6 tips from an aspiring surf filmmaker

This story originally appeared in SURFER. Words by SURFER.

The origin of “Strange Paradise,” the new film from Brazilian creative Gabriel Novis, started with a sliver of a hint that's fundamentally important: Always say yes. A yes, after all, led Novis and Alex Smith to connect with Mikala Jones and Luke Davis, who cut through a nasty weather spell in North Indo and found three incredible setups all to themselves. A yes led to an all-hands-in-the-middle for Brazil's new generation in last year's acclaimed “Sorria,” putting Yago Dora, Filipe Toledo, Jesse Mendes, Caio Ibelli and more on their own national pedestal. For Novis, who's been likened to a Brazilian Kai Neville, a story arises after you nod your head first and ask questions later, a logic of craft that he's still mastering, and which consistently leads to its own … surprises.

"We had countless nights of poor sleep, lots of storms, we were stuck in the boats because the rain was so strong," Novis told us, laughing. "It was a dramatic situation. It wasn’t the perfect surf trip stereotype, where you go with your friends and it’s sunny every day, with blue water and beers all around – it was brutal at times. We often had just a two-hour window to go surfing before another storm hit us. I wanted to accurately portray what happened on the trip, which is partly why I wanted to include the long introduction, and why I decided on my choice of music."

We took six pages from Novis's book, asking him for wisdom he'd give to anyone who wants to pick up a camera and shoot their own films. First, say yes, per Gabriel's orders. Second, follow the lessons he's learned below.

1. Write down notes when you’re traveling

It will help you later on during the editing process to tell a story. When you’re writing, it’s the moment that you solidify your emotions and feelings onto the page, so when I return from a trip and start editing, I can go back to my notes, remember what happened and find a way to express the memory in the editing.

Nowadays, a lot of surf filmmakers just shoot straight surfing and nothing else. Which is okay, but at some point, it gets boring. I’m fed up with watching high-performance clips over and over. In my mind, there has to be at least some kind of story. Writing down notes helps a lot in the figuring out what that story might be.

2. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty

You’re going to be put in weird situations and sketchy places. If you work with people who are afraid of the unknown, they’ll waste your opportunities to share in amazing experiences, because they’re too scared to go to a place where they’re uncomfortable. That’s not how you do it. For all of the good material, you have to go for it, risk your camera, maybe even risk your life. That’s what it’s all about, especially in these places in Indonesia. It’s crazy dealing with crocodiles, mosquitoes, storms in the middle of the ocean, food poisoning – the list goes on. You have to be tough. It’s not as easy as it looks.

For example, on this trip, I tried to get a good angle of this wave from the island. But where the wave breaks, it’s below sea level, so I had to swim through sets and get f–ked up on the rocks to climb the reef and get to land, so it was pretty scary. My Pelican case started leaking water. I had an expensive camera there with me, and the reef scratched it up. I finally had to tow the case on top of the surfboard. The board got all f–ked up, too, but I eventually made it to the island safely.

Then, to get to the best angle, you have to cross this little lagoon, which the boat captain said had crocodiles swimming around it. A sick set came all of a sudden, so I positioned myself in this lagoon really quickly to get the shot. But when I looked to my side, there was this giant black fin right next to me — a shark was within feet of me. I rushed to climb this small rock, to get out of the water. But then the shark wouldn’t leave. It just circled around me for 10 minutes, preventing me to get to my setup spot to start shooting. [Laughs.]

3. Don’t just do projects for others

I know what people want to see: If you do it with this kind of music, and you put it with this kind of action, the same people will love it, because it’s mainstream. That’s what everyone does. But I think the coolest art and the best artists, in my opinion, are those who risk doing something different and mix their biggest influences. I love watching movies that aren’t related to surfing. I’m strongly influenced by cinema directors, and I try to absorb a little bit of everyone’s work and put it into my own. Try to create your own style. You can be influenced by other people, but try to mix those influences so you can be your own influence.

I really like the films of both [Desillusion’s] Sebastian Zanella and Joe G. [Joe Guglielmino], like “Strange Rumblings” and “Year Zero.” When Joe G. started coming out with all of those crazy ideas, and mixing a little bit of the fashion world into his movies, and mixing crazy narrative style – I mean, he was one of the pioneers. He’s inspired me a lot.

4. Be organized with your equipment

I’m not, and that’s been a problem my whole life. [Laughs.] I lose a lot of gear because of that. Prepare in advance, especially if it’s in preparation of a big trip. Know where you’re going and pack accordingly. Don’t bring any unnecessary stuff. If you’re going to a place by boat, for example, you don’t know what food they’re going to serve you. Bring cereal, protein bars, whatever you like to eat. It’s easy to get caught up in saying yes spontaneously for trips, but then you get to your destination, and you’re f–ked. You might get sick, you’re going to be tired, all of which can compromise the quality of your work. That being said, always say yes. [Laughs.]

5. Quality equipment helps

But don’t feel like you need the best gear to convey the best idea. I’ve seen a lot of people shooting with all these top-of-the-line RED cameras, and when you watch their film in the end, it’s sh—t. I’ve also seen people shooting on lower-grade cameras, and it turns out amazing. It’s all about going to the right place with the right people and having the right idea. Don’t be afraid of putting your work out there if you don’t have the best camera. A lot of people ask me what camera I use – it doesn’t matter. I have a RED, but I shoot with a lot of different cameras. It’s more about where you’re going with the idea.

6. Be on the lookout for unique lifestyle footage

Some filmmakers go on trips and exclusively film the surf, and then at the end, they just have three hours of surfing footage, which gets boring, no matter how good it is. A lot of times on this trip, if it was too stormy, we would go cruise into the jungle, or we’d take a boat to find a beautiful landscape to shoot. We’d see if we could use a drone. We were always looking for something different to film, so that we could come out with something that was different for the movie. Shoot as much as you can, so you can add to the narrative.

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