Cinematographer Sebastian Slayter and director Chris Gentile wanted to create a unique film that mixed some of the world’s most jaw-dropping surfing locations, gifted professional surfers and provocative music. Self Discovery for Social Survival was the outcome of this ambitious idea, but the journey to achieving this project was challenging, explains Slayter, who’s worked on a variety of TV and film productions including Master of None and Anchorman 2.
How did you and the team come up with idea for Self Discovery for Social Survival?
“Surf films have been around for a long time, but we wanted to take a more experimental approach to the genre and explore the role of music in surf filmmaking. We had an idea to go on an epic surfing trip with professional surfers and musicians who love the sport. We wanted the experiences of this trip to connect the sound and the visuals. We did this by asking the musicians to write the soundtrack to the film while on the shoot, because we felt that the camaraderie, passion and adrenaline that a surf trip brings would come across more effectively. The musicians recorded the soundtrack immediately after the completion of the trip, so that the emotions of the shoot were fresh in their minds and would come through in the performance.”
Where was the trip shot?
“We picked locations spanning three separate oceans – the Atlantic (Iceland), the Pacific (Mexico) and the Indian Ocean (the Maldives). It's a huge thing for surfers to identify not only where the best waves are, but where they can enjoy them uninterrupted. We chose our locations based on that, but also on the weather reports. We were constantly monitoring swells, storms and ocean currents. We checked radar reports, everything. We were really thorough.”
What were your creative goals?
“Even though we were focused on creating one long, cohesive feature film, each one of these locations is very unique. We wanted the film to comprise three vignettes that all had their own look and feel. In the Maldives, the ocean was the deepest blue and we wanted to emphasise that vivid colour in the visuals. With each vignette, we wanted the film and the music to evoke the strong emotions that we experienced on that trip.”
How did you select the musicians and the surfers?
“All of the musicians were chosen because of their interest in surfing. It really wasn't hard to convince them to come on a trip with a host of professionals! Most of the surfers were interested in the unique approach of the project, but also the locations. They’re also all music lovers and some of the surfers have bands of their own. The journey was a complete mix of surf and music conversations.”
What sorts of challenges cropped up during filming?
“We wanted equipment that would work in temperatures below freezing and heat of up to 40 degrees Celsius. Some camera systems just can’t take a high level of humidity or heat, so robustness in extreme environments was a big factor. We also required cameras to have an intuitive operating system, so a cameraman could be primed to shoot a great wave very quickly. Alongside these factors we obviously wanted the best possible quality to deliver fantastic footage.
“The biggest challenge when shooting surfing is being able to capture the waves, because sometimes you can show up to a location and they just aren’t there. This means you have to time your arrival to help you capture the best possible footage. Sometimes, all you need are two to three amazing waves to get what you’re after, but you have to be prepared to wait.
“Trekking was another issue, because a lot of our locations were very remote. I had to load cameras and lenses into a backpack, throw a tripod over my shoulder and climb over rocks and down beaches. It was really physically challenging.”
What cameras did you choose?
“We chose a Canon EOS C700 as the A camera and a Canon EOS C300 Mark II as the B camera for the Maldives leg of the production because they had a good reputation for filming in challenging environments. I've always loved the way Canon EOS sensors respond to light, so the C700, paired with a C300 Mark II for the trip, seemed like a complete no-brainer to me. They also have the Cinema EOS operating system, which is easy to use and familiar to the camera operators. Another decisive factor in selecting a camera for our film was the dynamic range. I knew we'd be using mostly natural and available light. The C700's 15 stops of dynamic range (in LOG 2) meant I never had to worry about losing detail in my highlights, despite the sometimes harsh and unforgiving sunlight.”
How did you get financial backing for the film?
“Mexican Summer is an established record label in the same neighbourhood as the surf retailer Pilgrim Surf + Supply, in Brooklyn, New York. Mexican Summer are known for re-releasing surf film soundtracks and wanted to incorporate their own musical artists into a surf film. They turned to Pilgrim's founder, Chris Gentile, for creative support and direction.”
And how did the crew assemble?
“Our B camera operators for Mexico and Iceland were Oliver Lanzenberg and Caleb Seppala. Both of these guys are brilliant Directors of Photography, adventurers and dear friends. For the Maldives, we wanted angles from the water, so we brought on Australian Jimmy Kinnaird to shoot with a water housing while treading water in the waves. Jimmy is a prolific water shooter for surfers all around the world. He's great with a camera, but is also a really strong swimmer and surfer. You have to have a huge amount of stamina to tread water and dive under waves for hours on end. Jimmy did some tremendous work and had collaborated with this particular group of surfers before. He was familiar with their surfing style and knew how to capture them looking their best.”
I've always loved the way Canon EOS sensors respond to light.
Did these cameras help you to solve any filming challenges?
“We didn’t have any assistants to help us pull focus or lug gear around. It was just me and my B camera operator out there. We’d often set up in these unpredictable environments, not certain of what our surfers were going to do. At these times, the AF capability of the C700 saved me – I was blown away by it. I’d be fully zoomed in with these guys zipping along waves and the image was tack sharp the entire time.”
What other equipment did you use when shooting this film?
“We used Canon lenses for every single portion of the trip. I’ve always used Canon lenses and I really trust the glass and love the formula. They’re also extremely robust and very compact. I needed something for this trip that I could just put into a backpack and know that it would perform.”
It sounds like a pretty remarkable trip! What experiences will stay with you?
“One of the most memorable experiences was seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland. That was absolutely breathtaking, and we shot some tremendous footage. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the Canon Cine Primes as they open up to such generous apertures. That meant we could capture the phenomenon in all its glory.”
When will Self Discovery for Social Survival be released?
“We want to release the film this winter, alongside the soundtrack and a photobook of the trip. It’s going to be a three-part release and we are looking to take it on a roadshow, during which time the musicians will play the tracks live to screenings of the film.”