Science Fiction Filme.) You are a master of all classes: Books, exhibitions, movies like INVASION FROM MARS (1986), FIRST BLOOD (1982) or MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987), attractions and much more. But basically it all started with your love for dinosaurs. Am I wrong about that?
William Stout) You are correct. It all began when I was three years old and my parents took me to see my first movie. It was at the Reseda Drive-in. The film was a 1952 re-release of the original 1933 KING KONG. I think it did damage at a genetic level. I have been crazy about dinosaurs and stop motion animation ever since. King Kong is still my favorite movie of all time.
SFF) Why have you chosen the way of being into conceptional art/ storyboarding?
W.S.) I began my career in film as a storyboard artist. Within two years I had become a production designer. That presented me with a dilemma. Every January I would be offered five films as a production designer. If I agreed to do one of those films, I knew I was agreeing not to see my two sons for one or two years. The job is a 7 days per week, 18 hours per day job (if done properly). The only time I would see my boys was when they were sleeping.
Unfortunately, movies are the currency of fame in our culture. When I am a guest at a comic book or science fiction convention, the first question I always get asked by fans is “Are you working on any movies right now?” If I answer “No”, they turn around and walk away. If I answer “Yes”, they stay and buy things from my table.
So, the problem became “How do I stay in the film business but avoid staying a time-consuming production designer?” The answer to that was doing creature and concept design: quick in, quick out and I’ve got another film credit to impress the public. I don’t do storyboards anymore because the film companies who would like me to storyboard their films can’t compete with my concept design rates.
SFF.) Your first experience, if I´m correctly informed, with films was for BUCK ROGERS (1978). Am I right and how did you get the job?
W.S.) My first film was EVERYTHING YOU KLNOW IS WRONG (1975). That was the title of a Firesign Theatre LP (The Firesign Theatre was a four-man comedy group --- sort of an American Monty Python --- based in Los Angeles). We shot the film to match the already-recorded soundtrack. I was an extra in the film and I built all of the props.
BUCK ROGERS was originally intended to be three theatrical films for Europe. The producers later changed their minds and it got turned into an American TV series.
Back in 1978 I got a call out of the blue asking me if I’d like to work as a designer on BUCK ROGERS. I was really hot as an artist at that time in L. A., having loads of calls for work coming in from all aspects of the art, toys and entertainment businesses.
I was at the height of my demand as a movie poster artist. To me, doing designs for BUCK ROGERS was just another gig in a long line of freelance gigs.
Big mistake: Wrong attitude.
I met with the producers and was hired immediately. I began designing uniforms, space ships, weapons and insignias.
I was still taking on freelance jobs while I was working on Buck Rogers. I figured I could do both.
I couldn’t. The urgency of the freelance jobs was delaying my BUCK ROGERS work. During the second occasion I brought in my Buck Rogers art I glanced up at a big board in the production offices. My name was at the top of the board listed as the show’s designer. I was shocked that I suddenly had that kind of importance on the film project.
The third time I came in to show my work I was a week late. The producers seemed much less interested in what I had brought in. And then I noticed my name was no longer on the big board.
I had blown it.
I learned a very valuable lesson: If you agree to work on a film, DO NOT take on any other work. Devote ALL of your waking time to the film project at hand.
No one had to tell me. I knew my time on BUCK ROGERS was over. I wept during my entire drive back home, feeling pathetically sorry for myself for being so carelessly stupid.
I never made that mistake again. Fortunately, I was young and this was very, very early in my film career. Luckily, I eventually got a second chance to work in motion pictures — which is very, very rare.
SFF.) Was there a film or people that prompted you to get a foothold in film?
W.S.) No. I accidentally fell into the movie business. I had no intentions of becoming a filmmaker. I was perfectly happy being an illustrator.
SFF) Do you have any personal idols or favorite movies in your business? Mine is PHASE IV for example.
W.S.) PHASE IV is an excellent, under-rated sci-fi film. Besides KING KONG, my ten favorite films are THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, WALT DISNEY´S FANTASIA, THE WIZARD OF OZ, BRAZIL, SULLIVAN´S TRAVEL, it´s a wonderful life; FELLINIS SATYRICON, BLADE RUNNER, CITIZEN KANE and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. THE FALL is amazing on a big screen.
I don’t have film “idols”, but I admire writers and directors, guys like Charlie Kaufman, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Federico Fellini, Steven Soderbergh, Terry Gilliam, Frank Capra, Frank Darabont, Guillermo Del Toro and Clint Eastwood. “Idols” would have to be two geniuses I have worked with: Ron Cobb and Jean “Moebius” Giraud.
SFF) And which movies do you really don´t like and why?
W.S.) I find the following films to be stupid and boring: THE ENGLISH PATIENT, LORD OF THE RINGS (Bakshi) and QUINTET. I found SUPERMAN VS. BATMAN to be idiotic, and TENET incomprehensible with far too much exposition. I consider BEING THERE and ZELIGB to be one-joke films. Sorry if these are your favorites!
SFF) They are not. Don't worry. What are the differences between working on a storyboard and working on concepts for a film? Don't they usually go hand in hand?
W.S.) Storyboarding is often simply a visual translation of the script or, as when I worked on First Blood, a visual guide to the action sequences. Storyboarding special effects sequences is essential, so that the entire cast and crew are on the same visual page. On Conan the Barbarian, however, I combined translating the script into visuals with designing sets, costumes, armor and weapons. I have found the experience of storyboarding each film to be different...from the simple panels of First Blood to the finished complexity of my Godzilla King of the Monsters storyboards. On Masters of the Universe, I used storyboarding some of the scenes as a way to efficiently design sets, so that there was no overbuild.
SFF) I´m a teacher for children with special needs.
W.S.) So was one of my brothers. He used my sketchbooks to help reach kids.
SFF) I'm sure the students had a lot of fun with it. What I really wanted to say was that I love my job. I'm enthusiastic and I have different pedagogical approaches to working with children. What are your thoughts on training to become a concept design expert? Is there a prerequisite or talent that you have to have?
W.S.) CONAN – THE BARBARIAN production designer Ron Cobb told me that he hired me because of my enthusiasm --- so don’t underrate enthusiasm! Nevertheless, it was my skills and talent as a creative artist that first caught his attention. Whether you are enthusiastic or not, you still have to have the artistic chops, creativity and speed to deliver what is needed for the film. My advice in regards to concept design is that you should travel around the world as much as possible, every chance you get, exposing yourself to different cultures, lands and architecture.
SFF) Your Portfolio is a wonderful compilation of fantastic work. Do you have some favorite works of yours and is there a project that, unfortunately, never came to fruition, even though you had already designed a lot for it like the unrealized dinosaur project by Jim Henson? What was this film supposed to look like and why did it unfortunately never happen?
W.S.) I worked on two films I would still love to make and see as movies: GODZILLA – KING OF THE MONSTERS and The Natural History Project (secret working title).
I put together a dream art department for GODZILLA. Rick Baker was scheduled to build me a huge robotic Godzilla head; the film was being storyboarded by myself, Dave Stevens (creator of The Rocketeer) and Doug Wildey (creator of Jonny Quest); Stephen Czerkas (Excellent dinosaur sculptor) made a workable stop motion model of Godzilla based upon my designs; David Allen was on board to do the film’s stop motion animation. We had an incredible screenplay by Fred (MONSTER SQUAD) Dekker. Steve Miner was the producer/director. It was the right project at the right time. There were effects in almost every shot, so it was going to be an expensive film to make. At that time, four big budget films, including HEAVEN´S GATE, flopped at the box office, so none of the studios wanted to invest in a big budget movie.
I wrote the dinosaur film for Jim Henson. I gave him two versions: one in which the dinosaurs talked, and my preferred version where they didn’t. He wanted this to be his next “serious” Muppet movie, the previous two being THE DARK CRYSTAL and LABYRINTH. Warner Brothers gave us $5 million just to research and develop realistic Muppet dinosaurs.I spent about nine months designing the film. Then, Jim found out that Lucas and Spielberg were making THE LAND BEFORE TIME. Jim was lied to and told that THE LAND BEFORE TIME would be completed a year before our dinosaur movie. Jim didn’t want to look like he was copying Lucas and Spielberg, so the project was ended. Years later, I was working at Walt Disney Imagineering when I was pulled out of a meeting by Henson. He was very excited.
“Bil! Our dinosaur movie is back on! I’ll contact you about it in a few days!”
Jim died later that week.
SFF.) You mentioned that your GODZILLA- was going to be a stop-motion animation. Today's films are all completely CG animated. How do you see this change in the past years?
W.S.) I do not like CG animation that looks like it came from a video game. Although I have an enormous fondness for stop motion animation (Ray Harryhausen was a dear friend of mine), as far as effects go, it always comes down to whatever works best within the budget that is handed to me --- that includes CGI, puppets, stop motion and other “Old School” effects. Preferably, I tend towards old school solutions. I hate the term “We’ll fix it in post,” meaning that all of our errors will be addressed and (expensively) corrected later in post-production. I’d rather have it all “in the can,” that is, shot and accomplished on set so that we don’t need to return to it at a later date.
SFF.) Your pictures are marvelous and absolutely beautiful...very detailed works. Sometimes it seems, that our nightmares come true. Do you take some (personal) fears into your pictures?
W.S.) Only if the script indicates it. I try to put myself in the story of each movie in an effort to discover what would really scare the characters in the film.
SFF) Where did you take your inspiration from?
W.S.) From life, from the news, from nature, from traveling, from observation --- from everywhere! That’s why , as an artist, it’s important to expose yourself to as many things as possible.
SFF.) Do you have a certain style of painting that you admire the most?
W.S.) I think that Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse is a perfect painter. He combines loose, juicy brushmanship with tightness where needed, and his physical types, to me, are timeless. He never paints more than he needs to. My favorite landscape painter (and a real hero of mine; he was important to the creation of our National Parks system) is Thomas Moran.
SFF.) In addition to Bernie Wrightson, who sadly passed away much too soon, you were also involved in the film THE MIST and designed wonderful creatures for it. How exactly do you go about imagining a "monster"?
W.S.) I start with the script. In the case of THE MIST, I also added in what Stephen King wrote about the creatures in his short story. I make as many notes as possible based upon what’s on the written page. I need to know what this creature does and how it functions within the film. Does it fly? If so, how? Will we ever get to see a “sweet” or kind side of the creature? Is it venomous? If so, where does the venom come from? A stinger? Fangs? Does it drip from its skin? All of the answers to the many questions I ask inform my designs.
SFF.) Do you take real-life creatures and just add abnormal body parts to them, or do you go about it differently?
W.S.) I always let the problem dictate the solution. I learned in art school to never get in the rut of using the same style or approach to solving all of my visual problems.
SFF.) Of course, a question about MOTU must also be allowed (although I think you have already answered many). You love the design of dinosaurs. Is that why you tried to design Saurod accordingly?
W.S.) I didn’t see Saurod as a dinosaur; because of his name (“saur” means “lizard”), I saw him as some sort of alien reptile creature. My fairly vast, lifelong knowledge of dinosaurs and reptiles, though, certainly informed his design. Saurod was everyone’s favorite creature on the MOTU set. It’s a shame he was killed off so early in the movie. The actor within the suit, Pons Maar, really brought Saurod to life. That’s why I always insist on actors in my creature suits --- never stuntmen.
SFF) Okay, two questions please. Were you required, due to legal or other circumstances, to shape your designs for the film differently than you initially intended?
W.S.) There was a lot of pressure on me to make my MOTU designs as close to the toys as possible. That would have been a disaster. I fought with Mattel and usually won --- but not always. In every case, when Mattel won, it hurt the film. They are toymakers --- not filmmakers.
SFF.) Sorry. It becomes three questions after all. Gary Goddard told me that they had planned to shoot a major opening sequence on Eternia, but it didn't happen because of lack of money. Did you already make preparations for that and if so, what did they look like?
W.S.) Eternia was all though the early part of the film. I designed several Eternia sets before it became obvious that we couldn’t afford to build most of Eternia. Eternia was the opposite of where Skeletor lived. It was sunny, bright, and beautiful --- eternally springtime with plenty of white marble and lots of colorful flowers, flags and banners. Eternia was Paradise. My designs were somewhat influenced by Art Nouveau, the paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the Pre-Raphaelites.
SFF.) But what do you think of your way of working in film? Is it just a technical one or is it art?
W.S.) Let us never forget it’s called “The Movie Business” --- not the “Art of Film”. For the most part, movies are made to make money --- lots of money. Having said that, I take a very serious approach to filmmaking and treat my job as artistically as possible within the time and budget allowed. That means I have to be both technically savvy as well as artistic. I need to be an expert on both sides of that equation. Does production design get enough recognition? I don’t know --- should it? The two most important parts of filmmaking are script and casting --- not production design. You can do Shakespeare in street clothes on a bare stage and make it work. I do admire great production design when I see it, though like Bladerunner.
SFF.) You've been working on a book about Antarctica for years. Can you kindly explain to the readers who don't know what it's about and how it came about? Can we help you finish this project?
W.S.) When it is completed, it will be the first visual history of Antarctica, from prehistoric times to today, illustrated with 100 oil paintings. I think it will be my most important work.
Here’s how it started: I used to be a huge movie fan; seriously, a bigger movie fan you’d never met. I’d go to all the L. A. film festivals, movie marathons where you enter the theater on Friday and don’t emerge until Sunday evening. I was walking up Vine Street in Hollywood when a friend spotted me from his car. He pulled over.
“Hey, Bill — Whatcha doing?”
“I’m going to see a new movie!”
He looked at me like I was some kind of schmuck. He cut off my brief excited rant about the movie I was going to see. He sneered at my anticipation of whatever cinematic event was forthcoming and said, “Wow. Watching a movie — two hours alone in the dark. Movies are someone else’s adventures. Wouldn’t you rather spend those two hours having your own adventures?” It really stopped me.
I thought about all that time I had spent in the dark living someone else’s dreams and adventures. It flipped a switch in me. I decided to make it a point to start having my own adventures, living and creating my own compelling stories based upon my own life rather than wasting those two hours in the dark. Errol Flynn’s autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways was an inspiration to live life to the fullest as well.
Using the money I made from my Wizards poster, my first big adventure was traveling to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and Lima, Cuzco and the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru. I took a fantastic all-day train ride from Quito, Ecuador up in the Andes, all the way down to the city of Guayaquil on the coast — riding on top of the train though jungles and rainforests! And I’ve been doing that kind of thing ever since. I’ve tried to pack three lives into one and expand my world view.
One of the places I wanted to visit most was Antarctica. I have books on Antarctica packed with photos of that region by the greatest photographers in the world. They all said the same thing: Try as they could, they couldn’t capture the colors down there due to the limitations of the photographic chemicals.
I thought, “Hey! I don’t have those limitations --- anything I can see I can put down on to paper.
I discovered the Antarctic Treaty was due to expire in 1991, and ironically it was the Americans, the originators of this remarkable document, that were going to keep it from being re-signed. That’s because the first George Bush was president at that time. He’s a Texas oilman; he wanted to keep the continent open for drilling. I thought, if I don’t get down there soon, if they don’t renew that treaty, I may never have a chance to go down there as a tourist. It’s an extraordinary treaty that came out of the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. That was a year of international cooperation among the world’s scientists. It was so successful that President Eisenhower wanted to come up with some way to continue this amazing international scientific cooperation; hence, the Antarctic Treaty.
The Antarctic Treaty, among other points, basically states that no country owns Antarctica; all wildlife is protected; there is no commercial exploitation of the continent – no mining, no oil drilling; there’s no nuclear waste storage there; There’s no nuclear testing. It’s one of the most extraordinary documents in world history. It went into effect in 1959.
So, I went down on a cruise ship with the American Museum of Natural History in 1989 to Patagonia and Antarctica. I wasn’t prepared for how spectacular this place was – the most spectacular place I’ve ever seen on the planet, and I’ve pretty much been all over the world. Now – not to dilute my noble intentions — there was another reason I wanted to see Antarctica that at least relates somewhat to our Comics Journal audience. I had read H.P. Lovecraft’s novel At the Mountains of Madness. The whole novel takes place in Antarctica. Lovecraft painted such a haunting and realistic picture of the place that I was just sucked right in. I compared his writing with maps of Antarctica and saw that he had used actual places. Intellectually I know that the guy never went there, but boy, he really did his homework. Because of him, Antarctica held this mystical quality that still haunts me today.
Antarctica had an extremely profound effect on me. So profound that I thought I couldn’t return home and face my kids without doing something to try and save that continent from despoiling and exploitation. While I was on the ship I found out about a group called The Antarctica Project (now called the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition or ASOC). They’re a low overhead umbrella organization helping to coordinate all of the activities of environmental groups like Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, to make what I call Antarctica: the first World Park (some groups have described it as a “World Commons”).
That idea of Antarctica being the first World Park really excited me. I thought, “What can I do on behalf of Antarctica, on behalf of the treaty?” I reasoned, quite rightly, I think, that one of the main reasons there was no public resistance to Bush’s plan to drill and mine down there was that like almost everyone I talked to before going on the trip, the general public figured that it’s nothing but a bunch of snow and ice down there. Why save it? My plan became a scheme to show Americans that Antarctica is much more than just snow and ice, that it is an incredibly beautiful part of the world with a spectacular array of wildlife, diverse species living in a variety of ecosystems.
It is beautiful and that’s often the key to getting backing from the public. But if you investigate a little and do a little science homework you’ll find that disruption of Antarctica and its ecosystems would be catastrophic to life on the rest of the planet. Sadly, that’s not as sexy a message as saving seals with big sad eyes or whales or penguins. You’ve got to put on your political hat here. In doing so, I thought I’d put together a show of 45 paintings for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County depicting this diversity of wildlife in Antarctica and at least make people in southern California more aware of what we risk losing. Then my devious little promoter brain thought, “Now, to really make sure that everybody sees this show, I’ll include the prehistoric life of Antarctica so that every kid with even a passing interest in dinosaurs will grab their parents and take them to this show.”
As soon as I got back from my first trip to Antarctica, I flew to Columbus, Ohio to the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State and got a crash course in Antarctic paleontology from Dr. David Elliot. I noticed in studying prehistoric Antarctica, the same names kept coming up over and over again. There are just a special handful of people who do their studies down there. I contacted each of these scientists and became friends with them. To create reconstructions of prehistoric life in Antarctica, my process was to draw sketches of a particular creature, then contact the person who had actually found the fossilized animal and run the sketches and my ideas for the pictures past him or her, involving them in each step of the production of the painting so that it would be the most accurate piece possible.
I did five large sample paintings and showed them to Dr. Craig Black, the director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I got his okay and go-ahead to do the complete show, 45 paintings, for the museum.
The Museum’s Special Exhibits Department then traveled the show around the U. S. and the world for about seven years. Mikhail Gorbachev personally requested that the exhibition come to Moscow. It profoundly changed my life and the direction of my career.
For those two and a half years it took me to paint the show, I pretty much dropped out of the entertainment business. Obviously this had a dramatic effect on my bank account. I was making less than 10% of what I was making prior to that, but I was never happier in my life than when I was doing these paintings. I really felt for the first time in my life that I had finally graduated from what I called the Pinball School of Career Planning. I had a direction; I had finally come home. I felt these paintings were something I could do for the rest of my life and really be happy and satisfied. This was real Fine Art — not commercial art. Other guys run out and buy Corvettes at that age. My midlife crisis resolved itself in a much more positive and productive way, a way that’s completely in-sync with my personal philosophy regarding the earth., which is that we have not inherited this planet from our parents; we are borrowing it from our grandchildren. That philosophy drives most of my politics, actions and decisions.
As soon as I finished my first Antarctica show I knew I wasn’t finished with that subject. As I completed Dinosaurs, Penguins and Whales: The Wildlife of Antarctica, I felt like I’d come home; I was doing something that I really wanted to do a lot more of. I said to myself, “Why stop? Why not continue to paint on the same theme?” I got the idea of doing a book, which, when it’s finished, will be the first visual history of life in Antarctica from prehistoric times to the present day; one hundred oil paintings and fifty drawings. It’s never been done – and after all this work on it, now I know why!
After I completed the first show I discovered that the National Science Foundation has a program called the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. I believe I found out about this program from fellow Chouinard graduate and brilliant photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum. It’s a competitive grant program; every year the NSF picks one or two artists, writers, or photographers to go to Antarctica and live. The NSF gives them full support. What the artist, writer or photographer has to do in return is come back and produce something that conveys information about Antarctica to the public. That could be a book, a series of articles, an exhibition, a video, a comic book, a children’s book. I was awarded that grant for the 1992/1993 Season. They gave me a year’s advance notice, so I was able to really prepare for the trip. That lead-time was important because one of the things I had asked for in my grant was the chance to scuba dive underneath the Antarctic ice.
I felt that the scope of my book wouldn’t be complete without showing the diversity of life on Antarctica’s nutrient-rich shores. All of the Antarctic scientists I talked to said that it was the most spectacular diving in the world. Life under the ice is incredibly rich and diverse. I also found out that it indeed is the best diving in the world. In the Great Barrier Reef or in the Bahamas, on a good day visibility is 120 feet. In Antarctica diving visibility on a good day is 1200 feet – clearer than the air I’m looking at right now in Pasadena. You don’t feel so much like you’re diving; it’s more like you’re flying through thick air. It’s absolutely unbelievable.
It is cold: 28 degrees. Our more astute readers will say, “How can that be? 32 degrees F is the freezing temperature for water.”
Salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water. But you dress appropriately. To do dives under the ice I put on Patagonia extra heavy weight long underwear. On top of that I put on a Thermalite jumpsuit, sort of like an astronaut suit; after that I’d put on my dry suit, which is the opposite of a wet suit. The wet suit uses your body heat and the water to keep you warm. Antarctica is too cold for that; you wear a dry suit. It allows you to do that cool James Bond thing – do a dive, come out of the water, unzip your suit and reveal your tuxedo.
The National Science Foundation told me that I had to contact James Stewart, not the actor, but the head of the dive program in Antarctica.
He’s a great OAE and old time diver. OAE is an honorific term in Antarctica. It means “Old Antarctic Explorer”. You cannot give this name to yourself; it must be bestowed upon you by others. Jim Stewart was a genuine OAE; he created the dive-training program for the Navy SEALs, an amazing guy.
I found it thrilling and hilarious whenever I was around the older divers in Antarctica, listening to their tales. Always, at one point in their conversations, they would start taking off their clothes to show each other their massive shark bite scars!
He said in order for me to dive in Antarctica – and mind you, I’d never done any scuba diving in my life at that point – I’d have to get Open Water certification, Advanced Open Water certification, Medic First Aid certification, Rescue Diver certification, Dry Suit Diver certification, and Ice Diver certification. So thank God I had a year to do this; my very last dive to complete my certifications was made just two weeks before I left for Antarctica. It was really intensive training, especially when I became a rescue diver. That certification made me a really good diver.
My first Antarctic dive is probably one of the most astounding memories of my entire life. I was sitting on the edge of the hole – they’ve cored out a hole with a big drill through the ice; the ice is 12 feet thick – and I’m looking down into the water. Because diving is ordinarily a stressful activity, ice diving in Antarctica is exponentially stressful. And dangerous: A 22-year-old diver had died during a dive the previous year when he got a carotid squeeze from a too-tight dive suit neck line that resulted in his losing consciousness. He rocketed upwards, cracking his skull on the concrete-hard underside of the sea ice. So as a diver, before your dive you don’t do much of anything. You have dive tenders to check all of your equipment for you and put your equipment on you so you don’t have to think about anything except for the dive, which is enough.
So, I’m sitting there with my feet dangling in the water; I’m looking down and I make a remark that, “I thought our first dive was going to be a deep dive,” because I can clearly see the bottom from where I’m sitting. The tenders asked, “How deep do you think that is?” I said, “Well, it looks like it’s about 20 to 25 feet deep, 30 at the most.” The tender said, “You’re looking at a 100 feet bottom.” The water was so crystal clear – it was just extraordinary. I get all of my stuff on and there’s a rope called a “down line” that goes from the top of the hole down to the sea bottom. I start going down the rope through the ice. Intellectually I know this is not happening, but I swear to God that the tube I’m descending is getting narrower and narrower. I’m getting more claustrophobic going down this twelve-foot tube of ice. The sides of the tube are like milk glass, really extraordinary. I finally clear the bottom of the ice; this enormous vista opens up for me. I can see forever. The visibility is astounding. As I said, it felt like I was flying, hovering in thick air. There is so much to see; I’m trying to take it all in – I’m just on total sensory overload, just short-circuiting all over the place. I felt like the fetus baby in 2001: A Space Odyssey on Jupiter, just trying to take all this stuff in.
At the same time, this was a test-dive for me; I’m supposed to be diving responsibly and doing all of this stuff that the other diver on the bottom is telling me to do. And at the same time as that, my brain is completely shorting out from the input, from all of this spectacle. This goose egg-sized and egg-shaped creature floats past me. It’s clear like a jellyfish; it’s called a ctenophore, a comb jelly. It’s got psychedelic rainbow track lights that are zipping up the sides of its body. I’m seeing this ten-foot jellyfish drifting by in all of its different colors. It was just unbelievable. At the same time, I’m thinking, “Oh, yeah. You’re supposed to be following particular instructions and functions as a diver.” It was absolutely exhilarating.
I was surprised, too, by the cold. The things that get coldest first and fastest are your fingers because you’ve got an enormous amount of surface area surrounding your fingers. Just before you make your dive, the gloves are the last things that you put on. The tenders pour hot water in the gloves, you plunge your hands into this water, they snap the top of the gloves around your wrists and your gloves seal tight. You make the initial part of your dive with gloves full of hot water. The only area of you that is really exposed to the icy water directly is parts of your face, because you’ve got the mask over most of your face. You’ve got a hood over most of your head and the hood also covers your neck and the underside of your chin. Mostly, what are exposed are your lips and your cheeks. I thought that would be really painful, but in actuality I found it exhilarating. It felt like my skin was sizzling from the cold – not an unpleasant sensation at all; an extraordinary feeling, although in a very short time my lips were frozen numb. I couldn’t feel my regulator – my breathing apparatus. Every once in a while I’d taste saltwater; I’d know that my breathing apparatus had drifted out of my mouth without my realizing it; I’d just mash it back in.
OK. This seems like the most appropriate spot to tell my best Antarctic scuba dive story. When I wanted to make a dive and the conditions were right, I would tag along with a small group of Antarctic marine biologists and dive with them. On one occasion, we stopped to make a dive in what’s called a “seal crack”. That’s a fissure in the ice that seals surface out of. Two divers went in. They shot out of the water about two minutes later followed by an angry Weddell’s bull seal. That was his crack!
We moved to another location. The two divers went in. They emerged a little over half an hour later.
“How was it?” I asked. “Is it worth suiting up?”
“It’s cathedrals of ice.”
I immediately suited up and went in with two female divers.
It was truly fantastic. Underwater I could hear the Weddell seals communicating with each other. They sounded like a combination of Japanese Taico drums and electronic synthesizer rising and falling trills.
One diver signaled to me that she was cold. She went back to the fissure hole and got out.
I didn’t want to be the last diver down there, so I made my way over to the down line. It was heavily flagged so that it would be difficult to miss. I went up the line hand over hand until I reached the under surface of the ice sheet. But instead of the hole I had entered from, there was just a thin crack in the ice just big enough to fit my fingers. What had I done wrong?
I went back down to the bottom and tried again. Same thing.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “Is this my worst nightmare come true? Trapped beneath the Antarctic ice?”
I checked my air; I still had another half an hour (I had become really good at “sipping” my air, using very little of it during my dives).
I swam over to the remaining diver and explained to her using sign language of the difficulty I was having. She pointed to where I had been, then made a broad “No! No!” gesture, then pointed in a different direction. I swam in that direction — and found my entry hole! I was elated.
Here’s what had happened: The divers I was with were making four or five dives each day (I was just doing one per day). In doing so, they had become a bit cavalier in regards to watching the down line. The ocean current had taken our down line from the wide entry point of the crack down to the narrow sliver of the crack — with no one noticing.
I did seven dives total down there. I feel really privileged. I am on the extremely short list of people who have scuba-dived in Antarctica. I also made the very first telephone call from Antarctica. AT &T were testing their new satellite equipment down there and offered me the chance to speak to my wife.
On my National Science Foundation trip to Antarctica, I was down there for three months. For six weeks I was based at McMurdo Station, a U. S. station – the largest station in Antarctica. During the Antarctic summer, which is our winter, there are about 1200 people there, so it’s like a small town. The other six weeks I was based at Palmer Station, which is on the Antarctic Peninsula. There are only thirty-nine beds at Palmer so there are only thirty-nine people at that station. You can fly into McMurdo station, but the only way to get to Palmer station is by ship, because there’s no place to land even a helicopter at Palmer. I took an American scientific research vessel down from Punta Arenas, Chile, down the coast of Chile, crossed the dreaded Drake Passage (fifty ft. waves breaking over the ship on an average day) and sailed down the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula until we got to my drop-off point: Palmer Station. Palmer Station is the station most tourists visit because the Antarctic Peninsula is where you see the greatest abundance of life. It’s warmer than the rest of continental Antarctica.
I got certified as a Zodiac operator at Palmer so that I could man a Zodiac, a type of inflatable boat, and take it to a different island each day. Each island was unique. I’d spend the entire day sketching and painting the wildlife. I did all of my ice dives at McMurdo; I did one shore dive at Palmer. At McMurdo I was transported to my ice dive locations in a Spryte, a box-like ice vehicle with tank treads. I drove my own Spryte over the sea ice to see a distant Weddell seal colony.
If where I needed to go was farther than the range of a Spryte they’d put me on helicopter and helo me out to where I wanted to go. If it was too far for a helicopter they put me on a Twin Otter, a fixed wing plane, and fly me out. When I went to visit an Emperor penguin colony, I took a Twin Otter to get there.
The two Canadian pilots who flew me there died in an Antarctic plane crash two years later.
Here’s the Happy Ending to this Antarctica section of the interview: Pressure from the UK and Japan was put on President Bush to renew The Antarctic Treaty. He finally signed it, protecting Antarctica for another fifty years. But for me, that’s not enough. I want Antarctica protected forever, hence my involvement in making Antarctica the First World Park.
I’ve always been aware of the land and the animals and the life that we lose each year. I’ve mainly contributed in the most typical way: writing checks to groups like Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy.
Once you’re living in Antarctica, it’s really amazing; you see how artificial all of the conflicts are that are happening in the rest of the world. Because here’s a place where thirty-nine nations, although they may be fighting north of the Southern Ocean, in Antarctica, everyone’s cooperating just fine. You begin to see how the war situations, the battles and the conflicts are all artificially promoted and produced.
You can help by donating to the Antarctica and Southern Ocean Coalition: www.asoc.org, a small umbrella group coordinating all of the efforts to protect Antarctica and make it the first World Park (or World Commons), extending the Antarctic Treaty and its protections of the con
SFF.) Dear Mr. Stout, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview and I wish you all the best for your further work and your life project. Stay healthy.
W.S.) Thank you so much! I am especially delighted to be speaking to a German audience. My ancestors on my mother’s side were the “Germans from Russia” (Germans invited by Catharine the Great to settle in Russia). My oldest son, Andy, is fluent in German. He spent his final year in high school in Erfurt and Weimar. My friends in the Madrid apartment building I was living in when I was making the first Conan film were Germans and Swiss Germans who worked for Lufthansa. In my travels, I have visited Cologne, Berlin, Dresden and Frankfurt. I found the German people everywhere to be incredibly kind and generous. I hope to return to Germany soon!