Growing up in California, I’ve always had a thing for surf movies. So when I got the chance to see the latest from Dana Brown (Step into Liquid), it was an easy answer. The movie was shown outdoors, on the Santa Monica Pier which is celebrating its 100 birthday this year.Photo by Rob Kalmbach(Photo by Rob Kalmbach)

Before and at the screening I got a chance to speak with Brown as well as cinematographer  Steve Matzinger. Highwater focuses on the Van’s Triple Crown, a 55-day surfing competition that takes place on Oahu’s North Shore, where the world’s biggest waves form. I asked Brown why he decided to take on this topic now. “Right when I finished Dust to Glory, I got a call from Fox and met these TV executives and they asked if I had any ideas for a reality TV show,” he said. “I said, you could do one on the North Shore…the nature, the waves and on the beach there is so much going on. It’s the past and future of surfing. They thought it was a good idea and we had 50 meetings in the course of that summer. Then I thought, we could make a movie on this. I don’t know of a movie that focuses on the North Shore. I thought, even if there wasn’t much a a winter, it would still make a good story.”

highwaterposterWhen it looked like the reality TV show wasn’t going to get picked up, Brown forged ahead with his plans to make the film. “The place itself is so spectacular,” said Brown. “And the whole surf world descends there for the Triple Crown. The guys who run the Triple Crown have run it forever. As the sport becomes more popular and more money creeps in, it’ll change. This was the time to do it before it’s too late.”

“These guys ride waves that were unthinkable even a decade ago,” Brown added. “The North Shore has been the measuring stick for 50 years.  And it’s still the edge of what a human can attempt.”

The film was funded partially by the same investors who funded Dust to Glory. The Japanese company that distributed that movie in their territory paid up front for the rights to Highwater, and some private equity was raised.  “First of all, you have to get the right crew because you’ll kill water camera stuff if you don’t have the right guys,” said Brown. “And it’s really crowded in the water, so it’s a logistical problem to get the right camera position.”

Matzinger used a mix of Sony F-950 HDCAMs, 16mm film and the Sony EX-1 prosumer cameras. The 16mm film was

DP Matzinger with the ARRI

DP Matzinger with the ARRI

used for all the many slo-mo shots of surfing and the EX-1 camera was used largely to shoot the crowds on the beach. “We wanted to keep the look fresh and changing,” said Matzinger, describing why they chose to use a mix of formats.  The Sony F-950 was perfect when Matzinger wanted to keep the camera rolling. “Waiting for waves, it meant not having to change the load,” he said. “There were a lot of moments we captured that way.” Matzinger also gives credit to his main operator Michael Graber, who also worked on Endless Summer 2.

The cameramen in the water–Mike Prickett and Larry Haynes–bring their own camera gear. These cameramen can be seen in some of the movie’s shots; they’re the death-defying guys shooting in the waves, buoyed only by fins and carrying expensive cameras.

Capturing action on the waves (from shore) was easy–point and shoot–said Matzinger. What was more challenging was dealing with the high contrasts of bright sunlight and all the other beach locations, especially for the movie’s many interviews. “That sun can hurt in an interview if someone has a dark tan and a white T-shirt,” he said. “”It pushes the limits of the HD cameras. It feels like it’s going to blow out, but you don’t know for sure.” Matzinger had no DIT or video tent. “I was just seeing through a B&W eye-piece,” he noted.  Matzinger sings the praises of Brown. “I’m his eyepiece,” he said. “He makes all my mistakes look beautiful.”

Brown–with his son Wes–did all of his own editing, from logging to the final cut, using an Avid Media Composer and finishing on an Avid system as well. The cut I saw on the Santa Monica Pier was not yet color corrected; Brown said that he hadn’t yet decided where to do the DI. Brown reported that Avid set up a suite for his use and provided support. (Dust to Glory was cut with Adobe Premiere.)

Highwater is a C. Rich Wilson production of a Dana Brown film. Written, narrated and directed by Dana Brown;  Edited by Wes Brown and Dana Brown; Director of photography,  Steve Matzinger;  Music by, Phil Marshall;  Music supervisor,  Al Guerra;  Sound, George Goen; Water cameramen, Larry Haynes, Mike Prickett; Associate producer, Wes Brown.