First, let’s get this straight: you can’t get barrel footage like Mikala Jones does, because you can’t get barreled like Mikala Jones does. With that established…you might as well still try, right? POV (point of view) footage has flooded the surf media landscape as of late, what with that now billion-dollar company making it easier than ever before to cut out the middleman and become your own filmer. The do-it-yourself ethos is strong with surfers, and the POV cam has become a staple of surf trip checklists these days, for better or for worse. In the case of Mikala Jones, you’ll agree with us when we say it’s obviously for the best. We caught up with Jones just as he was getting settled for the season in Bali, his cameras on charge, for some views on the subject through his eyes:
So how’d you get in that POV game?
The first time I ever actually used a GoPro was when we got hired to do the GoPro HERO2 trailer in Java. Honestly, my first impression was that I was kind of over it. I was doing a lot of POV stuff with my Canon 7D at the time, photo-wise, and I was kind of hesitant about the door GoPro was opening. I knew it was a door that would never be shut again. At that time, the camera quality was just OK, not that great. So with the second model, the GoPro HERO2, I was kind of skeptical. Anyways, we surfed, did all we needed to, and the GoPro guys never really showed us any of the footage. Then the trailer came out. It blew up, got like 20 million hits. When I saw that trailer, I knew this was the future, there was no looking back.
So were you a quick convert?
Like I said, I was already pretty into POV. I had a Liquid Eye water housing and a Canon 7D with a Tokina fisheye. I would paddle into the wave, grab it off the nose, and shoot photos, experimenting with slow shutter speeds and stuff. The housing would be attached with Velcro under my chin, and as I stood up I'd grab it off. Did that for a year or so before the GoPro thing. I had a bunch of different gear, like a remote shutter that I'd tape on my rail and use to fire off the camera. But it all was pretty difficult. I was surfing an 8'0" that was super heavy, because I wanted to do it paddling and not with a ski. You'd need a pretty good-sized wave, like 6-foot at least, so you're in pretty critical drops and sizable barrels. I'd get pounded, go over the falls and kick out my board, come up for air and then have to look for my camera. So that's how I got my start.
So you’re out there with a GoPro now. Talk us through how Mikala Jones gets the shot.
I bring two or three GoPros on every surf trip I go on. Getting that footage to take home or post is hard though, because it can be a perfect wave, but even once you're in the barrel it comes down to framing. You could end up filming only your feet and get nothing. It's not as easy as everyone thinks, not as easy as pro surfers make it look at least. Even paddling around with it in your mouth or hand, or wherever you have it, you still have to concentrate on it. Is it on? Is it off? Making sure it's not fogging up, no water drops, etc. It's a whole new aspect you have to concentrate on when you're surfing. Still, I don't take my camera out with me every time, I'm pretty picky. If there's a guy shooting photos, it kind of messes up the shot, you know? It doesn't look good to have a camera box in your mouth. So I'm selective about the light and the quality of the waves. I surfed with a GoPro a lot last year, going on trips with just friends and no photographers. If the situation called for it I'd film and if not, I'd just drop it in my pocket. Too easy.
In all those waves, what’s the best angle you’ve brought home?
My favorite angle is still definitely handheld, because you can pass it back and forth inside the barrel for both looks. It's great for keeping your body and board in the shot. It kind of shows where you're going, what you're riding, etc. Some people's shots are just shoulders and above, which can be cool, but I like to try and angle it to get my board in the frame. You see guys like Jamie O'Brien do it different though, with a lot of mouth-mount shots. If it's in his mouth and you're seeing explosions, you know that guy is deep. Those clips where the foam ball is exploding and he's coming around it at Pipe…that's when you're like, "Ho, that one was mental.”
What’s it like shooting blind, not knowing what the camera is seeing?
It was hard at first because I wouldn't actually see any of the POV footage until a clip was posted. Looking at it after, I realized that a lot of it comes down to lighting, just like any normal photo, really. Immaculate lighting makes for the best footage, and because of that I only really shoot around sunrise and sunset. And then too often you'll catch a wave where you're deep, or at least you think you are, but you're not deep enough for the shot. Sometimes if the wave is over 6 feet tall, or if the barrel is too wide, you're in this intense situation thinking you're gonna bag the sickest clip, but you look at the footage and it looks like you were barely in there. I've had that a lot, where I remember it feeling a lot better than what it looked like. It's definitely a good thing to remember, because when you do get a sick clip, you know it was a really deep barrel. Those are the clips I chase.
So many things must align for the perfect clip…but have you ever had any moments of accidental glory with one of these cameras?
There was this one session at Nias, me and Marlon Gerber were surfing super early in the morning. I was still half-asleep. I was actually shooting with Pete Frieden, he was shooting photos from a boat further down the line, so I thought I'd try to get a few clips before he came closer because you wouldn't be able to see the camera anyways. I got this super late one, my first wave of the morning. I turned and air-dropped late, landed on my tiptoes in the wax, and wanted to grab my camera out of my mouth but it was too critical, I had to concentrate entirely on the drop. Pulled in, barely tucked under the lip, got super covered up and spat out. I looked at my camera after the wave and didn't even know if it was on, didn't know if I had even pointed it in the right direction. I figured it was a write-off. That turned out to be one of the best clips I've ever got. (Below, at 1:05)
What’s your simplest advice be on how to get good at POV filming? Other than first knowing how to get really, really barreled?
It's like regular photography, just getting a good camera doesn't mean you'll get the shot. You have to keep practicing, get comfortable with the camera and the gear, the more you surf with it the more you'll figure out what angles you're going for and the more you'll get use to using the camera the right way to find 'em. It's just like anything, you have to tinker around with it, you'll lose it or blow shots or run out of battery, whatever, but that's what any other type of shooting is like as well. The more you take it out, the better, if you want to get the shot or take home good footage from a surf trip.
The GoPro crew, it’s an interesting cast of characters. Tech-heads and action-sport junkies combined. What’s the craziest camera setup they’ve ever tied on to you?
Definitely something they call the "monkey tail," the one with the pole coming off your back. It makes for an awesome angle, but when you hit the water it almost feels like you're going to drown because of all the drag. You try and swim up and you feel it holding you down. That's definitely the most trippy one. And then there was the "sphere shot setup." We were going for a full 3D spherical look. I had the idea and called up Brad Schmidt at GoPro, told him we should tie together a couple of GoPros and get a bunch of different angles of the same barrel. He was staying down the beach in Hawaii and said, "Yup, hold on, be there in 10 minutes. He rolls over with a backpack on and pulls out a fish pole with a bunch of GoPros on it attached to his computer, and says, "So yeah, this is what you were talking about, right?" It took a year to get what he was thinking into a working production, and then another year to figure out how to stitch all the footage together. Pretty epic results.
So after breaking it all down, how has the surf filming game changed?
This isn't a new thing, wanting to get the angles of what it looks like in the barrel, to get that surfer's perspective. I mean George Greenough was doing it in the '70s, so he was one of the first to paddle out with something strapped to his back. Everything's been done, you know, but it's still pretty fun to experiment. I had one wave, a foot-angle, where I can't really remember how I got that shot, or whether even it was on purpose or not. It's a pretty awesome challenge. These cameras have definitely already changed the documenting of surf trips entirely. It's happened, it's done. There's no going back. You don't need someone to come along to film you, you just hold it and take total control from point A to point B.
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