Contently Incomplete

By pandering to our shrinking attention spans, modern surf films are losing their charm

Ryan Callinan, bottom turn to air. Photo: Ellis
| posted on May 22, 2013

With progression inevitably comes exclusion. Things are left behind, and we seldom stop to look back. We’ve moved on. Progressed. Matured, maybe. But nostalgia creeps in the wake of what was lost, and we become curiously aware of something missing.

One of these excisions is happening before our very eyes. In slow motion and accompanied by a soundtrack, the modern surf film is cutting complete waves out of the picture. Pick any of the best modern films and you’ll see the same phenomenon: Bottom turn to air. Bottom turn to air. The occasional pump into a barrel. Bottom turn to tail throw. Cue lifestyle shot. Nobody’s paddling anymore. Nobody’s taking off, dropping in, linking maneuvers, or kicking out. It’s all been left on the cutting room floor. Deemed unnecessary. We never get to see that moment when the wave stacks up and the surfer decides to go for it. The complete ride in surf films is on the verge of extinction.

There’s something to be said for the act of paddling into a wave, steering the board toward the beach, and squinting through the sunlight as you make the drop. It shows the nuances of waveriding: that ability to read the ocean in a way that only comes from the accumulation of an untold number of rides. Isn’t that as important as boosting off the closeout section? Just as critical? Just as exhilarating?

Surf films are answering that for us: It’s not. Every time Dane Reynolds appears on the screen, lays into a bottom turn and then destroys the lip, I think “Jesus Christ, that’s ridiculous.” And that’s all these films need to do in order to succeed. The vast majority of mainstream surf films have a very similar, fast, choppy editing style, comparable to snorting a line of Adderall and then shot-gunning a Redbull. They’re delivering the maximum number of maneuvers into a 30-to 40-minute film, and not much else. Who can blame them? In the age of digital piracy, people need a real reason to fork over $20 for a video. Filmmakers have to cater to a generation that looks at a phone screen 150 times a day. Our attention spans deserve a place on the endangered species list.

Am I exaggerating? Let’s look at the numbers behind Dear Suburbia, the 2012 film featuring Dane Reynolds, John Florence, and a handful of other heavy hitters. The 40-minute runtime leaves us with 191 ridden waves. Out of those 191 waves, 23 showed surfers getting to their feet—a lowly 12 percent. The act of paddling into a wave was only shown two times in the entire film, and only for a split second each time. A rider falls a total of four times in the film, so if you ever wonder why these guys seem so infallible on a surfboard, editing might have something to do with it. And the most powerful statistic of all comes from the number of complete rides shown: Zero. I’m not exaggerating.

Style can be wrung out of every aspect of any given ride. There is something to be learned or admired in the way the best surfers approach every part of their ride, much of which occurs before they even start their first turn. The way each individual approaches a peak, where they take off, how they find their feet and generate speed. Kelly Slater air-dropping into a perfect 10 at Teahupoo comes to mind. Because of these nuances, it seems fitting that a wave should be appreciated as a whole. Don’t worry, we will still get to see that air, and it will be just as impressive—or maybe more so.

But if the modern surf film doesn’t have time for complete rides anymore, I can only blame myself. It’s my fault for being so easily bored. If a surf film doesn’t grab me completely, immediately, I’m already opening a new tab on my browser. I’m too busy typing 140 characters about my day. I get up from my computer to throw my dinner in the microwave. As it slowly rotates under the heat, I wonder if anyone actually gives a damn that the complete ride is facing extinction in the name of instant gratification. I take my meal out 30 seconds early. It’s probably cooked enough by now.

  • jimmy from aus

    yep absolute bullshit the whole air thing. It’s not called “airing” its called “SURFING”.
    if you want to do air’s, go kitesurfing.
    I recently used my hard earned dollars to BUY (yes kids BUY) JJ Florence’s new movie “DONE” and i wish i hadn’t.
    There was a whole section shot in sloppy choppy crap in WA with JJ doing air after air, seriously it looks shit.

    On the other hand i used other hard earned dollars to buy “Sight n Sound” which IS worth buying, and ironically classified by itunes in the ‘documentary’ genre, possibly because it documents what real surfing actually entails.

    Good luck to all the kids who continue with the airs, i look forward to your blog updates about your new career’s after you’ve retired from having DONE your knee’s AT 25.

  • Damian Carte

    I think modern films like Sipping Jet streams, Castles in the Sky and even Quik’s VSTR (among others) all do a good job of keeping in the nuances you speak of.

  • Ben

    Watch any Taylor Steele movie from the early to mid 1990s, and you’ll see the same thing. The short-burst edits have been around for a while now. That isn’t to say that I don’t I agree with you however; I am actually interested in the whole ride, from the surfer first eying the wave to the drop to the maneuver.

  • moolenium

    Completely agree. Sometimes its good to see how guys at that level deal with the ocean as a whole. Getting caught inside, spinning around and taking late drops, linking turns…..

  • big al

    Well-articulated, Mr. Hart. This unfortunate side effect of living in the Information Age has percolated through nearly all aspects of life, influencing the ways we communicate whether at the dinner table or through surf media. The fragmented snapshot of a wave ridden you decry is quite similar to the difference between a phone call (or face-to-face meetup, God forbid) and a text or tweet.

  • Roy

    This article is so spot on, new era surf videos make you feel worthless because all they show is an aerial manuever, and I am not even interested in pulling a maneuver of this kind, I’ll leave them for the new generation surfers and the ones who want to get injured easily.

    Bring on more paddling, taking off, rail maneuvers and complete rides!

  • http://Surfermag.com David Nelson

    “We never get to see that moment when the wave stacks up and the surfer decides to go for it. ” Favorite line from this article. This is why I love the Surfline Live video shoots like the last one at Ala Moana and Lowers…

  • Josh Andrews

    Look at Lost Atlas, which I even like, and you’ll see his point exactly: A bunch of five second clips of someone blasting 15 feet in the air or … Surfing is about the whole experience, from throwing your wetsuit on by the jeep to paddling out to getting dragged under by that wave that was a little to heavy for ya. Some of the favorite surfing moments I’ve had have been laying on my board past the breakers just shootin’ the s**t with dudes like Brandt

  • gannysesh

    When clips of Dorian’s “paddle-in monster at Jaws” surfaced (from last winter), hardly any of them showed him actually paddling. They began with him popping up, or sometimes already on his feet. It’s disappointing. Seeing the context makes it more exciting and fulfilling.

    Seems to me like a lot of Reynolds’ vids show him catching the wave and getting up. Putting aside his skill for a moment, I still favor his videos – due to editing – over many others.

    Also, I’m pretty sick of seeing endless airs. They’ve lost their flavor.

  • yeuhp
  • Yassine Benjira

    Thanks for taking the ‘time’ to write this article. I definitely, definitely give a damn that the complete ride is facing extinction in the name of instant gratification, that’s why I stopped watching sAIRfing videos a long time ago, except for the odd Sipping Jetstreams, Broke Down Melody, …

  • T-REV

    I thought I was the only one who thinks this way!
    The very fact that you never see any paddling is why I won’t buy any surf movies anymore. I really could care less about ariels. Every kid 13 years old and up can do them. What everyone can’t do is paddle into 40 Jaws like a Healey or Dorian. Not everyone can get the beating of their life at Mavs, regroup and paddle into another bomb. Face it. The majority of surfing takes place prone.

  • Yoda

    This speaks to another thing that is being lost in the internet age – Originality. Every video clip, every movie, every song, & everyones’ SURFING is starting to look exactly the same. These young cinematographers would do well by not putting out new clips every damn day. It totally waters down the experience. What Youth/Kai Neville/Blake Keuny etc…All of their sh*t looks exactly same. BORING.

  • tj solomon

    great article Brandt. it is very thought provoking as it reflects what we as a society have become. i am afraid there are many things in addition to waves we do not appreciate as a whole. your insight tells me get out and do to truly experience the whole. thanks. tj

  • http://www.janicehollybooth.com Janice

    I’m not a surfer (though I wish I were), but I share the lament about shrinking attention spans, the inability to be in and share a sustained moment of substance. It’s affected everything, and our culture — such as it is — reflects the problem. Well written, provocative.

  • kevin

    too true. i even get excited when i see a straight air rather than an air reverse. i’d love to love to see more good, solid surfing -start to finish. hadn’t realised it before but i’m pretty sure this is exactly why i havent bought a surf movie in a couple years.

  • T-Rex

    I’ve never read something do right ! You read my mind, that’s what I keep telling my friends when we gather somewere to watch surf films !
    In a way, that’s way we’re losing to bodyboard. The only thing I agree with my bodyboarder’ friends when discuting which sport is the best, is that they really have better surf films. Nowadays surf films are all just equal to each other, there’s nothing new. They all try to be so young, fresh and artistic that they become boring to watch, and beacome all equal. Even surfer top 100 film was lame this year ! It’s time to see real surf, not just glimps of tricks !

  • David Keegan

    I could not agree more…it’s been awhile since I have truly enjoyed a surf movie and it seems the ones I do enjoy are films about “the old days” thanks for your story…hopefully someone with a lens is reading.

  • http://sandiegotempleweddings.com San Diego Temple

    There might just be too many of them.

  • Ryan Waldron

    “Filmmakers have to cater to a generation that looks at a phone screen 150 times a day. Our attention spans deserve a place on the endangered species list.”

    Terrific article! As a recent college graduate, I can see how modern technology is rewiring our brains. You should look into the concept of neuroplasticity for more valuable information. Nowadays, any question can be answered by the click of a mouse or simply reaching into our pockets for our beloved iPhones. Our attention spans and communication skills are both suffering. The way you end your piece is cleverly written; we are all just like the frogs, complacent as we suffer in the boiling water.

  • TSOL

    Check Jordy smiths bending colours for full rides and turns AKA .. old school surf film with his new school surfing .

  • Soulosurfer

    Wow!!!!! I thought I was the only one who lament the ADD style of editing these days. I absolutely agree that complete waves are the most beautiful thing to watch. I watch videos because I want to relive the surfing experience when Im out of the water. As a fairly average surfer, Modern videos (although mind blowing, inspiring and fun to watch) barely remind of my surfing experience at all. Im all for progression but not at the expense of style. I love Melali the Drifter Sessions for this very reason, I learned so much from Rob and Kalani’s cliff top view session…. at least Rob Machado still understands what surfing is about. Ditto David Keegan; hopefully a few folks behind the lens will read this.

  • R.F.

    HERE AND NOW. Have you watched the movie, more importantly the end. It face fucks your article. #bestsurffilmout

  • James Watts

    Ryan Waldron, coming in hot out of psych 101. Neuroplasticity has nothing to do with attention spans.

  • The Chap

    I have to agree, there’s even enjoyment taken from watching a skilled surfer paddle out. The line they take, the grace with which they duck dive big sets. I’m not saying surf films should capture an entire session but a session is interesting and, above all else, fun from the minute you dip a toe in the water. It’s also a great way of picking up tips and tricks for us mere mortals to try when we attack the summer crumbly rubbish. I want to see e ‘mundane’ stuff as much as I want to see the airs.