Bet you can name this VHS cover…

Richard Inskip discusses the best films ever made, and ponders if surf culture is missing their demise.

There is no doubt about it, the internet has revolutionised the world like nothing before it. It has become a mechanism for collaborations and a strong medium for interactions between individuals and their digital devices, regardless of geographical location. But what has this done for surfing? Surfing was built off the back of an aspirational lifestyle that was initially only shared through word of mouth, early surf movies and the images being printed in surf magazines.

Nowadays most surf clips and media have a shelf life of 24 hours with clips being instantly telegrammed to a device that we can’t seem to cope without. On the odd occasion we might get a rare treat with an edit uploaded to youtube, but we rarely have to wait more than a couple of hours before we see the next progressive manoeuvre, insane barrel or giant wave before its shared across several platforms to feed the eagerly entitled appetite of surf fans.

The internet has definitely helped raise the level of surfing at both a competitive and free surf level. Surfers are able to share media content, immediately see what is happening in every corner of the surfing globe and study techniques, training methods and access whatever information is required to lift their own game. So, what has the internet taken away from surfing?

If you ask the older guys, the opinion is very much the same, pre-internet surfing was much better. Less crowds, more secret spots, local knowledge and a greater feeling of discovery. But the one thing that younger surfers really miss out on in today’s age of technology, is the excitement of waiting for the next surf movie to come out on VHS to see what waves have been explored and who is ripping them. This means that many OG and older surf movies go under the radar today, an educational experience that a lot of the younger generation might miss. So here is a brief history of the evolution of surf movies and some pre-internet films every surfer should watch in order to get a full indoctrination to the surf world and some of its legends.

A brief history of surf movies:

Bud Browne was one of the first surf movie pioneers and is known as the father of surf films, shooting waves in Hawaii in the early 1940’s and releasing his first surf movie in 1953, “Hawaiian Surf Movie’. Not only did this movie impress its audience, it created the commercial opportunities for surfing and especially for the movie industry. It didn’t take long, six years in fact, before Hollywood jumped on the wave and the Movie Gidget was released in 1959. This was a huge box office hit.

Gidget took Hollywood by storm and buy this time budding surf movie makers were already experimenting with different film formats, all of which were showcasing surfing to its new found audience. These young cinematographers were John Severson, Bruce Brown and Greg Noll. Through the 1960’s and 70’s these guys were able to explore new filming techniques, create new angles, capture surfing in an exciting and fresh manner and ultimately bring new visions of waves to the screen.

At the time surf films would tour towns and cities with money being made through charging entrance fees. Surf fans were more than happy to pay to see their favourite surfer on screen (or perhaps be introduced to a new surfer) before taking what they witness to their local break to emulate. The producers desire to maximise these takings also led to thinking what else were the surfers prepare to outlay their cash on during the movie, a program perhaps?

The influence of the Surf Magazine:

The first major print magazine dedicated to surfing was that of Surfer Magazine, a quarterly American publication that started in the summer of 1960. Created by Artist and surf film maker John Severson, the idea was more to create a booklet to accompany his surf movie, something he could sell to the audience ton increase revenue. The booklet was entitled the Surfer and proved to be very popular. By the 1970’s ‘the Surfer’ was now a magazine and had a readership of around 100,000. Feeling that he was evolving into a “desk ridden businessman” Severson sold the magazine in 1971. FYI, Surfer magazine came to an end in October 2020.

“Before John Severson, there was no ‘surf media,’ no ‘surf industry’ and no ‘surf culture’ — at least not in the way we understand it today.”
– Sam George, former Surfer Magazine executive editor, 1999

Around the same time as Severson sold Surfer Magazine, we saw coincidently saw the introduction of VHS, Video Home System.

The introduction of the Home Video System:

Magnetic tape or video started become common place in the 1950s and revolutionised the television industry. But these first systems were expensive and only held for professional environments. In the 1970’s this idea of the video tape started to find its way into home use via VCR (videocassette recorders). All of a sudden, the TV viewers were able to take control of their viewing pleasure and watch what they want when they want. In the later 70’s and early 80-‘s there was a format war between VHS and another format called Betamax (a word only recognised by the older surfing generation). Thankfully VHS eventually won the war and had gained a larger market share by 1980. However, in 1996 we saw the introduction of the DVD , by 2003 DVD rentals surpassed that of VHS and by 2008 DVD had replaced VHS of the preferred viewing home format.

But what did this mean for surfing? It meant the rebirth of many Surf Movies that had proceeded the conception of the home video system. Meaning a new channel of global distribution for surf movies to the ever growing and hungry surf industry. All of a sudden surf movies could be watched in any home with a VCR, at any time and as many times as they like. Being able to have you favourite surf movie on repeat allowed the everyday surfer to study their idols and envisage waves they had only seen once before. It also increased the desire to travel and explore. All of a sudden, these waves that were only reserved for the big screen single viewing, became an accessible dream to every surfer.

Now, it’s hard enough to find some of the best surf movies made on VHS, let alone finding a VCR that works well enough to play them. Thankfully they were all redistributed on DVD, and a lot of them also now available somewhere on the internet (it’s amazing what we can find on youtube).

So here is a chronological list of surf movies that were first brought to life on VHS that every surfer should watch:

The Endless Summer (1966)

Directed, produced and narrated by Bruce Brown, the endless summer follows surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August on a surf trip chasing waves around the world. The surfers leave their California homes to visit Hawaii, Australia, South Africa amongst other spots, all to an amazing instrumental sound track by the Sandals playing over the silent footage. Bruce Brown’s sardonic narration is also classic. The absolute classic of a surf movie (the first surf movie I had ever personally seen as it was aired on the national geographic channel in the early 90’s, and one of the main reasons I started to surf). Also worth noting the budget for the movie was $50,000 yet it raked in $20 million world wide.

Morning of the Earth (1971)

A film by Albert Falzon and an absolute master piece of surf cinematography and one of the greatest surf movies ever made. Featuring waves from Bali, Kirra, Oahu and many more the movie is way more than what you see on the screen. It also included a 48 page book of photos and writings.

Crystal Voyager (1973)

An Australian surf movie directed by David Elfick, filmed by Albert Falzon and narrated by George Greenough (who had previously made the 1970 surf film, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun). Arguably most famous for the 23 minute closing sequence, Echoes. Pink Floyd allowed Elfick and Greenough to use their song ‘Echoes’. This was in exchange for Pink Floyd being able to use the surf footage as a visual background when the performed their song in concert. To this day, this is one of the most awe-inspiring surf and music visual collaborations of all time.

Big Wednesday (1978)

One of the most iconic Hollywood cult surf movies ever. Starring Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey as three California surfers fooling around chasing waves before being drafted for the Vietnam war (and finding every excuse not to be drafted) They all go their own separate ways only to be reunited to ride an epic California big swell, coincidently on a Wednesday. An amazing soundtrack, which is worth downloading by itself, and directed by John Milius (the author of the original ‘Apocalypse Now’ script).

North Shore (1987)

An absolute classic movie from Universal Pictures. Starring in this Hollywood classic were surfers such as Gerry Lopez, Laird Hamilton, Occy alongside Matt Alder and Nia Peeples. Basically an Arizona surfer, laughed at by the Hawaiian locals, finds a girlfriend that teaches him to surf better and helps prepare him to ride the giant waves of Oahu. This one is so bad its good, defo worth a watch.

Point Break (1991)

“Utah, get me two” – One of the many famous quotes from this American action crime film and possibly the best all action Hollywood surf movie ever made. Starring Patrick Swayze as Bodhi (they call him Bodhisattva, a modern savage, the real searcher) and Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah. A real searcher, searching for the ultimate ride. Bodhi is real cray, crazier than you! No spoiling the plot of this one on the very small chance you haven’t seen it. Also, apologies if you have already watched the remake that was sadly made.

Quiksilver Presents Kelly Slater In Black and White (1991)

In Black and White is an in-depth close-up documentary of the future GOAT, Kelly Slater a year before his first world title in 1992 (who’d have guessed he would go on to win 11 titles). It features Kelly blazing through France, Cali, Florida, Fiji and Hawaii. Also features classic Carroll, Jeff Booth and Ross Clark Jones footage. Watchung these guys rip in the early 90’s is a real treat.

The Green Iguana (1992)

One of the very best surf movies of all time. Billabong went out and hired film maker Jack McCoy to set out and create a surf movie with Mark Occhilupo, Sunny Garcia and Luke Egan. The results were insane, with the some of the best cinematography and jaw dropping surf visuals of the 90’s. Watch this and you get the true meaning of why Occy us known as the raging bull, with full power rail attacks. Its also one of the first movies to document the Mentawais.

Kelly Slater in Kolor (1997)

Follow up to Black and White, the approximately named In Kolor lets you meet that man with four world titles behind him. More of an insight into his home life, his free surfing and what defines Kelly’s contest surfng..

Occy: The Occumentary (1998)

With an award winning soundtrack this is a real eye opener of the life Occy led. After falling hard this is a true celebration of Occy’s love for surfing and his amazing comeback, culminating in and winning at Bells. A true must watch documentary of one of our worlds truly great surfers.

Thicker Than Water (2000)

Not many people outside of surfing know that Jack Johnson started out making surf movies. After studying cinematography at Uni Jack teamed up with school pal Chris Malloy to create the Surfer magazine’s Video of the Year Award in the year 2000. With a long list of rippers and an incredible sound track, featuring some of Jacks early songs (and best), this is an epic collection of images and memories that will get your hairs standing on end.

The September Sessions (2002)

Jack Johnsons second surf film. Its no coincidence we end this list with The September Sessions. Released on VHS and DVD this was really a movie for DVD. As afore mentioned, DVD had pretty much taken over by 2002 and VHS was heading for deep water by then. Never the less, this for me is my personal favourite surf film. Touted as: The Tomorrowland Story Brought To Life In Brilliant 16mm Film. After Thicker Than Water, Kelly Slater asked Jack Johnson to accompany him on a trip to Indo where jack films Kelly, Rob Machado and Shane Dorian discover and surf flawless waves off Sumatra and the Ments. When Jack Johnson wasn’t surfing or filming on this trip, he spent his time writing songs which included ‘F-Stop blues’. The September Session is a true and very important piece of surfing history.

So, the internet has really changed things. VHS is no longer a thing and when was the last time you even bought a DVD? But the one things that has never changed is our desire to consume surf films. Whether it’s picking up our favourite surf movie or perhaps just re-watching an internet clip on repeat. There is nothing like a good surf part to get a solid spike of adrenaline and some blood pumping, especially when we have to get through a flat spell that we have just suffered.