/ storm surfers
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For many, the sea is a source of justifiable terror. It lashes our coasts with cyclones, drowns racing yacht crews, and keeps Tasmania at a safe and respectable distance. And yet despite the very real dangers (the pounding surf, hidden riptides, and sharks in abundance), the ocean is an integral part of the Australian identity, as inextricable from our blood as the baking sun and desert scrub.
Two-time ASP World Tour winner, Tom Carroll, and his equally accredited best mate, Ross Clarke-Jones (the first non-Hawaiian to win the Eddie Aikau Memorial Surfing Invitational – a big deal) have the ocean in their blood. Big-wave daredevils since youth, now fast approaching middle age, their quest for the “perfect wave” is proving perennial. With personal meteorologist and documentary crew in tow, the pair set about surfing some of the largest, most isolated, and extreme coastlines of Australia – and when they learn of a secret break, 75km from land and home to monster waves never-before-surfed, it’s not just a question of will they surf it, but will they survive…
Storm Surfers 3D is the third collaboration between surfing legends Carroll, Clarke-Jones, and directors Chris Nelius and Justin McMillan, and the first to be released in cinemas. Documenting the Australian winter surf season and culled from 1500 hours of 3D footage (“A hundred thirty something million frames!” Carroll enthuses), the film is an often spectacular love letter to two former world-pros and their passion for the sport: part character-bio, part Endless Summer (although clearly colder and with distinctly less board-shorts).
Carroll and Clarke-Jones are an affable pair, their easy banter and permanent state of juvenility making them easy heroes to root for. Downplaying the dangers even as they narrowly escape them (read: crushing swells, near drownings, and out-of-control jet-skis), their deep love for their sport and clear exhilaration at pulling off the perfect wave is infectious. As the camera rides shotgun behind them – inches from the giant curl of a rolling barrel exploding from the screen in gloriously immersive white-water 3D – their glee at facing down a roaring monster is hard to resist.
While the human element of Storm Surfers (along with the basic science behind the storms, rendered in nifty animated graphics and narrated by Toni Collette) makes for an engaging enough experience, it’s the 3D of the title that makes the film memorable. Captured on tiny, water-proofed cameras in true stereoscopic 3D (no post-conversion here), the film is wonderfully sensory: sea-sickness is unavoidable as sea foam flies towards the screen and towering waves lurch onto your lap; old-school 3D schlock, but highly effective here.
The 3D component of the film, seamlessly integrated into the finished product, wasn’t always part of the plan. Says Carroll, “I wasn’t originally sold on the idea. For me, 3D was things for things like “Avatar”, where halfway through the film I’d be like ‘Get these glasses off me!’” The trick was not to let the film become, as Clarke-Jones gleefully puts it, “a vomit-fest.” Luckily, the audience’s sea-legs are quick to establish themselves, and soon the swoop and roll of the waves becomes an exhilarating experience to rival any 3D blockbuster.
While shooting in such a treacherous, aquatic environment would prove difficult at the best of times, the demands of true 3D photography posed a particular set of challenges. “All the information you’re gaining in a 3D film is totally different,” says Carroll. “You can’t do a chop and change. Everything has to be right.” A single drop of water on the camera lens would muddy the 3D effect, ruing a once-in-a-lifetime shot, impossible to replicate for a second take. To solve the problem, explains Clarke-Jones, “The [technical team] developed an “air knife”, connected to air tanks on the jetskis, to blast the water off the lens.” Without pioneering these fixes to basic photography, the whole film, and it’s unique footage, “would’ve been a waste of time.”
Although its story is small in the context of docu-drama as a whole, it’s the implementation of 3D technology that makes Storm Surfers not merely a worthy entry in Australian documentary cinema, but possibly a revolutionary one. Through these cameras, our country, on both land and sea, has never looked so jaw-droppingly beautiful; the potential for its application in future documentaries, as well as conventional narrative cinema, is tantalisingly real.