Issue 7.6: December 2004/January 2005

Shooting the Tube

by Derek Ferrar

Don King—not the scare-haired boxing promoter but the storied surf cinematographer of the same name—floats in small waves off a West O‘ahu beach, his waterproof camera housing pressed to his eye as he films a young actress pretending to surf. Treading water nearby, superstar lifeguard and stunt coordinator Brian Keaulana and his crew make sure the Las Vegas-bred actress looks the surfer part without doing anything dangerous, like actually catching a wave. Later, the shot will be intercut with footage of pro surfer Rochelle Ballard, doubling for the actress in an identical bikini, for a scene in FOX’s Hawai‘i-based prime-time soap North Shore.

Don King's classic images include
Gerry Lopez at Pipeline circa 1986.

It’s a familiar setting these days for King, who has become the go-to guy for the in-the-wave action shots that have been hot in Hollywood since the surfer-girl hit Blue Crush (which showcased King’s water footage). With no fewer than four network TV series currently filming in Hawai‘i, King is being gone to a lot—he’s also shooting for ABC’s Lost and the WB’s Rocky Point, and his film credits range from Tom Hanks’ Castaway to the Bond flick Die Another Day.

"Don is amazing as an artist," says Patrick Norris, an episode director for North Shore. "I don’t think anyone else can capture the ocean stuff like he can."

"He’s the Tiger Woods of the water photography world," agrees surf-stunt master Keaulana, who regularly teams up with King on shoots.

One thing that earns King such raves is his mellow personality—in a type-A industry, he’s renowned for keeping his cool. Another is his sheer water sense and athletic ability—tall and lanky, he was once a competitive swimmer and college water-polo player and has long been a top-notch bodysurfer. It’s that watersports background, he says, that allows him to bob nonchalantly at the ground zero of huge, punishing waves, holding his shot until the last possible second before diving to avoid the surfer’s slashing fins and the wave’s crushing lip. That kind of photography, King says rather understatedly, "is a challenge that brings you totally into the moment, because you have to focus so completely. It’s like doing a sport, but it’s also an art and a craft, all at the same time."

And then there’s King’s legendary eye for the shot. "Don has an uncanny ability to hit the button only when it’s magic," says jai Mansson, who works with King often as assistant cameraman. "He’s like a Zen master." For his own part, King says he strives always "to set a new standard in water photography. I love getting in the tube, whether I’m bodysurfing or filming, and I love to get pictures that can share the feeling of being in big, powerful waves."

Now forty-four, King still remembers the thrill of getting his first picture published—a cover shot for Surfing magazine—when he was just fifteen. "I was a sophomore at Punahou School," he recalls, "and my friend and I missed an assembly or something to go surfing. We went out to a secret spot, and the waves were perfect. This one beautiful blue wave came, and it barreled right over both of us. He was in the back of the tube, with this big blue curtain surrounding him, and I was completely inside it with him. At that time, you really didn’t see shots like that, and when the magazine came out, I was just so stoked, it was unbelievable. When you’re in high school, there’s nothing cooler than that."

He continued contributing to surf magazines through high school and then college at Stanford. He spent half the college year in classes and the other half shooting surfing in Hawai‘i and Indonesia. Eventually, he graduated with a psychology degree, although by that time he knew he’d already found his calling. "I just wanted to hang out and shoot waves," he says. "If I made enough money at it to get by, I was happy. So I spent my twenties taking pictures of surfers and enjoying life."

He became a staff photographer for Surfing, and his wide-angle shots from deep in the tube at Pipeline helped define the magazine’s look in the early ’80s. King’s work got even more dramatic when he started using a new kind of camera housing that could be operated with only one hand. A friend of King’s had originally made the housing for a photographer with only one arm. "He kept saying I had to try it," King recalls. "I was skeptical, because I thought you needed two hands to hold the camera steady. But I started using it, and I realized that holding the camera with just one hand meant that you could extend your arm out into the tube to get these incredible angles. And you had the other hand to help you pull through the wave at the last moment. That, along with using a fisheye lens in the tube, really revolutionized surf photography."

Over time—beginning with a job shooting a surfing contest at Sunset Beach for NBC—King switched from still photography to film work. Around 1990, he became the main movie cameraman for the surf-clothing giant Quiksilver, which sent him on dream trips to places like Sri Lanka, South Africa, the Maldives, Fiji and Tahiti. Probably the most memorable, he says, is the time he spent aboard the Indies Trader, a converted salvage tub that is legendary in surfing circles for the exploits of its colorful Aussie skipper Martin Daly, a modern-day Captain Cook of surf discovery. King tagged along as Daly explored a new surfing area in Indonesia—a remote, malaria-ridden maze of islands off the coast of Sumatra called the Mentawais, where the inhabitants still lived and dressed according to tribal custom, and the Indian Ocean waves were off the charts.

"It turned out to be one of the greatest surfing areas in the world," King says, "and Martin was always finding spots that had never been ridden before. I remember on one trip we surfed twenty-three different spots on eighteen different islands, with no one else around."

photo: Tom Servais

Toward the end of the ’90s, King started spending more time on mainstream movie projects. Camera work he did on the big-screen surfing sequel Endless Summer II led to a job filming the water scenes for Castaway. Then came Blue Crush, a movie built around King’s footage.

"One of the things I really liked about Blue Crush," he says, "is that we were able to show what it’s like to be out there in some big waves, and what it’s like to be a surfer. Sure, you can look at the film if you’re a hardcore surfer and say it’s a bit corny, but we filmed some of the best women’s surfing at Pipeline ever."

Another memorable project was the opening sequence to Die Another Day, in which 007 and two other agents ostensibly surf a huge wave toward the shore of North Korea. In reality, it was tow-in surfing pioneers Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner and Dave Kalama riding fifty-foot faces at Jaws on Maui, replete with commando wetsuits, phony night-vision goggles and rubber machine guns.

Originally, the script called for two of the surfers to wipe out, leaving only Bond to reach shore. "And at Jaws," King says, "you don’t want to wipe out. It’s definitely not something you practice." Nonetheless, he says, the surfers "did these incredible wipeouts where they almost died—and in the end, the director wound up not using any of the wipeouts. But still, the sequence was really spectacular. That was a great job."

King is particularly proud of a recent project, Stacy Peralta’s big-wave surfing documentary Riding Giants, which this year became the first documentary ever to open the Sundance Film Festival. The film features King’s footage of tow-in avatar Hamilton surfing sixty-foot beasts at Jaws. "It was one of the best swells there ever," King remembers. "Perfect, perfect waves, and super huge. Riding Giants is a really entertaining, well-made film, and the stuff we shot that day is some of the most amazing surfing I’ve ever been part of. It still takes my breath away."

While much of the work he does now for feature films and TV is considerably less adrenaline-inducing than filming a big session at Jaws or Pipeline, King says he enjoys the challenge of weaving shots together to fit a storyline. But most of all, he says, he appreciates that the work allows him to stay closer to his family. "I’m at a point in my life, with three kids, that I’m actually happier to be at home," he says. "I used to spend six months of the year on the road, but now I get to spend more time with my family than most dads, and that’s really precious to me."

King still daydreams about getting the perfect shot on the perfect wave. "The reason I’ll always want to film surfers on big, beautiful waves," he says, "is the feeling I get when I’m swimming in the surf. I feel like I totally belong out there, completely at home. Between sets, I’ll just float on my back, looking at the sky and thinking about what a beautiful day it is and how lucky I am to be there. And then the next moment I’ll be swimming for my life to get away from a wave that’s about to break on me. That’s what I love, and sharing that feeling with an audience is my passion."