Pipeline, Waimea and Peahi; Teahupoo, Mavericks and Nazare: Mike Prickett's favorite waves have little in common: two radically shallow reefs, a few deepwater spots and an unpredictable beach break scattered across the planet in waters both tropical and frigid. He's filmed each of these spots (and many others) from virtually every possible angle: above and below water; from boats, jet skis and helicopters; from sea level and perched on cliffs. And he's done it for forty years and counting.
"I grew up shooting Pipeline and Waimea, but each of these waves requires a different approach to film properly, so I like them all equally, just for different reasons," he says. But their one similarity keeps his bags packed and his eye on the weather radar: "They are the craziest, biggest, most dangerous waves in the world. For both the surfers and the cameramen, especially the cameramen who are going to be in the water, when you see a red blob or a big black blob on the surf forecast and realize that the waves are going to be 80 to 120 feet, your heart just drops down to your feet, and you just go into a mental zone of preparing yourself for the day you're going to have. It's the excitement of those really big waves and the surfers who are pushing themselves harder than ever that keeps me coming back."
Traveling the world with a mountain of camera equipment takes a level of commitment that few can sustain over time, but Prickett has given the majority of his life to this semi-nomadic existence, maintaining a home base on Oahu while chasing huge waves and the humans who ride them. The surf industry is built on a foundation of imagery: stills and video; surfers with GoPros in their mouths; photographers following specific surfers to feed the shrinking pool of print media and theaters and the ever-rising sea of social media. In these waters swim the apex photographers who've been at it for decades and are known wherever they go. Prickett is one of them, and last fall his commitment to the chase was honored with an Emmy award for his work on the HBO docuseries 100 Foot Wave, which chronicles the quest of a handful of surfers, led by Oahu's Garrett McNamara, to find and ride the world's largest wave.
Mike Prickett, seen above left accepting an Emmy Award for the HBO docudrama 100 Foot Wave last September, has a hard-won reputation for tackling some of the heaviest ocean conditions. “Surfers are pushing themselves harder than ever because now they have flotation vests and jet skis and all these things that we didn’t have a long time ago,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for forty years and everything is still exciting to me.” Opening spread right: Prickett filming sharks with Juan and Ocean Ramsey on the North Shore of Oahu.
100 Foot Wave's producers hired Prickett as their director of photography based on his work on the 2012 biopic Chasing Mavericks, which recounted the brief life of Northern California surfer Jay Moriarity. It also helped that Prickett had been filming McNamara since he was a North Shore grom (young surfer)-Prickett already had much of "G-Mac's" backstory in the can. But the folks at HBO could just as well have seen any number of projects Prickett's been involved with. 100 Foot Wave is his first prime-time Emmy, but he'd previously won a Sports Telly in 2008 for Down the Barrel, one of dozens of feature-length surf movies he's worked on-Riding Giants, Step into Liquid, Blue Horizon and Day of Days among them. He was also for many years the primary videographer for contests run by the Association of Surfing Professionals (now the World Surf League). Throughout his career he'd earned a reputation for swimming into some of the heaviest conditions while carrying some of the heaviest equipment-things like a 150-pound, million-dollar IMAX 3-D camera used to film Ultimate Wave Tahiti.
He's also one of a handful of surf cinematographers who has broken into the mainstream. In addition to Chasing Mavericks and earlier work on films like X-Men 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean, since founding his Salt+Air Studios production company in 2016, Prickett and his crew have filmed in Tahiti for Point Break 2, worked on the television reboots of Hawaii Five-0 and Magnum PI, and dozens of other projects large and small. These days, if you're watching anything that involves anyone in or under salt water, it's a fair bet Prickett was somewhere nearby.
"From when I was a kid growing up in Hawaii Kai, surfing was always my passion," he says when asked what the ocean means to him. "I paddled canoes in high school, and then I paddled for Hui Nalu and did the Molokai to Oahu races and I even paddled a lot in Tahiti. After I got injured way back in a car accident, they told me to swim for a recovery. So I put a camera in a water housing and began shooting, and that's how I started my whole career-so yeah, the ocean's been a big part of my life, and it still is. I couldn't live away from it, that's for sure."
Spend enough time in the ocean and you'll come to realize that it is neither friend nor foe. It's not out to kill you, though it easily can. It's not waiting to heal you, though it often will. It rewards skill and experience, but even the most knowledgeable can suffer terrible twists of fate. Prickett knows this as well as anyone: The ocean has given him everything-and taken nearly as much.
The accident that launched his career-a horrific car wreck that left him with multiple breaks in his legs and an uncertain future-took place on land. This was in the early days of water photography, when waterproof housings were not easily available. So Prickett designed and built his own. Swimming with those early, bulky camera setups started as rehab for his shattered legs but ended up giving him a vocation for the next few decades. But then came another accident.
In 2012, shortly after wrapping production on Chasing Mavericks, Prickett was contracted to do an underwater commercial shoot at Tiputa Pass, a narrow but deep channel through the fringing reef of Rangiroa, an atoll northeast of Tahiti. A strong current was pulling out to sea with the ebbing tide, and among those in the water that day was an inexperienced diver.
Prickett took up surf photography at a time when waterproof housings weren’t readily available. So he built his own and over the decades has continued to create new tools. The equipment room of his production company, Salt + Air Studios, is a floor-to-ceiling history of innovation that includes the custom water housing, built to withstand the force of Tahiti’s Teahupoo while filming Point Break 2. Above, Prickett shoots beneath a wave in Tahiti.
"I was filming, and there was a guy in trouble," Prickett recalls. "He was stuck in an eight-knot down current, just going deeper and deeper fast. So I swam down, and when I got to him we were past 220 feet. He had no air and was in a complete panic. I shared my air with him and swam him out of the down current, but at about one hundred feet we ran out of air completely and had to do an emergency ascent."
When divers ascend from depth without pausing to allow compressed gasses in the blood to dissipate, they risk decompression sickness: Gas bubbles can form in virtually any part of the body, causing symptoms from rashes to extreme joint pain (a.k.a. the bends), paralysis and even death. The treatment is either to immediately dive back to depth and ascend with decompression stops or to artificially re-create the underwater environment using a hyperbaric chamber-technology that isn't usually available in remote areas. The other diver walked away from his rapid ascent without lasting impacts, but Prickett was not so lucky.
"Once I got to the surface, I knew we were in big trouble. While I was trying to get more tanks to go back down, I was talking to my nephew and remember telling him that I couldn't feel my feet. Then my eyes rolled back and I went unconscious." When he woke a minute or so later, he could no longer feel his legs; returning to the ocean was not an option. "If we could have gone straight to a decompression chamber, I would have been fine, but the closest one was in Papeete, on Tahiti, and it took us six hours to get a plane-I remember it was an emergency plane that flew really low over the water so they wouldn't get any pressure change going up to altitude."
By the time he reached Papeete, Prickett was paralyzed from the chest down. "I couldn't move anything. They would just roll me over on my bed every four hours and flop me back and forth so I didn't get bedsores." At his bedside was Baptiste Gossein, who had worked as a safety swimmer for Prickett a few years earlier when he was filming The Ultimate Wave Tahiti. "He would help me hold the camera, pulling it through the big waves at Teahupoo. The day after I finished that movie, he broke his back and was completely paralyzed from the waist down. So he was at my bedside in Tahiti when they were flopping me over, and he was just talking to me, telling me how he coped with being paraplegic." While they were talking, Gossein saw one of Prickett's toes move.
Prickett is renowned for his willingness to go to great lengths—and depths—to get new angles. “When the surf is up I usually shoot from a jet ski,” he says. “But I’ve also built special camera mounts to go on the front of these SEABOB scooters; I do water stuff, and then I do land stuff and then I also do helicopter and drone stuff.” Above, Prickett shoots underwater for 100 Foot Wave.
"So then I tried as hard as I could, and I could slightly move my toe. From then on I worked really hard to do everything I could to get better-it gave me a little bit of hope."
Prickett eventually regained the use of his upper body, but eleven years later he still has no feeling in his legs. Through years of rehabilitation and force of will he no longer uses a wheelchair and gets around on crutches. "I'm a little slower than an average person," he says, "but since I go on my crutches every day, I get stronger and stronger." A while back he took up golf, which has helped. "I try to play three times a week," he says. "It's hard to really enjoy rehab, but I found something that helps me." He also credits his daughter, Mira Chloe Prickett, and four-year-old granddaughter, Bella, with giving him the will to keep trying-Bella often tags along when he's golfing, and pushes him to walk the course.
"Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think, 'I want to go surf,' and then realize, 'Oh, shoot, that's right. I'm paralyzed," he says. "Being paralyzed plays a mind game on you: It takes years to accept it and learn how to live with it-I'm still dealing with it."
Still dealing with it but also still working, which has led Prickett back to his early days of creating tools where none existed before. What began as innovation born of necessity has opened up new frontiers in cinematography. Prickett still regularly shoots from a helicopter, occasionally also from the back of a jet ski, and swims out with a camera when the need arises, though he admits he can't swim as well as he used to. He also continues to shoot underwater, using a specialized tool he helped to develop. "Just this morning I was designing another water housing, because I'm going to Palau next week to film some underwater, Planet Earth-type stuff for the BBC," he says. "I have these James Bond-type scooters that go underwater. I put a camera in front and I can go 20 knots"-roughly 23 miles per hour-"and I can go down to 140 feet deep on a breath hold, then come flying up out of the water, just like it was a dolphin with a camera on the front of it."
One of Prickett’s favorite subjects is big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara of the Red Bull Jaws event on Maui), who once held the record for the largest wave ever ridden—seventy-eight feet—at Nazaré in 2011. He later broke that record with a one hundred-foot wave, also at Nazaré, in 2013. Above, “G-Mac” makes a macker at Nazaré.
Another innovation proved especially useful while working on 100 Foot Wave. Gimbals have been around for years, used to stabilize moving cameras and keep a shot from bouncing all over the screen. But Prickett found a way to take it to the next level. "We built a gyro-stabilized gimbal that goes on the back of a jet ski," he says. "So I could be a mile away, up on the cliff at Nazare, directing the jet-ski driver to go down a wave while I control the camera, the focus and everything else, to shoot from a surfer's perspective dropping down the wave. That's never been done before."
Prickett believes this new angle was key to winning the Emmy, but 100 Foot Wave has a lot going for it. Like most extreme athletes, big-wave surfers are driven by internal forces that make for compelling narratives. Even by those standards, Garrett McNamara's story stands apart for its sheer drama: son of an heiress-turned-cult member, growing up first in a West Coast commune and then wild on the North Shore. Taking up big wave surfing to emerge from the shadow of younger brother Liam, who was for a time one of the best-known (and most notorious) names in professional surfing. Holding the record for riding the world's largest wave, then losing that record, then nearly losing everything and starting all over again. Spoiler alert? Nah. This is just the beginning.
While he’s best known for his work in bringing huge waves to screens large and small, commercial shoots are the stock-in-trade for Prickett’s production company. On a job for Davidoff in Tahiti (seen above) he deployed another custom-designed gimbal camera.
Beyond all of this, there's the wave itself. "The wind at Nazare is so strong that sometimes a human being can't stand up in it," says Prickett. "The water is cold and brown, which means that you can't dive under it and see where you're going. The shore break is also huge-it just comes together and breaks all over the place. And it dredges up all this plastic-fishing nets and other debris-that gets sucked up into the jet ski. So anytime you're inside, the ski can just stall and you'll be swimming in gigantic waves. That happens more often than not, so we have a backup safety jet ski for the backup safety jet ski."
As one example, Prickett tells the story of Laurent Pujol, another well-known cinematographer who worked on 100 Foot Wave. At one point, while going over the back of a wave, the wind caught a safety sled being towed behind the jet ski and hurled it into the back of Pujol's head, setting off a chain reaction that resulted in Pujol losing a few teeth. "There's a lot of little moving things that happen there in the water-everything can be going fine, and then suddenly there's a lot of drama and you're swimming for your life." On top of this, there is hardware to care for: The jet-ski gimbals cost around $500,000 apiece, and on any given day there is somewhere in the range of $2 million worth of equipment in the water, on land and in the air. Drama.
These days Prickett is busier than ever. Following the BBC shoot in Palau, he will be at home for the winter and spring working on the annual Backdoor Shootout at Pipeline and the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay ... assuming the conditions for the latter contest come together to provide a full day of surf in the twenty-foot-plus range-that is, twenty-foot on the Hawaiian scale, which the rest of the world measures at upward of sixty feet.
For 100 Foot Wave, Prickett directed roughly a dozen cinematographers. “This is the first bigger TV show that I’ve worked on as a director of photography, doing the whole shebang, since my accident,” he says, referring to getting the bends in Tahiti in 2012. “Ten years ago, in the hospital in Tahiti, I thought, ‘Man, it’s over for me.’ But you just never know—you can be injured and still be on top.” On the facing page, Prickett’s own photo of his nephew and protégé, Ryan Miyamoto, shooting a Hyundai commercial on Oahu in 2017.
Whether or not the Eddie runs, there will be no lack of big waves to shoot. This year Prickett is embarking on a new venture with Red Bull and the online forecasting site Surfline to live-stream the biggest days, wherever and whenever they happen. "With forecasting being what it is today, we get a call fifteen days out: 'Hey, the swell's coming.' When the waves get between twenty and one hundred feet anywhere in the world, within ten days we're on our way. We get there before the waves do and then shoot it live. ... It's kind of like what the World Surf League does with professional contests: We're doing live broadcasts but no contest-just shooting local people surfing big waves at their home breaks." The draw being that these local people, though not always recognized for it, are some of the best surfers in the world. And their home breaks are some of the most recognizable waves around-something that Prickett's quick to note, given the surf world's extreme sensitivity when it comes to exposing local waves to global masses. "We're not shooting secret spots, only the well-known places like Peahi, Waimea or Mavericks."
Meanwhile, G-Mac is also still hunting his big blue whale: The third season of 100 Foot Wave is looming, and Prickett will be there when Nazare comes back to life, knowing better than most the risks and rewards of clocking in at one of the world's most dangerous job sites. "Sometimes when you're out there, Mother Nature is so vicious that you just know if something goes wrong you'll be in big trouble," he says. "When nothing goes wrong and you're out of that zone, there's just a big sigh of relief. And when something does go wrong, you're immediately at death's door: You're just holding your breath because you never know what Mother Nature is going to do to you. On those days it's just extreme excitement and fear followed by relief, and hopefully at the end of the day, you're just proud of what wave you rode or what shot you got."