Mike Prickett not only served as director of photography on 100 foot wavebut her own story is so intertwined with big-wave surfing that it’s even featured in episode five of the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary series.
“In the world of ocean cinematography, Mike Prickett has been at the forefront,” big wave pioneer and series subject Garrett McNamara says during the episode. Surfing cinematographer Brock Ladd goes on to describe the DP as a “legend in the surfing community”.
Prickett resides on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii and has been filming surfing for nearly four decades while compiling credits on movies including Pursuing the Mavericks and Enter the liquid. Along the way, he developed techniques and camera systems to capture these unique moments and overcame his own personal challenge. Prickett was filming in Tahiti in 2012 when another diver was caught in a downdraft, nearly 220 feet below the surface. As described in 100 foot wave, Prickett rescued the diver, but they ran out of air during an emergency ascent, subjecting Prickett to the bends and leaving him partially paralyzed. Today, he uses crutches to get around, but doesn’t hesitate to get in the water with his camera.
For the Chris Smith-barred 100 foot wavePrickett earned his first Emmy nomination (with cinematographer Laurent Pujol for episode four, “Dancing With God”) and shows no loss of passion for surfing or getting jaw-dropping footage. of these athletes in action.
While filming for the series began in 2019, it involved filming long before. “I grew up with Garrett and filmed him throughout his career,” says Prickett, noting that the series incorporates footage from earlier moments in McNamara’s career. “We had a lot of archival footage before we started the movie.”
Lens 100 foot wave, both from shore and in the water, took place in Nazaré, Portugal, as well as surf destinations in Tahiti and Hawaii. The main camera was a Red Monstro, shooting 8K Vista Vision with a range of Canon and Zeiss lenses, as well as vintage Leica lenses. The team also used a Phantom Flex 4K camera for high-speed photography.
“We had guys on jet skis with cameras – a driver and then a cameraman,” Prickett says, adding that they sometimes jumped off jet skis and filmed while swimming in the waves. “We also invented a new gyro-stabilized gimbal that we mounted on the back of a Jet Ski, and it was remote-controlled,” he explains, noting that this gimbal (co-developed by Prickett’s Salt + Air Studios , ShotOver, and Immortal Camera Systems) was “up to the size of a basketball” and waterproof. “We could drive it into the waves and control it from about 2 miles away. We could get into some really crazy positions and capture [it all] relatively safe.
Security, of course, is paramount, and Prickett explains that every cinematographer had a security team. “In Nazaré the surfers themselves really have to have two or three security teams for each rider because when they come in sometimes the Jet Ski breaks down and they have to have a team to save the team.”
They also wore safety suits, which are featured in the series. “Basically you have a life jacket. On the outside of the life jacket you have another jacket which contains CO2 cartridges. It will inflate, then you can also let the air out, in case you want to dive under it to avoid the impact of the wave. Safety suits can keep you from getting knocked out and allow you to float. Having a float suit is the key to survival.
Ultimately, Prickett loves being in the waves with the surfers. “When they got pounded, you got pounded,” he says. “It was like a team. We would make sure they are safe after each wave. And they would make sure you’re safe after a big hit. It’s exciting to swim in big waves.
This story first appeared in an August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.