Sonny Miller raised the level whenever he walked into a room. All levels. The volume, for starters; Sonny had a big voice. The energy, the buzz, the metabolism of whatever space Sonny was occupying—it all went up a notch or two. It felt great. The way Sonny did it, somehow, it wasn’t really about him. Lots of people who have that same turn-it-up knack, it’s a “look at me!” kind of thing. With Sonny, it was like everybody got a free shot of espresso. You felt a little brighter, a little snappier in his presence.
Sonny and I both worked at Breakout magazine in 1984. He and Alan Carrasco were the mag’s hot young gun photographers. But SURFER was already sniffing around, and I think Sonny was on their masthead before the year was out. Made the big leagues. I was jealous. But not really. As much time and effort as Sonny put into having a good time, he put even more into his work; all the good things that came his way in the years that followed were well earned.
I always wondered how Sonny Miller felt about Taylor Steele. The gnarly DIY vid style that Steele made so popular pretty much sucked whatever oxygen was left in surf cinema, just as Sonny was hitting stride with a movie camera. The market was flooded with rough low-budget punk-scored vids, while Sonny patiently continued to thread film into his 16mm camera, and that must have been frustrating. But at the start of the 1990s, quality in surf movies began to bounce back, and Sonny was standing by looking aces when Rip Curl pulled out the checkbook, collared team rider and recent World Tour retiree Tom Curren, and launched the Search campaign. The Search, or the best parts of it anyway, was a duet between Tom Curren and Sonny Miller. With Sonny behind the tripod, the rest of us finally got to see Curren in a more natural habitat, as opposed to Huntington Hopping his way to the beach during the Op Pro. Searching for Tom Curren, the final movie in the Search series, justifiably earned Miller “Video of the Year Award” at the 1997 SURFER Poll.
Rip Curl and Sonny later got into a hassle over film rights, and as far as I know none of the Search vids are available for download, or even on DVD. This bugged Sonny. He’d moved on to bigger projects (including second unit camera work for Chasing Mavericks and Lords of Dogtown), but still defined himself in large part through his surf work. I emailed him week before last, to see if I could use some VHS Search footage for a Curren clip I was working on. Sonny happily gave me the green light, said that he’d more or less buried the hatchet with Rip Curl, and was hopeful that the Search material might get remastered and re-released. Ended his message as follows: “My transition of surf filmmaker to Hollywood sharpshooter has been a dream. But the sea is my boss. Always has been.”
I’m focusing on the idea that we will hopefully see Sonny Miller’s Search work, remastered to a sparkling finish, back in circulation before too long. Easier to think about that, rather than fact that Sonny’s gone for good.