How did you get into cinematography?
Growing up my dad always had a Super 8 camera around, so introduction was through that. As I got into surfing, skating and motocross my brother, friends, and I would dabble with shooting footage of each other and doing stop frame clay-mation shorts. I still have a few epic rolls of ektachrome of a WSA District 5a surf contest at the San Clemente Pier circa 1980 with David Beauchamp (then US Boys Division Champ) ripping on his Local Motion single-fin!
WSA District 5a Contest at the San Clemente Pier. Super 8mm 1980
class=”question”>Did you have any formal education in it/how did you learn?
I went to Pepperdine University and majored in TV production, so studying cinematography was a part of that. Shortly after graduation I was walking through a camera store and saw an old Bell and Howell Super 8 camera, so I bought it for nostalgic reasons. I started using it again and actually got really into super 8, ultimately incorporating it into some of the music video and promo work I was doing around that time. After that it was just sort of a natural progression to 16mm and 35mm, and definitely a learning experience every step of the way. You can learn the principals or theory in a classroom, but learning how to apply them takes trial and error, so you need to just go out and do it.
Mark gets his surf on
What attracted you to 16mm film?
I think first and foremost it was the look. To me 16mm is a very intimate format; the same way Super 8 has that “home movie” vibe.
Secondly, 16mm can still be a very portable format, making it good for run and gun type documentary work. If you go the Bolex route, the equipment is also relatively affordable.
For my taste, it is just a great balance between look and usability. Factor in the history of 16mm film as the tool of choice in documentary filmmaking, and it is hard not to have adopted that format. Of course that is all changing now…
Mark with his Bolex rig
Are you still shooting 16mm or have you adopted digital technology?
Given the advances made in the digital realm and the changes to the “action sports” industry as a whole, it is getting harder and harder to justify shooting film, and so I too have adopted digital technology and it is more and more becoming the tool of choice.
I’d like to think that the possibility to shoot 16mm still exists, but I am more and more beginning to realize that One California Day might very well have been the last project I shoot with 16mm film.
That being said I am threatening to do an all Super 8mm film sometime in the future.
What are the pros and cons of each?
In the documentary world, the new digital technology has become the norm. On the plus side, it’s inexpensive, highly portable, works great in low light situations, and the footage is instantly reviewable. Those are all huge pluses.
Through the introduction of DSLR cameras and 35mm adaptors for video cameras, the depth of field issues associated with small sensor video cameras that accentuated the “video look”, are no longer an issue, and it is possible to get rich, textured, shallow depth of field images that are more “filmic” in quality. Mind you it is never going to be film, but these cameras are capable of producing images that to my eye, convey the same emotion as film. It is it’s own unique look.
I think the biggest drawback to the digital technology is the lack of “latitude” that video offers. You really need to pay attention to exposure to make sure that the information in the images is not lost, especially in the whites. Once the whites are blown out, it is hard to get that information back and you are left with that “white hole” on your screen. Obviously this presents a big challenge for surf cinematography where the exposure difference between the whitewater and a surfer in black wetsuit can easily be 4 or more stops.
The pros of film are the latitude, the organic look, and for me the surprises that film offers. In the documentary world you are usually shooting without any sort of video feed, so you have no idea what you are actually getting until you process and telecine. There have been numerous times when I was sure something would be terrible and it came out great. Even little imperfections, like malfunctions in the camera can sometimes create great unexpected results.
It’s actually pretty amazing to think of how blindly some of the 16mm work is done. When I shot the original DRIVE skateboarding documentary, I don’t think I saw a single frame actually processed until 80 percent of the film was shot. With the digital technology available today, that seems hard to imagine.
You really need to weigh which is the best tool for the job at hand, and yes when you self finance your own projects, cost is definitely a factor. At the end of the day, they are all just tools, if you don’t have a good story to tell or good composition in your shots it really doesn’t matter what you use. A tricked out 35mm or RED camera does not guarantee a great film.
Mike Vallely visits the Cayman Islands in DRIVE
What kind of equipment are you using?
Well, I still have a Regular 16mm, Super16mm, Super 8mm, in my collection, but in the past couple of years I have been shooting digitally.
For me that means primarily the Panasonic HVX 200 and Canon 7D. I have shot the Sony 900 HD cameras extensively, but found lugging over 100 pounds of camera gear around cumbersome and prohibitive. In many cases missing opportunities because the equipment, so I switched to the smaller formats and tapeless workflow.
For the type of stuff that I like to do, I am having good results with the HVX and 7D. I am experimenting a lot with filtering and camera settings to get a look I like, and to get the maximum latitude out of the video.
How did you get inspired to make surf films?
As I mention earlier I have been surfing my whole life, so it has always been apart of who I am. My path into surf filmmaking is sort of an untraditional one. I started out in LA and had a production company, doing more mainstream work – music video and commercials, and utilizing emerging technology in post-production. This was during the infancy of desktop video, so getting a computer to spit out any type of moving video was like giving birth, but it was definitely the beginning of the DIY style of filmmaking.
Through that I was able to combine my love for filmmaking, surfing and skating. That ultimately led to me being given the opportunity to get involved in Bluetorch, for which I was the creative director and executive producer. At that time Bluetorch owned the rights to the WCT contest in Tahiti, and the WCT and WQS contests in Huntington, so I was heavily involved with those and really wanting to find a way to portray contest surfing in a new way. After 120 episodes of the show, I left Bluetorch because I really wanted to get back to “just the filmmaking” and the basic idea of making story driven films in action sports that empower and inspire.
Tyler Warren sunset session
You are getting some really nice framegrabs – has that become your version of photography or do you also shoot stills?
I think it’s always best to have a dedicated photographer. That being said, with the new DSLR technology it is possible to shoot hi-res stills and video with the same camera, so it offers a lot of flexibility in being able to get production stills without too much hassle. Since most of this stuff is run and gun or “in the moment” it is definitely hard to think about doing both, so sometimes you have to rely solely on frame grabs, which fortunately have become better and better with the increased resolution of HD.
What challenges do you face as an independent filmmaker?
I think the biggest challenge is on the business end of things – the change in the distribution model, and the fact that content is so readily available for free. Lets face it, as an independent filmmaker, You Tube and Vimeo are not necessarily your best friends. Sure they allow your work to be seen and are a great tool for creating interest and marketing a project, but in the end there is only so much time in the day, and if people have access to free content to watch, why bother paying for something. The skateboard video is a perfect example of falling victim to that. It seems that we are all still searching for a way to monetize that.
I am constantly blown away to see what pops up for free – lets face it, there are always going to be people that are more talented than you are, locked up in some basement, just churning out the craziest stuff and posting it for the world to see.
From a distribution standpoint – the day of the DVD is on the outs being replaced by digital platforms. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because ultimately it will allow for distribution to a ton of new markets, but in the meantime, you have to deal with the fact that we are in the infancy stages of this – and people need time to warm up to new technology.
So, what is the biggest problem facing independent filmmakers? It’s money, and having the certainty that you can recoup your money.
Lastly, free DVD’s shrink-wrapped in magazines don’t help either!
Skip Frye shaping
How do you overcome them/what keeps you motivated?
What keeps me motivated is having a point of view and something to say… so for me story is always going to the main thing. And at the end of the day that is what filmmaking is all about, having a point of view and sharing it with people.
I also think that these days it’s not just about the making of the actual film. In order to stand out and rise to the surface you really need to create a bigger experience that the film is a part of. I really view it as building a brand, and as a filmmaker being involved in how that story is disseminated through all the various channels from marketing, theatrical screenings, DVD, merchandise, etc…
The goal is always to make something stand the test of time.
What advice do you have for the aspiring surf filmmaker?
The most important advice that I would have for aspiring filmmakers is to be original and have something to say. Develop your own style and remember that all the new technology is just tools, at the end of the day it still comes down to the fundamentals of storytelling and composition.
Trouble In Paradise” – A surfing and motocross claymation adventure. Super 8mm 1980
What are your favorite projects that you have worked on in the past?
It takes so much energy to bring these projects to life that they sort of take over your life for that period of time, so each one is memorable and special. In the case of One California Day, it took Jason (Baffa) and me 4 years to complete. That is a good chunk of your life, so it was definitely a labor of love, but one that left a lasting impression on us both.
However, if I had to pick just one experience that sticks with me the most, it would be my travels through Israel for Drive. Being amongst all of that history was just an inspiring experience.
Al Knost in One California Day
What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
Up next is another surf film, as I have partnered up with John Smart to make The Tyler Warren Experiments. John had already been shooting for the film the last couple of years, and as we got to know each other and discussing ideas, we kind of came to the realization that we should combine them to make one film. We are shooting for another 6 months or so and will complete the film in 2011.
Besides that, I am attached to direct a surfing based environmental documentary called “The End of Summer”.
For more of marks work go to: http://www.buildworldwide.com