Filmmaker Grant Thompson
By Chris Van Leuven
In addition to capturing slacklining, BASE jumping and surfing, Thompson also focuses on unique, non-athletic characters from around the world.
Every time I talk with filmmaker and cinematographer Grant Thompson, he’s in a completely different phase of his career. When we met through mutual friends in Yosemite in winter 2018, he was capturing highliners as the sun crept up behind Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
His footage showed subjects balanced on a thin strip of nylon webbing over an endless abyss, their arms extended out like bird wings.
Six months later he called from a busy café in Berkeley, where he told me all about capturing Christy Davis, age 66, riding big waves at Mavericks in northern California. In the four-minute working clip he sent over on Davis, the legendary surfer from Half Moon Bay, Thompson shared the athlete’s lifelong passion with the sport. Davis narrates as Thompson’s scenes of bucolic hillsides and splashing waves move across the screen. One clip shows Davis riding a massive groundswell, one wave feeding into the next that he links together effortlessly. The wave is an extension of himself. For nearly 30 years Davis has surfed Mavericks, and he describes being out on the cold, brutal waves with childlike enthusiasm, describing it like walking on water and playing with bursts of energy that have traveled halfway around the world.
Over the past 12 months Thompson continued filming in Mavericks, including the day Davis suffered a near-fatal heart attack while on the water and had to fight for his life as he paddled back. Since Thompson had been following Davis, he knew his backstory, including how he broke his back and still continued his passion for surfing. Putting it all together, the injury, recovery, then the heart attack, Thompson began to shape Davis’s life into a film. That’s why in January 2020 Thompson released the trailer for the 30 to 40 minute cut. Made with support from Panasonic as well as his own funds, the film has a working title of “A Man and the Sea.” It’s slated for release in 2021.
“This film is kinda bizarre,” Thompson says. “Christy broke his back, recovered in four months, had a season in Mavericks, paddles out and then has a heart attack. He then has to paddle into shore. He barely survived.”
In the film Thompson uses speed, slow motion and fast motion to draw the viewers close to the subject, taking them on a ride on the gently cutting surfboard, among the crashing waves and the bright yellow light reflecting off the ocean.
Thompson is partnering with Emmy award-winning editor Erik Butts as well as narrator Peter Coyote to make the film. He’s financing the movie from his hired work on other projects. “I make short, powerful films for business owners and artists to communicate their work concisely and deepen their connection and trust with their audience,” he says. Thompson also works as a guest lecturer at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab for a scientific filmmaking graduate seminar at UC Davis. Since we’ve met, he’s obtained work for clients all over the world, including watchmaker Omega, for whom he worked as a camera operator in a hot air balloon that served as a platform for BASE jumpers.
During our most recent call in December 2019, Thompson shared work that follows an entirely different thread. He said he’s making films about indigenous culture in Ireland, Scotland and California. Then he emailed over another clip. In “Skye,” he shows a two-minute movie capturing an old man in Ireland reflecting on life as he walks through the countryside. As it begins, the man says “If you have no past, you have no future,” while Thompson’s dramatic scenes show sea cliffs, a crooked river and water cascading toward the camera. The man compares the rivers to arteries in the heart. “There is life in everything,” he says as he looks off into the distance. The clip is part of a longer film Thompson is releasing in February.
Thompson seeks out these stories of fascinating characters. At UC Berkeley he studied Celtic literature, linguistic anthropology and did coursework in journalism. He says during that time he lived in a tent in Southwest England for a year. By day he’d shoot and by night, for inspiration, he’d read medieval books by candlelight. While stateside, “I’ve filmed funerals and school plays,” he said. “I’ve shot a hot dog eating championship in Vallejo. I’ve filmed an economist for the New York Times. I’ve filmed weddings, funerals, and school plays,” he said.
“One of the most moving things I’ve seen was while shooting a funeral. I found that to be extremely meaningful.” With his camera on a tripod, Thompson stood still, his mind capturing all the emotions he observed — the tears and laughter — as guests walked on stage to talk about the deceased. That early inspiration shows up in his films. It’s in the way he develops his characters, how he focuses on people’s eyes and emotions.
Today, now a year out of University, Thompson lives with his girlfriend on the Sonoma Coast.
While he pours his passion into his work behind the camera, that same passion bleeds into his romantic relationship. He shared how he recently brought the two worlds together: “We had a date in a meadow in Fort Ross near 200-year-old apple trees,” he said. “I broke out my camera and filmed it. Instead of telling someone I love them, I can show them. Films are a container for certain thoughts and experiences for the viewer to enjoy.”
Today his passion projects and for-pay projects blur together and he travels for months on end from one shoot to the next. His hard work pays off: He’s received awards for Best Slackline Film, where he won $1,000 at the 2016 Adventure Film Festival and another $1,000 for second place at the Montreal Jackalope Film Contest.
Thompson’s most recent projects include working as a cinematographer and editor for a promotional film for Switzerland’s World Heritage Site on setting the hammock world record along a chairlift. Vibram Five Fingers also hired him to make a trail running film in Mallorca.
“Every job I take now I check boxes,” says Thompson. “Is this for money or to advance my career? This way I can create boundaries for my company, and it helps me stay focused.” For his paid gigs, companies hire him to conceive film or create a movie or be a first or second camera operator. For his resume gigs it’s all about choosing projects that sound inspiring. It must be a fun place to be career-wise.