Fashion Or Function? A New Film Forces Us To Rethink What We’re Surfing … And Why.

Thomas Campbell’s house is at the same time nothing like you’d pictured and everything you thought it would be. No, it’s not a bright-red two-dimensional pagoda surrounded by a perpetual shower of aqua-blue and canary yellow fireworks, and there aren’t any Thomas Campbell-isms like “Bliss Bubble” or “Enjoy your lung capacity” painted in that familiar arcing cursive across its faáade. Thomas doesn’t live in one of his paintings.

But inside his modest house is a different story. Thomas is at once both a minimalist and a collector-two contradictory lifestyles, which in his case manifest themselves as a person who only owns those things he finds precious or essential, in which case he stockpiles them. Three-foot stacks of various size art and photography books lean dangerously under their own weight on the mantle. There is nowhere to sit and eat dinner, but a card table set up on the far side of the living room is literally buried in photos, papers, sewing projects, pens, brushes, and thread. In his garage, every square inch of the walls, floor, and ceiling are covered by half-painted canvases, power tools, surfboards, paint-splattered tarps, vast braids of extension cords, and a sewing machine sits barely visible beneath an ocean of lightweight cardboard cuttings, like a shipwreck at low tide.

On a quiet street overlooking Santa Cruz, California’s Main Beach, in Thomas Campbell’s garage, stacked horizontally on a rack made of plywood and two-by-fours and hidden by a bamboo screen, is one of the most thoroughly ridden quivers you’ve ever seen. From your ankle to your eyes are boards from every era of surfing-twelve-foot Skip Frye swallow-tails, sun-faded Christenson ten-0 noseriders sporting great white shark-like fins, brightly airbrushed 70s-style bonzers and fish, Pavel quads with their insect wings and multiple skags, and thrown in for good measure, a couple modern shortboards that have been accidentally waxed on all sides by their neighbors. In light of Thomas’ latest film project, Sprout-a highly stylized look at the subset of surfing that has until recently lived in the shadows on the outskirts of Mainstream Surfville, namely the “ride everything” movement.

In recent years, the surfboards of the 1970s have been resurrected, and in the process so has the desire of surfers to ride them. This phenomenon is hardly a secret. Simply walk into your nearest surf shop and peruse their retro-board section, where you’ll find everything from classic twin-fin fish to mid-length single-fin eggs and discs to resin-tinted Sunset guns. But these relics of an era, when you could buy a home one block from the beach in Santa Cruz for under 20,000 dollars, didn’t resurface on their own. In the 1990s, after winning his third world title and dropping off the ASP world tour, shortboard pioneer Tom Curren began reinvestigating the fish. Fellow California pros like Rob Machado and Joel Tudor picked up where Curren left off, experimenting with boards of all shapes and sizes (fish, longboards, quads, sponge boards, you name it) in very public settings, and in recent years as California beach culture regained a position of hipness in the malls and fashion magazines of the Western world, so did the castaway remnants of eras gone by. Yellowed and forgotten, the bonzers that had survived in obscurity for so long were suddenly wanted again.

While it could be argued that the rebirth of the fish was a fashion statement made by surfers thinking ahead of Abercrombie’s marketing team, the function-related side of the equation is simply that the performance attributes of these first shortboards lend themselves well to certain types of surf. The flat bottoms, wide tails, straight rails, low rocker, and high volumes of 70s shortboards make them well-suited to smaller waves with slopey faces, which require a board that generates speed. And it just so happens that these types of waves dominate many, if not most, coastal regions. While these older-styleoards don’t deliver the high performance of the thinner, lighter modern shortboard, they’ve become known as the perfect board for small, mushy days, when before longboards seemed like the only option.

But Sprout isn’t simply a promotional video for twin-fins. Campbell spent almost half a decade traveling with, surfing with, and documenting what he refers to as the members of “the modern single-fin longboard movement.” Guys and girls like Joel Tudor, Alex Knost, C.J. Nelson, Tyler Hezikien, Dane Peterson, and Belinda Baggs to name a few are mostly surfers who’ve taken the road less traveled, opting to avoid longboarding’s competitive circuits in favor of Kerouac-esque existences consisting of travel, art, and wild living. The world of shortboarding has the equivalent in the likes of superstars like Dave Rastovich, Ozzie Wright, and the Malloy Brothers, but the key difference between the short and longboarders is that in longboarding there is little or no money, even for the best non-competitive riders of logs. So Sprout provides a unique view of a culture that has yet to see success in mainstream surfing.

And the glue between the ideas, personalities, travel experiences, cartoons, comedy skits, and surf sessions that make up Sprout is Thomas’ art. His work in moving pictures closely resembles his still photography, with a focus on color, pattern, and perspective. The movie was shot in both color and black and white completely on sixteen-millimeter film, which has a richness and depth that digital video can’t duplicate, and was obviously edited to fit a soundtrack that Campbell worked laboriously to assemble.

When Sprout began its 2004 summer-fall tour on the East Coast, the timing couldn’t have been more right. The project that dominated Thomas’ life for the past four-plus years drew huge crowds in theaters from New York City to Jacksonville, Florida. The thousands of surfers who showed up were treated to something more than a simple surf video. They were provided a window into the mind of the artist and a view of a surfing subculture that in large part has yet to be discovered by the mainstream surf media. Sprout could turn out to be the seminal work of an emerging generation that rides all boards, from current to ancient, or it could simply be a memory of an era of rediscovery, experimentation, and ultimately abandonment. Only time will tell. Like his house, Campbell’s film is at the same time nothing like you’d pictured and everything you thought it would be.

After a sunny but brisk day in Santa Cruz, surfing, driving around, and listening to music, Thomas and I sat down in the space between his house and his garage and talked about what Sprout means to him.-J.P.TWS: Why “Sprout”?

Thomas: Why Sprout? I guess Sprout is kind of like the logical natural progression from The Seedling, which was from my first movie, was a documentary of a group of young Californian log riders-traditional single-fin longboarders. That kind of scene is very rarely shown in its pure form. It’s usually intermixed with high-performance longboarding and different kinds of people riding longboards, which I really didn’t identify with. I thought that it was a little point of growth that people could see and be like, “Wow, that’s awesome, it would be really fun to try that!” A growth-oriented idea to turn people on to something that is cool, hopefully.

So that was The Seedling, and it took about a year and half to make. When I was getting towards the end of making it-I had never made a surf movie before-I had learned a lot, and I knew what I was doing, so I immediately kind of slowly started another one. Sprout took four-and-a-half years to make on a deliberately slow cycle. It was a continuation of the similar feeling. I just wanted to show all the different possibilities we have in accessing the ocean, and I think that by the nature of the surf industry and media, surfers have been segregated for many years. People are either shortboarders or longboarders or freaks riding retro stuff, and it’s kind of retarded.

Retarded?

Shit, if it’s double-overhead, perfectly round, and the waves are amazing, of course, ride a tri-fin shortboard-that’s the best thing possible … ever. But where I live, in California, that barely ever happens. I mean, there’re some good waves that you can ride shortboards on, but in general there’s sloppy surf with flat faces, or like knee-high surf that’s perfect for riding a log. That’s the reality that my friends and I live in, so what I wanted to do was to show people all the possibilities we have to ride fishes or eggs or shortboards or longboards or go bodysurfing or even ride a Boogie board … whatever you want. Surfing is a sensational activity, people can have a better experience if they’re open to riding more things.

So it sounds like you’re advocating riding the right board for the conditions, but I think a lot of surfers see the older board shapes-fish, longboards, et cetera-coming back as being a fashion statement as opposed to a function statement. What do you think about that?

Different kinds of surf boards ride good in different kinds of conditions. You might look at a board from the early 60s, which has a V fin, is really straight, and has lots of foam, and say, “That thing’s a dog.” But put it on a two-foot wave, and if it has the right template, it can go really fast. If you have a wave that is kind of slopey, you could ride a fish. That shape was generated in the early and mid 70s, and those boards work really well in those kinds of conditions. So I would say it’s not necessarily a fashion statement, it’s a functional movement, but of course, like with anything, you have people that are in it to be fashionable, and you have people that are in to be functional. Every person has a different movement on what they’re doing. But it’s fun. Surfing’s fun. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing-having fun?It’s kind of like golfing. You don’t go out on the golf course with one golf club. You’re game’s gonna be shitty if you do that. Maybe you have a few boards in your car, you look at the surf, it’s a few feet overhead and looking good, and you go, “It looks good for a thruster today.” Or maybe it’s head-high and a little slopey, then maybe you take out an 80-style Occy board or a fish. I just think it opens up more avenues for having fun. It’s not some big science equation. Just try out some new stuff and see if it feels good. Ride a twelve-footer, man, that’s where the magic’s at. If you really want to go faster than you’ve ever gone, twelve-foot surfboards are crazy. They’re scary fast.

Recently I had a conversation with a shaper from Hawai’i. I asked him what he thought about fish and other “retro” shapes being back in favor with surfers, and he said, “The 70s was my generation, and everyone back then had shitty style. I don’t understand why people would want to ride those boards again.” I think it’s a commonly held belief that riding fish wreck your style. What do you think?

Well, I can understand someone who lives on the North Shore of O’ahu having a narrow-minded perspective of what’s going on, because in general, the North Shore is perfect and one of the best places in the world for riding tri-fins. You would probably want to ride a tri-fin 90 percent of the time there. Like I said, it just comes back to sensations. Are you enjoying the sensations of what you’re riding? Do you feel good? Is it fun? That’s it. Who f-king cares about anything else? Regardless of anyone else, are you enjoying surfing? I just wanted to show people what they could do. The freaky thing is, there’re a few waves of Rasta (Dave Rastovich) in the “Mutant Message From Down Under” section (of Sprout) when he’s riding that purple fish, and he’s just flying, getting tubed, and just absolutely Mach-ing, and he told me that those were the first waves he’d ever ridden on a fish. And if you watch that footage, I don’t know how you cors or longboarders or freaks riding retro stuff, and it’s kind of retarded.

Retarded?

Shit, if it’s double-overhead, perfectly round, and the waves are amazing, of course, ride a tri-fin shortboard-that’s the best thing possible … ever. But where I live, in California, that barely ever happens. I mean, there’re some good waves that you can ride shortboards on, but in general there’s sloppy surf with flat faces, or like knee-high surf that’s perfect for riding a log. That’s the reality that my friends and I live in, so what I wanted to do was to show people all the possibilities we have to ride fishes or eggs or shortboards or longboards or go bodysurfing or even ride a Boogie board … whatever you want. Surfing is a sensational activity, people can have a better experience if they’re open to riding more things.

So it sounds like you’re advocating riding the right board for the conditions, but I think a lot of surfers see the older board shapes-fish, longboards, et cetera-coming back as being a fashion statement as opposed to a function statement. What do you think about that?

Different kinds of surf boards ride good in different kinds of conditions. You might look at a board from the early 60s, which has a V fin, is really straight, and has lots of foam, and say, “That thing’s a dog.” But put it on a two-foot wave, and if it has the right template, it can go really fast. If you have a wave that is kind of slopey, you could ride a fish. That shape was generated in the early and mid 70s, and those boards work really well in those kinds of conditions. So I would say it’s not necessarily a fashion statement, it’s a functional movement, but of course, like with anything, you have people that are in it to be fashionable, and you have people that are in to be functional. Every person has a different movement on what they’re doing. But it’s fun. Surfing’s fun. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing-having fun?It’s kind of like golfing. You don’t go out on the golf course with one golf club. You’re game’s gonna be shitty if you do that. Maybe you have a few boards in your car, you look at the surf, it’s a few feet overhead and looking good, and you go, “It looks good for a thruster today.” Or maybe it’s head-high and a little slopey, then maybe you take out an 80-style Occy board or a fish. I just think it opens up more avenues for having fun. It’s not some big science equation. Just try out some new stuff and see if it feels good. Ride a twelve-footer, man, that’s where the magic’s at. If you really want to go faster than you’ve ever gone, twelve-foot surfboards are crazy. They’re scary fast.

Recently I had a conversation with a shaper from Hawai’i. I asked him what he thought about fish and other “retro” shapes being back in favor with surfers, and he said, “The 70s was my generation, and everyone back then had shitty style. I don’t understand why people would want to ride those boards again.” I think it’s a commonly held belief that riding fish wreck your style. What do you think?

Well, I can understand someone who lives on the North Shore of O’ahu having a narrow-minded perspective of what’s going on, because in general, the North Shore is perfect and one of the best places in the world for riding tri-fins. You would probably want to ride a tri-fin 90 percent of the time there. Like I said, it just comes back to sensations. Are you enjoying the sensations of what you’re riding? Do you feel good? Is it fun? That’s it. Who f-king cares about anything else? Regardless of anyone else, are you enjoying surfing? I just wanted to show people what they could do. The freaky thing is, there’re a few waves of Rasta (Dave Rastovich) in the “Mutant Message From Down Under” section (of Sprout) when he’s riding that purple fish, and he’s just flying, getting tubed, and just absolutely Mach-ing, and he told me that those were the first waves he’d ever ridden on a fish. And if you watch that footage, I don’t know how you could surf those waves any better. It’s perfect, its amazing. So it’s highly functional.

Right board for the right moment?Yeah, totally.

Describe your filmmaking style?

Well, I think I would start off by saying that most photographers are filmers, and they want to get to the beach when the people are front lit, so they can get real tight on ’em, get all the action, and focus in on what’s happening. They’re probably working for the sponsors, so they really want to get those logos moving in the picture and all that stuff. I’m more interested in the whole picture. I want to get to the beach when it’s back lit, waves are green, people are silhouettes, maybe pull back a little bit, and you look at it and you’re like, “Whoa, that looks so beautiful and so fun! Wow, I want to go surfing!” Hopefully, that’s what I’m doing. I don’t know, I mean that’s the intent. Most people, when they’re filming, are trying to get real tight on every critical maneuver, which is cool, everyone has their different style, but I’m just more interested in capturing the overall ambiance of the setting. Hopefully, it’s really beautiful, and then the person is just another element within the beautiful opportunity in nature we have to be surfing in such ridiculously beautiful places.

So I shoot on sixteen-millimeter film, and that helps to capture more of those nuances of mood and feeling-video captures more movement, and film tends to capture the movement, mood, and feeling on a more in-depth level, so I chosen to shoot sixteen, even thought it’s quite a bit more expensive … hugely more expensive. But I don’t really feel like video can portray what I want people to see.

Did you have other filmmakers or photographers influence how you ended up shooting the sixteen?

Yeah. My favorite filmmakers are (Greg) McGuilvery (and Jim) Freeman. They made movies like Free And Easy, The Sunshine Sea, and later Five Summer Stories. Also Bruce Brown, Paul Witzig, George Greenough, John Severson, all great filmmakers from the 60 and 70s. Their formatting just kind of told stories. They are really inspiring. I can remember when I started making The Seedling, Leroy Grannis’ photo book came out (Photo: Grannis: Surfing’s Golden Age, 1960-1969), and a lot of it was black and white, really moody, with lots of silhouettes, and just emotional scapes. I was like, “Wow, I want to try to make my film look like that. I want to have that feeling of mood and texture.”

It sounds like a lot of the inspiration comes out of late 60s and early 70s surfing.

Yeah. I think I relate to that (era) also because I like the mind-set of like (taking their) time, they weren’t afraid to go with something slowly, and it’s not all ADD and quick cuts, there was just a natural movement to the way they made films. It wasn’t so influenced by MTV or modern culture, where everyone needs everything chopped up really quick, you know? Sometimes people tell me that my movie is pretty long, and I’m like, “Well it’s not for ADD people. It’s for people who want to sit back and enjoy something.” If you want something ADD, there’re a lot of movies out there you can watch. I just like the pacing (of the older films), I like how they told stories, I like narration, I like people to bring you along. I narrate in my movies, so when you need certain parts described, it hopefully ties the stories together so you are a little bit more educated on what’s happening. As well, Sprout has narrative by some of the people in the film, like Rasta or Dan (Malloy) or Rob Machado or Joel (Tudor) or Tom Wegener.

In the modern surf video, people abandon storytelling a lot. Is that what you’re saying?

Yeah, for the most part. I mean Jack McCoy is really good at it. He’s a great storyteller. I really like what Timmy Turner’s doing, though I’m not a big fan of video, what he’s doing is really relevant. It (video) seems to be the medium he’s functioning in, and I thought Second Thoughts was really cool, really adventurou