By Andrew Oliver
John John Florence, without question, is the most influential surfer of his generation. That stature is in no small part due to the incredible body of work he’s produced documenting his groundbreaking surfing on film. While his films have consistently pushed the boundaries of what we come to expect from high-performance surf videos – therefore, requiring much bigger production teams than the one-person shows that put out the vast majority of edits that come across our screens – there’s been one instrumental figure that’s been at the heart of it all from the beginning, John John’s full-time filmer, Erik Knutson.
Far from just being in the right place at the right time, Knutson has matched the creative aspiration of John John every step of the way, pushing himself in all aspects of filmmaking to become one of the most highly-regarded surf-shooters in the world. FreeSurf caught up with the lesser-known of this dynamic duo to learn a little about their epic creative journey and insight into some exciting projects down the line.
Let’s go back to the origin of your story. How is it that you ended up working behind the camera for one of the best surfers of all time?
Growing up, the Handycam was a part of the family. And so we’d always mess around with that. And then once surfing kind of took over my life, someone’s always with a camera, and you’d kind of pair off with your buddies filming each other.
Through high school, we’d all kind of traded off filming and, and making little surf films and whatever. Hanging with Mason and Cheeseburger and all those guys at V Land, that was our crew. I’d always like to go get a few waves and then ride my bike back down there before the sun sets and try to capture some of the crew. Before I’d go in I’d tell them all, “I’m going to go get my camera, like stay out. You know?” It was just so fun.
And so, one day I was riding my bike down the driveway, and Kalani Robb was my neighbor, and it just so happened that Bill Ballard was there filming something for one of his surf films and Kalani. And, Kalani was like, “This is your guy, dude. You got to get him hired.” And so, I worked with him, and I also worked with Mike Latronic and you guys at FreeSurf. Mike signed off on my hours for my high school senior year. So I only went to school for like an hour or something. It was so silly. Like I had my license pretty early. And so I was always like in and out of high school somehow, it felt like a college class my last year. I remember we did a lot of stuff with Larry Haynes, logging a lot of his tapes, it was super fun to have him in the studio and kind of see how it was all going down in there.
When I was in college, John John was just getting on tour and his mom kind of approached me one day while we were all surfing backdoor. And she asked, “Hey, we’re looking for someone to travel with us and shoot with us?” And, I said, “I gotta finish school, but I do have a camera.” And I was actually gonna be in Portugal, while they were going to be in France for John’s first event. So I ended up meeting up with those guys, and Daniel Russo was traveling with him because he was getting stills for Van’s, but Russo also had a Red camera. So that was where both John and I got our first introduction to Red cameras. Russo had a Red One and we were all fired up on it.
I shot with Russo that whole trip in Europe and it kind of snowballed into working with him the next winter. He would shoot stills and I’d shoot video on land, or I’d be on the ski with him and I’d be doing video and he’d be shooting stills and driving, which got us into all sorts of terrifying moments out in the outer reefs.
And that was right around the time when John was gonna make A View From a Blue Moon with Blake Kueny. And, Blake was trying to step out of that full cinematographer role and actually focus more on directing. He liked editing, and wanted to create more of the storyline, work behind the scenes on the direction of the actual piece, and bring it all together. He was trying to phase out of the everyday monotonous kind of filming. But, I really like that part of it, I love hustling and running down the beach and shooting more so than editing. So it was a perfect marriage of creativity there. We were stoked traveling and I just kinda kept charging with that crew.
You clearly put in a lot of work to gain the experience and expertise to operate very cutting edge equipment. And you had to become able to contribute effectively to these projects – that had very high aspirations. But, how fortunate to partner with someone that had the patience to see these big projects through, and really push the envelope.
His creativity and what he wants out of the films and how he’s documented and everything is unmatched. He’s so driven to create awesome work and really has a high standard. And it keeps you on that high level. I definitely don’t want to let him down because he has that super high standard, and work ethic. He’s in it, you know, and you see it. He’s stoked to come behind the camera and look at how things are filmed. He really wants to be involved in the angles and knows what looks good. And I’ve always been super receptive to that. It’s been fun creatively. We’re working together rather than I’m working for him, you know? So it’s been a fun process for sure.
And to see an athlete on that high level to have that kind of vision, and to do whatever it takes to capture these moments, he’s always been stoked on that.
It seems like you guys adhere to the “quality over quantity,” motto. And, we don’t really have a daily vlog style look into your guys whole program. You’re not putting something out every day, but I know you’re still working extremely hard, on a daily basis. So, what does the day to day look like for you?
As with anyone who does this, it’s all kind of relative to whether the surfs good. If so, we’re really hustling and trying to find the best waves. Obviously, most of the time we know when it’s going to be good and we’ll have an idea of where we’re going. If it’s a Pipe day for example, “Are we going to set up another angle? Who’s going to help me film and I’m going to swim out?” We got to get everyone prepared on that day. Or if it’s somewhere else, does the ski gotta be ready? So we’re definitely hustling in that sense of being prepared. But on a normal day to day, you know, John surfs a lot.
So, I’m just waiting for the call and hustling down to the beach and documenting. John knows what we’re working on. And we can always get the lifestyle shots and stuff like that, where it comes. But we definitely try to think of the shots we want to get and approach it like, “Okay, today we’re going to try and get this shot.” The day to day surf stuff that is more just like being there and getting the shot kind of thing. Try not to miss anything and obviously shoot it really well. But it’s more of a tool. I send him all the clips and then he’s studying them to see how his boards are working, and to share them with Pyzel, and he’ll send them through to his coaches.
I guess it’s a little hard to really say what my day to day is, cause every day is completely different.
There’s also the case of, “He got this smoking wave, did we get it somewhere where 10 other cameramen got it?” If that’s so, maybe we just post our angle of it that day. Especially if it’s one at Pipe and everyone else has it already, we’ll kind of put our little spin on it, and get it up there as quickly as we can.
The exclusivity thing that’s, that’s nothing new. It’s something filmers have dealt with for a while. Obviously John’s someone that people want to shoot. How hard are you guys working to get exclusive sessions? You don’t have to give away any secrets, Haha.
In the past it’s definitely been an issue when we were working on A View From a Blue Moon, because obviously we wanted to have an epic film with stuff that no one had seen. So there were definitely moments where it was like, “Holy crap, there’s someone in the bushes literally waiting for John to surf.” Haha
Definitely in the past, it’s been something where we were trying to hold all of our cards pretty close. There’s definitely waves that they like to go to that generally, no one’s ever at. So in those cases, we’re not really too worried about it. But, I think the way we kind of package our edits, like if you saw a wave twice, even if we posted one of his airs or his barrels or something like that, you’re not going to be bummed if you saw it in an edit, put together with good music and a string of different clips. Even if half the session landed on his brother’s blog or Koa’s. We still tend to put it out as well.
Recently, John and I have been talking about making a pretty cool edit for this winter, focusing on something bigger than what we have been lately, which has just been trying to focus on his YouTube channel with putting out content in a way he wants to, so we haven’t really been holding on to too much. Whereas he seems pretty psyched to try and work out something and storyboard some cool ideas of a proper edit. So with that being said, that’s going to change how we build these sessions.
There’s probably so much unused footage from your guys’ archive. People would be happy to watch footage from 12 years ago, or whatever – they’ll be psyched.
Yeah. There’s a ton of that. We’re sitting on a lot of this stuff because when John was winning world titles and we were making films and series around that. There was a lot of footage that didn’t make it in any of that stuff.
So, I think it’s kind of a fun thing that we can kind of put out now. We have a pretty cool one coming out with John and Dave Rastovich. We went on one of our little surf trips to this spot outside of Tourquay, they got some cool little barrels and stuff. And, we were able to turn it into a cool 10 minute YouTube video that hopefully people are going to be stoked on.
That’s epic! It’ll give you guys time to breathe and continue to pursue the bigger projects, but keep people kind of satisfied on a more regular basis.
With John everything is always in flux with what he wants to do, but I think this year is going to be pretty exciting. I know he’s really psyched to surf, and we have the Vans digital Triple Crown. Obviously, he’s really stoked on that. It’d be cool to see him do well in that again.
And, we’ll push to make something along the lines of Maps of Home, but probably a little more thought out. So, that should be pretty sick!