Going to Extremes to Get the Shot

[Newport Beach Film Fest] You think action-sports athletes push the limit? Check out the people filming them

Hunter Weeks and his camera crew spent two weeks roughing it in the Colorado Rockies, encountering snow, grizzly bears and hungry mosquitoes.

Only 30 seconds of what Davo Weiss filmed in shark-infested waters off Cape Town, South Africa, made it into his film.

Travis Robb hung out of a flying helicopter, banked radically on its side, to shoot what was below. Airsick, it took all he could muster to keep from vomiting on his camera.

Mike Losness of San Clemente catches some air in "Cancer to Capricorn: The Path of the Modern Gypsy"
Chris Straley / REEF
Mike Losness of San Clemente catches some air in "Cancer to Capricorn: The Path of the Modern Gypsy"
"Camp Chuck" Director Marc Salomon and director of photography Justin Ostensen
Jennie Warren
"Camp Chuck" Director Marc Salomon and director of photography Justin Ostensen

Nathan Apffel didn’t lose his lunch, but he nearly lost consciousness in the waters off a remote island in Indonesia when a wayward surfboard fin hit him in the temple, causing blood to gush out. There wasn’t a hospital for miles, let alone Obamacare.

That was a picnic compared to the dengue fever Apffel suffered a couple of weeks later.

While watching well-made action-sports films—or any movie that includes such sequences—viewers are often amazed at the extreme athleticism filling the frames.

But what of the extremes it took to capture those extreme images?

The 2010 Newport Beach Film Festival, which opens Thursday, April 22 and continues through April 29—includes among its popular Action Sports category 22 feature-length films and several shorts.

It’s big business. For every indie production shot on a shoestring budget, there’s a better-funded project with a corporate imprimatur stamped onto it. Sponsors of action-sports films in this year’s lineup include Quiksilver, Element, Red Bull and Reef.

Among the entries is Cancer to Capricorn: The Path of the Modern Gypsy, director/cinematographer Russell Brownley’s visually stunning documentary on surfing excursions between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The film is sponsored by Reef, the surf-inspired sandal maker that has expanded into active sportswear.

Cancer to Capricorn follows members of the Reef surf team, including veteran pro Rob Machado of Newport Beach, to sunny locations from Mexico to Indonesia. Although it’s not mentioned onscreen, the surfers ride the waves while wearing the latest spring and summer lines of Reef boardshorts.

PJ Connell, the men’s marketing director for the Carlsbad-based clothing company, was involved in the film from the beginning, even helping Brownley pick out music in post-production. Print, broadcast and web-based advertising can only go so far in creating brand awareness in an action-sports-retail industry crowded with players, says Connell, adding that a sponsored surf film cannot come off like an infomercial.

“You can’t fake it,” Connell says. “At its core, Cancer to Capricorn is a surf film about traveling the world, living out of a bag, living the dream. It is meant to inspire.”

If the inspired grab a board, head for the surf and stop to get Reef boardshorts on the way, all the better.

Connell is currently heading up an unusual marketing campaign to get the film directly to readers, netizens and viewers this summer via surf magazines, websites and television shows. In addition to having the world premiere on American soil, the Newport Beach Film Festival will help Cancer to Capricorn gain recognition for its filmmaking and expose it to audiences who might not typically gravitate to surf films, he explains.

Companies know potential product buyers watch these films. And to keep them coming back, filmmakers are hell-bent on topping their predecessors—and themselves—when it comes to extreme sequences.

*     *     *

Lost Prophets—Search for the Collective is among the most beautifully shot, well-edited and fully realized movies in this year’s festival, let alone the Action Sports category. It follows eight surfers scattered all over the world, but several Orange Countians are involved in the project. And the waters off Newport Beach inspired the documentary’s director.

Nathan Apffel, who is credited as director and director of photography, grew up in Los Angeles, but he developed a love of the ocean while staying at his family’s beach house on Balboa Island and learning to surf.

His narrator is Laguna Beach’s Tom Morey, the inventor of the Boogie Board. Two surfers who appear onscreen are San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino and Hans Hagen, who was born and lives in Laguna Beach. Hagen is also one of the executive producers.

Apffel wanted to highlight individuals “far from the ‘normal’ idea of a professional surfer.”

“Surfing culture originated as an act of escape and joy, yet today, there has been a departure from these origins entering an age of hyper-progression and extreme commercialism,” he explains. “Among the unstoppable trend of surf globalization, there are still certain individuals who have chosen this age-old path of discovery with surfing being a spiritual reflection of themselves.”

He calls his eight surfers “prophets” to the industry. And to translate their passion to viewing audiences, Apfell had to go to where the surfers find it. That involved taking an old, 80-foot, wood-hulled fishing vessel called D’Bora through the outer islands of Indonesia—with his crew and expensive sound and camera gear aboard.

“Here, our crew scored some of the best surf to hit the island chain in the past decade,” says Apffel, still excited at the memory.

He’s less thrilled recalling the day he was shooting in the water when a set with 15- to 20-foot faces rolled in.

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