Jason Baffa, the creator of ‘Single Fin: Yellow’ and ‘One California Day’ offers us a personal insight into his surf film work, goals, influences, aspirations and offers poignant advice to aspiring film makers, within the context of the wider surf film genre. (Photos by Devon Howard)
The key thing for me about making ‘Singlefin: Yellow’ and later, ‘One California Day’ (with Mark Jeremias and Build Worldwide) was that it was never about just making a good surf movie. It was always about trying to make a really good film. A film that could play at festivals and allow me to make more films and not necessarily surf projects. Which brings me to an important point for anyone inspired to take on this craft: Who is your audience and what is your goal as a filmmaker?
Guys like Bud Browne, Greg Noll, Hal Jepsen and Bruce Brown were some of the surf genre’s first the pioneers. Since those early days, surf films (like many products), have morphed to meet consumer and producer needs, resulting in what I see as several different sub genres.
. The Hollywood surf film: ‘Big Wednesday’ is hands down the best. There have been some really bad ones. Kudos however goes to A+ shooters like Don King, Sonny Miller & Mike Prickett for at least capturing the action beautifully… Too bad the stories seem to often be cheese ball. It is nice to see surfing shot with big money behind it.
. The corporate marketing movie: These generally profile team riders as a way of exploring and promoting brand values. They are easy to recognize, as they are usually pretty heavy on product placement and brand exposure. Arguably, Noll was also the first to utilize the original genre to represent his surfboard designs; the first industry marketing movies I suppose.
. The all action trick flick: this is what Taylor Steele specialized in with his early work and for many, the perfect pre-surf warm up. Often shot on video, these skate movie inspired videos are often focused more on great action than great production value but Steele has excelled by having both.
. The full on documentary: Examples of this, in my opinion include; ‘Bustin’ Down the Door’, ‘Riding Giants’ or ‘Surfwise’. I classify this type by interviews with a talking head (on camera), answering questions from an interviewer, classic documentary style focused on people who surf.
And lastly, where I feel my films fall:
. The independent experiential doc: I feel this is more surf film than the full on doc, but more about the lifestyle and the story of the experience than the marketing and action flicks. These films are independently produced, often without sponsors and embrace grass roots ways of getting the project out. In my opinion, Chris Malloy rejuvenated this sub genre with ‘Thicker than Water’ and this was furthered by Campbell’s ‘The Seedling’. Older films that might fit this type are ‘Five Summer Stories’ and ‘The Endless Summer’. They are as much about the experience of being a surfer, as about the documentation of the act or art of riding waves. Chris Malloy once told me that the surf film genre was built by surfers, traveling with their friends and documenting these trips to share with “the crew” back home. As he’s so modestly coined his own work – “these are just our home movies, thanks for watching.”
All these sub-genres tend to have different audiences who embrace the various work and this is why I always tell inspiring filmmakers: know your audience and what kind of film you are trying to make. You can’t make everyone happy, it’s truly impossible, but if you know your audience, you have a great place to start.
As far as weaving “story” into the films, I think to really convey or document the “experience” and share it with your friends – there has to be some level of storytelling. Otherwise, the audience is going to have no clue as to what is going on. I know for Mark Jeremias and I (very well shown with Mark’s DRIVE skateboarding series), we’ve tried to create a hybrid. In our world, there is content and story for a non-core audience (as in not a core surfer/skater) but we also capture the beauty, grace and excitement that is the act of riding and participating (for the core person). I like to say that I make films about surfers, not surfing. It starts and ends with the people and their stories but the imagery and the wave riding hopefully keeps the core surfer stoked.
For us, the hope is to make films that will enjoy a long shelf life. We don’t want to offer a “flavor of the week.” I think having interesting characters and showing their experience is key. Bruce Brown did this as good as anyone ever will with ‘The Endless Summer’ and that is why that film is still relevant today.
Ultimately you need to draw inspiration from those who have gone before (you can learn a lot this way). Then, know whom it is that you want to communicate with, be creative and shoot to the best technical standard you can. These are passion projects. You will either have to fund it yourself or find a way to “pitch” or sell it to investors. If your vision is clear and you can communicate it before cameras roll a single frame, you will be able to find support. If you are super lucky, maybe someone will embrace your vision enough to pay for the production on 16mm or even 35mm (film is a beautiful medium and 35mm is the Hollywood standard). I’d love to tell one of our simple campfire surf stories with Hollywood’s big budget toys – it would look amazing on the big screen and that’s really where surf movies belong.