How a group of Brits set up one of the world’s most successful underwater film-making companies in Sabah on the Coral Triangle
When Simon Christopher left the UK in search of diving and adventure in Asia, little did he know that 20 or so years later he would be the founder and chief executive officer of Scubazoo, one of the world’s most respected and award-winning underwater film-making and photography companies.
But that’s exactly what happened to the young man from England who broke free of the London rat race to follow his dream. Through the medium of Skype – a much-loved piece of technology that has saved him several thousand air miles – I caught up with Simon at his office in Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state in northwestern Borneo) and asked him how it all started.
‘I studied zoology at Swansea in Wales – I wanted to study marine biology but I had dodgy ears and couldn’t do the diving, so I ended up doing marine zoology. Eventually, I gravitated to London and got into sales, but after four years I was fed up and wanted to follow my heart and go in search of the best diving. I got my ears fixed before I travelled and left the UK at the age of 24 with £8K in the bank, which meant I could head out to Australia at my own pace.
'I meandered my way around Southeast Asia, did some mad stuff and then learned to dive in the Philippines in Puerto Galera. I did my advanced in Sabah [Malaysia].’
But it was at Sipadan, Malaysia’s only oceanic island, that Simon truly felt an affinity with the underwater world.
‘Within a few dives I knew that diving was what I was going to be doing and then I fell in love with Sipadan. I did about 300 or 400 dives and lived on the island, as I had blagged a three-month divemaster stint. I was living on Sipadan in return for talking to people about fish, which I would do anyway – it was great!
A seed had been sown, but Simon stuck with his original plan and headed for Cairns in Queensland, Australia, by way of South Africa where he enjoyed diving with great whites and a Rugby World Cup. Once in Cairns he got a job working as an underwater cameraman shooting tourist videos as souvenirs.
‘Within the first few dives with the camera, I knew this is what I wanted to do and decided that at the end of my year in Cairns I would go to Sipadan and set up my own video production company, Scubazoo.’
As can sometimes happen in life, the stars aligned and, by a stroke of fortune, Simon met Jason Isley [Scubazoo co-founder and MD], who was working as a deckhand scrubbing boats to get his open water dive course.
‘Jason was the pauper,’ says Simon, ‘while I was earning lots of money selling videos – the cool guy doing the video thing – and I loved it. We became great mates. But every day I was there extolling the diving on Sipadan, which pissed off everyone.
As I pointed out if you saw a turtle on the Great Barrier Reef everyone went crazy, but in Sipadan you see them all the time.
‘Eventually, I went off to Sipadan and Jason arrived a few months later and we built it from there. That was in ’96. We formed the company officially and registered it, and here we are 20 years on.’
The company’s early years were a world away from the big budget BBC productions with which that they have since become associated, but the fundamentals were the same – they were in the water creating stories, videoing people’s dive trips as souvenirs. The technology was different too, selling VHS videos to tourists, who didn’t have the digital cameras of today, was a great business model, particularly when they were diving the marine life-packed reefs of Sipadan.
‘Now it’s digital and everyone has got their own cameras,’ says Simon, ‘so the whole business metamorphosed, but it started with tourist videos on Sipadan and we had ten or 11 cameramen working for us. After the first few years, we started doing jobs for the BBC and then increasingly more broadcast and TV work. Around seven or eight years ago we dropped the tourist filming game completely, and now we do TV and corporate film-making and publish our own books – all things media.’
Scubazoo’s first big job was for reality game show UK Survivor which was filmed on Pulau Tiga. The team had four cameramen working for nine weeks, shooting all the underwater sequences and coming up with all the underwater games and activities.
But how did the company get its reputation for producing high quality underwater natural history films?
‘It comes from filming tourist divers, because we did it all in-camera – it was all in-camera edited, so every shot counted. We were always shooting and composing a story with every dive and constantly planning and making it sellable. Our market was ten to 12 divers and we had to come up with a product.’
Today, 46-year-old Simon has a mature business, with 22 staff based Kota Kinabalu and a growing family – he is married to a local Sabahan Clare and they have two boys, nine-year-old Jack and adopted son Cosby who is two in September.
So how did they make the change from being young aspirational guys who were trying out different things to the established business that Scubazoo is now?
‘The hallmark of Scubazoo brand is top notch underwater filming and storytelling. When we first started the thinking was “use Scubazoo because they are the locals guys and they’ll save you money on bringing out a good guy from the UK or US”, but after that first few years production companies began to realise we really know what we are doing and it’s even worth spending the extra money to use us on shoots outside of Southeast Asia as well as locally to here.
‘We’ve been involved in a lot of BBC shoots and BAFTA and Emmy award productions but the next chapter is Scubazoo producing its own content and taking everything online. This digital era is the golden age and if you’re sitting on the stories or content that we have here in Southeast Asia you can bring that to audiences globally with the press of a few buttons.
I’ve had meetings this morning in which I’ve pitched stories about sea snakes to a company in Amsterdam – they’re thinking about it and the likelihood is that in a week’s time we’ll get the green light and we’ll be filming next week, and that story will be seen by millions of people within a week of filming. If you can do that on a weekly basis and create a narrative arc that’s an ongoing returnable story that’s compelling and can go on for five years – well, that’s the future for us.’
Nevertheless going from a broadcast world to shooting your own footage and creating revenues online is hard work and can’t be done quickly unless you have investors, so after 22 years out on his own Simon is officially looking for investors. And given Scubazoo’s enviable back catalogue, investors should be queueing up.
But what are the great Scubazoo underwater sequences that stick in the memory?
‘My favourites, unsurprisingly, are the great BBC Natural History Unit sequences,’ says Simon. ‘There are three that come to mind. One is the mating turtles sequence [filmed on Sipadan] which we’ve shot for the BBC twice now, once in HD and then in 4K. We filmed mating turtles for Life Stories with David Attenborough narrating and our cameraman was up for an Emmy for that. Gogglebox also turned it into a sequence which was quite funny.
‘Even bigger in scale and a big promise to fulfill was delivering the humpback heat run. We shot the first images of 40-tonne humpback males fighting over a female before mating. I spend my life promising the world, and I can only do that because I know what my team can do.
Roger [Munns] shot the sequence in Tonga, for the Mammals episode of the Life series. The BBC had been trying to do it for 15 years and it took me a year to bring them around and finally they agreed to do it and we also did the behind-the-scenes mini programme at the end.
We got the killer shot with Roger swimming in front of a group of charged up humpback whales that were full of testosterone. He free dived down in front of these charged-up whales who were fighting over females – complete madness, no one had ever done it before.
That was probably the biggest result. David Attenborough was blown away and it was a huge thing. Oprah Winfrey did the narration for the US version.
‘Another sequence was the Human Planet shoot that we did for the BBC, which was part of an eight-part series. We ended up doing around 30 per cent of the one-hour Oceans episode, including the ten-minute Making Of film about the Filipino hookah divers which was a big slap on the back for Scubazoo.
Years of living in Southeast Asia have left Simon with an Anglo-Aussie twang, a well developed sense of humour and an ongoing passion for the oceans and Scubazoo, and as another meeting threatens to overlap his time I quickly finish with a final question about what makes Scubazoo such a success.
‘It’s all about team. Scubazoo is a product of what a group of committed and passionate team can do. I couldn’t have done it without the team – my two co-directors Jason Isley and Simon Enderby [operations director and senior cameraman], senior cameramen Roger Munns and Chris Tan, Cara Morrison and Gil Woolley [video and photo library managers], Oliver Deppert and Will Foster-Grundy [producer/directors] and Aaron Gekosky aka ‘Bertie’ [Scubazoo’s first in-house presenter] and all the other people we’ve got with us now.
It’s amazing what the commitment from a team can achieve. And, of course, location, we’re a group of Brits that have come out to Borneo and dropped everything, left the rat race and followed our hearts – living the dream and doing what we love doing. Our location is also key – Scubazoo’s HQ in Sabah is based on the Coral Triangle, which is the most important piece of real estate on the planet. There are more species, not only marine species, in this two per cent of the world than anywhere else on the planet combined, and that’s the bottom line – if you’re going to set up a company that tells stories about the natural world, this is the place to do it.
‘Twenty-two years on we’re sitting on this diamond mine – the next decade is when it’s really going to mature and the realities of all of our investment are ready to come through. Not only in being successful commercially, but in terms of telling stories to the rest of the world. “Content is king” and within the next few months we’ll be launching our own online platform called SZtv on which we’ll broadcast multiple series such as Borneo from Below (check out www.borneofrombelow.com), Borneo Wildlife Warriors, Shark Shooters and other concepts in the future.
By telling our very own stories, unreliant on traditional broadcast commissions, we’ll deliver Scubazoo’s all-important conservation stories in new, engaging “funservation” ways. I genuinely believe that in the next two or three years, SZtv will be accessible to every single smartphone on the planet and that’s very exciting.’