Feel the waves: SBIFF’s Sunday night premiere immersed viewers in 3D surfing

The red carpet leads into the Arlington Theatre for Sunday's showing of "Storm Surfers 3-D." NIK BLASKOVICH/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS

The red carpet leads into the Arlington Theatre for Sunday’s showing of “Storm Surfers 3-D.”
NIK BLASKOVICH/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS

“If you’re not a surfer after seeing this film, you’re going to feel like you are.”

Sunday night’s SBIFF event at the Arlington, “Storm Surfers 3-D” was a much mellower event than the previous two. No Hollywood, no ravenous banks of paparazzi, no screaming, adoring fans holding up posters. But the Arlington was modestly packed with serious surf fans waiting to see this breakthrough surfing documentary made all the more remarkable with its use of?3D.

The night was made even more special with the announcement that the film had just won the Australian Oscars —the coveted AACTA — for Best Documentary Feature. That made the journey to Santa Barbara for its two directors — Justin McMillan and Christopher Nellius — and its three stars — famous big-wave surfers Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones and surfing forecaster Ben Matson — all that more special. As the directors said just before the screening, the Arlington was the best theater they’d ever screened in.

From left, director Justin McMillan, big-wave surfer Ross Clarke-Jones, director Chris Neilus and world surfing champion Tom Carroll take questions from reporters at the event.

From left, director Justin McMillan, big-wave surfer Ross Clarke-Jones, director Chris Neilus and world surfing champion Tom Carroll take questions from reporters at the event.

Mr. Carroll and Mr. Clarke-Jones both made career transitions out of the competitive sport of surfing into a second career as big-wave surfers, using jet-skis to get out far off shore to some of the tallest and most dangerous waves in the world. Though around 50 years old, these bad boys of surfing (especially the Dionysian Clarke-Jones, seen in vintage footage partying with gaggles of blondes) still crave the thrills of “man versus mountain” as Mr. Matson put it, racing into waves 40-feet high and beyond.

The film follows the two as they journey from Australia and Tasmania to Hawaii, searching out virgin ocean spots where the surfing is brutal, deadly and transcendent. The directors used several 3-D cameras, including small GoPros attached to surfboards, and some held by the surfers themselves to immerse viewers. And it works; both queasy and awe-inspiring, the footage shows the technology’s potential.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, so we wound up engineering a lot of our own cameras,” said Justin McMillan on the red carpet. “We had some really passionate young camera guys in Australia to make these small cameras waterproof and go the extra mile … It was actually a bit like shooting with a dodgy film camera.”

Mr. McMillan says the combination of documentary and 3-D is the future, despite the public’s waning interest in blockbusters in the format.

“When I saw the real world show back to me in 3-D, I felt wow, this is really immersive,” he says. “I think for documentary and nature photography, there’s a big future for 3-D.”

But the danger of shooting this project was apparent in the footage. The force of the waves often tore cameras away. “There’s a handful of little GoPro 3-D cameras at the bottom of the ocean with really amazing footage on them,” he said ruefully.

The film, met with appreciative whoops and hollers throughout the screening, culminates in a near-death experience for Tom Carroll, who is pulled so far down into the ocean that he nearly drowned before surfacing.

“I’ve spent 44 years of getting pounded (by waves) so I was ready for it,” Mr. Carroll said on the red carpet. “I didn’t expect to (surface) very angry. I but was really angry! I don’t know why.”

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