The Internet of Things has redefined how we live. We can control houses, cars, and all our various technologies through a few swipes on a smart phone. The effects of this interconnectivity are wide-ranging — and well beyond ensuring our DVRs are properly set — but one drawback to this ease within which we now live is the alterations to our collective attention spans.
According to a Pew study conducted in 2012, Millennial and subsequent generations will struggle to develop critical thinking capabilities, citing a “thirst for instant gratification … quick fixes [and] a loss for patience.” Microsoft surveyed some 2,000 Canadians this past spring and discovered the average attention span was eight seconds — a decline from 12 seconds just fifteen years earlier.
Nowhere is this quick-twitch consumption more evident than on YouTube and other video streaming sites. Vines only last six seconds, and seemingly every YouTube pre-roll has a five-second skip option: the video analytics company Wistia reported a few years ago that 80 percent of viewers will stick around for a thirty-second video, an average that drops to 60 percent for a two-to-three minute spot and continues to fall as more time drags.
View From a Blue Moon, a surfing film released on Tuesday and co-directed by John John Florence, regarded by many as the greatest surfer of his generation and the heir apparent to Kelly Slater in ‘greatest of all time’ discussions, radically departs from this eyeball-consuming trend.
The filming of typical surfing flicks is as follows: trek to some out-of-the-way destination (i.e. Tahiti), film as much as possible over the course of a few weeks, edit the footage interspersed with some sick beats and cuts of surfers talking about their craft in a pseudo-documentary style, and then share on social media. The hope is the film goes viral, which helps promote whichever not only the surfer but also the brand and any ensuing projects down the (figurative) pipeline.
And now that anyone can shoot in 4K with a GoPro — and, starting in 2016, a Mokacam, or the smallest ever 4K camera — viewers are consistently guaranteed an enjoyable viewing experience. “Anyone can go out right now and buy a RED camera,” says Florence over breakfast in early November. “It’s the new standard. And no one can really tell the difference between 8K and 2K on a MacBook Pro. It’s now going to be about the artistry, and how you shoot the action.”
But it’s not like Florence used some outdate technology to give the hour-long View From a Blue Moon, which debuted this Tuesday, a vintage look for maximum nostalgic appeal. As the 23 year old and I sit in in a diner booth at NYC’s Standard Hotel, he stresses the movie, which took three years to plan and cost roughly $2 million, represents a paradigm shift for action sports films.
The Meatpacking District is a long way from the North Shore swells Florence grew up surfing. He has been haloed with expectation since he was a toddler — he signed with first sponsor (O’Neill) when he was six years old — and you expect the astonishing when Florence picks a set, but he intimates during our conversation this endeavor was also his most draining.
“At this point, it is cool to see it finally come out,” he says between bites of over-easy eggs and rye toast.
“When we first began to storyboard the film out,” he continues, “we wanted to make it much more cinematic, and convey information to the viewer in a different way, than any other action film.” What that included — along with a voiceover provided by John C. Reilly, whose inflection in the film is more Magnolia and less Brothers, and a new track by Jack Johnson, a Florence family friend, titled ‘Seasick Dream’ — was RED Scarlet and Dragon cameras, Phantom 4Ks, a Kessler Motion control time lapse, and full-sized helicopters equipped with a gyro-stabilized Shotover K1s.
The result is a gorgeous visual experience — unofficially the first-ever surfing film shot entirely in 4K — and like Endless Summer (or Endless Summer II, Florence’s favorite surfing film), will transcend the boundaries that typically hamstring action sports solely to the X Games set.
How it all began is largely apocryphal: Florence randomly texted Curt Morgan, CEO of Brain Farm, in 2012 about partnering together. Brain Farm is the Lucas Films of the action sports film industry: their 2011 snowboarding movie, Art of Flight, was the first to ever be shot entirely in 4K. “The technology now is moving so fast that a lot of times, we are doing the beta testing for various cameras,” says Chad Jackson, the company’s head of production. “John John wanted to stay on the forefront of what is new.”
The amount of footage the team shot is staggering — even though the movie consists of just three terrabytes, more than 160 terrabytes was recorded. According to Florence, “This film was more than just going surfing and filming it.”
But after Morgan enthusiastically agreed to Florence’s proposal, the surfer went silent for a month. He didn’t forget — Florence finished 4th in the World Surfing League, the sport’s competitive body, that year (his second-best result in his five years on the tour), so he had a lot on his mind.
He partnered with Blake Vincent Kueny, who co-directed Florence’s first surfing film, 2012’s Done, as well as several other carving vignettes. Done earned rave reviews for its artistic and unique depictions of Florence’s sui generis surfing — standing just over 6-feet, Florence’s style combines sheer athleticism, inherent surfing technique, and a style that borrows heavily from the skate parks Florence frequented when he wasn’t in the Pacific.
Since Done was a crash course for the pair, who were learning how to work with various cameras and managing work flow, Kueny and Florence had higher ambitions for their next project. “Even back then,” says Kueny, “View From a Blue Moon was the big end goal.”
Filming took place across the globe in several different locations, like Brazil, western Africa, Hawaii, and Tahiti, which enabled the production to experiment. “We couldn’t use a helicopter in Hawaii at 7 AM — people would complain of the noise,” says Florence. “But when we were shooting in Africa, there are no limits.”
There is also a 500-foot height restriction in Hawaii, which, since the production could use the Phantom 4K’s digital zoom to capture not only Florence’s maneuvers but also specks of spray and birds flying through frames, was fine for those shoots, but the schedule became a bit looser when the team reassembled off the coast of an African desert.
John John Florence in Africa
Florence and the 20-person crew had to bring their own water, food, and gas, and camped in a fishing hut, but had total filming discretion. Florence describes one scene where the helicopter was 20 feet from the water’s surface. “Its wash kept blowing me off my board,” he says. “Blake sent me a clip where I do an aerial and disappear in a cloud of spray from the heli.”
One of those scenes — a highlight of the film’s trailer — was shot from the helicopter, which was traveling 200 miles per hour at just a few feet above a dirt road. “We could do that in Africa because no one is around,” says Florence. “We would wake up in the morning and the helicopter is flying overhead at first light — it was like holy shit. This is a war movie!”
“We had the opportunity to be fearless with some of the best camera equipment in the world,” says Kueny. “If we were just walking around the street with a half million dollar camera system, we would have been so timid with the equipment and wouldn’t have gotten what we needed to film.”
The result is a film that screams to be shown at an art-house with an IMAX screen. Water droplets hang, stunned mid-spray as if by Florence’s board control. The camera slowly pans over miles of land a hundred or so feet in the air before snapping back to the intimacy that is man and nature. You forget that View From a Blue Moon is a surfing film.
Florence is visibly relieved the nitpicking tinkering and tightening is done: the final edit was completed just a week or so before we met. Whether or not the film is received kindly doesn’t really matter to Florence — “People like to hate on things, so you have to leave some room for that” — but the combination of Florence’s skills and Hollywood production values ensures it will appeal to both core and mainstream crowds.
View From a Blue Moon even comes with a bit of swag to entice those who are typically board-short averse, featuring a behind the scenes coffee table book, a custom-designed Nixon watch, a Florence-branded Spy Optic sunglasses, and a pair of high-tech shorts that protect the wearer from both the waves and the chafing.
It has been a long three years, and Florence is comfortably satisfied to have finally achieved the goal that started just before the last blue moon (a phenomenon which inspired the title). “This film has been a dream of mine, and took over my life, but now I’ve done it, and can move on for the time being,” he says.
“Until I eventually make my next film,” he adds. “I’m really into sailing now, and want to go to the world’s farthest edges and most interesting places.” You just might have to wait until 2020 to catch Florence’s next masterpiece.