Co-Director Chris Nelius Talks STORM SURFERS 3D, the Challenge of Shooting the Film in 3D, Close Calls, His Best Shots, and More

     June 13, 2013

From directors Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius, Storm Surfers 3D is a cinematic adventure that follows two of Australia’s greatest surf legends – Ross Clark-Jones and Tom Carroll – on their quest to hunt down and ride the Pacific’s biggest and most dangerous waves.  The exciting and often exhilarating documentary takes its audience along for the ride, transporting the viewer under, over and through the waves with spectacular 3D cinematography and providing an experience that is the closest thing to riding a big wave without actually getting wet.

During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, co-director Chris Nelius talked about how this 3D documentary came about, what inspired the approach they took to the film, how challenging it was to actually shoot in 3D, what made the GoPro camera the best one for the job, how many close calls they had during the shoot, how immersive this experience is for audiences, and the shots he’s most proud of having accomplished.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

Collider:  What led you to be a documentary filmmaker, and how did this 3D documentary come about?

CHRIS NELIUS:  I co-directed the film with Justin McMillan.  We met when Ross Clark-Jones, who’s one of the surfers in the film, made a really lo-fi Dogtown and Z-Boys style biopic of himself.  They got a tiny amount of film together and wanted to do Ross’ life story.  I was brought on to write it, and Justin was directing it.  Since then, we’ve partnered up and done all this other stuff together.  We just became really good friends with Ross and Tom [Carroll].  We were just observing who they are and what they do.  It’s different to pro-surfing.  It’s different to small wave surfing.  They basically race from one continent to another, at the drop of a hat, to chase a storm and try to ride a 30-foot wave.  It was almost like everything that led up to them being on a wave was just as interesting as the guy on the wave itself.  That’s when we had a brainstorm about, “Wow, what if it was like Deadliest Catch, but following Ross and Tom around?”  

These two guys are just so charismatic and inspirational.  Their personalities are just forged in the crucible of ‘80s pro-surfing.  We make jokes about them being like Vietnam vets that never came back from Nam.  They’re still 17-year-old kids.  That was the inspiration to do Storm Surfers for the Discovery Channel in 2D, and we did a couple of those.  And then, we were given the opportunity to shoot in 3D and we took it.  The 3D is pretty integral to the experience and to what we pulled off.  This sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but there’s no other documentary like this, done in 3D, that really is a proper native documentary, taking you to all these extraordinary places and points of view.  It’s a really different cinema experience, when you experience it in 3D. 

What inspired the approach you took for this?

NELIUS:  Justin and I are definitely not surf filmmakers.  We’re fans of surf films and we both surf, as well, but we definitely come from being fans of feature documentaries, and we’re also just film fans.  We love long-form films.  We’re very much inspired by those great feature docs like Touching the Void, the climbing film that Kevin Macdonald made, and other stuff like Man on Wire, or stuff that has a really incredible story or personality that takes you into a world and follows someone who’s quite extraordinary.  That’s basically where our inspiration for doing Storm Surfers came from.  Ross and Tom and Ben [Matson] are guys that are worth meeting in a cinema.  There’s other guys who are younger and hotter and more suicidal, who ride bigger waves, but they don’t have the outlook on life that Ross and Tom do.  Tom is my hero, and I got to make a film about him.

storm-surfers-3dWhat is it about you and Justin that works together so well?  Do you see things the same way, or do your differences compliment each other?

NELIUS:  For sure, there’s a little bit of that.  We have slightly different skill sets.  Justin is a commercials director, back in Australia, and I worked with Working Title Films, ages ago, and I did a lot of stuff in television in Australia.  But, we do have very similar visions of what we want something to be, so generally there’s that shared vision.  Certainly, there are times when you disagree on something, but there’s no ego too big.  We usually just put it to a vote with an editor and two out of three wins.  When we were shooting the film, it actually would have been impossible for one director to do the whole thing.  We were out in the ocean, and quite often I was  in a helicopter or on a boat while Justin was on a jet ski.  We’re basically running a little platoon of camera men, trying to make sure everything is organized and trying to make sure we’re capturing the right things when we’re out there.  It literally takes more than one person, when you’re on the shoot, especially when we’re doing 3D.  So, we’ve learned to work quite well together, in that way.  A lot of it was project management and problem solving, as well as making sure we were capturing the story that was happening, in as creative a way as possible.

How challenging was it to actually shoot in 3D? 

NELIUS:  We knew we needed to hit a standard where we could be impressed by it because then everyone else would hopefully be impressed by it, as well.  We didn’t have a lot of money.  We couldn’t afford the biggest, latest rigs.  3D technology changes every three months, and it’s still doing that.  I’ve talked to people who were shooting massive films in 3D, and even they were complaining about how the technology just kept changing, and getting better and better.  It’s hard to use the same equipment when you see all this new stuff coming out.  But, we basically had to create out camera department with a bunch of really incredible, young Australian guys who were really passionate about 3D and really wanted to make it work.  We spent many hours in the shed, at 2am, just engineering half of our cameras and trying to give it the best crack that we could.  And then, when we did our first mission and got to see something back on a 3D TV, I was personally blown away.  I had never seen anything like it.  

Watching the ocean and the natural world in 3D was just something new.  To me, it felt like documentary and 3D were just made for each other.  Obviously, not every type of documentary, but stuff that takes you out into the world or sports-related stuff.  It’s almost dull to see the natural world on television in 2D now.  It’s a new experience.  You feel more immersed.  It’s not about things flying at you or that kind of gimmicky thing, like in superhero movies.  It’s more about a sense of depth.  Quite early on, we talked about how the frame of your TV screen or the cinema screen is more like an aquarium.  It’s more like a widow, and you look into the world, rather than that world flying at you.  Once we really established that, as a style, it really opened our eyes to possibilities in 3D.  I personally think there’s so much to be done and there’s so much for audiences to discover, and it hasn’t been shown to them yet.  We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg with 3D and documentaries. 

What made the GoPro camera the best one for the job?

NELIUS:  It was totally serendipitous that that camera came along.  We had tiny little cameras and we had big cameras that we put on the back of a boat, but that GoPro camera, which is worth 700 bucks, is the best camera that we had.  We’re so lucky, and it’s such a testament to that product, that you can blow it up on a big screen and it works in 3D.  We were very worried about whether that was going to work or not, and it did. 

You can direct people, but you can’t direct waves, so how many close calls did you have?

NELIUS:  Oh, lots.  We’ve had them, over the years.  We couldn’t have shot this without having done a couple of others in 2D beforehand.  No one got hurt, making this film.  Tom almost died, twice.  I’m just so pleased that no one on our crew got hurt.  It’s really dangerous.  I’ve been in situations before where a helicopter has almost gone down.  We had a situation at Turtle Dove that wasn’t captured on camera, where the camera boat almost went down.  It’s pretty gnarly.  That’s why it takes two people to run it.  We had safety officers and we always took a lifeguard on every mission, but it was very much a balancing act between working your ass off to get everything ready for the shoot and not getting much sleep, and then trying to be as fast as you can, but not make any mistakes, at the same time.  If you miss that wave, you can potentially miss something really, really important.  It’s hard with Ross and Tom, as well, because they just wanna go.  Luckily, Ross and Tom, and Justin and I, have a really good friendship.  Sometimes you’re literally just holding them back because they have to wait until you have the camera ready, and they just wanna go.  It’s pretty funny. 

Everybody talks about how spiritual the experience of surfing can be.  Are you getting that same feedback with the immersive experience people are having when they see this in 3D?

NELIUS:  Absolutely!  Totally!  Particularly with women, from 8-year-old girls to grandmas.  I’ve had so many women comment on the beauty of it, and tapping into the beauty of surfing.  A lot of those slow-motion 3D shots in the barrel answered the question about why these guys surf without them having to say it.  You actually experience that and get it because you get to ride that wave, literally, with them.  I felt really satisfied when people would comment on that stuff. 

Is there a shot or a moment in the film that you’re most proud of having accomplished?

NELIUS:  That’s a good question.  When I saw the first footage of Ross holding a camera over his shoulder behind him, and you’re looking over his shoulder, surfing a wave in Tasmania.  When I saw that, I was yelling in the editing suite.  I had never seen anything like that before, particularly in 3D.  I felt like, “Wow, we’ve got something so original here, that no one’s ever seen.”  On a giant cinema screen in 3D, people squirm in their seats because they’re riding that wave.  When I saw that, I was like, “We have to get this film finished, as quickly as possible, and get this out, as quickly as we can, because someone else is going to come along and do this.”  Thank god, so far, no one else has done it. 

Another shot I’ve always really loved is that dolphin shot, where one of our camera men stuck a GoPro on the front of his boat and just got this incredible shot that’s empty water underwater, and then you see this school of dolphins catch up with the boat.  On 3D, on a big screen, it’s beautiful.  It’s so amazing.  Those types of moments are really important, in what could be perceived as being a really male action movie.  To have those moments of beauty and contrast in dynamic is just amazing. 

Storm Surfers 3D opens in theaters on June 14th.

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