What exactly is action sports cinematography?
Well I’d say what makes it unique is that it often is a physical (dare I say) athletic pursuit in its own right. Depending on the subject matter, an action sports cinematographer needs to put him/herself right in the action with their subject.
To paint a bit of a picture: for me this often means swimming out through a cascade of white water, navigating a shifting field of detonating wave impacts, fighting prevailing ocean currents, all to situate myself in an ideal position to capture a surfer performing on an ever-changing ‘playing-field’ of the ocean. And let’s not forget, I’m doing all this while dragging a big metal ‘can’ with a digital cinema camera inside it. My only method of movement is with my flippers and a single arm free at any point. When attempting to ‘get the shot’ you have to be careful not to get completely smashed by incoming waves, other surfers, or even the surfer you are shooting as they rip past you. I’d say sharks rarely enter my mind when in the ocean, but sometimes while shooting up near San Francisco, it can’t help but sneak into my thoughts.
So with the above description in mind, it leads me to describe action sports cinematography as part documentary, part dance, and part sport in itself. Yet, the whole inspiration of doing this is to somehow convey a bit of what the experience really is for a surfer, skater, snowboarder, etc. I try to capture some of their transcendent experience for the rest of us.
How did you get into action sport cinematography?
My experience getting into video production in general was inextricably linked to my deep passion for participating in action sports myself. I grew up in Minnesota, where I spent my summers wakeboarding and challenging myself to progress my abilities. Winters were for skiing and snowboarding. In college I found a great crew of other wakeboarders and snowboarders, and documenting our exploits on video and photos was all a part of our mode of operating. Through these friends I learned how accessible the tools of filmmaking were. I became hooked on telling stories and documenting action through moving images. Fast forward 15 years, and I’ve long-since moved to California and replaced wakeboarding with a deep passion for surfing. In the meantime I’ve been fortunate to make a living doing video and film production. Spending countless hours in the ocean outside of work, I would experience these beautiful moments that are truly hard to convey to someone who did not experience them first-hand. I wanted to capture some sense of these moments, so I merged my passions, put a perfectly good camera into a little metal box and threw myself into the ocean with the goal of doing just that.
What is a typical shoot like? Run us through a day in the life.
Like most shoots, preparation is key. Especially when considering that an improperly sealed waterhousing would result in a breach causing salt water to pour into an expensive camera. Gear maintenance, a routine and double-checking everything is very important for surf cinematography specifically.
Being embedded in the sport and culture is also very important. For beautiful surfing to occur, the right conditions must be present. Therefore I must align the swell size and direction, the wind, the tides, the proper surf spot, the surfer to shoot with, and also consider lighting and angle. On top of this, surfing is a somewhat closed culture. There is a scarcity of resources: waves. This means there are secret spots, localism and a sometimes intense etiquette at a given ‘spot.’ This might mean that a camera is not welcome at certain spots, or one must be careful not to name or identify a spot. Wave location and knowledge are sometimes guarded information.
So as we can see, there really isn’t a “typical day.” Shooting surfing is like surfing itself; you are at the mercy of nature, trying to dance along with it for a moment of bliss. I seek to capture that bliss. You have to be embedded in the lifestyle, put the time in, and eventually you will be rewarded.
How do you choose subjects to work with?
Once again there is no substitute for being a part of “the scene.” I’ve most often met talented surfers by just being out in the water with my camera. Perhaps I’ll just film a random guy or gal as they glide past and then strike up a conversation as they paddle back out. Professional surfers are usually keen to get more footage and even talented amateurs are often excited to see what their waves actually look like. So I try to work with people that I’ve met that surf well, but also show an enthusiasm and positivity for what I do: capturing some of the “poetry” of surfing.
What’s your favorite part of shooting action sports?
My favorite part is bringing home just a little bit of the fleeting magic we experience communing with the beauty and intensity of nature. While surfing, your mind goes into some other place, the wave is changing constantly and you need to adapt. All the while each passing moment presents an absolutely breath-taking view. To be able to capture that, revisit that, and share it with others is a real joy.
Scott is a filmmaker with a passion for the ocean. He works on a range of projects from documentary films to commercial production. He loves to capture the poetry of surfing. He is finishing a 22-minute documentary, Resurrection Artist, about a surfer’s death, resuscitation and miraculous recovery. A recent credit highlight is as editor and co-writer for the feature documentary on Robin Williams, Robin’s Wish, which was released September 2020. He was also editor on The United States of Detroit which has won three Best Documentary awards and screened at over 12 festivals in 2018.