Back in late winter 2015 surfer Micah Lester and photographer Tim Nunn headed out on a couple of cold surf missions. You’ve seen the results of that in the mag earlier in the year. On one of the trips they headed up to northern Norway, there Micah wanted to make a film, something a little more than just a straight surfing film, something that conveyed the reality of surfing in colder places. It’s especially poignant with Micah hailing from the Gold Coast, a place of crowds and boardshorts. Rather than shoot it with a regular surf film maker they brought along Mike Cunliffe, a fanatical surfer, but a filmmaker who hails very much from the broadcast world.
Mike’s background is in broadcast television and commercial shooting. He’s made high end science doc series for BBC4 plus several other BBC4 docs and docs for Channel 4, Nat Geo, Discovery. He also recently shot a comedy pilot for BBC having originally started out working on Channel 4 entertainment formats. Currently he’s shooting an ocean based series for ITV, which when out comes out you’ll see has particular relevance to us surfers from the south west and Wales. So before we settle in and watch the film we asked him a couple of questions about the thought process behind it from a surfing point of view…
Coming from outside of the traditional surf industry from a film making point of view, what’s your take on the average surf film, from both a surfers and film makers point of view?
I really enjoy surf films – at their best they’re pure film making outside of the bounds of the ‘normal’ parameters of commercial production – often someone with a camera driven to document what they love, usually for no financial gain – and technical skills become less important then the fact that they are there and are passionate – that’s very cool.
Surf films are massively influential, as surfers have historically been (and still are) a sub-culture that other people want to understand or emulate – so you get the Malloy brothers developing both a filmic style and a personal style that can now be pretty much seen globally (they make my favourite surf films by far) – they seem able to capture the essence of what it means to be a surfer and communicate it in film. I think pure edits of good surfing have their place too – massively so – they’ve become what binds surfers together globally – it seems a much smaller world in terms of surfing now, with Hawaiians surfing Ireland and Irish surfing Tahiti and we all see everything of consequence that’s happening surf and performance wise. I saw a great edit of Maui surfer Albee Layer and it was pure surf porn, but mesmerising, I watched it a few times, he was just so into his zone.
To put this film into context what was your thought process behind it, it is different to an average surf movie, so tell us what you wanted to achieve from it.
For me coming into making a film with Tim and Micah I didn’t really know what to expect – but I wasn’t interested in making a pure performance film – there seemed like more to tell. I hadn’t met Micah before, but knew he was that rare breed of style surfer and technical surfer, but it also turned out that he was a pro athlete at a particular stage of his life when he was thinking a lot about where his place was in the world. The vague plan was to capture the beauty of the surfing and try and be real about a cold water surf trip. So we have a shitty Ford Focus hire car and not a vintage landrover – we stay in a hut in an established surf camp not an army tent – realness that we hoped would chime more with the average surfer who quietly goes to Ireland or Scotland to surf cold dark waves under the radar. Getting there it was apparent that the location itself was as important as the waves, so I ended up probably framing the surfing much wider to give the waves some context and just shooting the landscapes and the light that Micah was experiencing in the water. Micah’s reactions to the place is what gave the film some glue. He’s a very un-jaded character and still sees the world with young eyes.
Technically, what are the issues of shooting in the Arctic?
Technically the problems are batteries not lasting in the cold and condensation in the lenses – though I got wise to this and started leaving them in the car so they never warmed up above 2 degrees.
More broadly not having an assistant – or actually not having a DoP and an assistant – I’m lucky enough to work with some really talented DoPs with my day job – and basically they’re just better at holding a camera then me – but that’s a budget question really – all film makers look back at their rushes and kind of wish that you had a certain lens or angle covered – though the flipside of that is that film making like this always reveals unexpected moments – so you just keep shooting until you see these moments.
What about gear wise, what do you use to shoot a short like this?
Gearwise – we used a Sony FS700 and shot in one of the Sony Log settings – the FS700 is a bit of a bitch ergonomically and has really had its day in terms of the actual look you can achieve – but it does have this ability to shoot at pretty high frame rates in bursts – so quite nice to be able to really enjoy some of the images of Micah surfing in slo-mo. I used Canon DSLR glass as well which worked well with Tim as he was using Canon and I could nick his lenses.
For a one man operation filmmaking like this, I would probably have preferred a Sony F55 – better shutter, image, continuous shooting at high frame rates – if we were a crew then probably RED and serious glass… the point gearwise though is its what you do with it – for instance Tim actually shot that amazing still of the Micah air with an incredibly cheap and nasty lens.