by Derek Ferrar
Don King—not the scare-haired boxing promoter but the storied surf cinematographer of the same name—floats in small waves off a West O‘ahu beach, his waterproof camera housing pressed to his eye as he films a young actress pretending to surf. Treading water nearby, superstar lifeguard and stunt coordinator Brian Keaulana and his crew make sure the Las Vegas-bred actress looks the surfer part without doing anything dangerous, like actually catching a wave. Later, the shot will be intercut with footage of pro surfer Rochelle Ballard, doubling for the actress in an identical bikini, for a scene in FOX’s Hawai‘i-based prime-time soap North Shore.
It’s a familiar setting these days for King, who has become the go-to guy for the in-the-wave action shots that have been hot in Hollywood since the surfer-girl hit Blue Crush (which showcased King’s water footage). With no fewer than four network TV series currently filming in Hawai‘i, King is being gone to a lot—he’s also shooting for ABC’s Lost and the WB’s Rocky Point, and his film credits range from Tom Hanks’ Castaway to the Bond flick Die Another Day.
Don King's classic images include
Gerry Lopez at Pipeline circa 1986.
"Don is amazing as an artist," says Patrick Norris, an episode director for North Shore. "I don’t think anyone else can capture the ocean stuff like he can."
"He’s the Tiger Woods of the water photography world," agrees surf-stunt master Keaulana, who regularly teams up with King on shoots.
One thing that earns King such raves is his mellow personality—in a type-A industry, he’s renowned for keeping his cool. Another is his sheer water sense and athletic ability—tall and lanky, he was once a competitive swimmer and college water-polo player and has long been a top-notch bodysurfer. It’s that watersports background, he says, that allows him to bob nonchalantly at the ground zero of huge, punishing waves, holding his shot until the last possible second before diving to avoid the surfer’s slashing fins and the wave’s crushing lip. That kind of photography, King says rather understatedly, "is a challenge that brings you totally into the moment, because you have to focus so completely. It’s like doing a sport, but it’s also an art and a craft, all at the same time."
And then there’s King’s legendary eye for the shot. "Don has an uncanny ability to hit the button only when it’s magic," says jai Mansson, who works with King often as assistant cameraman. "He’s like a Zen master." For his own part, King says he strives always "to set a new standard in water photography. I love getting in the tube, whether I’m bodysurfing or filming, and I love to get pictures that can share the feeling of being in big, powerful waves."