Re­turn to Freeform

Thomas Camp­bell’s jazzy, eclec­tic films helped trans­form the surf world. Now, nearly a decade af­ter his last fea­ture, it’s Camp­bell’s own ap­proach to film­mak­ing that’s trans­form­ing

Surfer - - Contents - By TODD PRODANOVICH

Thomas Camp­bell’s jazzy, eclec­tic films helped trans­form the surf world. Now, nearly a decade af­ter his last fea­ture, it’s Camp­bell’s own ap­proach to film­mak­ing that’s trans­form­ing

(Left) On lo­ca­tion in In­done­sia re­cently, Camp­bell cap­tures the stylings of Alex Knost on a 16mm film cam­era. Photo by GRANT ELLIS

(Above) Foam, film, can­vas and be­yond, Camp­bell is an artist with mastery of many medi­ums. Top and bot­tom pho­tos by COR­BAN CAMBELL, mid­dle photo by PA­TRICK TREFZ (Right) A sculp­ture made from used skate­board decks and resin, fea­tured by Camp­bell in a re­cent gallery show in San Fran­cisco. Photo by MARIKO REED

“Now this is some crazy shit,” Thomas Camp­bell said, nod­ding at the bizarre sur­fcraft that shaper Travis Reynolds was car­ry­ing into a glass­ing bay at the Santa Cruz Board Builders Guild in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The tall, husky Camp­bell had short brown hair that looked vaguely self-cut and the early stages of his saltand-pep­per beard did lit­tle to hide his smirk. Reynolds laid the 9'6" surfboard— if you’d like to call it that—on the glass­ing racks. The board’s wildly curv­ing out­line re­sem­bled a slith­er­ing sidewinder, the whole thing adorned with a bright pink-and-pur­ple paint job by Camp­bell.

The soft-spo­ken, typ­i­cally sub­dued Camp­bell was buzzing with ex­cite­ment as he traced the curv­ing rail line of the un­con­ven­tional craft with his fin­gers, even­tu­ally end­ing at the sharp pin­point of the nose. He ex­plained that this board wasn’t built to be rid­den, but would in­stead serve as a kind of prop for an in­ter­sti­tial scene in his new surf film.

“And here we have a slight dou­ble-con­cave to vee through the tail, which is re­ally go­ing to work great for turns,” Reynolds joked, run­ning his hands along the bot­tom. “But se­ri­ously, some­body’s gotta try to ride this thing.”

Al­though the board looked un­ride­able, Camp­bell’s pre­vi­ous films have shown surfers slid­ing around on stranger craft, in­clud­ing long­boards with wooden coffins, lad­ders and Nordic el­lip­ti­cal ma­chines af­fixed to them.

“It would be in­ter­est­ing,” Camp­bell replied. “Plenty of edges to catch.” Camp­bell has spent his life surf­ing and cre­at­ing odd­ball art, whether that meant mak­ing films about surf­ing or skate­board­ing, shoot­ing pho­tographs, paint­ing car­toon­ish crea­tures, sculpt­ing those same crea­tures in three di­men­sions, or pub­lish­ing books and pro­duc­ing mu­sic through his pub­lish­ing com­pany, Um Yeah Arts.

“To­day, peo­ple al­ways try to pi­geon­hole you—you’re ei­ther this, or you’re that,” Camp­bell had ex­plained ear­lier, as we drove from a break­fast cafe in Dav­en­port down to Santa Cruz on a chilly Jan­uary morn­ing. “But I’m a cre­ative per­son, and I like do­ing dif­fer­ent things be­cause it keeps it in­ter­est­ing. Like, I re­ally en­joy paint­ing, but I don’t want to do it all the time. It’s way too in­tense. Too emo­tional. When I’m work­ing on a paint­ing, I ex­pe­ri­ence all of my emo­tions—ev­ery­thing from com­plete ela­tion and con­nec­tion to com­plete de­spair. A lot of times, my body does not want me to paint. It’s like, ‘Re­ally, dude? Again? We’re gonna do that? Sure, you could have this emo­tional rev­e­la­tion…or we could go surf­ing or just sit on the couch.’”

Lately, how­ever, Camp­bell hasn’t al­lowed him­self much couch time. When we met, he had just fin­ished an ex­hi­bi­tion in down­town San Fran­cisco at Chan­dran Gallery, which had him holed up in his stu­dio work­ing 14-hour days for months on end to fin­ish the pieces for the show. The fruits of his la­bor were nearly floor-to­ceil­ing paint­ings fea­tur­ing gnome-like char­ac­ters in ab­stract forests, sur­real quilts of kalei­do­scope patch­work, in­tri­cate ce­ramic and bronze sculp­tures and a two-story spray-painted re­cre­ation of one of his hand-sewn man­dalas.

Now that the ex­hi­bi­tion was over, Camp­bell was men­tally and emo­tion­ally ea­ger to put down the paint­brush and turn his fo­cus to an­other project, namely, a new surf film. Af­ter nearly a decade since his last surf fea­ture—2009’s “The Present,” which acted as the punc­tu­a­tion mark end­ing a co­he­sive tril­ogy that started with “The Seedling” in 1999 and “Sprout” in 2004—it may come as a sur­prise to many that Camp­bell is re­turn­ing to the genre. In fact, it even came as a sur­prise to Camp­bell him­self.

“When I fin­ish a surf movie, I al­ways say that I’ll never make an­other one be­cause it’s so much to give and to do,” Camp­bell said. “But it’s one of those things where I get fur­ther away from that state­ment and then I think about the good times and the things that are en­joy­able about mak­ing surf films. And there were some more things that I wanted to say and more peo­ple that I had al­ways wanted to work with on a movie.”

Camp­bell views his first three films as “kind of ed­u­ca­tional, in a way.” In an era dom­i­nated by cookie-cut­ter thrusters, Camp­bell’s films showed elec­tric wa­ter­borne tal­ents slid­ing all over the joint on fish, logs, alaia, surf mats, body­boards or no boards at all. Sin­gle-fins, twins, tris, quads and fin­less were all pre­sented as equally wor­thy ve­hi­cles, ca­pa­ble of con­nect­ing the wave rider to the ocean in a way that can en­hance and even de­fine their life. But that was al­most 10 years ago, and if you sur­vey the line­ups to­day, things have changed dras­ti­cally. The sur­fcraft and mind­sets that seemed novel then are the new norm. But while surf cul­ture has never stopped evolv­ing, nei­ther has Camp­bell.

“With this film, I re­ally want to ex­plore more and do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” Camp­bell says. “In a cer­tain way, this is prob­a­bly go­ing to be one of the least ac­ces­si­ble films I’ve done—it’s go­ing to take place in a more cre­ative realm, with­out the tra­di­tional nar­ra­tion that my other movies have had. Just more ex­ploratory and ab­stract. It’s go­ing to be wild.”

(Top) Dan Mal­loy, angling through an In­done­sian dream­scape on a Gerry Lopez hand­shape dur­ing the film­ing of “Sprout.” Photo by DUSTIN HUMPHREYS

(Right) Camp­bell, locked in trim on the other side of the lens. Photo by PA­TRICK TREFZ

To­day, if you roll up to Do­heny State Beach in Dana Point when there’s so much as a drib­ble of swell, you’re bound too see a crowd of surfers on tra­di­tional sin­gle-fin logs, mod­ern eggs, Costco soft tops and a whole spec­trum of other wave-slid­ing craft. But in the 1980s when Camp­bell was a teenager, that wasn’t the case. Long­board­ing was years away from its re­nais­sance, and for the most part the few surfers who both­ered with the typ­i­cally mushy waves at Do­heny were be­gin­ners strug­gling to fig­ure out their short­boards in the gut­less fare. Camp­bell and his friends, how­ever, fig­ured out early on the ben­e­fits of keep­ing an open mind when it came to sur­fcraft.

“I have this great group of friends called ‘The Hawgs,’ and we’ve been friends since high school,” ex­plains Camp­bell. “Back then, if the waves were fun, we’d go surf Strands Point on short­boards. But if it blew out, rather than forc­ing it on short­boards we’d head over to Do­heny and ride logs. If we didn’t want to do that, we’d go skim­board­ing in La­guna, or go skate­board­ing. So that’s how I al­ways thought. It was just like, ‘What­ever, who cares what we ride? Let’s have fun.’”

Years later, af­ter Camp­bell grad­u­ated high school and es­tab­lished him­self as a skilled pho­tog­ra­pher and film­maker in the world of skate­board­ing, it was that same open-mind­ed­ness and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for over­looked sur­fcraft that even­tu­ally drew him and mas­ter log­ger Joel Tu­dor into each other’s or­bit.

“I knew of him orig­i­nally be­cause of skate­board­ing,” says Tu­dor. “I re­mem­ber his skate pic­tures run­ning in Transworld and I kind of tripped out, like, ‘Wow, this guy is su­per tal­ented.’ Two years later I was at Cardiff get­ting my shit to­gether to go surf and my buddy in­tro­duced me to Thomas, and then we just started shoot­ing the shit. Just the way he talked about surf­ing, he clearly looked at it all dif­fer­ently than every­body else. At the time, there was no one like Thomas in surf­ing.”

(Op­po­site) Joel Tu­dor in 1999, the year he and Camp­bell teamed up to cre­ate “The Seedling,” spot­light­ing a then-over­looked sect of surf­ing. Photo by THOMAS CAMP­BELL

“Joel was like, ‘Wanna make a movie?’” Camp­bell re­calls. “And when the best guy asks if you want to make a movie, the an­swer is ‘Yes.’”

Camp­bell had the artis­tic vi­sion, which was es­sen­tially a mod­ern­ized take on the tra­di­tional surf film for­mat pi­o­neered by Camp­bell’s idols, like Greg Macgillivray, Jim Free­man, Bruce Brown, Alby Fal­zon and John Witzig, com­plete with nar­ra­tion from Camp­bell. Tu­dor brought the world-class surf tal­ent as well as the con­nec­tions to bring to­gether a cadre of long­board­ers and shapers that would be the faces of log­ging’s rebirth. Tu­dor, Devon Howard, Dane Peter­son, Kas­sia Meador, Don­ald Takayama, Skip Frye and more filled each frame of “The Seedling” with equal parts style and soul, evan­ge­liz­ing a re­li­gion of trim, tra­di­tion and el­e­gant foot­work. Cou­pled with the jazzy sound­track, im­promptu mu­ral paint­ing and an “American Gla­di­a­tor”-style surf show­down be­tween two char­ac­ters named “Fe­cal Man” and “Star Man,” “The Seedling” was clearly in a cat­e­gory all its own.

But while his­tory has since proven Camp­bell and Tu­dor right, with “The Seedling” now seen as a water­shed mo­ment in surf cin­ema, it wasn’t al­ways clear that they’d have a re­cep­tive au­di­ence. They had to beg, bor­row and steal for the nec­es­sary fund­ing to make the movie, shot en­tirely on ex­pen­sive 16mm film, and once the film was fin­ished, it was re­jected out­right for dis­tri­bu­tion by Sex Wax (Cal­i­for­nia’s big­gest surf movie dis­trib­u­tor at the time) be­cause they didn’t think any­one in their right mind wanted to watch a full-length film about tra­di­tional long­board­ing.

“I re­mem­ber when we fi­nally had the pre­miere, we did two show­ings for two nights at the La Paloma, which I thought was ex­ces­sive, but we did it any­way,” re­mem­bers Camp­bell. “I was up­stairs on the bal­cony while the movie was play­ing, and the au­di­ence is just f--king quiet. I’d been go­ing to surf movie pre­mieres since the ‘70s and usu­ally it’s a ruckus. So I’m sit­ting there, and the self-doubt is re­ally creep­ing in. To­ward the end of the movie, I was in real de­spair, think­ing, ‘I thought they’d get it, but they’re not get­ting it. The guy from Sex Wax was right!’ But then the movie ends…and ev­ery­one just goes crazy. It was a stand­ing ova­tion. I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber that mo­ment.”

“The Seedling” was an un­der­ground hit upon its re­lease in 1999, and it es­tab­lished Camp­bell as one of the most unique film­mak­ing tal­ents in surf­ing. The grow­ing swell of sup­port that fol­lowed “The Seedling” would help Camp­bell con­nect with even more di­verse wave-rid­ing tal­ents and pro­pel his next two films, “Sprout” and “The Present.”

Both “Sprout” and “The Present” took the ideas of “The Seedling” and ex­panded on them. Tra­di­tional log­ging re­mained a cen­tral fo­cus, but now fish, quads, bonz­ers, alaia, body­boards, surf mats and even thrusters came into the pic­ture. And with them came some of the great­est wave rid­ers of multiple gen­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing Dane Reynolds, Dave Ras­tovich, Gerry Lopez, Rob Machado, Ozzie Wright, Mark Cun­ning­ham, Belinda Baggs, Dan Mal­loy, Chelsea Ge­orge­son, Mike Ste­wart and Alex Knost.

The big names and more var­ied sur­fcraft made “Sprout” and “The Present” more ac­ces­si­ble to the short­board­ing masses, and the ex­per­i­men­tal mes­sage of the films couldn’t have been clearer—al­though not ev­ery­one was quick to drink the “Ride Any­thing” Kool-aid.

“When I made ‘Sprout,’ jour­nal­ists would tell me, ‘What you made is not real. You’re mak­ing up this fan­tasy world where all these things work to­gether, but in re­al­ity they don’t work to­gether.’ I’m like, ‘Uh­hhh, I think they do.’ For me, if the waves were tub­ing and good for turns ev­ery day, I’d ride a short­board all the time. But that’s not how it is. So why not try to ride some­thing that’s fun in the dif­fer­ent con­di­tions? It’s all sen­sa­tional, so how can you ac­cess the dif­fer­ent sen­sa­tions and en­joy your­self in the dif­fer­ent con­di­tions? It’s not f--king brain surgery.”

Some­where, a hand­ful of surf jour­nal­ists are blush­ing to­day. For many surfers around the world, Camp­bell’s films were a cat­a­lyst, caus­ing them to look hard at their own quiv­ers and won­der what they’d been miss­ing out on. The aes­thetic of Camp­bell’s movies also helped change the way those same surfers thought about their cul­ture, of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive to the bro-cen­tric ver­sion of surf­ing be­ing ped­dled by most surf brands, and reaf­firm­ing that the pur­suit of waves could be an artis­tic one.

“I give him com­plete credit,” says Tu­dor of Camp­bell’s role in shift­ing surf­ing’s cul­tural con­scious­ness. “He had a dif­fer­ent ap­proach and it re­ally changed the way peo­ple thought about surf­ing and kind of cre­ated what peo­ple see as surf­ing’s hip­ster gen­er­a­tion, and that’s the truth, dude. It’s 100 per­cent Thomas and Alex Knost. I don’t know two peo­ple that have been more knocked off in the last 20 years. And the dif­fer­ence be­tween Thomas and the other guys was that he was re­ally push­ing art. Most surf movies at the time were all pre­sented by the brands, push­ing their thing, just lo­gos ev­ery­where. Thomas came into the pic­ture like, ‘I’m not in this for money, I’m mak­ing art.’ That’s why his shit stands the test of time.”

It was a cool day in Le­moore, Cal­i­for­nia last fall when Alex Knost found him­self fly­ing down the line of a per­fectly-groomed, olive-colored wave face with a self­shaped bonzer un­der­foot. His flam­boy­ant line was quin­tes­sen­tial Knost, link­ing swoop­ing turns on open walls and lengthy cheater-fives through the man-made tube with a con­tor­tion­ist’s bod­ily aware­ness.

When the In­sta­gram clip of Knost’s Surf Ranch visit came out (and pro­ceeded to ex­plode the In­ter­net), there was one thing that seemed odd for Knost. As some­one who grew up log­ging, cross-step­ping his way up and down hulk­ing planks of foam and fiber­glass in ways a leash would hin­der, Knost de­vel­oped a knack for hang­ing onto his board sans leg rope. But ap­par­ently the Surf Ranch doesn’t budge on their leash laws, and Knost agreed to play ball in ex­change for a shot at the ar­ti­fi­cial peel­ers.

Camp­bell, on the other hand, couldn’t make the same com­pro­mise. He’d been talk­ing to Surf Ranch rep­re­sen­ta­tives for about a year and a half, or­ga­niz­ing a day for the best tra­di­tional long­board­ers in the world to show­case their foot­work and tube-rid­ing prow­ess. It was go­ing to be a sec­tion of his new film, un­til it wasn’t.

“I’m not go­ing to have tra­di­tional sin­gle-fin long­board­ing with a leash in my movie,” says Camp­bell. “No way. It just looks so bad.”

Camp­bell has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing un­com­pro­mis­ing when it comes to his artis­tic prin­ci­ples, whether that means keep­ing would-be spon­sors for his films at arm’s length to main­tain cre­ative in­de­pen­dence, or telling surfers that they can’t wear a cer­tain pair of board­shorts while film­ing.

“Thomas was the first guy to be like, ‘Dude I’m not film­ing you in those long trunks. Those things are so ugly,’” says Tu­dor. “And he was telling this to Machado and all those high-pro­file guys. He was a re­ally good edi­tor in the way that he knew what he wanted to shoot and he knew that what he was mak­ing was the right way.”

“When I watch some­one take off on a wave—how they look, what they’re do­ing—i can tell you when they kick out if I’m go­ing to use it in the film,” says Camp­bell. “When I first started film­ing with Rob, he wore long shorts that went past his knees. I don’t like how long shorts look. They just make a per­son’s body look trun­cated and not as dy­namic, es­pe­cially on a long­board. It just looks awk­ward. So yeah, I’ve told a few guys that they needed to cut their shorts. What else can you do? If I don’t say some­thing and let them wear that, and then I don’t end up us­ing the im­ages be­cause I don’t like the way it looks, that’s not help­ful. They’re like, ‘Cut my shorts? This is crazy.’ But in the end I think they get it, maybe.”

In other ways, how­ever, pro­duc­ing a surf movie while main­tain­ing in­de­pen­dence and cre­ative con­trol has got­ten much more dif­fi­cult in the mod­ern era. Back in the aughts, be­fore the pro­lif­er­a­tion of web videos and dig­i­tal down­loads when Camp­bell’s movies were sold on DVD, the fi­nan­cial side of pro­duc­ing an independent surf film was much more straight­for­ward.

“I’m still try­ing to fig­ure it out, ap­par­ently,” says Camp­bell about his new film. “I’m quite per­son­ally in debt on this project and I’m just try­ing to fig­ure out dis­tri­bu­tion with the new forms of dig­i­tal re­lease and how that plays out in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. I think I can get the movie paid for, but it’s not look­ing great for prof­itabil­ity. But I would say that a big per­cent­age of the things I do, I don’t do for money—i just do them be­cause I want to do them and be ex­pres­sive.”

Even with the ob­sta­cles in­her­ent to mak­ing a surf film in 2018, Camp­bell isn’t re­sign­ing to half mea­sures or cut­ting cor­ners. Camp­bell won’t say the name of his new film, be­cause it would “re­veal too much,” but he will say that it’s go­ing to be “science fic­tion, in a weird, in­dige­nous sort of way.” And while what that ac­tu­ally means is prob­a­bly only clear to Camp­bell him­self, what is clear is that it’s go­ing to be am­bi­tious. He plans to in­clude psy­che­delic in­ter­sti­tial scenes with bizarre props, cos­tumes and hand­made sets that will call upon all of his skills as a visual artist. Not to mention he’s as­sem­bled a Jus­tice League of left-field surf tal­ents from his pre­vi­ous films along with the van­guard of surfboard and surf style ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the mod­ern era, in­clud­ing Knost, Tu­dor, Ras­tovich, Wright, Ryan Burch, Bryce Young, Craig An­der­son, Jared Mell, Lau­ren Hill and Trevor Gor­don. So far they’ve shot sec­tions for the film in Fiji, Morocco and In­done­sia, with more trips pen­ciled in for early this year. And, of course, most of the movie will be shot on gor­geous 16mm film.

Camp­bell’s new, more ab­stract ap­proach to film­mak­ing sounds like a far cry from his pre­vi­ous films, which were driven by a kind of man­i­festo: a call to ac­tion for surfers ev­ery­where to ex­pand their minds and their quiv­ers. But 10 years later, now that Camp­bell’s surf ethos is shared by more and more mod­ern surfers, can this movie have the same kind of deep cul­tural im­pact of his pre­vi­ous works? For that mat­ter, can any surf film achieve that in 2018 amid the re­lent­less white noise of dig­i­tal video con­tent? I put the ques­tion to Camp­bell.

“I think so,” he said. “Do I think that I’m go­ing to be the one to cre­ate that mo­ment? I don’t know. I think that what hap­pened with my films be­fore is kind of serendip­i­tous in some ways. But I do think that peo­ple are highly ca­pa­ble of be­ing very cre­ative and hav­ing new per­spec­tives. We don’t know where surf­ing is go­ing to go and we don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. It’s hard to imag­ine, but then again it al­ways is un­til it hap­pens.”

Af­ter we left the Board Builders Guild, we climbed into Camp­bell’s van, loaded with boards, wet­suits, and framed art that he’d been mean­ing to mail off, and headed to check the surf at Steamer Lane.

A puls­ing north­west swell was in the wa­ter, al­though a high tide was swamp­ing out the over­head rights. Camp­bell leaned on the rail­ing that lined the cliff over­look­ing the break and watched a gal­axy of dif­fer­ent surfers of dif­fer­ent abil­ity lev­els on dif­fer­ent de­sign trips find their fun in the wonky waves. Garage-sale guns, resin-tinted fish, im­ported soft tops and well-stick­ered thrusters were all part of the surf-cul­ture stew that swirled and roiled through­out the high-tide peaks.

Look­ing out at Steamer Lane to­day, or count­less breaks around the world, it seems that we no longer need a film to turn surf­ing on its head. A decade ago, Camp­bell helped spark a cul­tural change that has since grown into a roar­ing blaze. Per­haps Camp­bell’s next work will sim­ply be a way of cel­e­brat­ing how far we’ve come; a way of sit­ting back and en­joy­ing the warmth.

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