Film cameras are outdated, inefficient, and expensive. So why do some filmmakers continue to use them today?
Outside it’s a beautiful Tuesday morning in Newport Beach, with a warm breeze blowing over the Pacific Coast Highway toward the ocean. Inside the cramped beach cottage, it’s a different story. Rays of sunlight are creeping through dusty windowpanes, and the sour smell of last night’s spilled beer drifts up from the sticky tile floor. The man standing in front of me looks like he’s stumbled straight out of a time machine: long, knotted locks, John Lennon sunglasses, wool vest.
“We had a few drinks after karaoke last night,” says Jack Coleman, attempting to explain the years of neglect the kitchen had seen. On the floor next to an empty beer bottle sits Coleman’s camera bag, packed to the brim with handheld Super 8 cameras, a manual 35mm SLR, and an assortment of film.
“Here, let me show you where I make my stuff.”
I follow him through the musty living room of Ford Archbold’s house, where Coleman has been crashing for some time, keeping most of his worldly belongings in his truck parked out front. It seems strange that a 40-year-old man would be content staying in the beer-soaked hovel of a kid half his age, but Coleman has made certain sacrifices over the years to accommodate his very expensive methods of filmmaking. Archbold is both a friend and film subject for Coleman, so while the living situation may not be ideal, it is convenient.
We head into the side yard and stop in front of a tiny, ramshackle wooden shed.
“Here’s my studio,” Coleman says, opening the door and ducking down to take a seat on the stool inside.
With a low ceiling and walls barely more than shoulder-width apart, the shed could barely fit the husky Coleman.
“You can just kinda lean in or something if you want.”
The walls of the shed are plastered with strange artifacts: a battery-powered fart machine, a Jesus Christ action figure, and recent photographs of his friends that somehow look decades old.
Coleman gets adjusted in the dingy wood cave and powers up the computer sitting on his tiny desk. With all the time and money and energy that he sinks into his films, it’s hard to believe that this is where it all comes together.
“You wanna see something cool?” he asks.
I do, and I lean into the cavern for the premiere.
FAKING THE MEMORY
When Kodak introduced Super 8 film in 1965, it changed the way average people could document their lives. Kids tearing through wrapping paper on Christmas morning, a drunken wedding dance taking an inappropriate turn—for better or worse, these moments could suddenly live in colorful perpetuity. In surfing, it opened up a whole new world of amateur surf movies. You didn’t have to be a career filmmaker to document riding waves. Anyone could buy a Super 8 camera and film cartridge and capture their friends scoring a fun day at their local break or getting loose with a few sand-caked beers at a beach barbecue. It was the birth of the homemade surf movie, and it wasn’t a formal endeavor with subjects shot from a distance like some sterile movie set. It was more intimate.“Surfing as a culture is a lot more tripped-out than the way it’s spoon fed to us by a very uncreative industry. At least these guys are trying to iterate something that’s more accurate to the way that they—and most of us—actually see surfing.”—Thomas Campbell
“That’s what I love about making surf films that feel like old home movies,” says Coleman. “It’s all handheld, so you can be right there in the shit. If I’m in Bali and we’re hanging with local Indonesians performing a Hindu ceremony, I can just walk around with my camera and be right in the middle of their world. Sometimes people get intimidated by a flashy new camera and they tense up, but there’s something about carrying an old camera around that makes people curious and interested. It lets you experience that scene without feeling removed from it. I want to enjoy being in these moments as much as everyone else.”
It would be an understatement to say that Coleman has a knack for nostalgia. His most recent film, Secret Sound Underground, as well as Happy Beach, Polyester, and his numerous other projects, were shot entirely in Super 8 film.
It’s not an original concept, but that’s the point. We enjoy watching old surf films because they convey a feeling of nostalgia. Unlike the growing horde of filmmakers churning out high-def, low-budget surf porn, a handful of filmmakers choose to sacrifice detail for style. The bold colors of Super 8 film or the static grain of an old photograph offer a breath of simple familiarity. If only for a moment, we can be tricked by these mediums into thinking that we’ve stumbled upon a relic, a warm memory from surfing’s past.
Coleman takes his pursuit of cinematic nostalgia to the extreme: after getting his film developed, he’ll scratch it, draw on it, paint it, or rub it with dirt—anything to give the grainy frames a raw, primitive feeling. Other filmmakers don’t take it quite that far, but Coleman is certainly not alone. Thomas Campbell and Patrick Trefz have been shooting on film for more than a decade, and recently Joe G., Riley Blakeway, and George Trimm have also found something irreplaceable in antiquated methods of filmmaking.
“It’s funny because sometimes our enjoyment has nothing to do with the quality of the actual images,” says Trefz. “I’ve seen some people getting back into VHS lately. The quality of the image is pretty terrible, but it accomplishes the same thing as film in the way that it brings you back to a certain time. Super 8 is also very sub-standard with the amount of detail you get, but that’s not the point.”
While filmmakers like Trefz have relied on the medium to help tell stories about waves and the people who have dedicated their lives to riding them, Coleman’s films are a pure visceral experience, leaning heavily on color filters, speed manipulation, and psychedelic soundtracks. It’s clearly a more deliberate art than a simple home video, but with stop-motion clips of toy sharks and animated rainbows shooting out of surfboards, it carries a certain irreverence as well.
“I think a lot of surf movies are made by people who want to glorify themselves or their art or whatever,” says Alex Knost, a mainstay in Coleman’s films. “But Jack doesn’t want to take it that seriously. A lot of people will work on their movie parts for a long time trying to outdo each other and only use the best of the best. Jack definitely thinks that whole macho, self-absorption is pretty wack.”
George Trimm, a 26-year-old filmmaker out of Orange County, has also been toying with the standards of surf cinema by using an amalgamation of mediums. A fan of Thomas Campbell’s 1999 film, The Seedling, Trimm knew that he wanted to work with actual film as well as more modern mediums. The Bootleg, which Trimm made with Joel Tudor earlier this year, features footage shot with Super 8, 16mm, and various digital devices from the last decade.
“I think there’s this perception that you’ve got to stick to one format in filmmaking and be consistent, but I don’t really agree with that,” says Trimm. “A lot of the people that filmed for The Bootleg weren’t professional filmmakers. They just grabbed whatever camera they had and got a few cool shots. In surfing, people can’t see past the industry standard. They want to go buy a 7D with a 400mm lens and just follow their favorite guy around, and it all comes out looking exactly the same.”
Some people will ignore filmmakers like Coleman and Trimm for venturing too far from the mold with which they are accustomed. But maybe Coleman and Trimm’s work tells us more about our collective surf experience than 1080 pixels at 60 frames per second ever could.
“I think it’s cool that Jack and George are making this tripped-out stuff,” says Thomas Campbell. “Because I think that surfing as a culture is a lot more tripped-out than the way it appears as it’s spoon fed to us by a very uncreative industry. At least these guys are trying to iterate something that’s more accurate to the way that they—and most of us—actually see surfing.”
We might be attracted to images that echo the past, but there is a reason that we moved toward digital video in the first place, and it goes beyond artistic preference. A cartridge of Super 8 film costs between $10 and $20, with which you can turn out less than 3 minutes of film if you are shooting at the standard 24 frames per second. After you’ve gathered all of your footage, you have to get it processed and transferred into a digital file so that you can edit the footage on a computer. This process is called Telecining, and it’s not cheap. When Trefz made Thread, he spent between $30,000 and $40,000 on Super 8 and 16mm film and the digitizing process before he had even seen his footage.
“A lot of guys will want a little bit of Super 8 film in their movies, but I think they get discouraged when they find out how much the process costs,” says Coleman. “I end up putting all my money back into what I do, so I’ve given up things like having a house or a girlfriend. But I love traveling and making these movies the way I want to make them. I just want my films to pay for themselves so I can keep doing this.”
When Australian filmmaker Riley Blakeway mixes mediums for films like Chromatic and Now (high-definition RED, 16 and 8mm cameras are mainstays in his arsenal), it’s as much a financial choice as an artistic one.
“If I could afford to shoot everything in 16mm, I absolutely would,” says Blakeway. “You definitely achieve this nostalgic feel, and I think it comes out looking as good as anything digital. Not to mention the fact that working with film forces you to be a better filmmaker. You know as soon as you hit record that you’re spending money, so it forces you to think about your shots. With digital, you shoot everything because you can and throw most of it away. With film, you are very aware and thoughtful about what you are doing, so you end up using about 70 percent of what you shoot. It almost always comes out better that way.”
Even for those few filmmakers who can afford to shoot projects entirely in film, the door is slowly closing on the art form.
“I got a call from Fujifilm,” says Campbell. “They said that they aren’t making 16mm film anymore and asked if I wanted to buy some before they were out. Kodak still makes film, but who knows what’s going to happen. The demand is so small for it, so I don’t know if they’ll keep producing it. But I hope it sticks around, somehow, because I really enjoy shooting on film and clearly a lot of people still prefer it.”
Most surf fans won’t mourn the death of film, and although they won’t like it these filmmakers will carry on in some fashion as well. Coleman and Trimm make films that may initially stand out because of their use of mediums, but what makes them truly interesting is their fun, irreverent view of our world. Even after the final reel of film sputters and stops, their art will continue.
“Today there are so many options, and there are more all the time,” says Trefz. “You can go grab a shitty little camera for a thousand dollars, and if you really have something to say, you can make something worth watching.”
PEERING INTO A TIME CAPSULE
I’m standing outside of Coleman’s shed, awkwardly craning my head inside as he hits play on Secret Sound Underground. The movie starts like a surreal dream, with images of Ozzie Wright launching above water the color of blue Kool-Aid, Alex Knost eating mushrooms in slow motion, and sequences of flashing light and sound that would be right at home in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The blurry images bounce sporadically as the handheld camera fights to keep them in frame. Bold colors ooze from every clip, while scratches and burns and cartoonish effects dance across the screen. It feels more like a music video than a surf movie, and at times the surfing itself seems like little more than an afterthought—just one of many ingredients in a bubbly psychedelic stew.
It becomes clear in the first few minutes that this movie won’t be for everyone. Like many artists who choose an unusual path, Coleman could easily be written off as some kind of gimmick: a drug-addled filmmaker fumbling with old cameras. But for anyone with an appreciation for the imagery of yesteryear, his work is undeniably magnetic.
My neck is cramping up, but I keep watching as a stocky blonde surfer slides out of perfect Indonesian barrel and melts into the warm, grainy haze. The footage looks lost and found, buried and excavated, and for just a moment, I feel as though I’ve been transported to another time: that simple, golden age in which the film was shot, all the way back in 2012.