Why the world’s best water cameramen still shoot on film.
If you’re a surfer or ocean lover, these cameramen are as legendary as any Oscar® winner. The thrilling sensations these guys ignite, in both the narrative and non-fiction genres, send chills up the spine. How do they get in positions most mortal humans would run (or swim) away from? And with the presence of mind to focus, light and frame, as Mother Nature bears down with her most intense watery fury?
Even if your feet rarely touch sand, you’ve seen their work. Remember Tom Hanks, in Cast Away, trying to escape the island in a life raft? Or Dominic Monaghan, from Lost, locked in a chamber as torrents of water rush in? Both shots came courtesy of Hawaii-based waterman and Local 600 member, Don King. Likewise for surfing footage from HBO’s John From Cincinnati or Forgetting Sarah Marshall, shot by Oahu-based Guild member Dave Homcy, and water scenes from X2, Hawaii Five-O, and The Ultimate Wave Tahiti all lensed by Guild shooter Mike Prickett, a cinematographer for the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing and the DP/producer for an upcoming documentary on the world’s most dangerous wave, Pipeline.
Hearing about this high risk/reward craft is vicarious filmmaking at its best; but what’s even cooler is knowing that when these superheroes are trapped in the impact zone staring down a 30-foot beast of a wave, they all want film in their cameras.
Having been a water cameraman for 27 years now, I have seen a lot of change. We used to swim out to Pipeline, shooting stills with a single roll and manual focus. Out of 36 shots, you’d be lucky to get 10 or 15 good ones, because of a water spot or less-than-crisp focus. The same went for our film cameras; one 200-foot roll would be gone after a few good waves, and you’d have to loop in and reload!
But there was something almost mystical in waiting to see how your film came back from the lab – same for the still guys turning in rolls and waiting for their slides. When the mail finally came, it was so fun to put it into the DigiBeta and relive that film session.
Of course in today’s instant gratification world, if it’s not live or on the web in a few hours, it’s old news; one week later, it’s dead. And digital shooters have it so much easier. The still guy has a camera that has awesome auto focus and can do 700 shots. When he comes in, there is no processing; he just transfers to computer and sends his images out to the web or sponsors within minutes; same for the digital cinematographer.
“Shooting film means you can do your own art in the water, with your choice of filters and shutter speeds, instead of something you manipulate later with a computer that, to my eyes, looks and feels fake.”
For 17 years, I have been around the world, shooting the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Tour. And I acknowledge that digital technology has helped the sponsors get their brands out to the public on the web at a fraction of the price from the old days, when doing a live TV show to a network would be very expensive.
But to everyone who says film is dead, I say film will always have its time and place. I love to shoot film because of its warmer and softer feel. And film has another major advantage in the water: digital cameras, like RED, get very hot, and fogging or overheating will make you miss that key shot. The film camera, on the other hand, can sit all day, and when you pull it up after a few hours, you’ll get that gorgeous shot of the whale breaching out of the water, every time.
For me the act of shooting great surfers in the water is a partnership, and we always work together. The best athletes will drop in and fly right by with inches to spare. Wave after wave, good riders make it easy for us. On the other hand, if you have an inexperienced rider, he will catch fewer waves. When he passes you there is a good chance he will be out of control, and a good chance you will get hurt.
Working with 10-time world champion Kelly Slater on The Ultimate Wave Tahiti was one of my most challenging, and satisfying, shoots. It was the first time I had used 3D IMAX cameras in large, critical waves. We had one dive housing that weighed about 300 pounds and was neutrally buoyant for underwater shots, which was no problem. The story changed, however, when we did the surface level footage with another housing and with each attempt (roughly 10-15 waves), I got pounded down into the reef! We even tried creating a three-man chain link to hold me steady, but I still kept going over the falls. That day at Teahupo’o also included some 35mm high-frame rate footage mounted on a boogie board about a few feet from the nose of Slater’s surfboard. The 3D IMAX rig was so big and slow (only capable of 24 fps) that we had to custom-build a 200 fps rig.
Another extremely intense situation was for an upcoming feature about global warming. We were tracking huge waves at Pe’ahi (Jaws) and Waimea with an underwater jet ski (a Seabob) that travels at about 15 knots for roughly 140 feet. The angles underneath the surface of the ocean were amazing, but the passing wave created so much surface dynamics that when I came up for a breath, I could not see where I was and the next wave would often annihilate me! Every shot was a life-or-death situation, but when the footage came back, I knew it was all worth it.
I grew up riding waves on my father’s back at Makapu’u Beach Park (on Oahu’s easternmost tip). I was in the water every day of my childhood. Water polo and competitive swimming became my training ground for a career in surf photography.
Out at Pipeline, when I was 14, I happened to borrow a friend’s camera in the water and everything just clicked: this is what I want to do. At 16, I started getting images published in surf magazines. After a few years of shooting stills, I started to film with a high-speed 16mm (Milliken) camera in a custom-built water housing. I’d work alone, often swimming far from shore for hours at a time.
Filming motion pictures in waves looks challenging, but to me it’s completely natural. An average day at the office includes swimming out through super-strong currents, avoiding poundings on the jagged sharp reef below the surface, and being run over by a surfer. While diving under 20-foot waves, I am checking for leaks and water spots on the lens, and thinking about composition and exposure.
“I love waves. I look up at the sky through a wave. I open my eyes underwater and watch how waves break. I let the lip of a wave just barely clear my head, to get inside the tube and look back toward shore at the curtain of water.”
One of the most memorable shots in my career was being in the water with Tom Hanks at Cloudbreak (a famous surfing spot in Fiji) for Cast Away. He had to pop up right in front of the wave, not see it, and then turn and get hammered! I was giving him the timing of when to go under, pop up, turn and look at the wave. I was swimming with an ARRI III with a lightweight custom-built housing.
Filming with [professional surfer] Bethany Hamilton for Soul Surfer was another amazing experience. She was stunt doubling for the actress who was playing her and I was shooting Bethany on the back of a jet ski in some big surf. We had just finished a shot on a large wave when the wind caught the boogie board attached to the back of the ski and flipped it into me. I smashed my head into the camera and broke my two front teeth out. Later, Bethany asked to pose on the beach with me for a photo, and my little mishap put things into perspective.
Balancing the fear and getting the shot is what I love about my craft. It’s the concept of flow: being completely focused and present in that moment to sense the dangers around you, while still being completely relaxed looking through the viewfinder. In very high-impact, radical situations, I’ll shoot without a viewfinder to maintain peripheral vision. I really love slow-motion water capture, and film is the perfect medium for that. Shooting 200 fps with a Photo-Sonics 4ML, with 200-foot loads, only gives you a few takes before you have to swim in, but the images have depth, color, and perfect registration. Digital may be convenient and cost less in the long run, but I still prefer film. High-speed digital cameras are not as small, nor can they handle the high contrast of deep-blue ocean and white water, as well as film.
I recently shot a Nike commercial of night surfing in Bali. We had large lights on the beach, lights on boats, and a good-sized budget and crew. Guild cinematographer Lance Accord directed and shot from land. I shot from the water, swimming and on a jet ski. It was a new way to look at the sport, as the surfers, lit by spotlights, stood out from the waves like performers on a stage. I often work with the same experienced watermen – surfers, camera assistants, jet ski drivers, water safety, helicopter pilots – who understand the ocean and how to work together to get the shot.
Some of the films that I am honored to have worked on include Cast Away, Die Another Day, Blue Crush, Riding Giants, The Big Bounce, Dear John, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Lords of Dogtown, Charlie’s Angels II, Soul Surfer, Pirates of the Caribbean IV, The Descendents, Here After, and Just Go With It, along with episodic series like Lost, Off The Map, Hawaii Five-O, and many commercials.
Filming in the water has defined my personal and professional life. I’ve traveled to some of the most remote destinations around the globe and been with spiritual people who are also very much in love with the ocean.
I still love waves, and bodysurfing Makupu’u Beach. Only now it’s with my own son, Beau, who, like me, loves to keep his eyes open under the water.
Fifteen years ago, I moved from Florida to Hawaii to pursue my dream of becoming a surf photographer. Seeing the photos from surf magazines created a pull towards Hawaii that was unstoppable. To make a living working in the ocean, and to be involved with the art of riding waves, which I love, seemed like the perfect career choice.
I landed in this industry through my father’s best friend, producer/director Frank Eberling, and worked freelance in grip, lighting, and then camera for eight years before coming to Hawaii. The industry here is a tight-knit group of skilled professionals, and when a project rolls through, you can bet they are on it. I also was lucky to meet two of my role models, Don King and Mike Prickett, who were patient and supportive in teaching me their craft. Though we now sometimes compete for jobs, we all respect and understand the dynamics of what we can each bring to the director’s vision. Our shared love for shooting film has reinforced our friendship, and our passion to keep this art form alive.
With all the many fantastic new film stocks, all those great old and new ciné lenses, and the feeling you can achieve with the registration from one camera body to another, film’s many spices and flavors create a feast for the eyes and soul.
These days I am finding it harder to persuade producers to shoot on film. A few of my regular clients have moved over to digital, so I am now working with those formats. But I push for film whenever I can, especially if surfing or any action in the ocean is involved. On my last two projects – for the new Ford Explorer, and for Eddie Vedder’s new album – I was able to influence the producers to use film, mixed in with the digital footage.
“Shooting film is like preparing a great meal for your best friends. The choice of ingredients is endless.”
My water rig of choice is a Super 16mm Milliken, in an aluminum housing built by my close friend Sonny Miller. It’s pretty much indestructible; it never leaks, always runs, and never overheats like a RED camera. It also weighs about 12 pounds. I use a Schneider 10mm lens with a 36-degree shutter at 200 fps and, to my eyes, the image is leaps and bounds above any digital image now available.
I’ve only let go of that well-traveled Milliken once, in what was the heaviest filming situation of my career. Sonny Miller and I were shooting for Surfer TV on The September Sessions, directed by Jack Johnson, and starring Jack and Kelly Slater, at Lance’s Rights, in the Mentawai Islands, off the coast of Sumatra. I saw all the boys out in the water scratching for the horizon so I knew a big one was coming and I had drifted into the impact zone. The second wave of the set pushed me all the way to the bottom, and held me down. I managed to surface and grab some air before the next wave unloaded on me again. I drifted all the way down and went totally limp, not quite blacked-out, but just floating. I felt my fingers let go of the rig, and the camera’s leash pulling out away from me. I had a feeling the port would never hit the reef and it would be fine. But I had to conserve every last bit of energy to surface and get one more breath. In retrospect, I think I took that wave for granted and nearly paid a very serious price.
As for shooting on 16mm, I’ve done a number of well-known surf movies and documentaries where film was far and away the best tool to create those stories. Shooting a wide shot in southern Chile for El Mar Mi Alma, with black rock cliffs, late afternoon backlit skies and a surfer gliding along in front of the white water, I knew film could handle the high contrast and still provide the latitude to achieve the feeling of that moment. Digital, on the other hand would fall apart.
Whether shooting from land or water, I am always playing with natural light and learning every time I pull the trigger how to create a new and different look. My favorite time of day to shoot on Oahu’s North Shore, where I live, is the morning because of the way the sun ball dances on the face of the wave as it barrels. Near dusk, the waves turn emerald green with golden highlights, and there are so many different textures and colors to experiment with when shooting film.
Film is the food of my life, and if it ever goes away, I’ll probably have to put down the camera and open a restaurant.