One of the more formidable challenges facing surf filmmakers is the ability to capture and convey to the layman audience, the visceral charge of plummeting down the face of a large wave, tucking into the enveloping emerald barrel and shooting past the collapsing lip and spray back into the light of day.
On night four of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Australian directors Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius provided one giant leap for watermankind… in 3D.
The cast of Storm Surfers 3D, which includes two-time world surf champion Tom Carroll, big-wave surfer Ross Clarke-Jones and renowned surf forecaster Ben Matson, along with the directors, arrived at the Arlington Theatre (just minutes after learning they’d won Best Documentary at the Aussie version of the Oscars) to a refreshingly relaxed red carpet, allowing time for extensive interviews. When asked what they, as professional surfers, thought made a good surf film Carroll replied, “An emotional hook, something that gets you stoked and makes you want to gather your mates and head-out.”(The term “Frothing” gets frequent mention throughout the film) “I also like it when you see something new and learn something,” added Clarke-Jones. Filmmakers McMillan and Nelius also discussed at length that the film was always intended to be a 3D feature from inception, and how that choice presented a host of logistical and technical challenges not inherent in conventional productions, from unwieldy and nascent technology to split-second improvisation (Mother Nature doesn’t do multiple takes, and when she’s ready for her close-up, you’d better be). The directors were also asked, apart from the 3D element, what they were hoping would differentiate their film from the surfeit of other genre works, “The story. These guys are characters who, when you get them out of the water, have a charisma not present in other big wave surfers.”
And they were right. As the lights went down and the glasses went on, the audience was privy to these larger-than-life personalities riding even larger waves. From the opening frames, involving a (literally) death-defying wipeout on an enormous open ocean swell, the audience is sucked in, driven under and involved in a harrowing and frantic POV search and rescue, which sets the tone for the rest of the movie. In fact, Storm Surfers could have easily been titled A Tale of Two Surfers or A Surfer Looks at 50, as its two protagonists face mortality, middle age, fatherhood and the world’s largest waves from two disparate perspectives. At age 49 with three daughters, Carroll is the more reflective of the two, content to survey conditions before jumping in. Clarke-Jones, at 45, is the hard-charging instigator, keen to get back on the board (“frothing”) after repeated brutal poundings, never missing an opportunity to chide Carroll.
The film’s set-up is simple: From their base camp in Sydney, the two surfers along with meteorologist Matson, monitor Southern hemisphere winter storms originating off the coasts of Africa and Antarctica as they head toward Australian shores. During this four-month window, when the confluence of conditions is right, they must disperse at moment’s notice to one of five camps situated around the continent, stocked with boats, boards and jet-skis, and hopefully one-step ahead of the behemoth swells.
The first storm hits Tasmania’s Shipstern’s Bluff, a sick, thick, multi-sectioned freight train break against sheer cliffs and jagged rocks that tests the mettle of the surfers early on. This same break was showcased to terrifying effect at the festival two years ago in Jack McCoy’s A Deeper Shade of Blue, but whereas Blue takes a totality perspective from a boat or ski with a long distance lens outside the wave, Storm goes for the gut by taking the viewer along for the ride from the inside out. This is where the real brilliance of 3D shines as the audience rides tandem with Ross-Clarke during his steep takeoff, encapsulated by the deafening roar of thousands of gallons of frigid churning water, he finds a line and makes the section taking us along seemingly on his shoulders, exhilarated and hanging on for life.
The action continues to ramp up as Antipodean systems send mountains and monsters from all sides, creating spectacular tow-in sequences as the team is joined by fellow Aussie riders Paul Morgan and Mark Mathews along the New South Wales coast. The 3D effect works particularly well here, with skis in the foreground adding depth, while another massive swell breaks in the background. Using 26 cameras, many mounted on the skis and boards, the team is able to take the audience to places they’ve never been (and some they never want to) in seemingly real time. You’re not watching the action, you are the action, as much a part of the session as the surfers. From the frantic intensity of tow- in to heart-pounding take-off and the resultant sensation of speed and exaltation through mind-blowing tubes and punishing wipeouts, this is sensory empathetic filmmaking at its best (few films have captured the ferocity of a big wave wipeout and subsequent disorientation and struggle to the surface as this one).
Adding to the awe factor is that while Carroll and Clarke-Jones were barreling down forty foot faces at forty miles an hour, they were clutching hand-held GoPro Hero cameras over their heads to capture it all. Imagine an Olympic skier careening down a mountain pursued by an avalanche while holding a camera over his head and you get the picture... the term “maintaining focus” never carried such gravitas.
With Carroll’s confidence and mojo steadily increasing, the team is ultimately faced with pursuing its Holy Grail: a mythical wave that has never been photographed, much less ridden. Forty six miles off the coast of Western Australia lays a secret reef known as Turtle Dove Shoal, providing a spectacular climatic sequence that tests the limits of both surfers at the edge of the continental shelf.
Storm Surfers 3D would have worked reasonably well as a conventional feature, with a solid narrative and story-line (although the animation and some re-creation sequences could have been excised) but the element of a third dimension is what elevates it into a new realm of action filmmaking that allows surfers, non-surfers, grommets and veterans alike, to enjoy the ride. As the technical and logistical innovations will undoubtedly continue, a more expansive global endeavor would be a welcome continuation ( imagine 3D sequences at Teahupoo, Peahi, Maverick’s or more elusive, undocumented breaks like the storied Egypt off of Maui’s north shore). Now that would guarantee audiences to leave the theater frothing.