Last updated: February 22, 2018 at 16:07 pm
Producer, director and writer of four documentary and lifestyle series in the undersea genre: Sport Diver, Undersea Explorer, Undersea Adventures, and The Blue Realm. He has developed and filmed over 105 programs about the marine environment. After graduating with a film and television degree, Danny worked in broadcasting, educational and corporate video production. During his early freelance career he became a certified scuba diver, and at 27, he created a television series examining the world’s most intriguing undersea realms, ‘Sport Diver’. Danny began production of his first High Definition series ‘The Blue Realm’ in 2003. The thirteen-part series began airing in 2004 on Discovery HD Theater, Discovery Canada and National Geographic International.
Interview by Neil McDaniel in DIVER Magazine
The Accidental Underwater Filmmaker
How did a nearly broke film-school student end up becoming Canada’s most prolific producer of underwater films?
For Sault Ste. Marie-born Danny Mauro it all started with a serendipitous mix of his love of scuba diving, an off-the-wall idea for a diving travelogue, dogged determination and a healthy dose of good fortune.
I first met Danny Mauro back in January 1994 aboard Mike Lever’s first charter boat Nautilus I. At the time Gary Bridges and I were still shooting underwater film with an ancient 16 mm Arriflex M in a Jordan Klein Mako housing (that was once owned by the redoubtable Stan Waterman, who used it to film the classic Blue Water, White Death—but that’s another story…). Danny was out west producing a segment for Sport Diver about BC’s Emerald Sea.
We hit it off and the friendship evolved into a decades-long collaboration making underwater films. For me it was a terrific opportunity to shoot at diverse locations around the globe, encountering some of the ocean’s most amazing creatures, including giant octopuses, humpback whales, sharks aplenty and perhaps my favourite, giant manta rays.
Besides the dive travel, I also had the unique opportunity to learn plenty about the nitty-gritty production part of filmmaking. Danny’s long experience working as a one-man band—producing, directing, shooting, script-writing, editing and marketing his own shows—enabled him to think fast, shoot efficiently and get exactly what he needed for each story. To this day I have never seen anyone better at ‘Run and Gun’ filming. Danny is also a modest guy who doesn’t go around blowing his own horn, but consider his amazing film career. In 1985 he started film school, turned pro in 1988 and went on to produce an astounding 105 programs, including a one-hour National Geographic special called Shipsinkers.
DIVER’s Neil McDaniel asked Danny to reflect on his rich career as a filmmaker and share some of the trials and tribulations encountered along the way.
DIVER: How did you land in filming as a career path?
Danny Mauro: Right out of high school, I finished a mechanical engineering degree at Humber College in Toronto in 1984 and took an apprenticeship in industrial refrigeration. I hated it immensely. After getting assaulted in a nursing home (an old guy thought I was stealing his air conditioner and cracked me on the head with his cane when I wasn’t looking), I quit my five-year apprenticeship only six months in. My high-school friend Rick Bold was going to film school and on a whim I applied in June 1985. I got in but was fifth on the waiting list as I had applied so late. I showed up at Confederation College with everything I owned in my truck and was headed to Calgary if things didn’t work out. They wouldn’t let me in as I was so far down the waiting list and no one had cancelled. I threw a bit of a tantrum in the admissions office, slapped $700 cash down on the counter and demanded they enrol me that day…and they did! The head of the film department shook his head in disbelief, but as five people didn’t show up for the first day of class, he shook my hand and said, “Welcome to film school.”
DIVER: What was your first experience with a camera in your hands?
DM: My very first gig while still in film school was as a camera assistant for the World Cup of Ski Jumping in Thunder Bay. Because I could ski, they let me ferry Betacams up and down the hill. When the camera guys were on breaks, I’d film the jumpers.
I was hooked. All I wanted to do was operate a camera. I turned 23 and graduated lm school in 1987. I swapped placement intern jobs out of college with my buddy Rick and he ended up in the sound department on a film in Alberta and is still doing sound work to this day. I opted to do his editing internship in Vancouver. Back then you were a tape operator stuck in a dark room shoving tapes in and out of machines, and I hated it. To try to keep my job, I ended up in the bowels of the building doing quality control and shrink-wrapping porno tapes. In the 80s, all porno in Canada came out of BC via mail order. Upstairs, they were editing big budget Disney films and music videos, while downstairs I was wading through thousands of porn titles like “She Male Whorehouse”… I didn’t last long. I did manage, however, to sit in on music video edits with Tom Cochrane/Red Rider and 54/40. That was cool…
DIVER: How did you finally break into the production business?
DM: After a year of bumming around, learning to scuba dive, backpacking, steelmaking in Sault Ste. Marie and eventually moving to London, Ontario in 1988 chasing my girlfriend Carol (to whom I’m still married), I finally landed my first professional job in 1989 as a cameraman at a small corporate and educational production company that occasionally did TV work. Within a year I persuaded a bunch of their corporate and broadcast clients to hire me, sold everything I owned, bought my first Sony Betacam and went freelance. I had a great career for a couple of years until the GST came along in 1992 and most of my freelance clients dropped me due to budget constraints. I had been cutting my freelance teeth on low-budget TV production as a cameraman/director with RV Vacation Adventures. This was guerrilla, one-man band filmmaking, driving around in RVs all over North America. My freelance gigs were eclectic, one day interviewing the Prime Minister, the next in an abattoir filming a butchering training video, the next filming in jails across Ontario. Every day was different and I loved it. I also got some freelance work in the Cayman Islands for DiveVision, an ill-fated attempt at marketing videos to scuba shops and diving resorts. But it planted a seed in my mind…an ultra-low-budget travelogue, sort of like a fishing show for divers.
DIVER: How did you make the move into underwater productions?
DM: I bartered my camera services with the bankrupt producer of DiveVision and acquired my original footage from the Cayman Islands, found a TV personality who happened to scuba dive (Doug Paulson, formerly with CTV). I propped him up in front of some yachts in Toronto harbour for stand-ups and extras and shot a pilot for $3,000. The guys from RV Vacation Adventures thought it was pretty good and suggested I change the original title Scuba Diver to something more catchy and we came up with Sport Diver. Instead of submitting it to regional networks, I shot for the moon and sent it to TSN. A few weeks later, Rick Brace (then head of TSN) called me and said “Are you the guy that did that scuba pilot?… Can you give us 12 more episodes by Christmas?” I said sure I could. I hung up my big brick Nokia cell phone, did a little jig on Queen Street in Toronto and then realized I had no money, no sponsors and no prospects (TSN did “barter acquisition,” basically no money but you were given commercial time to sell to your sponsors). I didn’t care. I sold our house, car and everything else except my camera gear and started to plot the first season.
DIVER: So now you were actually the producer of a TV series… How did that go? Where did the money come from?
DM: My first real sponsor was P. Lawson Travel (now Carlson Wagonlit) and a fellow named Bob Shaw. He loved to scuba dive and thought I had a good idea. He offered me $10,000 in travel credit to go wherever I wanted to film. So I picked the Caribbean and slammed together 12 additional episodes in less than six months. My second sponsor was Mares, a scuba gear manufacturer that gave me about $5,000 in scuba gear. In return, I shot and edited some low-budget commercials that ran on the show on TSN. I still didn’t have any real money coming in and took the odd freelance job to keep a afloat. But I was going broke… fast. In those days, I travelled with one assistant (my electrician cousin who happened to scuba dive, or another film student on a grant from the National Film Board) and wore every hat… cameraman, director, producer, writer, editor. We shot all the underwater footage using Hi-8 video cameras in Amphibico housings.
The first season was crazy, months on the road flying from island to island, begging for free accommodations, meals and diving and making lots of promises for TV exposure. Luckily, the show was hugely popular on TSN and sandwiched between fishing shows like Bob Izumi’s Real Fishing or Canadian Sport Fishing. Oddly enough, I always beat them in the ratings and was the highest-rated independently produced show on the network. The problem was that the Nielsen ratings skewed from 2 to 89 years old and sponsors wanted that coveted male, 18 to 39 demographic. I couldn’t give away advertising space on the show. It was tough.
Then something amazing happened. Rick Brace called me to say that he thought there was a market for Sport Diver overseas. He asked if he could sell it in Japan and quickly sold the first 13 episodes there. I got paid peanuts and had a screaming match on the phone with Rick about how I was getting the shaft. But the writing was on the wall—international sales were the way to make a living. I hired a distributor and mid-way through Season 2 it started to sell like hot cakes. By the end of Season 2 it was running all over the world. I then sold it directly to the fledgling Travel Channel in the US and by the end of Season 3, it was airing in over 50 countries. It was a juggernaut. I was 27 years old with a hit TV series. It lasted four seasons and 52 episodes.
The other key development in the early series work was meeting my two long-time underwater cameramen, Jim Kozmik, then a veteran cop in Toronto with lots of vacation time and Neil McDaniel, a respected film guy in Vancouver.
Up until I met Jim and Neil, I did my own underwater camera work with Amphibico housings but I was much better at the topside filming and directing. I handed most of the underwater work to the pros and things really took off. Both those guys deserve a lot of credit. To this day, Jim and Neil are two of my best friends.
DIVER: How did Sport Diver spin into Undersea Explorer?
DM: In 1996, I had a falling out with my original TV host Doug Paulson which coincided with some key sponsors backing out so I decided to wrap up Sport Diver at 52 episodes. I got tired of the grind of trying to do lightweight travel-based shows and wanted to do more documentary-style programming with stronger stories. A new network was launching in Canada in 1996 (Outdoor Life) and they actually paid a license fee for shows. So I pitched them hard on a new series, Undersea Explorer, and they signed on. The pilot was about sharks and the series quickly became successful and did well overseas. It lasted three seasons and 39 episodes but still remained a low-budget, half-hour series like Sport Diver. I also started to work with some amazing editors on the west coast after five years in Ontario, especially a great sound designer and music editor named Tony Moskal. He was keen to branch out into video editing and that’s how everything began evolving toward the High-Definition realm.
DIVER: When did you come up with the idea for a High-Definition series?
DM: After 52 episodes of Sport Diver and 39 Undersea Explorer titles, I was getting a little burned out on the low-budget, half-hour-show treadmill. I met a terrific cameraman in California named Tom Campbell and he called me up one day in 1999 to tell me about a remarkable new wide-screen video format called High-Definition. He had a lucrative gig with a wealthy Saudi prince who flew him around the world to film underwater. We struck a deal whereby I would film the wrap-around stories and interviews and then use some of the underwater footage that Tom shot. Foolishly, I took every nickel I had made on my first two series and borrowed a lot of cash to buy one of the first Sony HDCAM cameras to film this new venture. I hired Neil McDaniel and my sound-guy buddy Rick Bold and headed to to Bonaire with a dozen back-breaking cases of equipment including a new Amphibicam Pro housing for the full-size Sony HD cameras.
Our plan was to lm an odd story about reef squid and some scientists who claimed the animals had a body-signalling “language”. It was the pilot for a new venture I called The Blue Realm. I wanted to make a high-quality, blue-chip series to rival anything the BBC, CBC or other networks could do, but at a fraction of the budget. It didn’t quite work out that way…
Tentacles, The Blue Realm pilot about cephalopods (squid and octopuses) was not well received. No one was buying HD shows at the time and it appeared we were still a few years ahead of the coming HD curve. At that point, with equipment costs, shooting and editing the pilot and trying to keep moving forward,
I was almost a quarter of a million dollars into the venture with nothing to show for it. Everything pointed to throwing in the towel, cutting my losses and moving on. I even thought about going back to freelance work but that didn’t pan out either as I had lost touch with all my former clients. In utter desperation, I decided to film a second Blue Realm episode called Shark Business. It was a more high-adrenaline program with faster pacing, rock and roll music and some ‘danger’ elements. It was an absolute Hail Mary and I would have been forced to file bankruptcy
if it had failed. I submitted the two completed HD shows to Discovery Channel Canada (the original pilot and Shark Business) and hoped for the best. It took what seemed forever, but a wonderful lady named Shannon LaMorre called me up one day and changed my life. They wanted to buy the first four episodes of the series, two of which were just ideas on paper! Shortly afterward, National Geographic International picked up Tentacles and Shark Business and that paid the bills and got the series off the ground. Discovery Channel International HD signed on a bit later and the series ran around the globe.
We shot and edited four one-hour shows those first couple of years from 2001 to 2003 and the programs did relatively well internationally and in Canada. But there didn’t seem to be any interest in making more titles beyond the first four. I sold my HD camera gear at a tremendous loss and felt the time had finally come to hang up my spurs. I was only 39 years old and had just paid off the debts of the first four shows! It was yet another tough stretch but luckily Undersea Explorer and Sport Diver continued to sell in syndication and I was able to keep afloat. A few years passed where I hardly filmed anything. On a whim, I contacted Discovery Canada and they disclosed that they were launching a new HD network and wanted more titles. The ratings were good for Episodes 1 to 4 and they agreed to commission four more. This time I did it right and hired a real producer named David Springbett from Asterisk Productions who helped access tax credits and grants to partially fund the second round of new shows. These were some of the greatest adventures of my film career… crazy sharks, manatees and dugongs, humpback whales and whale sharks. My sound and music designer Tony Moskal was turning into a world-class editor and elevated the quality of the shows to a much higher level. I continued to work with Jim Kozmik, Neil McDaniel and Tom Campbell and we put out some terrific stories and actually had some budget to do it right.
It all pretty much came crashing down… yet again… with the economic freefall of 2008. Virtually every TV market was claiming poverty and wasn’t buying new shows. It looked like the end indeed. I had built a few homes during the lean stretches and got hooked on log and timber frame construction. I sort of switched careers in 2010 and thought my filming days were over. I became a salesman and sat on my butt answering the phone and doing home shows. I still felt that I had some underwater stories left to tell and tried in vain to pitch more Blue Realm shows. My distributors were tenacious though and managed to wrangle a final meeting with Discovery Channel for a third round of Blue Realm titles. Budgets were tight, but ratings were still good on the older shows and they reluctantly agreed to partially fund five new ones to round out the series at 13 one-hour titles. We had no international partners for co-productions and it was hell at times, but from 2011 to 2013 my original crew (Jim, Neil, Tom, Tony and I) shot and edited another five great one-hour episodes to round out the series and then called it quits. In Canada, The Blue Realm continues to air on TV Ontario, Knowledge (BC), Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and National Geographic Wild.
DIVER: During those two decades video camera technology improved by leaps and bounds, and editing also underwent a revolution with the change from linear to non-linear. How did that change your work flow?
DM: The change over to non-linear editing was a strange time. I resisted it for a few years as it was so onerous technically. There were enormous bugs initially and I remember other producers literally crying when they’d have a computer crash and lose all their work. But when I did go non-linear… Wow… It completely changed everything. Instead of trying to cut a show to time and structuring the scripts so I could toss away extra material, I could now edit the shows a bit longer and take out the weaker segments without losing a generation or more. That changeover happened when I moved to BC in 1995 as my editing facility Pastiche Productions was just going non-linear. That was also around the time I switched from one-inch tape masters and submasters, down to smaller Digi-beta tapes, another major sea change.
DIVER: How would you assess your legacy in the underwater production business?
DM: At the start with Sport Diver I just felt there was a niche TV market for an ultra-low-budget travelogue type of a show. I really love diving and although I’m not a big fan of boats as I get sea-sick, boats came with the territory. Over time I grew into the role of producer and eventually embraced everything about it. I can’t imagine a cooler profession and I filled up four or five passports over the years.
The Blue Realm was totally different, a chance to produce classy, well-researched High-Definition programs with enthusiastic scientists and plenty of stunning underwater images. I like to think we put out a hell of a lot of good programming that rivalled anything out there. And we did it on a fraction of the budget and with a small crew compared to the big boys. Jim, Neil, Tony, Tom and I had a lot of fun over the years. I’m also very proud that all of our stories had strong environmental themes. I’ve seen tremendous change for the worse over the past 25 years and I’m especially passionate about shark conservation.
And you never know, maybe we still have some more filming to do. I was just offered 100 freelance shooting days on a series about the language of whales… I just have to convince my wife!