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Only Mother Nature’s most awesome brews interest the maverick big-wave surfers in Storm Surfers 3D, an immersive documentary that uses pioneering technology to get right inside the lip of some truly monstrous waves.
Unusually character-driven for a genre that typically deals in braggadocious montages of big barrel riding, this polished Australian production is buoyed along by the outsized personalities of a pair of pushing-50 best mates – tow-surfing legend Ross Clarke-Jones and two-time world surfing champion Tom Carroll. The two larrikin boarders are escorting the film on a tour of one-night-only screenings around Australia through August ahead of its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.
Without the heart-lightening sensuality of Dana Brown’s Step into Liquid, still the best of the more recent surf documentaries, Storm Surfers will struggle for the same crossover, but its adrenalized thrills, enhanced by the 3D format, make it a must-see for surfing aficionados and fans of extreme sport.
“Surfing big waves is not about how big your abs are or how much you bench press, I think it’s about your nerve,” the stocky, freckle-faced Carroll observes, and these guys have it on tap. They’re in their element with the thundering crash of several tons of water at their back, and go to extreme lengths to chase down the most majestic of the open-ocean swells, often being flown and towed behind jet-skis up to 25 miles out to sea. Anything under 30 feet is a ripple.
Across three months of southern winter in 2011, filmmakers Chris Nelius and Justin McMillan pulled together a crew of 25 and over 1,000 kg of equipment to follow Carroll and Clarke-Jones as they set off on eight different surfing missions around Australia and the Great Southern Ocean. Meteorologist Ben Matson is on board to pinpoint and track the storms that produce the colossal swells these men live to ride.
It’s a mad, half-comic boys own adventure, but the stakes are high. The drama reaches a peak at Turtle Dove Shoal, 75km off the coast of Western Australia, when Carroll nearly loses his life tackling a brute of a wave never before documented or ridden.
The gloriously shot swells naturally hog the spotlight, but candid interviews with the human stars lend emotional heft. Two decades of affectionately bickering friendship inform their interaction and it’s fun to watch. But Clarke-Jones and Carroll, who met on the professional surfing circuit in the 1980s, have followed different life paths outside their shared passion: Clarke-Jones is still fearless as a boy, while the slightly older Carroll, with a wife, three daughters and some serious surfing injuries, is more cautious about pushing boundaries.
Still, out at sea, they’re both living in the moment, living to the limit, and specially created tiny 3D cameras combine with large landscape cameras to allow even the most confirmed landlubber to experience the joy and danger of cresting a 65-foot wave. The production team essentially turned the surfers into human tripods, providing a truly unique angle as they tear down the waves holding a camera mounted on a curved boom out behind them. Rousing visuals are backed by a classical score composed by Australian violinist/composer/conductor – and keen surfer – Richard Tognetti and Michael Yezerski.
Production company: 6ixty Foot Films
Cast: Ross Clarke-Jones, Tom Carroll, Ben Matson
Narrator: Toni Collette
Directors: Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius
Producers: Marcus Gillezeau, Ellenor Cox
Executive producers: Alaric McAusland, Anthos Simon, Philipp Manderla
Director of photography: David Maguire
Music: Michael Yezerski and Richard Tognetti
Editors: Rodrigo Balart and James Manche
Sales: 6ixty Foot Films, Madman Entertainment
No MPAA rating, 95minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival