Storm Surfers 3D Rides the 3D Wave
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Storm Surfers 3D Rides the 3D Wave
If you love surf movies as I do, going to see Storm Surfers 3D is a no-brainer. Featuring two-time world surf champion Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones, a pioneer in tow surfing, this movie uses 3D to its best advantage. "There's certain situations where you get positioned in this film that you're never going to be," says director Justin McMillan. "It's amazing that we've got a 3D camera in that position. People will walk away from the cinemas and say, 'Wow, I actually rode a barrel and I probably am never going to ride a barrel'. It's the closest thing to riding a big wave without actually getting wet."
Although the movie Storm Surfers 3D is already in theatrical release in Australia, it has yet to hit big screens in the U.S. or abroad. The project is just the latest from the team: Directors McMillan and Chris Nelius had first got together to make The Sixth Element, a biopic about Clarke-Jones; Carroll joined the group for Cape of Storms (2006) and Matson came aboard to shoot Tai Fu (2007), cementing the relationship between the directors and surfers and setting up the conditions to make the first Storm Surfers project Storm Surfers -- Dangerous Banks in 2008 and Storm Surfers -- New Zealand in 2010. The previous Storm Surfer projects were aired on television (including on the Fuel Channel in the U.S.).
Storm Surfers 3D was the first theatrical project for producers Marcus Gillezeau and Ellenor Cox, whose company Firelight Productions has produced prime-time drama and factual television for networks around he world. At the 3D Summit held in Hollywood in September, I had a chance to sit down with Gillezeau to talk about the experience of making Storm Surfers 3D. My first question was the choice to shoot in 3D, especially given that the production was already going to be physically difficult. Did he have any misgivings?
"None whatsoever," said Gillezeau. "First, it seemed obvious to do it in 3D. Big waves, great characters, 3D...Everyone said it was going to be impossible and cost us three times as much as a 2D film, but as a filmmaker I've always loved exploring new technologies so I have no fear of it."
"When we set out to make a 3D film, we knew we'd have to build our own rigs and do a lot of R&D," he continued. "We totally underestimated how much was involved, but that's filmmaking. If we'd known, we probably wouldn't have done it, but the result would have been boring. The way to have a competitive edge is to push the bounds and be ahead of the market. This way we've delivered a film way ahead of the market that will be successful for investors for a long time to come."
Surfer: Paul Morgan
Just for the record, the co-production partners were 3net in the U.S., Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales, Red Bull Media House, Fulcrum and Deluxe. In addition to the 95-minute feature film, Firelight Productions also produced a "multiplatform campaign," including a webisode series, social media, competitions, an eBook and a game ("Storm Surfers -- Big Wave Hunters") for iOS and Android mobile devices. All-media delivery is a particular passion for Cox and Gillezeau, who previously won an International Digital Emmy for Scorched in 2009.
Still, Storm Surfers 3D was going to be the most ambitious project that the team had ever done, and they planned accordingly. They assembled 25 crewmembers, five jet-skis, helicopters, light aircraft and travelled to seven destinations and over 17,000 kms in a single four-month season. Some of them were literally in the middle of the ocean. "When you're 75 kilometers offshore and it takes you six hours on a fishing boat to get out there, we don't even get a chance to worry about Ross and Tom and whether they're okay and doing their job right," said McMillan. "We were just so preoccupied with trying to get these cameras to work and have everything line up properly for when that moment happens, because you can miss it in a matter of seconds."
The cameras were two SI2Ks with several prime lenses on a "pimped out" Element Technica rig, and two Sony EX3s with Fujinon lenses on a side-by-side rig.
The cameras were two SI2Ks with several prime lenses on a "pimped out" Element Technica rig, and two Sony EX3s with Fujinon lenses on a side-by-side rig. The most complex rig was a customized mount for 3D GoPro cameras that a yacht-building company built the production for $15,000. This rig would allow the production to get different angles from the 'hero' jet-ski. "We knew we had to create our own stereo rigs because we needed to get very specific shots looking down the barrel of a wave, and no one had shot an observational documentary in 3D," said Gillezeau.
Ross Clarke-Jones, Tom Carroll and Ben Matson at The Pinnacles in W.A.
The first chance to use the new rig took place at what became the production's most death-defying location: Cowaramup Bombora -- or Cow Bombie -- a huge open-ocean break three kilometers off the shore of Western Australia in freezing, shark-infested waters. "Flying a crew of 20 people and 1,000 kilos of equipment across Australia is massively expensive, and if just one piece of gear or logistics is not in place, we could miss the money shot and jeopardize the whole mission," said Gillezeau.
What nearly happened was much worse. After towing Clarke-Jones into a massive wave, Carroll's jet-ski shunted over the crest, crashing very close to Ross, who was crossing the face, oblivious to what was happening so close to him. Carroll hung on to the jet-ski and managed to get it away from Ross at the last second. "It was only after we reviewed the footage that we realized how close to death the boys had come," said Gillezeau.
© Andrew Chisholm.
Shipsterns Bluff. © Andrew Chisholm.
They "boys" were safe, but the jet-ski was badly damaged and the custom-built 3D rig and 3D GoPro cameras sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The next day, divers went down to retrieve what they could, but found nothing. "The physical risks involved in making Storm Surfers are only half the challenge," noted produce Cox. "The financial stakes are also incredibly high." Altogether, the production used 26 cameras, newly designed rigs and myriad devices to keep water off the lenses to produce 1,500 hours of footage.
Despite the dangers and rigors of shooting surfers riding giant waves, Gillezeau said that building the rigs they used was not the most complex part of the project. "For the rigs, there was an existing set of knowledge," he said. "The post production was much more complex. We were working with eight different codecs and we shot in multiple formats."
Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll at Cape Solander.
Behind the Scenes
How to handle all the footage -- 260 million frames of it in 3D! -- required the team to create its own 3D post production workflow that took all the different codecs and formats into consideration. We put all the footage into Cineform and then it was a hugely complex exercise to ensure we could link the Cineform footage back to the original rushes without losing the connection, and then link the Cineform rushes to the Avid DnX36, so the Avid would link back to the Cineform which could link back to the original rushes," explained Gillezeau. "If anything went wrong with the Cineform intermediary codec, we had to be able to go back to the original masters and re-output it. To keep the link between the three codecs in terms of tape numbers was very difficult. There were a lot of impediments in terms of the management of data, so we built an entire data management system."
Storm Surfers continues; Gillezeau said the next adventure is Storm Surfers Gone Troppo, in Hawaii and the Pacific. "Ross and Tom's goal is to be surf explorers and they'll be looking for maiden waves in the Pacific that haven't been surfed," he said. "The story and the adventure derive from the unknown, the risk and the fun of exploration." Needless to say, it will also be in 3D.
Ross Clarke-Jones in SS3D.
What did he learn from Storm Surfers 3D that he'll apply to the next 3D film? "The most important thing I learned was to stick to the philosophy we approached this production with," said Gillezeau. "To put story first and for all the complexities of the research and development necessary to make this film, we made sure it never interfered with the way we covered the story, edited it and delivered it. We didn't make this film to be a gimmick so we never let the 3D guide or dictate how we made the film in terms of story. As a result, the first thing critics have said is that the film exceeded their expectations in terms of story. It comes with the extraordinary bonus of being the most visceral experience you'll have in adventure documentaries because it's in 3D. It enhanced an already great story. Not in a million yeas would I swap this approach on the next film."
Storm Surfers 3D is indeed a perfect marriage of content and technology; as Gillezeau said, a "no brainer" to make in 3D. My guess is that they've also learned other lessons along the way. Their customized rigs will benefit from the experience, as will their approach to post production.
At the end of the 3D Summit, Gillezeau was finally able to screen a few 3D clips from the movie, and the footage was as spectacular and exciting as promised. I'm looking forward to seeing it on the big screen.
© Mark Watson - inciteimages.com
All images may be enlarged by clicking on them.
Title image: Ross Clarke-Jones surfing Shipsterns Bluff. Photo courtesy Andrew Chisholm.