Story by Catharine Lo
Photos by Dana Edmunds
For two weeks the unruly, super-sized surf on O‘ahu’s North Shore has kept even the heartiest watermen on the beach. It’s also wreaked havoc on shooting the upcoming biopic about Kaua‘i surfer and shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton, forcing the film crew to remain on standby. Finally, on the last Tuesday of February, dawn breaks over flawless waves tempered by a light offshore breeze.
The Hollywood crew is on it. A hundred yards off Kaunala Beach, a pair of jet-skis patrol the lineup at Velzyland, where half a dozen girls in bright rash guards take off on wave after peeling wave. Perched on a berm, Mike Prickett mans the Arriflex 435ES, a T. rex of a camera regarded as the best in the business. Tasked with shooting a key scene from the spectators’ perspective, Prickett narrates the play-by-play to the script supervisor so he can track the footage.
“Here we go: pink up and riding. That looks pretty good. Only a 3.5, though. It was only one turn,” he says. The story calls for an 8.5-scoring ride, and it’s up to Prickett to capture one before conditions deteriorate.
Such is the nature of ocean cinematography: a few exciting seconds bracketed by long periods of serene blue nothing. The significant elements—waves, weather and human (or animal) subjects—are all in constant flux, and a cinematographer can spend all day behind the camera and still come up empty. But Prickett is an expert at reading the ocean, at predicting the shape, size and location of waves. When he’s in the water, his fearlessness and agility enable him to get the camera in position, and the result is a catalog of breathtaking water sequences that have graced the big screen in surfing blockbusters like Riding Giants, Step Into Liquid and Billabong Odyssey. Prickett’s work has garnered two Emmy nominations and a Sundance award for best cinematography. When Hollywood moviemakers want drama at sea, they tap Prickett.
For all his talent and guts, he brings the same humble equanimity to his unpredictable craft as he does to immersing himself in monster surf. A few renegade surfers begin to encroach on the actors’ wave space. The assistant director radios to water patrol: “Can someone do something about the guy on the bodyboard?” Prickett chuckles and calls such uninvited extras his “focus testers.” The amiable 45-year-old is much more Hawai‘i than Hollywood; talking with him you’d never know that this is a guy who routinely throws himself into the most dangerous situations a cinematographer can find. Those who work with him all say the same thing: “Prickett’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.”