Water cinematographer Rick Rifici (Otherlife, Drift, Adore) has spent a lot of his career capturing surf for TVCs and commercial clients, where the brief typically involves capturing the waves and athletes in sunny conditions and bright blue water.
However, when Simon Baker asked Rifici to come on board to shoot the surf and the underwater scenes in his debut feature Breath, an adaptation of the Tim Winton novel of the same name, the director had a vision that avoided surfing tropes.
“He wanted to capture what we see as surfers,” Rifici tells IF. “It gave me a really good chance to get creative and shoot a lot of things that you don’t normally get to when you’re shooting for the mainstream surfing media.”
Rifici had the opportunity to shoot out of the box, take underwater shots from abstract perspectives, and to capture a moody, atmospheric aesthetic. “[Baker] didn’t want anything to be bright, sunny and fluffy.”
Breath was shot around Denmark, Western Australia back in 2016. Rifici was on the set for around four weeks, shooting any scenes on, underneath or in the water. He used a RED Dragon in water housing with Cooke S4 lenses. A wireless link sent footage back to the director nearby on a boat or on the mainland. There was also a follow focus system in the water housing, which enabled Rifici to sit at a shallow depth of field, and to be able to throw focus between actors as they delivered dialogue and then to somebody surfing.
The crew were often working in testing conditions, but Rifici says his job was made easier by Baker. The director is a surfer himself, he’s knowledgeable about lenses from his time on sets as an actor, and he cast two professional surfers, Ben Spence and Samson Coulter, as his young leads, rather than using surfing doubles – authenticity was key in what they were trying to capture.
“Having two young surfers in the actors, I was able to get really close and was also able to do dialogue, where they could turn and swing, catch a wave and slip off a wave and deliver their lines.”
Rifici says he enjoys shooting in the water because it of the inherent challenge it entails. He can read a script and plan how he’ll capture a scene in his head, but when he gets out into the conditions, he may need to throw it all out and adapt – heading back to shore to change lenses or filters could wipe out almost an hour from schedule.
“Nothing is easy about it,” he says. “When dealing with mother nature, especially in the water and the ocean, you need to have everything as prepared as you possibly can as far as lenses and ND filters, to be able to predict what is going to happen to a certain extent.”
The variable nature of the surf also means there can often be only one chance to get a take.
Rifici notes a key scene in Breath involves one of the actors catching a big wave and coming down near a boat anchored nearby. They had mapped out a half a day’s schedule to shoot it, but he was nervous – there were a lot of elements that would need to come together for it to work, and he thought they’d definitely need to reshoot.
However, within five minutes of the boat being anchored and the actors being dropped off, there was a 15-20 metre swell.
“I was hoping the focus puller – who was on a boat a couple of hundred metres back – had a picture up and was ready to go, because one the young guys, the lead, he paddled for a wave and actually caught it and delivered his lines as he flicked off near the boat.
“Then the next wave that came through sank the boat. So we had one take at it. It was just perfect, we couldn’t have planned it any better.”