Al Giddings was in his 40s when he almost had a total meltdown. And out of that near meltdown, came the rediscovery of mountains. Pushing off into Weber Lake in the Sierra Nevada of California in 1980, where he hadn’t been in twenty years, Giddings threw a fly into the lake, toward a big sunset. His two-day vacation turned into three weeks, and from there, into a move to Montana.
Reunited with his love of fishing and hunting, he called a friend in Livingston to ask where the best fishing in the country was. ”This is Mecca,” she said of the Yellowstone River. That was all it took for Giddings to fly to Bozeman, rent a car, and eventually make the Paradise Valley his home.
”I drove into the Valley,” he recalls in a gravelly voice, “and I thought this is Heaven.”
He bought almost 3,000 acres nestled below the Absaroka Mountains and built a two-level, log and cedar home with a wrap around deck and a hot tub facing the imposing 11,000-foot Emigrant Peak. He added three ponds and 2,000 trees to create an idyllic site in the middle of an Angus grazed ranch.
Whats odd about this story is not that a four-time Emmy winning director bought a big spread in Montana, but that an Emmy winning underwater director and cinematographer bought a big spread in Montana, hundreds of miles from any ocean.
The ocean, until recently, is where Giddings worked and played. From directing and filming natural history documentaries, to shooting underwater scenes for Hollywood blockbusters, to designing underwater cameras, lighting and optical systems, Giddings goes full throttle into any project he gets involved in.
Giddings is best known for his undersea camera work and direction, seen in Hollywood blockbusters such as The Deep, the James bond flick For Your Eyes Only, The Abyss and Titanic, of which he was a co-producer.
Additionally he swims in the world of natural history documentaries, listing Galapagos: Beyond Darwin, The Living Edens: Palau and Mysteries of the Sea, as just a few of the films that fill out his lengthy resume.
What is a man, so dependent on the ocean for his livelihood doing in land-locked Montana? He’s getting back to his roots. Giddings’ father was a fish and game Captain and raised his son with a fly rod in one hand and a .410 shotgun in the other. He spent his summers in the California High Sierra, hunting and fishing beneath granite peaks and domes.
Around the age of twenty, Giddings,a competitive swimmer in high school, got involved in a SCUBA business. It was that transition that took him out of the mountains and into the sea.
Giddings got excited about diving while spear fishing in the 50s and decided to figure out a way to make diving a career. A couple years later he traded his spear gun for a camera and started selling photos to magazines.
Emboldened by his quick success in selling underwater photographs, Giddings, along with a friend, Leroy French, opened a dive shop near his hometown in Marin County, California. Like most new businesses, the dive shop didn’t make a lot of money right away, so to subsidize his income Giddings began selling underwater camera gear that he had designed for his personal use.
From there, Giddings worked for National Geographic and his career really began to grow. Still photos led to natural history films and soon to theatrical features.
”I maintained a foot in two very different camps,” he explains. “I’d be working with scientists, discovering the Titanic, looking at life in the deep ocean, and then every few years cross the double yellow line into the theatrical world.”
Giddings was the first to film humpback whales underwater, the first to film great white sharks in slow motion, was one of the first divers to explore the shipwrecked Andrea Doria, filmed 240-foot deep breath-hold dives, fought off sharks, and the list goes on and on.
Besides being driven and talented, Giddings was lucky. He entered the underwater filming world at just the right time to pioneer equipment and techniques. It was a time when the world beneath the water was ripe for a momentous jump in technology and equipment.
While his first love is natural history films, ”there was the financial reward of doing a Hollywood pot boiler every few years,” Giddings laughs. Beyond the money, he appreciated another difference between shooting documentaries and theatrical flicks: Nothing had to be checked or rechecked; the sky’s the limit, nothing has to be real.
One gets the feeling that there are no rules in Giddings’ life. He walks briskly and talks briskly, staring the listener right in the eyes. He madly pursues and achieves his dreams and visions. Hes charismatic and forceful. In his 60s now, Giddings is still a broad-shouldered force to be reckoned with.
It’s these traits that allowed an underwater cinematographer to operate out of the Paradise Valley. After building his sportsman’s retreat-like home, Giddings built a state-of-the-art studio “so that the National Geographic, Discovery people etc., wouldn”t think I hung up my snorkel.”
The 20,000-square foot studio compound is home to movie posters and memorabilia from his vast career and carved wooden statues flank either side of Giddings’ desk. Purchased from the artist while paddling a small boat through Truck Lagoon in Micronesia, the life-sized figures, along with floats, nets and other ocean art, lend a nautical air to his mountain office.
Down the wide, blue-carpeted staircase is the film editing studio. There, Giddings and his assistant Donna Pace sorted through countless hours of film and video and distilled the finest, most exciting material into sixty categories (each an hour or two) of color-corrected, digitized masters.
Giddings credits himself for anticipating the move to HD (high definition) format. In a 1997 interview in Fathoms, he said, ”My friends are saying this revolution is going to be something like the change from black and white to color. I disagree. I think the change is really going to be more like the change we realized going from radio to television!”
He was right. Currently, HD is all the rage and Giddings owns what is likely the largest library of underwater HD footage in the world. And it’s stored amongst a couple hundred Black Angus on a 3,000-acre ranch.
What Giddings didn’t anticipate when he first bought the ranch was that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem would become a Mecca for the wildlife film industry. With the arrival of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 1991 came many of the movers and shakers in the industry. “All of the sudden the biggest gathering of wildlife film producers, buyers and sellers were meeting in Jackson,” Giddings recalls.
It wasn’t just wildlife film folks that were flocking to Giddings’ new home, it was his old friends, too. With an uncanny knack for keeping in touch with people, Giddings has had a steady stream of visitors since he first arrived. The man, who attended an elementary school reunion in his 60s, seems to always have a visitor or two around the house.
”I started seeing more people here than when I wasn’t in Montana,” Giddings laughs, his blue eyes catching the light. It turns out that Montana is a great place to be an underwater cinematographer and director.
In addition to the other souvenirs of his illustrious career, Giddings’ studio walls are adorned with pictures of the filmmaker with some of the eclectic collection of people hes worked with throughout the years, Robert Shaw, Sean Connery, John Kennedy, Jr., Kim Bassinger, the list goes on.
Of course, there are pictures with Jim Cameron, Director of The Abyss and Titanic, both of which Giddings worked on. But, there is also a photo with Cuban President, Fidel Castro.
During his five expeditions to the waters around Cuba, Giddings and Castro became good friends. ”Our common interest wasn’t political, but the underwater world,” says Giddings. Castro’s personal passion in life is diving, according to Giddings. Castro supplied his Navy personnel to help Giddings’ crew navigate the local waters for a month when he was filming Cuba’s Forbidden Depths. Castro even spent an evening on the ship.
These days Giddings is spending less time chumming around with Castro and more time restoring classic 1930s cars. He’s sold his HD editing system and cameras are being pushed out the door by cars in his camera shop-turned-garage.
He beams when he explains, ”I’ve turned my energies full force into vintage restoration and the car collecting world.” Giddings is working longer hours now than he did while filming, which equals a lot of hours for this non-stop worker.
”I’m enchanted with the engineering of the 30s, the art and the symmetry –there is a beautiful grace in these cars and their stunning history.” Specifically, he is enamored with Willys Knight cars. Currently, Giddings is restoring a1930 Willys Knight 66-B Plaidside Phaeton, the only one known to exist. It will be a candidate in the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, an automotive charitable event held each year in Pebble Beach, California, considered the most prestigious event of its kind.
From mountains to oceans and back again, Giddings has spanned the globe following his passions. ”I’ve had a fabulous career; the whole of my career has been pretty charming.” He adds with characteristic enthusiasm, ”I’m totally excited about the next frontier.”
Distinctly Montana, July 09, 2007
UPDATE: August 2016, Filmmaker Al Giddings seeks $7.8 million for his sprawling Montana ranch