Mike Stewart and Making It Big In Hollywood
The Godfather of bodyboarding spills the beans on one of his other talents
Article provided by publishing partner Riptide
Story by Michael Saunders
There is no question that Mike Stewart is a man of many, many talents. Not only is he quite simply the greatest bodyboarder of all time, a renowned bodysurfer and knowledgeable businessman. But he is also an highly regarded motion photographer, with many of Hollywood's biggest studios enlisting the services of Stewart to get that perfect water shot that only very few can do right.
With the cinematic release of the remake to cult surfing film Point Break (which could possibly include some of Stewart's footage - he is not entirely certain), Riptide Magazine decided to get in touch with The Godfather of bodyboarding to find out more about a growing industry that he helped establish.
RT: How did you first get into surf cinematography?
MS: If you open up the first edition of Bodyboarding Magazine there is a picture of me standing there with a camera helmet on. That was for a movie my friends Tom Boyle and Don King were working on called “Shock Waves”. It was my first taste of shooting and I got pretty into it. I am quite a technical and mechanically inclined person and I am really interested in how things work. Photography and cameras are really interesting to me. We used this high speed 16mm “gun" camera that was used for recording aircraft dog fights. It was compact, really old and pretty heavy. There was also a battery pack that was about the same size and weight on the opposite side of the helmet. The idea I guess was to balance it out, but the whole contraption just ended up being cumbersome and dangerous. It was super gnarly to have this much weight on my pencil neck and worse yet I don’t think any of the footage ended up being usable because of some mechanical glitches in the camera. But that was my first introduction to POV (point of view) shooting in waves.
RT: Fast forward to 2001, you played a pretty big role in the filming for Blue Crush, how did that come about?
MS: The Blue Crush film crew were in town and needed to use the Pipeline break for filming, and I was able to use some of the time we had from our competition permit. So they’re like, “great, we’ve got the time to shoot but we don’t have anyone who can shoot.” I looked around me and nobody was there so I’m like, “I’ll do it”. They said okay and I went out and shot. I had a really good assistant camera guy setting it all up for me. All I had to do was go out and get the camera in the right spot and pull the trigger. I got some really good shots and they were really excited about it and said, “can you do more?” and I said, “sure”. Don King, who is renowned as the top guy for shooting these types of things, was going through some personal issues and wasn’t able to be at all the shoots all the time and so he encouraged me and the producers to help fill in for him and help coach me.
RT: What was it like to be all of a sudden involved in a big-time Hollywood production?
MS: It was a crazy new world for me. I was working with most of the principle actresses and, in many cases, directing them in the water. I had absolutely no experience communicating with actresses like this but I did know what I was talking about in the water. It was also a lot of fun working alongside friends and guys I would surf the North Shore with on any given swell. So what started out as just doing a few shots for them, in the end turned into me basically having my own small unit and directing shots. It was very productive, I was able to speak to the director frequently, explain my ideas, he would give me the green light, and then I would pull guys that I needed to assist me. We were rigging stuff up and making it all up as we went. It was pretty funny what we could do with some cameras and duct tape. We were totally experimenting but after a few goes we had it down to a science where we could mount up a board pretty quickly with duct tape just to get shots where the actors are paddling, duck diving, all that kind of stuff. In some cases we would develop fixtures on the spot and I would just go and get these little stitching shots I could think of. Shots like the transition of getting up towing, shooting the hands on the tow line grip, the POV behind the tow line, anything I thought would be interesting or cool and I could get the compact yet hefty 35mm behind.
"It was pretty funny what we could do with some cameras and duct tape. We were totally experimenting but after a few goes we had it down to a science where we could mount up a board pretty quickly..."
This was a whole new world for me to explore. Towards the end of the job I was honored by the director of photography giving me an offer to be in the film union, but I wasn’t ready to change my profession (laughs). It was a pretty amazing experience for me. What I guess the takeaway from all of this is that I spent all this time developing my skills in the water and only because I had climbed that ladder to a certain level that I could then transfer that knowledge and get shots like that. It's an example of this idea of progressing forward using what you’ve learned and applying it to the next thing you can apply it to. So this was photography in the surf.
We also went out on some really big days. I remember one time I went out during the Eddie (a prestigious big wave surf contest at Waimea Bay) and I said to the guys, “let’s get some shots of the waves breaking.” It was 15 to 20 feet and we’re out there trying to get shots off the back of jet skis. I was strapped up with the ski driver and so if something went wrong then it would probably have got real bad for both of us. But I had ultimate trust in Brian Keaulana and his water safety crew. You put your life their hands and you feel fairly confident about it. All these guys also knew I could handle myself in the surf if it came to that so it made their job easier.
RT: What happened after Blue Crush wrapped up?
MS: It kind of opened the door for me. Don (King) and Brian (Keaulana, renowned stuntman) hooked me up on a lot of different jobs. They plugged me in big time. If there was a big job that came up, and it was a situation where it is going to be in big surf with a lot at stake, then I had a good chance of being involved. I guess I kind of built a reputation of making sure I got the shot and I feel pretty confident in the waves and I can get the camera where it needs to go to. And even if they are not exactly what they were after, I feel confident that I can get good images that will work. That was kind of the case with the Apple shoot we did a couple of years back at Teahupoo. This was for Final Cut Pro and part of the feature with this program was its ability to link multiple cameras. I think they had seven different angles going all at once including a helicopter. We didn’t have the best waves and they really wanted to get a barrel shot. It was so hard to line up let alone having to deal with turning on and off the camera with about a 10 second load time to conserve the battery long enough that I wasn’t the one operator of the seven that had to stop the shoot. When Teahupoo is in between sizes, it will sometimes break on the inside shelf and other times on the outside shelf. It is really tricky to line up in a way so that you can score the shot. None of the waves were deep barrels where you can get into there and lock in with the surfer in the barrel. But I did eventually get one where I got in under the lip. This shot ultimately ended up on the stage of the Apple conference.
RT: Is there anything in the works?
MS: There is discussion of a couple things coming up. I was going to do another BBC shoot in South Africa but they ended up using (Sacha) Specker I think for that, that’s kind of cool. On one hand I’m like oh man that’s a bummer because I really wanted to work on that. But I’m stoked that another bodyboarder is going to do it. It has developed into this thing where a few guys have taken the cue I might have initiated and are inking out some money from it. That’s killer and makes me stoked.
GoPros have made the POV shot look fairly common place. A lot of companies can use them and just juice the image in post. However if you want super high res and high speed you still need a bigger rig that still requires a bigger camera to pilot.
My jobs are basically by word of mouth, I don’t really solicit it which works fine for me. It is not something I want to be doing 24/7. I do one or two big jobs a year and that’s good for me. It pays good and I get to work with my friends.
"I was stuck way on the inside and I couldn’t duck dive deep enough because I had this big fricken camera. The waves just rapidly sucked me over and rag-dolled me on the inside while the camera, which was attached by my Gyroll leash, was swinging around and I was preying the thing wouldn't turn into a wrecking ball and slam into me."
RT: What has been the scariest situation you have been in while shooting?
MS: The whole VISA/Pizza Hut commercial was pretty much my technical limit as far as what I think can do. It was a pretty good size out at Teahupoo and it was pretty hairy. I got into a couple situations where I didn’t know if I was going to get out of it. The shot they were trying to get was looking out of the barrel with Kolohe (Andino) still in the barrel looking looking over his shoulder at his phone to try and put in his pizza order. We actually got the wave on a smaller test day but the camera malfunctioned. The actual day we went to film it had got bigger and a little bit more sketchy and it was harder to get the shot. It was about eight foot and was not super predictable and draining like on the big days so it was pretty tricky to figure out.
Basically the plan was I would take off in front of Kolohe and then I would stall and let him pass me in the barrel, get the shot, then try and speed up and get out of there before the wave surges and closes over the dry reef on the inside. We got a really good sized wave, and Kolohe passed underneath me fine, I tracked him with the camera and got a shot but then it started to get tight, He slowed down and I ended up riding onto his tail. I needed to then find a way out. On most waves you can straighten out long enough to get out of the impact zone but at Teahupoo that place it is super gnarly because you basically go right into the death zone on the inside. To make things worse, right where I would go to straighten out there was Raimana (van Bastolaer, legendary Tahitian waterman) riding a jet ski with a big camera probably worth a million dollars on the back. The whole apparatus had metal scaffolding on it so if you ran into that with speed you would most likely get killed. So I was in this predicament where I was cruising behind Kolohe, I couldn’t go left or stall because I would get tangled up with him and get sucked over the falls and if I went right then I would hit the jet ski. I was riding with a 30 to 40 pound (13kg-18kg) camera inside a big metal box. So I was totally stuck thinking, “frick, how do I get out of this?” I knew things could turn really bad so in a way I just gave up and just relaxed. I disconnected with Kolohe and squeezed out from the barrel with just enough time so I could dive off my board. But then I got utterly smoked by the next wave coming in. I was stuck way on the inside and I couldn’t duck dive deep enough because I had this big fricken camera. The waves just rapidly sucked me over and rag-dolled me on the inside while the camera, which was attached by my Gyroll leash, was swinging around and I was preying the thing wouldn't turn into a wrecking ball and slam into me. But I eventually popped up and was able to make it out okay with the camera in tow.
RT: What has been one of the best moments of working in Hollywood?
MS: I remember I got a call out of the blue from Don (King) who said he is doing a shoot for Chanel, Danny Fuller (professional surfer) is the principal, it is happening in Tahiti next week and if I wanted to come then let him know. I was like, “heck yeah”. I figured it was perfect; I could make some good money, do a quick in and out attack and I get to hang out with Don and the boys. Kathryn Bigelow (Academy award winning director of Hurt Locker) was the director and she put us all on a private jet to Tahiti. It was cool hanging out with Kathryn, in a private jet. I was saying to Don, “who would have thought that 20 or 30 years ago when we were in a tiny little beat up boat in Indonesia filming that we’d one day be in a private jet to Tahiti."
"We had the pick of any wave. If you get the top ten guys of the pecking order all on the payroll then you are going to get waves. I’m not sure how much that would fly these days. It seemed like everybody on the whole North Shore was on the payroll."
Apart from that, the Blue Crush film was an amazing experience. It was all open and it was like “okay what do we do today? Back then they had basically hired all the local surfers from the various spots so when they wanted to take over a break they would simply send out all the locals who were usually out there anyway and take over. We had the pick of any wave. If you get the top ten guys of the pecking order all on the payroll then you are going to get waves. I’m not sure how much that would fly these days. It seemed like everybody on the whole North Shore was on the payroll. It was a unique situation and was before the North Shore got really crowded. I remember one guy telling me, “this place is going to get packed,” and I’m like, “no, I doubt it. It’s the North Shore, it won’t get that crowded.” But sure enough what he said was true. That movie kicked off a whole new era for surfing so on one side I feel a little bad and somewhat responsible for promoting that. But I guess someone was going to do it.
RT: What do you think the next progression is going to be for surf cinematography?
MS: I think you are going to see more of that kind of filming where there are two guys in the barrel with one guy filming the other. Lately I’ve seen Shane Dorian and Jamie O’Brien do it down in Puerto Escondido and John John (Florence) has been teaming up with his brother and getting some sick shots.
RT: Do you think the two persons in a barrel shot was something you started?
MS: I don’t know, I guess I was just working on a different angle but i don’t know if I was the first. I think a bodyboard is a good platform with anything you want to do in the barrel and so filming just fits in with that.
Mike Stewart's Motion Photography Resume
2014 Visa/Pizza Hut Digital
2013 BBC Africa Digitial
2013 Apple computer, Various digital formats
2012 CBS, Amazing Race, Digital
2011 Come Hell or High water theatrical release 16mm
2011 Chanel Watch commercial, 35mm, 16mm
2010 Heart of a Soul Surfer: The Bethany Hamilton Story Theatrical Release 35mm, 16mm
2009 Thomas Campbell’s The Present, theatrical release 16mm
2008-09 Fire: by Scott Carter and Mike Stewart, theatrical release, 35mm, 16mm, video.
2006-2007 Beyond the Break, Television Series 16mm
2005 Boarding School TV series16mm
2005 NBC Jeep series of adventure Molokai canoe Race Camera 16mm
2005 NBC Jeep series of adventure North shore bodysurfing 16mm
2005 NBC Jeep series of adventure Mike Stewart profile: Camera operator format16mm
2004 NBC Jeep series of adventure Hawaii water rescue segment co produced /camera operator16mm
2004 Rocky point Television Series 16mm
2004 North shore, Television series 16mm
2004 Thomas Campbell’s The Sprout, theatrical release 16mm
2004 Coke commercial 16mm
2003 National Geographic, Perfect Storm , Digital Video
2003 PBS Rell Sun documentary, 35mm
2003 The Big Bounce. 35mm
2002 Imagine entertainment The Break TV, 35mm
2001-2002 Universal Pictures, Imagine entertainment, Theatrical Release Blue Crush 35mm
2001 TLC Understanding thrill seekers, National television 16mm
2001 To the edge National television, 16mm
2000 How to series, Outdoor channel, 16mm
1998 Hawaiian moving company, regional television, 16mm
1997 Capri sun National television commercial, 16mm
1995 Sea tech, National television, 16mm
1995 Pontiac, National television commercial, 16mm
1995 Channel two weather, Regional television, 16mm
1995 Mike Stewart web site, 16mm/Video
1995 Extremist: Puerto Escondito, National television, 16mm
1995 Extremist: Follow the swell: National television, 16mm
1995 Hawaii sports final NBC, Regional television, Video
1994 Endless summer the ride- Rocket films, National ride film 70mm
1993 Endless summer, International theatrical/video release, 35 mm
1990 Surfing magazine frame grabs, Video
1990 Bodyboarding magazine frame grabs, Video
1987 Surfers the movie, International video release, 35mm
1986 Shock waves, International theatrical/video release, 16mm
In-Show Host or Actor
2000 Blue Crush
1996 In Gods Hands, Sony pictures
1995 Endless summer II
1990 Surfers the movie
1986 Shock waves
1984 Follow the sun
1999 How to series Bodysurfing, Outdoor channel: Featured athlete, Show host.
1998 How to series Bodyboarding, Outdoor channel: Featured athlete, Show host.
1997 To the edge National television, “Follow the Swell” Featured athlete
1996 Sea tech, National television, “Follow the Swell” Featured athlete
1995 To the edge National television, “Puerto Escondido” Featured athlete
1990 Good morning America
1987 Hawaiian moving company, regional television
2004 NBC Jeep series of adventure Hawaii water rescue segment co produced
2001 – 2002 Universal Pictures/Imagine entertainment, Theatrical release Blue Crush
1998 NBC, Wind on Water, technical advisor.
1997 Kraft foods, Capri sun, technical advisor television commercial
1996 Sony pictures, theatrical release In God Hands, Technical advisor/actor/surfer
1993 Rocket films, Endless summer the ride, Virtual reality ride film
Riptide is a national quarterly mag aimed at bodyboarders the world over. Our focus is bringing together first-class photography, timeless editorial and the world’s best bodyboarding in a slick package that you’re amped to be a part of.
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