Every wave-rider has had that moment of watching surfing on some kind of screen. Maybe it was an ideal wave from some remote point halfway around the globe. Perhaps it was flawless surfing. Maybe it was Tom Curren?
Either way, it simply made you want to surf more than anything in the world. And there are seminal films that have defined each era.
By most accounts, the first surf filmmaker was Bud Browne, who made some 17 films beginning as far back as the early 1950s. But when you talk about who brought surfing to the world, that would be Bruce Brown.
In fact, you could go so far as to call Bruce Brown the godfather of all action-sports films, as he was a pioneer of motocross flicks. Yet it was 1964’s “The Endless Summer,” with a soundtrack of surf guitar, that became a classic, aiding surfing’s first boom and reaching mainstream audiences.
Surfing changed pretty radically at the end of the ’60s. Boards got whittled down and the performance aspect changed sharply, as documented in George Greenough’s mostly Aussie 1969 film, “The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun.” It then receded back to the countercultural shadows, and the films reflected that, as with Alby Falzon’s “Morning of the Earth” in 1971. “Morning” didn’t have any narration, but told its New Age story through travel footage, psychedelic effects and trippy music. Most of these films made tours, which became historic themselves.
Also notable during that time was John Milius’ “Big Wednesday,” released in 1978, a stellar coming-of-age story during the Vietnam War era set on the beaches of Southern California. Milius wrote “Apocalypse Now” and wrote and/or directed countless other major film projects. Especially compared to later (and often campier) Hollywood films like “North Shore and “Point Break,” “Big Wednesday” is an actual masterpiece.
Other than the 16 mm film “Beyond Blazing Boards,” there weren’t too many ’80s surf films that still stand out. That decade saw a commercial boom for surfing, and the surf apparel companies started to make films as marketing tools.
The next decade’s key films were largely wanderlust pieces following top surfers to amazing waves around the globe. That led to Billabong partnering with Jack McCoy on “Bunyip Dreaming,” “The Green Iguana,” “The Sons of Fun” and “Sik Joy” from 1990 to ’94 and, later, Sonny Miller teaming up with Rip Curl to create “The Search” series. Bruce Brown also came out with his major motion picture “Endless Summer II.”
Rapidly, the cost and availability of VHS made it possible for independent filmmakers to get in the game, as surf icon Herbie Fletcher did with his “Wave Warriors” series. The most notable surf filmmaker of the ’90s was Taylor Steele (Poor Specimen Productions), who shook things up at a time when surfing was going through another progressive revolution by pairing the radical surfing of Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian and their contemporaries with driving punk music. Blink-182, The Offspring and Pennywise got their first bump in Steele films like “Momentum,” “Focus” and “Good Times” and the iconic/edgy …Lost features of the day.
Featuring known breaks over far-off lands, surf cinema no longer needed a storyline, just solid action. One film that stood apart was 1996’s “Litmus,” by artist Andrew Kidman. Instead of airs and NOFX tracks, it was slow motion, groovy music and a dab of spirituality — a stark contrast to its contemporaries, but a harbinger of things to come.
The turn of the century saw another massive growth in surfing that coincided with the digital revolution. Surf films went from VHS to DVD and there were entire festivals dedicated to surf cinema.
Steele pushed the envelope, getting increasingly more creative with “Campaign,” “Sipping Jetstreams” and “Castles in the Sky.” That decade also saw a return to storytelling with Dana Brown’s (son of Bruce Brown) “Step Into Liquid,” Stacey Peralta’s “Riding Giants” and Shaun Tomson’s “Bustin’ Down the Door.” Thomas Campbell took a nod from Kidman, making artistically driven pieces like “Sprout.”
By the 2010s, the technology to make films was so accessible that the medium changed again. Features gave way to clips and Steele revolutionized the platform with “Innersection,” a series of online submissions from up-and-coming filmmakers.
Today, feature films aren’t dead, but only the best ideas from top directors/surfers get funding. There are fewer films, but those that make it out of the editing bay tend to be monumental. Volcom’s surf/skate/snow epic “True to This,” John John Florence’s 2015 “View from a Blue Moon” and Steele’s “Proximity” are pretty mind-blowing.
As much as the genre has evolved and as many different lenses as we’ve seen this pursuit through, the goal of surf films remains the same: to get ya stoked.
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