Australian filmmakers Justin McMillian and Chris Nelius have raised the bar on surf movies by shooting their latest big-wave doc in 3-D—and boy, does it pay off. Storm Surfers 3-D follows two-time world champ Tom Carroll and tow-surfing legend Ross Clarke-Jones as they seek out Australia’s most massive swells. The 3-D cinematography immerses the viewer in giant wave barrels and spray, ratcheting up the intensity on a visceral level. Carroll and Clarke-Jones are entertaining to watch too, as they fraternize and reflect on surfing at age 50.
The directors spoke to Outside about the film, which just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
How did the movie come about?
Chris: Justin and I have known Ross, Tom and Ben [Matson, the surf forecaster] for half a dozen years. Myself, Justin and Ross were the ones that really sat around the table one day and looked at what Ross’ life was: chasing storms and zipping halfway around the world to catch the swell. We thought that’d be a great documentary for a TV show or film or whatever.
It seems only natural to shoot waves in 3-D. I’m surprised no one’s done it before.
Justin: It wasn’t a natural beginning, that’s for sure. Everybody that we spoke to said there’s a reason you don’t see 3-D water films—it’s because they’re so hard. We were like, we’ll figure it out, how hard can it be? The first six months of this project were incredibly challenging. Really exciting, but the feeling of not knowing if your hard work is actually going to work—I’ve never experienced that with any other project that I’ve been involved in. With 2-D, you shoot it, you check rushes, you know exactly what you’ve got straightaway. With 3-D, you shoot it, it gets processed, it gets aligned, you check it about two months later.
Can you talk about the equipment? You had to create your own camera systems, right?
Justin: We explained the shots we wanted to our camera department, and Chris and I spent about a couple weeks working out how we wanted to cover each scene. Pretty much everything was customized in some way shape or form. There wasn’t anything that you just bought off the shelf, even if it meant it was put into a housing.
How many cameras did you have total?
Chris: If you put all of them in a row, it’d be something like 25. In terms of different types of camera, I guess we had about six or seven. We were lucky enough to be one of the first people in the world to be given the 3-D versions of the GoPro. They’d just signed off on the prototype and gone into production, and they sent us a bunch of cameras, many of which are at the bottom of the ocean right now.
No one went diving for equipment?
Chris: We actually did dive. I don’t know if you remember the scene with the jet ski at Cow Bombie. The camera bracket broke off and it sunk to the bottom of the reef. Two of our camera guys went and hired scuba gear and dived down there. It was like a meeting place for great white sharks. They couldn't find it.
Justin: It was about a $25,000 mistake that morning. You know what, it wasn’t so much the money as it was the time it takes to design, build and fit it, and it was gone in the first session.
The stick that Ross and Tom are holding when they’re surfing, I assume that’s some sort of camera?
Chris: Yeah, that was one of the GoPro cameras. We discovered 3-D is really complicated mathematically. One of the basic problems is that you can’t get too close to the subject or the [lens] wigs out. With the GoPro camera it was about three or four feet in order for the shot to work. One of our cameramen was trying to figure out a way for them to hold the camera so that you get the point-of-view shot of them riding a 20-foot wave. He created this pole and stuck the camera on the end, and put a bodyboard leash on the other end. We certainly weren’t gonna force the surfers to use it in any dangerous situation. But when we went to Shipsterns, that first big break, Ross just grabbed it and went for it. We’ve never seen that looking-over-the-shoulder angle while riding a wave. It’s almost like seeing his head in the shot.
How did you keep water off the lenses?
Justin: We developed these tanks which basically sent oxygen up into the brackets and shot air across the two lenses. That’s how we kept the droplets off. It was up to the driver to flick on the air every time he was gonna do anything, just to keep the lenses clear.
I imagine the pressure on Ben, to get surf forecasts right, must have been bigger than usual.
Chris: Yeah, you saw that shot where there’s 20 of us traveling on one trip. That was a lot of pressure. In reality, we make those decisions together so it’s not entirely just in his hands. But the decision was made off his recommendation. Ben’s really thick-skinned and it’s like he says in the film, if you’re not prepared for it to go wrong, then don’t be a surf forecaster. It’s really thankless. When the waves are perfect they’re not like, “Thanks, Ben!” But when it’s wrong it’s Ben’s fault.
What were the most challenging things to shoot?
Justin: The most challenging thing for me on that film was fatigue, and trying to maintain a family life with the responsibilities. We were running a team of 20 people that had never done it before. A lot of them had never even been out to sea.
Was Tom and Ross’ surfing affected by the cameras at all?
Justin: They’ve become cameramen themselves in a way, and they’re really savvy about what we wanted to achieve. Tom wasn’t into holding the handle as much as Ross, because of that accident at Turtle Dove, but they were really proactive and into what we were doing.
Chris: That’s why we made the film with these guys is because they want people to come in and see their world. So if you give them a camera, they’re like, “Yeah! People are gonna see what I see and see why I get so excited.” It’s just as easy for a surfer to be like, “Come on, man, I don’t have to do that. Just film me surfing.” These guys are just really inclusive and are really open to wanting to do more.
I like how candid they were about their ages. I don’t know if all surfers would talk about that.
Chris: No, I don’t think they would. Certainly a lot of guys who are athletes, there’s a lot of ego there and they don’t wanna talk about those issues. With Tom, he’s a guy who was the best surfer in the world at one point in his life. If you look at a top 10 surfers of all time list, I guarantee he’ll be on it. And it’s like Michael Jordan found it hard to retire, Kelly Slater’s finding it hard to retire, Lance Armstrong found it hard to retire. They’re these legends, and to get insight with Tom as to what it’s like to finally see chinks in the armor and having to deal with that part of his life maybe going past him pretty soon, I was really blown by his candidness.
Justin: He’s at a stage now where he doesn’t give a shit what people think. You ask him something and he’ll tell you. We didn’t set out with that theme in the film, it just presented itself in front of us and we were all like, Oh hang on this is really strong, people are gonna identify with this. These guys are like, Yeah, I’m really scared that I’m doing this. You identify with them.
Chris: Probably our main goal with this film was to make it for people who don’t surf. We’d like to think that anybody can sit down and watch it and not only ride a 20-foot wave but meet two really extraordinary people and feel like, “Why don’t I dust off the old mountain bike or go wind-boarding like I did five years ago?”
How big were the highest waves?
Justin: Probably like 20 feet. We wanted to get three times the size of that, but you’ve got a four-month shooting window and you get what you get. There was a couple slightly bigger scenarios, but the quality wasn’t really that great.
Chris: But also one of the cool things [that 3-D captures] is that sense of volume, not just height. Like that wave that Ross surfs in Sydney, that breaks on the rock. I think any surfer in the world would understand that it’s not necessarily about how tall the wave is, but it can be about how heavy it is, how intense it is.
There were some close calls in the film, where you feared for their lives.
Justin: There were lots of moments where [you thought], This is it. The one moment that we’re hoping was never gonna happen to us as filmmakers is happening right now.
Chris: That’s the thing with Ross and Tom as well, is that doesn’t stop them. I think they’ve been doing this since they were like 15, where there’s just never even a consideration of stopping. Any sensible person would wipe out like Tom did and say, Hey, I’m gonna call it a day, maybe I’ll surf tomorrow, maybe I’ll surf in three or four hours.
When you’ve got Ross calling you a girl for bailing, that’s another incentive.
Chris: The friendship between those two guys is priceless. It’s amazing because they’re different characters, but then they have things in common. They push each other. I know Tom has a lot of fear of missing out when Ross is off doing something; Tom’s always like, I’ve gotta go do it with him. I think that’s just come from an early age. So many people when they’re 50 years old don’t have fun. And it’s great watching those guys have fun.