Step Into Liquid, a new documentary feature edited and directed by Dana Brown and produced and photographed by John-Paul Beeghly, has gathered more than its share of acclaim from critics and audiences alike. To make the documentary, distributed by Artisan Entertainment, the filmmakers traveled the globe- stopping everywhere from Wisconsin and Hawaii to Easter Island and Vietnam — examining the surfing subculture, its obsessively devoted practitioners, and their quest for the perfect wave. We asked Beeghly to discuss his approach to filmmaking.
On Becoming a Filmmaker:
"We decided to celebrate how big surfing has become since The Endless Summer was made, and to show that the unique and original spirit of surfing lives on even though something like five million people surf today."
I attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I received a double major in film studies and economics. But my opportunity came through my best friend’s father, Mike Hoover, an Oscar -winning director/producer/cameraman. He gave me my first job out of college, which was a few days of work on Endless Summer II. That led me to a job at MacGillivray Freeman Films, where I worked on several IMAX films like the Oscar-nominated The Living Sea. Mike and Greg MacGillivray taught me well, and soon I was working on mainstream Hollywood features like Waterworld, Seven and Hard Rain and plenty of commercials.
On the Genesis of Step Into Liquid:
Dana Brown and I had met on The Endless Summer II and we reconnected years later to produce some smaller surfing projects. The idea for Step Into Liquid came to us while working on one of these projects. We knew that if we did a surf film, it would have to be completely different from The Endless Summer. We decided to celebrate how big surfing has become since The Endless Summer was made, and to show that the unique and original spirit of surfing lives on even though something like five million people surf today. We attempted to create a surf film for this generation instead of trying to recreate something that can never be recreated.
On Improvising in Documentary Filmmaking:
We wrote treatments for the fundraising packages and scripted the film the best we could. But the reality is that, when shooting documentaries, you start with more of an idea of what you want and you leave yourself open to the true story that unfolds. We shot over the course of two years because we needed two Pacific winters to get some of the big-waves sequences we wanted. We knew things would change and develop in the surfing world during that time, so we adopted a couple of new stories during our journey and unfortunately relinquished others. In the end, we basically picked the right surfers and locations that were connected to these surfers, and explored those stories. We didn’t want to implement things much more than that because we really wanted to present surfing and the people who identify themselves as surfers as they really are.
On Shooting On or Around Water:
To make this film we had to solve the physical problems of shooting this watersport in often-challenging locations, the logistical issues of traveling around the world, and the creative elements of capturing personalities of people who aren’t actors. Everything in this film is real, just as we promise. To capture this sport, I knew we’d have to roll a lot of film, and I knew we’d have to get the cameras in positions that are impossible for even 35mm cameras. In the end, we chose the 1.85 aspect ratio and shot a combination of Super 16mm and 24p high definition as the formats, ultimately mastering on 24p. We shot interviews and some wide shots on the HD camera. But the dramatic surfing action is almost entirely shot with film cameras, because surfing must be filmed in slow motion to capture the nuances of such a fast sport. Another reason for shooting Super 16 was to accommodate Jack McCoy and Don King, undoubtedly the best surf camera operators in the world. They use very compact 16mm format cameras that can roll at extremely high frame rates to capture the beautiful, smooth slow motion you see in the film. I also employed an number of boat mounts, helicopter mounts, land camera positions, scaffolding in the water and good old handheld from a boat to capture the majority of images in the film. I used different mounts and applied various techniques to each and every unique surfing environment.