Have you ever wondered what it might be like to ride some of the biggest breaks in the world. Storm Surfers 3D uses state of the art technology to take the viewer as close to the surf as possible without actually getting wet! The film recently premiered in the U.S. at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and Press Pass LA was so impressed we were eager to chat with director Chris Nelius about making this film!
Storm Surfers 3D follows the story of surf legends and friends, two-time world surfing champion Tom Carroll and big wave pioneer Ross Clarke-Jones, as they hunt down some of the Pacific’s biggest and most dangerous waves of their careers. This film truly takes it’s audience along for the ride, transporting the viewer under, over and through waves in spectacular 3D cinematography. This film breaks the boundaries of any surf film before it using tiny 3D GoPro cameras (the size of your hand) combined with huge landscape cameras to immerse the audience in an all-encompassing documentary.
PPLA: I just have to say, what an awesome film! Can you tell me about the planning and making of this film and the challenges of bringing the cameras so close to the waves.
CN: We didn’t fully realize what we were doing when we took the project. We’re just down in little Australia at the other end of the world and we were given the opportunity to shoot in 3D and we figured that there would be a bunch of people around the world that were doing the same type of thing. But since finishing the film, I’ve been quite amazed at how groundbreaking what we did actually was! I didn’t realize that we were the only guys kind of doing this! We picked the hardest possible thing to shoot in 3D and it was really, really stressful. We didn’t have a lot of money so we couldn’t afford the Hollywood rigs and support teams and all that kind of stuff. Also you’re literally shooting out in the middle of the ocean like 30 miles from land trying to work. It’s kind of like if you had too big of a crew you wouldn’t be able to pull it off either. So we had about 6 or 7 different types of cameras and we built about half of them ourselves and the other half were off the shelf. We were very lucky to get our hands on the first 3D Go Pro’s and we used a Panasonic camera and a Sony camera as well. We had a really amazing young passionate group of camera guys in Australia who were just so into 3D and just dived into this project building us custom rigs. We worked until 2am in the morning most nights to get the cameras ready for the type of shoots we had the next day, so it was very difficult.
PPLA: How did you get Ross and Tom on board and did they know each other prior to this film? Obviously they are both surf legends but did they have a personal relationship?
CN: They’re actually best friends, I think close friends since the 80’s, that’s why they’re such characters and communicate so well together. So myself and Justin McMillan, my co-director, we’ve known both of those guys for about 6 or 7 years. We actually shot stuff years ago when Justin and I were hanging out with Ross and Tom and hearing their stories about what they do, chasing storms to other continents like Africa, and racing to get there and be ready to surf the wave that morning. And how If you don’t get there that morning you’ve missed it and we just kind of looked at each other and thought what a cool documentary that would make. It’s not just a ‘surf film’ where you see the guy surf and they are amazing and all that. In our film you experience the whole thing like logistics, the rush and panic and stress, the drama and quick planning that leads up to someone surfing a wave like that. We’re showing what goes behind it all and we were just really inspired by who Ross and Tom are. They break the mold a little bit when it comes to surfers. There’s just a kind of joy for life that pro-surfers have that’s never truly been painted on film. When I hang around them, I get so energized and inspired and that’s the energy we wanted to promote on screen.
PPLA: Do you and Justin surf yourselves? Or do you prefer to stay behind the camera!
CN: Yes, but not like that! To be able to do that you have to be a true surfing type of person, like the classic analytical type of flight or fight. Ross and Tom, they see a 30 foot wave and they want to get closer to it, and they want to ride it because they know how exhilarating it is where as everyone else wants to get away from it and it’s what I love about those guys! It’s not about status and it’s not about being or having bigger balls then the next guy! It’s not a contest for them; for them it’s purely about how exciting it is and how much fun it is. It’s a really cool approach that you don’t always see in surfers. Some surfers act like, “Hey, look at me I’m surfing a big wave,” whereas Ross and Tom they want to take you with them on the journey. That’s what I’m really stoked about our film, the fact that you get to ride a wave with them through the orbit of our 3D cameras.
PPLA: Were there any days that were disappointing during the filming in terms of waves, or any that were just better or bigger than you were expecting?
CN: That trip to Tasmania to Ship Stern Bluff that was one of the best days of my life, not just because the wave was so big and perfect and the weather was so good, but it’s just such an incredible part of the world that unless you are going out there for a purpose you would otherwise never see. I think it takes 40 minutes on a boat maybe an hour on a boat and no one goes to these places apart from just surfers. It’s so clear and you just feel like you’re on the edge of the world and that kind of stuff is really special. It’s a real pleasure to put that image on a big screen in 3D and then have someone in Santa Barbara watch it and get taken to a place that they may never be able to get to go. Then we had our moments for example at a reef in Western Australia where Tom went over the waterfalls on a jet ski and almost killed himself! That was predicted to be a much nicer, bigger, cleaner day and it ended up being windy and rainy and horrible. Justin and I had our fill of mixed fortunes. It can be stressful deciding to pack up the gear and crew and spend the money to get down there on a moments notice, and it’s like flying from New York to L.A. time wise and we get there and the next day it is so big and rough and tough to shoot in those conditions. It’s a lesson in persistence and it’s amazing what happens when you do that, when you go out on a day that no one else goes out. Sort of amazing things can still happen.
PPLA: Did Ross or Tom ever express a fear to go out on a certain day, to surf in at times dangerous conditions?
CN: They don’t have that fear, they love it. There’s a reason that the film’s called Storm Surfers because they love a stormy ocean. They tell a story in the film of when they went to the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii and it was stormy and horrible and big and no one else wanted to be out there, but they just looked at each other and go ‘let’s go out there and just get in trouble!’ They love that stimulation. If it’s too perfect they kind of don’t like that. I’ve never seen them back off a wave. I mean you see Tom decide not to surf because he’s injured but it’s rare to see them have second thoughts. There is that one scene out at the cape near Sydney where you can tell Ross is not 100% into going surfing and for good reason but they never seem to get scared and they never complained! They are the first people into their wetsuits and if anything, we’re holding THEM back. They’re just frothing all the time! We have sayings like we ask them to ‘power down’ and ‘stop over’ for a thing and they’re like little kids filled with excitement. They’re so inspirational. They’re such a great example of particularly men in their middle age who do not lose the child within.
PPLA: Have you screened the movie in Australia yet or is Santa Barbara your first screening?
CN: Well we finished the film midway through last year and it got into the Toronto Film Festival almost straight after. We finished it and it was a really huge honor for us to be there. It really helped break that stigma that sometimes goes with a surf movie. I think a lot of the time people go, people that don’t surf think, “Why would I want to watch that?” I think you’re a good example of a person that we made this film for, it’s for people that don’t surf.
PPLA: Your’e right. (We’d discussed earlier how I have never surfed and loved the first hand experience in viewing!).
CN: I think this film does a really good job of that without being clichéd and Ross and Tom are the perfect people to go surfing with for your first time! That’s what’s great about this film in 3D. They’re really fun, they’re funny guys, and just really entertaining people. You really get excited when you hang out with them and surf with them. That was our biggest goal- to make the film for people that don’t surf. To get in to Toronto really helped and our screening was sold out. It got second in the audience award at Toronto Film Festival and it played a couple more festivals around the world- one as far as the middle East. It’s already come out in Australia now.
PPLA: How do you feel the film is being received?
CN: Really well! We booked it like a tour so sort of like a rock band touring around places. We booked a five month list of stops and Ross and Tom toured with the film and are doing audience Q & A’s. It may cost a couple of extra bucks but you get to watch the film in 3D and then comment and ask questions just like we did in Santa Barbara. It seems like people really like that format and it sold out twice over in Australia. It was really cool and it was an amazing experience.
PPLA: How did you feel about being at the Santa Barbara Film Festival? California has a big surf culture as well.
CN: Santa Barbara was so cool; it’s a beautiful town and it’s a great venue. Like you said, California is one of the strongest surf cultures in the world. I really feel within surfing cultures tastes are changing, just as in what people watch on TV or listen to. People want to know more beyond just the surfing and that’s what we tried to bring with this film. It’s not just about the 3D but about Ross and Tom’s lives. They’re vulnerable. Tom is at an age where he has to kind of think twice about what he does and what he doesn’t do. Surfing takes a toll on the body and he has family and things to account for. It’s very real and you don’t often see that in surfing films. It was a real pleasure to be able to play that. The Santa Barbara audience is the ultimate test in the states for us. To get those guys to watch it and say it was so beautiful and it looked so great meant a lot. We had a ball!
PPLA: So what’s the next step for you for this film?
CN: I think there’s a very good chance that Ross and Tom are going to go to some of the screenings here in the states but there’s still so much to plan. Every screening is like an event, sort of like a comedy show or something, so that’s the deal we have in place in the states. It’s done its run in Australia already and we’re looking into other territories as well to get it up at the same time as the United States. I just can’t wait for an American audience to experience Ross and Tom’s surf culture. I think within the surfing world a lot of people know who they are and they are well respected- Tom is regarded as one of the greatest surfers of all time- but to actually see it in the cinema and really hear what they’ve got to say, follow them around ,and see what it is like to being so close to those guys, that’s special.
PPLA: What’s up next on your plate as directors?
CN: This film has opened a lot of doors for us over here in the U.S. and that’s why I’m staying in L.A. for a little bit. We’re really looking forward to seeing how this film comes out here. Justin and I are not surf filmmakers; we are not limited to that. We come from a world of being feature documentary fans and feature filmmakers, long-form story telling. So we’re fans of movies like Touching the Void and films that are a little bit male skewed. It’s all about the story and character for us, so we’re really looking forward to shooting more stuff in 3D. I think there’s a lot of untried things in the 3D world that people haven’t had a chance to have a crack at yet. I think you kind of get it when you see it in 3D. Not many people have seen the real world in 3D, you know, they see branches of it. They don’t often get to see a documentary in 3D either and we think there is huge world to explore there. We are looking forward to seeing what kinds of things we can work on with this technology.
Storm Surfers 3D was produced by Marcus Gillezeau and Ellenor Cox and executive produced by Alaric McAusland, Anthos Simon and Philipp Manderla. The film was financed through Screen Australia, Screen NSW, Deluxe, Red Bull Media House and Fulcrum Media Finance and produced by 6ixty Foot Films in association with Firelight Productions. The film won “The Most Outstanding Achievement in a Documentary” award at the Third Annual International 3D Awards. Nominees in the category included Air Racers: 3D (IMAX), the James Cameron-produced Cirque Du Soleil:Worlds Away, Katy Perry: Party of Me, and To the Arctic 3D.