The Lens Aquatic
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.”
In his teens he moved to Hawai‘i island, where he photographed visitors at Kealakekua Bay. Then a horrible car accident changed his life: His right leg was broken in thirty-six places, and his left in seven. The doctors said that he’d never walk normally again, but Prickett was determined to prove them wrong.
He returned to O‘ahu in a wheelchair. He remembers sitting on the beach, hot and bored, taking pictures of his friends getting waves, but he couldn’t resist the urge to get back in the water himself. “My therapy was swimming and that saved my life,” he says. He built a watertight box for his camera, swam out to the lineup and shot the surfers up close. At first he gave the images away. Then he started trading them for a surfboard leash here, a jacket there. Eventually he started charging money. Meanwhile, his legs grew strong—so much so that he eventually became an avid rock climber.
It was a gig with Ocean Action TV that compelled Prickett to transition to film and video; he loved the narrative potential of motion pictures. Twenty years ago, surf cinematography was in its pre-adolescence, and water and movie cameras did not mix well (for the most part, they still don’t). But by fashioning custom Plexiglas and aluminum camera housings (he still makes all his own custom housings), Prickett proved that they could. He gave audiences glimpses of the ocean that were exciting and unfamiliar—the space behind the liquid curtain of a breaking wave, the impact of a heaving white-water lip, the view from the top (and bottom) of a four-story macker. Impressed by his ability and audacity, the Association of Surfing Professionals hired him to be their lead cinematographer in 1992. For seventeen years he accompanied the planet’s best surfers around the globe, documenting the sport’s remarkable growth.
During a contest at Margaret River in Australia, a cameraman for ABC’s Wide World of Sports took one look at the huge waves and said, “I’m not going out there.” Mike looked at the ABC camera and said, “Give me that. I’ll go out there.” Network media took note, and since then he’s become a go-to guy for NBC, CBS, ABC, National Geographic, BBC, The Learning Channel, FOX Sports and ESPN. Last December, he was in charge of documenting the Eddie Aikau Big-Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay, where he trailed the competitors on his jet-ski as they dropped down the forty-foot faces during one of the winter’s most colossal swells.
Nowadays there are scores of amateur videographers in the water; digital technology has invited newcomers to the industry, but, Prickett points out, it still takes years of experience and gumption to be good at it. “You have to have the technical knowledge to get the beautiful shots,” he says. “You have to know how to jump into twenty-foot surf, shoot the shot and get out alive. And,” he deadpans, “you have to survive the sharks.”
Prickett recounts one unnerving encounter with a great white (“it looked like a VW bus”) that lunged at him at Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa. Then there’s razor-sharp coral—like the meat-grinding reef at Teahupo‘o in Tahiti, which Prickett managed to evade while safeguarding a 150-pound, million-dollar camera for the recent film Ultimate Wave Tahiti, the first surf film ever shot in IMAX 3-D. Then there’s the notorious pock-ridden reef at Pipeline, in which his leg got stuck and subsequently broken after he dived into a cave to escape a giant double-up wave during a Pipeline Masters contest (big-wave veteran Brock Little rescued him).
For all his near misses and broken bones, the resilient lens man has also had poignant experiences. In Australia he witnessed a pod of dolphins guide an injured whale out to sea. He watched the ocean funnel into the mouth of the Amazon, creating a tidal bore that surfers rode continuously for a half-hour. Wherever he goes—from Antarctica to Belize, Japan to Portugal—he’s privileged to see the sea’s most phenomenal displays of energy and beauty.
“The ocean is like my mother,” he muses. “She lets me know what I can do and what I can’t do. When I get in over my head, she slaps me down. She saved my life, and she’s made me who I am.”
Prickett travels often but never light. Besides his lenses and cameras, he’s got fins, masks, radios, scuba tanks, electronic distress beacons, shark leashes, etc. He laughs at himself while he pilots three cartloads of Pelican cases through crowded foreign airports. Even with all the excess-baggage fees, Prickett wouldn’t have it any other way. “The hunt for waves,” he says, “is what I enjoy most—chasing big waves around the planet.”
Currently the tireless filmmaker is juggling half a dozen projects, and there are at least a dozen more in the queue. Ultimately nature dictates his schedule: If the winds are cranking, the kite-surfing shoot’s a go. If the waves are pumping, there’s outer reef tow-in action. Flat and windless? A good day to film a turtle ballet at the Käne‘ohe sandbar. “If it’s going to be onshore and rainy, then I can have the day off,” he jokes.
Prickett’s devotion doesn’t go unnoticed by his subjects. “He’s in the water, he’s on the jet-ski, he’s got follow cams from the boat. When he’s filming, he’s not going to miss stuff,” says champion surfer Kelly Slater, who says Mike is the best in the business. “He’s so passionate about it. … He’d do it even if he didn’t get paid, as long as someone’s buying food for him.” Slater was among the talent in the 2001 surf documentary Shelter, one of Prickett’s favorite projects. Collaborating with pros like Slater has enabled Prickett to produce some of the most dynamic and exciting sequences in the history of surf cinematography. “When Kelly does a turn or a snap, I know he’s going to do a rail-to-rail maneuver that’s really beautiful,” Prickett says. “He delivers the action that people really want to see.”
As much as he loves chronicling the surf, Mike’s talent takes him beyond the genre. The dam-break scene at the finale of X-Men II (Prickett was the film’s Hawai‘i director of photography) revealed his knack for action-adventure. He’s also been called for water work in the upcoming features Pirates of the Caribbean II and Point Break II. In March he’s off to Orlando to meet with Disney’s Imagineers about the potential of 3-D films. In April he heads to Galveston, Texas, to shoot surfers on the wakes of supertankers.
Despite having so much going on in the short term, the long-term future is also on Prickett’s radar. Studios will gravitate toward 3-D film production, he predicts, as a way to rekindle box office sales lost to home theaters and instant movie delivery services like Netflix. That means a growing demand for 3-D content—and for experienced filmmakers like Prickett to create it. “You always have to think depth. There has to be something in the foreground and something in the background,” he says, explaining that the 2-D approach to cinematography doesn’t yield eye-popping content in 3-D. “A lot of people are buying the equipment, but they’re not applying it effectively,” he says. At the Los Angeles premiere of Ultimate Wave Tahiti, Prickett got a kick out of watching audiences grab at the elements fluttering off the screen. Even Avatar director James Cameron complimented him on the quality of the 3-D.
But it’s perhaps his current project that Prickett feels most strongly about, Plastic Pacific, a documentary on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—an estimated 3.5 million tons of plastic scattered over an area roughly twice the size of the continental United States floating just north of Hawai‘i. This summer he plans to film the pristine waters of the remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands, providing a visual counterpoint to the plastic-choked seas of the North Pacific. “Films like this will allow us to give back,” he says. For him, a film that can inspire people by bringing into focus the spectacular beauty of the ocean, a beauty that we’re at risk of losing, is really what his craft is about. “Sometimes it’s right in front of us, but we just can’t see it,” he explains. “Mother Nature is so beautiful. That’s what keeps me going.”