.

The sensationalism and supposed glamour of working on location for a Hollywood film seems far removed from Nicklin's small La Jolla house, where he spends much of his time. In San Diego, he is best known as one of the co-founders and majority owner of the Diving Locker chain of stores, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Nicklin is a familiar figure in La Jolla, a regular in the local eating and drinking establishments and an active trustee of the La Jolla Town Council.

Six to eight months out of each year, however, Nicklin is usually busy on some type of underwater film project. He has supplied still photos for every major nature magazine in the world, and, when he's not filming sharks off Australia or whales in Alaska for documentary projects, he is usually working on some type of Hollywood film.

Until "The Abyss," his biggest film project was working as a lead cameraman for "The Deep," the popular 1977 movie of underwater intrigue starring Nolte and Bisset. For Nicklin, it was a far more enjoyable experience than "The Abyss."

The crew stayed in nice hotels in the Bahamas, and, after each day's filming, when the principals met to discuss the next day's shooting, Nicklin would put on a jacket and go to dinner with the actors. He purposely removes himself from the pressures and rigors of the film business. He's a cameraman first and foremost, with no desire to become a producer or director.

"He really prefers not to get involved in the ulcers," said Al Giddings, Nicklin's friend for 25 years. "He likes to leave that to me. As I leave for some insane meeting, he always says to me, 'Be sure to drink your milk.' "

Giddings--the director of photography for "The Deep" and the head of the San Francisco-based Ocean Images, a firm specializing in underwater photography--met Nicklin at a spearfishing competition in La Jolla in 1963. They've traveled the world together since then, shooting in the waters off the Galapagos Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Red Sea and a dozen other exotic spots.

"Chuck is one of the most steady, most capable guys in the world," said Giddings, who often serves as Nicklin's link to the Hollywood community. "He's not one to get excited easily; he thinks things through."

Perhaps it is typical of Nicklin that he doesn't have an agent.

"If I had an agent, he would always want me to do funky jobs that I don't want to do," Nicklin said as he lounged in the back room of the Diving Locker in Pacific Beach. "I'm not excited about going to Los Angeles and jumping into a swimming pool."

Nicklin prefers to mix documentary work, which might put him on a boat floating in the middle of the Pacific for two months, with the occasional Hollywood project. He has yet to decide on a preference.

"I've been working out on some damn rubber boat for a month thinking how nice it would be to do a feature and stay in a hotel," Nicklin said. "Then I'll do a feature and ask what I'm doing working with all these crazy people."

One of his favorite jobs was the short-lived "Ocean Quest" series, a collection of five one-hour shows that aired on NBC a few years ago.

"The story line was a little corny, but we shot some of the best natural footage and we spent 10 months traveling all over the world," Nicklin said.

Working on film projects has allowed him access to diving spots unseen by most Americans. He's dived off of Cuba and under the ice in Antarctica.

On many of the Hollywood projects, Nicklin serves as something of a baby sitter for actors unaccustommed to the water.

"Young guys take a diving course and they think they're Mike Nelson," Nicklin said, referring to the lead character in the quintessential underwater adventure series, "Sea Hunt."

During filming of "The Abyss"--in which Nicklin was a "second line" cameraman, which means he photographed the filming process for a special on the making of "The Abyss"--an actor suddenly found his helmet filling with water.

"I just grabbed him and gave him my extra regulator," Nicklin said. "It usually doesn't take something like that to happen for them to realize we know what we're doing."

In the water with actors and dozens of technical people, Nicklin is "a very calming factor," Giddings said, noting that he has never heard Nicklin raise his voice. "His experience is evident."

During the filming of "The Deep," Nicklin worked closely with Nolte.

"He was a crazy guy, a real character," Nicklin said. "He wanted to dive and he did all his own stunts."

Working with Nolte on "The Deep" was a sharp contrast to Nicklin's work on the James Bond movie "For Your Eyes Only."

"I spent four months on 'For Your Eyes' and never met Roger Moore," Nicklin said.

He had a more immediate experience working with another James Bond, Sean Connery, on "Never Say Never Again." In one scene, Connery was in an underwater cave when his mask wouldn't clear. Nicklin came to the rescue.

Thirty years ago, it would have seem far-fetched to picture Nicklin cavorting with movie stars and diving in the world's most exotic spots. In 1959, he was the owner of Chuck's Market, a corner grocery on 38th Street.

The graduate of Point Loma High School and San Diego State University had started diving as a hobby. Urged by friends, he helped open the first Diving Locker store, eventually buying out his partners as it expanded.

When Nicklin's friend Conrad Limbaugh, the diving officer for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, drowned off the coast of France in 1960, Nicklin inherited his camera equipment. He started selling a few still pictures, and soon his reputation grew in the fledgling field of underwater photography.

Nicklin's first Hollywood project was the forgettable 1968 Warners Brothers drama "Chubasco," starring Richard Egan and Susan Strasberg.

"They asked me if I could shoot 70 millimeter Panavision," Nicklin recalled. "I didn't even know what it was."

Since then, he has worked in just about every visual format, including the big-screen IMAX.

"He's a great practitioner of his craft," said Joe Thompson, a San Diego-based producer/cameraman who has worked with Nicklin for 25 years. "He takes a lot of pictures. Even when he goes out with a class he shoots video. He never stops learning."

Thompson and Nicklin have worked together on a variety of projects, including the "In Search of . . . " and "Man from Atlantis" television series. He describes Nicklin as "happy-go-lucky" and "down to earth," with a natural ability to get along with Hollywood people.

"He always manages to stay in touch with them," Thompson said.

In his travels throughout the world, diving in often exotic and dangerous locales, Nicklin has never been injured.

Nicklin's home life is far more subdued. He has turned day-to-day control of the Diving Locker stores over to his son Terry. (His other son, Flip, is also a well known underwater cameraman, a regular contributor to National Geographic.)

When he's in town, Nicklin spends most of his time at home, where he raises orchids. The focus of his work with the La Jolla Town Council is to preserve the community's "village ambiance." Known for his quick smile and willingness to participate in a friendly gathering, Nicklin said he will always be happy with what he has in La Jolla, as long as he can walk to his favorite watering holes.

He doesn't know where he will go next. He gets calls about projects all the time, but most fall through--one of the quirks of dealing with Hollywood. He will take a Diving Locker group to Costa Rica in the spring, where he will get a chance to photograph sharks and manta rays.

He's pretty much done it all in diving circles. Other than a trip to dive off the coast of Japan, he has few goals or dreams beyond the challenges and expected sights of his next trip. Certainly, his thoughts are far away from work on a Hollywood set.

"I've never gotten really beautiful stuff on manta rays," he said, his voice trailing.

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