Fifteen-year-old DJ Roller was 273 miles away from his home in Atlanta, bouncing down a dirt road in Live Oak, Florida, in his buddy Dale Farmer’s pickup truck. Six oxygen sensors they had obtained from a friend who worked at a hospital, dangled in the bed above several scuba tanks that clanked with every corrugation of the road. “This weekend’s going to be awesome,” Roller thought as they drove in silence. The boys weren’t making home-brew nitrous oxide or doing extra credit for chemistry class. They were preparing to go scuba diving in underwater caves.
The tanks were filled with trimix gas – a blend of oxygen, helium and nitrogen – which is less toxifying than regular air on long, deep scuba dives. Trimix was hard to come by in 1986, so Roller bought thick Navy diving manuals and did his homework. Failing the exam might have meant death, so the boys were crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s: the bumpy road rattled the tanks, causing the molecules to mix properly.
Roller’s whole life has proceeded like this: making his own cave diving gear, pioneering the use of the first HD cameras underwater, filming ground breaking expeditions with elite Navy dive teams, developing 3D cameras with James Cameron. Roller has created a life of adventure, and a career of setting precedent. His grandfather Bill Darling was an early source of impetus. A black and white photo sits on DJ’s desk at his multi-level home high in the hills over Laguna Beach. In it, Darling stands at the edge of Crystal Lake, Beulah, Michigan, in 1962 with an Aqualung, first generation scuba gear invented by Jacques Cousteau, he bought at a hardware store. He had taught himself how to dive. “Back then I think the rules of diving were 12 things printed on the back of the tank,” said Roller.
As he acquired dive skills through his youth, Roller met some of the great pioneers of cave diving, who lived in Atlanta, like Sheck Exley, who wrote the book on cave diving and eventually died trying to set a depth record of 1000 feet. DJ was mentored by Stan Waterman, a looming figure in early underwater filmmaking.
“Someone said we should meet,” is all he says of how the relationship began, as though meeting the Sir Edmund Hillary of his chosen discipline had all the consequence of a parking ticket. This is perhaps as telling as anything about Roller – he is as understated as they come, almost as if the excitement processor in his brain is dialed down in order to deal with exceptionally intense situations. He appears incapable of anything approaching panic, like he could see a tidal wave coming his way and calmly formulate a plan and communicate it to you in the 15 seconds before it hits. And it would work.
I’m not sure if his demeanor is cause or effect of participating in some of the wildest experiences available to humans. Maybe after all that he can’t be bothered to talk things up. Maybe he is quietly calculating the best path forward, a habit that he’s developed from long years in dangerous situations. Or maybe he’s just secure in his accomplishments.
On that score, Roller has no shortage. After his apprenticeship, he went to work as a cameraman in the film and video unit at Turner Broadcasting System, and developed chops working with everything from hand held cameras to huge, million dollar robotic camera rigs. He has shot the Eco-Challenge in Morocco, a feature film in Iceland, a documentary on anthrax labs in Kazakhstan, and interviews with heads of state. Since Turner was Sony’s largest customer in 1998, Roller got his hands on their first professional grade HD camera, the HDW-700A, and shot the first HD footage under the sea ice in Antarctica for the PBS show Nature and BBC’s Planet Earth, receiving the Antarctica Service Medal from the National Science Foundation.
Few people have such highly developed parallel skills of technical diving and cinematography, so when Roller produced a Nova special on the Naval recovery mission of the USS Monitor, PBS could not have asked for someone more qualified. The Monitor was a futuristic ship in 1862, with its all-iron construction and steam-powered propeller in a time of wooden sailboats. It sank in 250 feet of water off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where the frigid Labrador Current meets the temperate Gulf Stream, causing highly, unstable weather and sub-surface currents. The effort to salvage the ship at this extreme depth was as much a historic mission as it was a chance for the Navy to test the limits of its elite technical dive team, Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two, which had just returned from the recovery of TWA flight 800. While the Navy divers were attached with support lines to the surface, Roller was free-swimming so he could film around them. The currents on the bottom were so strong during one dive that he surfaced six and a half miles from the ship.
The shoot marked the start of a long relationship between Roller and the Navy, which often calls him for special projects. Roller created, executive-produced and shot the National Geographic TV documentary Super Subs, on the Navy’s most high-tech submarines. He went on to create and produce his own series for the History Channel, Deep Sea Detectives, which was top-rated for four years, and has produced, directed and shot TV documentaries and IMAX films alike.
Roller was a close colleague of Vince Pace who designed and built the underwater lighting systems for James Cameron’s The Abyss and Titanic. Cameras that captured 3D in HD didn’t exist yet, but Roller received a call from Pace saying Cameron wanted to build one.
“I was on a plane the next day. We were up til whatever time in the morning, hot wiring these HD cameras together to see if we could synchronize them,” said Roller.
Their experiments led to the camera system Cameron used to make Ghosts of the Abyss IMAX 3D, about his expedition to the Titanic wreckage on the ocean floor, and the Emmy-winning Expedition: Bismarck, with DJ as cinematographer on both.
Roller went on to develop the most advanced digital 3D underwater housing in the world, and even built a 3D dive mask that allows him to see his footage in 3D as he shoots it. The camera system has been used in Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, films for Laguna Beach-based MacGillivray Freeman Films, and numerous others.
His success didn’t come without a toll however. In 2007 DJ was about to leave for a month in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to finish the IMAX film Wild Ocean 3D. As the ride to the airport arrived, his four-year-old daughter Kennedy walked out of her room with a backpack, holding the little green snorkel mask she used in their swimming pool.
“I’m ready to go,” she said.
Roller, recalling the episode, said, “This cute little girl in a mask…that’ll choke you up. She had the courage to plan it, thinking maybe if I bring my mask I can go.”
By the time his first child, son Jameson, was three, Roller had bought the smallest scuba regulator on the market, and built a backpack to hold a tiny reserve tank. Jameson did actual scuba dives in the bathtub, then the family pool when he was old enough.
Jameson, now 12, and Kennedy, 10, plan to follow in dad’s footsteps. Jameson has worked as second camera assistant on shoots of researchers tagging great whites off Southern California for Roller’s recently released IMAX film Great White Shark 3D. Kennedy joined her dad on a shark dive at Guadalupe Island for the same film, and Roller proudly reports she was unafraid shooting stills as 18-foot great whites swam past just outside the cage. “That was beyond my wildest dreams to take them on a project and have them contribute,” said Roller. The entire family has credits on the film: DJ’s wife Melissa, former Senior Director of Operations for TNT television and Turner Classic Movies, was also line producer on Great White Shark 3D.
The family was happy in Atlanta, but Roller was coming to Southern California for work several times a year, fueling the fond memories of spending summers in the area as a kid. The move to Laguna was almost inevitable.
“Atlanta made it easy to jump to a lot of places, but you don’t have that connection to the ocean on a daily basis. We looked for the sense of community you have here. We have neighbors who are sculptors and painters, and there are other film producers in town. The whole town is into the arts. If people ask what you do, you don’t get a blank stare like, ‘What do you mean you go underwater and take pictures?’”
Since Roller seems delighted with his adopted home, and has spent close to three decades traveling, doing risky things and being away from his family, why not hang it up, enjoy the memories, relax? For Roller, the ocean isn’t just subject, and films aren’t just a product – his work is his way of being; there is no DJ Roller apart from toil, invention, art and risk.
“Even though I do Hollywood movies, and concerts with U2 and all that stuff, which is all fun, I continue to do this as well because I like exploring the ocean. When you go to an IMAX theater and a little kid is pointing at an elephant or a shark, you know that is having a positive influence. If we can do that as filmmakers, that might help all of us understand the planet and maybe care about it a little bit more.”
Indeed his new film Great White Shark 3D is a paean to one of the most feared and maligned animals in the ocean. Featuring the first ever HD 3D ultra slow motion shots of great whites jumping out of the water while preying on seals, it is a celebration of their magnificence in movement. When discussing the film, DJ points to its mission of recasting the animals as an important part of the ecosystem first, its cinematographic achievements second.
While Roller is focused on the straight forward, yet brutally difficult goal of getting the perfect shot, like any good producer/cinematographer, his motivation is unique: to inspire the same wonder and appreciation he feels when he finds himself looking through a skylight in an underwater cave, or face to face with a sea creature. Here Roller waxes somewhat philosophical.
“Some people fear change,” he said, of the digital technology he has embraced and advanced, “Fear is good, but change is good too. I’ve always been into new technology as a tool to push the creative side of what we do as filmmakers.
“The ultimate would be for the audience to see and experience and sense the exact same thing you did when you were there, which is almost like the unattainable image. As we move through film, and into digital and then 3D, eventually it will be holograph and other methods. We just keep getting closer to that.”
While he aims for this goal and develops the technology to achieve it, there will be no shortage of adventures. As of last week, he was out shooting with a Navy Space and Naval Warfare Dive Team. He could only say it was “pretty cool stuff,” for which he had to attend aviation survival training. The instructors thought he was CIA since he was the only attendee not in uniform.
“I’m a filmmaker,” he said.
“Sure you are,” came the response.