Interview: Christopher Nelius Talks Big Wave Surfing Documentary STORM SURFERS 3D

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic

Storm Surfers 3D offers far more than run-of-the-mill nature-porn docs. Sure, it's got tremendous footage of waves and silly people on funny boards trying to catch them. I saw the film on a big screen last September at TIFF, and was blown away by the spectacle. Yet the film is actually quite a bit more sophisticated than random shots of water churning.

Tracing the friendship of Australian big-wave legends Tom Carroll and Ross Clark-Jones, the film treads more than water, delving into notions of mortality, aging, and the visceral thrill of the hunt.

I spoke to co-director Christopher Nelius via Skype while he was in the UK.

TWITCH: How did you convince the reticent Tom and Ross to open up about their feelings, as much as about their journey to find the perfect wave?

Christopher Nelius: We kind of walked them through that whole thing, so I think they were kind of ready for it when they saw it and like anyone would be, they were nervous about how they would appear. And I think that on the whole, they're really, really happy with it -- that's what they've told me, anyway.

You've already made several films with these two, but this is the first one conceived for a theatrical canvas. Was it a conscious decision that this was going to be a theatrical experience first, and how does that scope change how you approach the work?

[Co-Director] Justin [McMillan] and I are big fans of feature film documentaries, sport-related ones; everything from Senna to Touching the Void and so on, even Dogtown and Z Boys which is an historical archival movie. With great feature film stories you have more ability to be creative visually, as well as getting more of a personal experience.

While we were shooting we always had our mind sort of in two worlds, being able to cover the stuff that you would want to see on a TV show but also the more creative stuff that is going to go into a 90 minute arc. We always had the idea of doing those cool little personal animations and stuff, that was very much in the plan before we started shooting. So, yeah, we had both considerations going while we were filming it.

I can only assume the film was a logistical nightmare to shoot. Given that this is your first experience shooting 3D, how did all that work out?

Firstly, we wouldn't have been able to do this in 3D if we hadn't done some similar stuff in 2D first. It's one of those kind of serendipitous things where we had a history of doing this stuff in 2D already. 

We did go into 3D a little bit naïve, it was our first experience with it, but also really motivated by the idea of showing this in 3D and how spectacular that might be.  We didn't even really know what we had until we saw our first rushes from our first shoot, which is actually the first surf scene in the movie, it's shot in Tazmania. It takes days for them to transcode the rushes because in 3D everything takes longer. We finally got to sit down and watch it, with glasses and on a 3D TV, and we were just blown away.

That's when I realized that 3D is just at the tip of what it's meant to be, particularly with documentary. 

The only 3D documentaries that I'd seen before were a couple of IMAX movies and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the Werner Herzog movie. I missed Pina, the Wim Wenders one, which I still haven't seen. I'm bummed about that.

It's on Criterion Blu-Ray, you should pick it up.

That's what I'm going to do!

Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- no pun intended -- it's quite primitive when it comes to its 3D, so that wasn't even really something to emulate either. And apart from IMAX films, there just isn't much 3D out there in terms of documentary.

I think 3D and documentary are made for each other. Like seeing the real world in 3D, particularly things like nature films and natural history and that kind of stuff, like they're just made for each other and I have no idea why there aren't more films out there that are being shot in native 3D out in the real world.

I just don't understand it because the experience is so different. I'm gonna bet that you thought the same thing when you saw it on the big screen for the first time.  Some of it is akin to going from black and white to colour, you just have this really different sense of depth. It's really different to watching most 3D films that are in cinemas, which are like animated films or half-animated films like Avengers or Transformers or whatever. 

The first time I saw the ocean in 3D I was totally blown away,

I'm a big proponent of 3D, I have been for years. It's the things that you wouldn't notice like when you watch the ocean as it's normally shot it's a very flat thing. When you see the ocean in this film, it's this incredibly intricate thing dimensionally, with these micro eddies that 3D brings out. It's why golf is actually astounding in 3D! You think, who gives a fuck about golf, but when you actually see the lay of the green you actually realize the texture of what they're dealing with. Or soccer, you see the dynamics of the movement from the centrally located camera.

Surfing for me is a no brainer to be done well in 3D. That said, how much after the fact had to be massaged in order for it to meet your artistic vision? Were there 2D shots that had to be tweaked, or other sort of elements that needed to be brought up to snuff?

Firstly, we couldn't afford to shoot with like Epics and Red and stuff like that, we didn't have enough money to do that. We ended up building half of our cameras. 

We had a couple of cameras that were off the shelf; we were very lucky to be pretty much the very first people to get our hands on those 3D Go Pros. Pound for pound, the perspective and images that we got out of that camera were one of the most awesome parts of the movie.

We had about 6 types of cameras, like a big wide angle camera to the tiny little Go Pros. It was extremely difficult putting all of it together, very technical. We had a really amazing, really small group of camera guys, young Australian dudes that are really passionate about 3D.

I feel really lucky to have been able to be part of that team with those guys because everyone just went beyond in terms of their commitment and trying to pull it off technically. There could have been plenty of times where we could have just said, you know what, this is too hard and it's just not possible -- but we were passionate enough about trying to deliver that experience to just keep going.

It was really hard! When you're trying to shoot 3D with a left eye and a right eye lens, or two cameras or two lenses, if you get one drop of water on one lens and it's not on the other lens, then that pretty much ruins your 3D shot. It's called "retinal rivalry", and we had to home engineer ways of keeping water off the lenses.

With one of our cameras we had spin tech lenses, where a circular lens spins at a high rate and you put it in front of your camera lens and so the camera can't see the spinning lens, but when some water goes on it, it immediately flicks it off.  We had another one with our Go Pros on the jet skis where we built what we called an air knife, where we had a tank of compressed air on the jet ski and a hose running up to the Go Pros with a little jet. There was a switch on the ski so the jet ski driver could flick a switch and it would blast compressed across the lens of the Go Pro to free it from any water. 

That was the diligence of trying to capture as much footage as we possibly could in those crazy scenarios out in the middle of the ocean. A little of it was just hoping for the best, hoping that we would get those shots that were usable. 

There was a lot of work in post production to assist that as well. Sometimes when you're shooting documentary it comes down to the content of the shot versus the quality of the shot. Quite often what's happening on screen is way more important than how it looks visually. If there's a guy like who's almost drowned and he's trying to get back on a jet ski, as an audience you can live with some retinal rivalry, you can live with some dirty water on the lens and that kind of stuff. If you tried to do that in a Hollywood movie, they would never let you do it. 

The only stuff that we shot 2D on the whole that we had to convert to 3D was our helicopter stuff. We couldn't afford to put a 3D camera in the helicopter, but that didn't end up being in that much of the film. We converted that, and there would be a handful of shots that were shot in 3D but we actually would have converted to 2D and then reconverted to 3D because of that retinal rivalry issue.

I totally understand why you guys are promoting that this was shot in 3D and that's a very important part, especially for documentary. For me, it drives me a little bit crazy because post-converted often, even for things in 3D, is a necessity for exactly the reasons you talk about. Heck, AVATAR has post-convert elements. James Cameron shot in 3D and then had to post-convert it because of focal issues, because of lighting issues, etc. So my issue is always are you providing exceptional 3D, I don't care how you did it.  From an audience perspective. 

In terms of 3D capture vs. conversion, we did everything in every possible scenario to be capturing native 3D. We stayed as strictly to that as we humanly could. When I say that we converted, like the chopper shots to 3D, that's not the same conversion technique that someone like James Cameron would be having at their disposal. That's rotoscoping and stuff, and there's like none of that going on with our film. 

Everything, I can't remember what the percentage is, but it's very high, is native 3D throughout the whole thing and I've seen converted, I've seen there's good conversion, there's bad conversion....

...There's good native and bad native...

Yeah, absolutely! I've seen all of those different variations, and I certainly see native 3D being way better than converted. 

I think as well it comes down to a sort of creative directorial issue as well where I think that if you shoot something in 2D, then the film language that you use is a 2D film language. You might frame an interview where you cut off the top of the guy's head and that's common in 2D but you would never do that in 3D.

You can kind of tell when something's been shot in a 2D mindset and then converted to 3D and it's not very effective. We were on set [with a] 3D monitor, 3D glasses, monitoring everything in 3D as we were going, as much as humanly possible and that really affects how you frame shots. It affects how long you hold on a shot, it's really fascinating. 

I think that there's a lot of new language to be explored with 3D, particularly in documentary that hasn't been done yet.

Now that you've sort of written the first few sentences in this new language, will your subsequent projects be exclusively in 3D and could you talk a little bit about what you're working on now?

I don't think 3D's place is to dominate and take over, it's just another tool to tell a story.

I was really impressed that Baz Luhrmann wanted to make The Great Gatsby in 3D, and I can see why he wanted to do it because it gave him more layers to play with and that's his style. He loves the layered, art directed style, it plays into what he does. 

Other films don't need to be 3D. I don't think what we're going to do next has to be 3D. It could be, and it would be great, and I think there's some really interesting things to do with a doco-verite style but in 3D. 

There's a place to make a 3D film, narrative film, but a documentary style. Put the 3D camera on your shoulder, shoot it that way. No one's really done it yet, I reckon that there's a really cool opportunity there for someone to do it.

Justin and I have been developing another ocean-related feature  that I can't tell you too much about. It's a narrative film, it's not surfing but it's ocean-related. It's still got elements of action in it the same way that Storm Surfers does. It would be awesome in 3D, but whether we would actually get the opportunity to shoot it in 3D is another thing because I think the production landscape in regards to 3D is in a weird place at the moment.

I met some producers that were just absolutely into it and others who aren't, so we'll just wait and see what happens.

There's a slew of classic surfing movies of people who've managed to shoot the ocean in really beautiful ways that people might not be familiar with. Can you give a rundown of films that influenced you to get into shooting this type of work? 

Firstly, on this film side is two films that really strongly influenced me personally. One of them, they're both Australian, one of them is called Morning of the Earth. It's 16 mm, from 1971, and made by this guy called Albee Falzon. You'll find it online really easily. It documents the counterculture surfing community at the time. It's one of the first things shot in Bali.

The entire film doesn't have one line of dialogue in it, it's just sort of following these different surfers around and filming surfing and it's all to music. The lyrics become the narrative to the story. I've always loved that film, I think it's really impressionistic and amazing. 

There's another film called Echoes which is kind of like the epilogue of a documentary called Crystal Voyager. It was made by an Aussie guy called David Elfick. The subject of the film, this guy called George Greenough, is like this really seminal mad professor of surfing. He put a 16mm Bolex camera in a water housing or on his shoulder and then kneeboarded. He would film this stuff, pull into barrels over and over again, shooting at high speed and get these incredible images. It's a 20 minute film and it's all to the Pink Floyd track Echoes.  It's psychedelic and really innovative.

The shots that we've got in our movie are the same angles he shot back in the 70s but in 3D.

What we tried to do with Storm Surfers is make it for people that don't surf, or people that don't even go into the ocean. We've never really been into trying to just impress surfers, although I think that any surfer would really love the film as well. We're very much about trying to make a universal story.

In the filming style we were really influenced by observational documentaries like [TV shows] Deadliest Catch or Storm Chasers, trying to get the audience into the scene as much as possible. We put cameras all over their boards, put them on the jet skis, had the guys wearing waterproof microphones so that you feel like you're in the scene rather than just watching slow motion footage of an amazing wave from a distance, which is what you quite often see in other films.

We were very much trying to give people that visceral real-time experience; what it's like to be in one of these scenarios when Ross is pulling into a 20 foot wave or Tom's wiping out on a 30 foot wave 30 miles out to sea.

As long as you can get wet, it's all good!

How did Toni Colette become involved in the film as a narrator?

When we started cutting the film together, we had the idea to try and do something different with the narrator. Anyone who puts together a feature doc, you always think, ok, is there a name that we can get to read the voiceover? Before we were even thinking about that, we were already thinking about a female voice.

It is such a male dominated zone, and that's not what we were trying to make with this. We wanted it to be quite balanced and to include women, so the idea of a female voice came up.  She ended up kind of representing mother nature in a way without being too kind of direct.

Then you have Ross and Tom who are like two overgrown little boys, so we thought that would be a really cool kind of dynamic.

A friend of a friend was her manager or agent in Australia, and she lives in Sydney I think most of the time. We got her a copy of the film just in 2D, I think it was pretty rough still with my voice on it or something. She watched it with her husband and really loved it and wanted to do it. So right in the middle of that super stressful part of post-production, when Justin and I were just like shells of human beings, we managed to get a window, a couple of hours in a studio with Toni.

It was really amazing. She was so lovely, she loves the film, loves Ross and Tom, and, yeah, it was just a great experience to work with her, and slightly intimidating. 

I've been in love with her since MURIEL'S WEDDING, so it all works out for me...

Yeah, she's really cool man.

I think she always had it in her mind that she would do something like this at one point in her life, like narrate a film. for some reason. And she saw it and she said, yeah, this is the one, this is the one I want to do. 

It's interesting because some people really pick up on her name and then other people go through the whole film and don't even realize that it's her. Which I kind of like as well, it means that she's not sort of dominating it and really kind of fits into the story.

Despite being well-versed in shooting waves, was there one particular moment that the ocean surprised you guys?

The ocean is always doing stuff that we don't expect it to do! If we had enough money to pay someone to follow Justin and I around making this thing, that would probably be a cross between a disaster movie or something like Lost in La Mancha.

I would have loved that movie!

The ocean continually does things we don't expect. We have Bill, who's the meteorologist in the movie. You would always have to take any prediction that he would make with a grain of salt because so many times, it hasn't worked out. Just as many times, it has worked out!

There were frequent occurrences where we were convinced the day before when we got out to the break it was going to be epic, amazing, intense and perfect weather and it would be sideways raining and windy. The first thing in the movie, I didn't expect it to be that grey, it was just incredible.

That's the one thing you can be sure of, you can't be sure of what the ocean's going to do. 

You have to be prepared and be ready for when you're out there. That's something I really like about Ross and Tom as well. I'm seeing a lot of surfers get really kind of shitty when they turn up and it's not perfect. Ross and Tom just love it when it's not perfect. They don't care what shape it's in, they just want to get out there and get into the ocean. They have no fear of it, and they just revel in it.

Being able to be pulled along by their instincts is really cool and quite valuable. We've often found ourselves out in places and no other surfers have bothered to go out there because the others are asking, "why would you do that, that's crazy!"

Meanwhile, Ross and Tom are saying, "Yeah, let's do it!  We love it, let's go!"

Storm Surfers 3D starts rolling out into US cinemas this weekend, and opens in Canada on 24 June. The doc will also premiere in China at the Shanghai International Film Festival this weekend.

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