Making Waves: Justin McMillan & Chris Nelius talk about Storm Surfers 3D

Trevor Hogg chats with Australian documentarians Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius about Storm Surfers 3D…

Russ Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll

When he had his first meeting with Australian tow-surfing legend Russ Clarke-Jones seven years ago, little did filmmaker Justin McMillan realize that their creative relationship would result in four documentaries.  “We pitched on Russ’ life story where he was making it with one of his friends from Red Bull,” recalls a jet-lagged McMillian while promoting Storm Surfers 3D at the Toronto International Film Festival with co-director Chris Nelius. “I ended up winning the pitch to direct the film.  I found that I needed more long form experience than I had and that’s how I met Chris [Nelius].  We made The Sixth Element: The Russ Clarke-Jones Story [2006] together and in the process of making it we became good friends with Russ himself.  We met Tom Carroll and while we were editing it we could see them darting off and chasing waves around the world.  It all happened at the time where that whole reality observational documentary was taking off a little bit. The Deadliest Catch [Discovery, 2005 to present] was coming out. We were like, ‘Hang on.  If people are going to watch crab fishing and think that’s cool just because you can die then what about these guys?  These guys are as engaging as any of those boat captains.’ We ended up pitching the television show concept to Discovery Channel Asia and they picked that up; from there we started working together.”


Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius

The two Aussie collaborators come from different backgrounds.  “I went to the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney,” says Chris Nelius.   “I did sound but then when I was there I started getting into making documentaries and stuff like that.  Justin comes from the advertising world so he directed commercials in Australia.”  Justin McMillan observes, “The good thing about commercials is the fact that you’re shooting different things all the time.  You’re figuring out how to get shots quickly with production value.  I was fortunate enough that both of these schools have been able to borrow from each of them.  All of the people in our gripping and lighting departments come from the commercial relationships that we have; they helped in this because everyone in commercials wants to do long form, and everyone who is doing long form wants to make the odd commercial.”   The additional complication for the documentary duo with Storm Surfers 3D was shooting the footage in native stereo rather than rely on the post-conversion process.  “Part of the way we financed the whole thing in 3D was we were commissioned by a new network in the States called 3net,” explains Nelius.  “It is a 3D TV station owned by Sony and the Discovery Channel; they chipped in and said, ‘Give us 3D TV big wave surfing.’  The way financing works is like a domino effect; once you have the first one go down it’s easier to get the other ones.  They kicked it off and we were dumb enough to say, ‘Yes.’ because 3D is so hard.”

“Anything that went in the proximity to the water was housed,” states Justin McMillan when addressing how the camera equipment was protected from the natural elements. “Everything that was on a boat wasn’t a hundred percent watertight; it was probably 80 percent watertight in terms of the shell coverings because what needs to happen is if you have a big side by side rig where everything is connected.  You need to access it just incase anything goes wrong.  We had custom built shells around all of the componentry.  It was a constant evolution of, ‘When we’re here this happened and I needed to get that.’  We’d go home and engineer another piece of it.  All of the systems kept growing and improving throughout the course of the production.  We never stopped building and designing.”  A miniature piece of equipment was utilized to put the viewer on the surfboard with Russ Clake-Jones and two-time world champion Tom Carroll.   “The GoPro camera is an ingenious HD camera which is smaller than a cigarette package,” remarks Chris Nelius.  “It comes out of California and has revolutionized sports filmmaking.  They can place cameras in places they never could before.  It gives you a beautiful 1080 image that can be blown up on a big screen and still hold together because it’s such a tiny camera.  They had just finished their first production of a 3D version of that camera.  We connected with them, and they sent us cameras and said, ‘Go and use them.’  We were lucky to have access to those cameras.”

“In what we do there isn’t, ‘Hang on, don’t catch that wave because our camera has gone out of sync,’” states Justin McMillan when discussing the biggest challenge for the production.  “It’s all about being prepared,” remarks Chris Nelius.  “80 percent of what we were doing was problem solving.  It was like being in the army.  We had to motivate our soldiers to be ready.  We had to be everywhere two or three hours before we had to be shooting in 3D so to be prepared.  We doubled and tripled checked so when we were out there so we could capture the moment.”  The task of orchestrating the documentary required two minds rather than one.   Your brain would explode if you were trying to think of everything with the amount of unforeseen problems that you have on the day,” says McMillan.  “Someone needs to deal with the problem while the other person is moving the show along.  The guys out in the water trust that you know what you’re doing enough that if they’re going to risk their life for something it’s going to be captured and captured correctly.  The whole day is literally capitalizing on story points that are evolving and ensuring your original camera plan is going to plan.”  Working out the aerial footage was straightforward.  “It’s all about timing.   We need a helicopter to turn up at the last possible moment when we’re ready and just about to surf to maximize the amount of our gas in the air because they have a limited time.  The civil aviation authority will only allow you to fly over with a certain amount of fuel on off-shore locations. There are all of these things that need to be taken into account, but because we’ve been doing it for awhile now we have gotten it down to a bit of a science.”

“In one situation we were down the South coast and the swell was literally marching up the coast,” remembers Justin McMillan.  The talent wanted to chase this swell and we were like, ‘We’re all exhausted but we have to because we don’t know if the waves are going to come back again. This might be all we get.’  Then it goes from documenting that as well as organizing it while you’re on the road running.  You go, ‘At what point is this becoming not safe?’  I’m not talking about being in the ocean.  I’m talking even people driving through the night.  You’re making those decisions on the fly as a director.”  Storm forecasting is not entirely reliable.  “It’s always like a 15 to 20 percent margin it will be crap.  98 percent of the time there will be waves but its how big and what standard which effects the way you film, whether it will make the cut, and the impact that it has on the crew.  On a big heavy beaten day everyone comes in with the shit beaten out of them.  They’re windblown, fatigued, and there’s salt through all of the camera equipment, you’ve got to clean all night.  It’s a nightmare.”  A different tactic was employed for Storm Surfers 3D compared to what was done for Storm Surfers, Dangerous Banks (2008) and Storm Surfers: New Zealand (2009).  We took the risk out of going to somewhere we didn’t know as the basis of the film.   We said to ourselves, ‘Let’s take a little bit of pressure off and take these guys to areas where we know we’re going to get waves.’”  Chris Nelius believes, “If we hadn’t made previous films in 2D I don’t think we could have pulled this off. Certainly not to the degree we got to.  It’s a funny thing.  There’s a reason why we did all of those things in 2D.”

“For me the journey of the music in this film and the sound design that accompanies it controls my emotions throughout the viewing experience way more than the pictures do,” states Justin McMillan.  “The guys who composed the tracks have nailed those moments where you feel uplifted when you’re suppose to feel uplifted. You feel that sense of accomplishment when you’re supposed to; that’s the ingredient in there which worked better than what I thought it was going to be.”  Chris Nelius adds, “The other factor that helped the sound design was that from the beginning we put microphones on the guys when they’re on the wave, the jet skis and communicating with each other. When you hear that sound design as a viewer it puts you closer into the scene.  Within surfing before or maybe other action sports, you have not had that access before.  Hearing what they’re saying for us got you more in there and made you give a damn about the guy on the wave instead of it just being a pretty picture.”

“We come from Sydney which is a surfing city,” states Chris Nelius.  “At the same time that wasn’t our impetuous to do it. The reason that we are here is because of whom Tom and Russ are. They are two in a million, inspirational, funny, and their inner child is present, alive and out in the open. We love them and we wanted other people to meet them and learn to love them as well.  For sure, none of this 3D would have happened if it wasn’t for who they are as characters because it doesn’t matter what film you are making if you don’t have characters first.”  Life-threatening moments do happen such as when a huge wave takes Tom Carroll underwater during a scene shot at a secret reef known as Turtle Dove Shoal. “We’re all close friends.  It’s a dichotomy.  We never pushed them to do anything that they didn’t want to do.  We’re certainly not that type of filmmaker.  We’re not the crazy hair brain, push the actor to the edge or push the talent to do something they don’t want to do for the sake of a brilliant film or anything like that.  Luckily for us Russ and Tom, they are their own motivation to do stuff like that.”  Storm Surfers 3D made a major splash at the Toronto International Film Festival as it was honoured with a second place finish in the Documentary category for the BlackBerry People’s Choice Award.  As for whether a shift from documentaries is in the future for the Australian duo, Nelius remarks, “We might have different ideas on what things to do but I certainly think that it would be an awesome big wave Cloverfield [2008] meets Storm Surfers!”

Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius TIFF photograph by Matt Carr/Getty Images Copyright © 2012 Getty Images. All rights reserved.

Productions stills and promo video courtesy of 6ixty Foot Films.

Many thanks to Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius for taking the time to be interviewed.  

To learn more visit the official website for Storm Surfers 3D and read our TIFF review here.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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