The Rocketmen

Forty years before GoPro, this is how you got a P.O.V. shot

George Greenough brought the inside-out tube view to the big screen for the first time, in 1970’s Innermost Limits of Pure Fun, and he did so with hulking 25-pound shoulder-mounted camera rig that by all rights should have popped his head from his slender shoulders like a cork during the first wipeout.

The tube, at that point, even to hardcore surfers, was just slightly less mythical than Narnia. If you surfed in the early ’70s and your name wasn’t Lopez, you were measuring your annual tube time in seconds—or just as likely, you weren’t getting any at all. Because of this rarity, and because Greenough had technical chops to do the job right, and because entire acres of bud were smoked during each Innermost Limits screening, the slow-motion tube sequence he produced was a global surf-world spellbinder. It set off our very own space race, in fact. Space, as in how deep in the tube could you go with a camera, and for how long. And space, also, as in how far could you shrink the hardware so as to make the job easier—at the moment, that means 5.4 pixel-jammed ounces for a GoPro HERO4, housing included.

My personal favorite stop on the timeline between Greenough and GoPro is the Rocketmen sequence from Curt Mastalka’s fine 1973 movie Red Hot Blue. Not so much for the actual in-the-tube shots (one Pipe drainer grabbed everybody’s attention at the time; the rest was mostly filler), but for the way we get to linger on the Rocketmen themselves, each doing their heroic best to maintain bipedal balance while wearing a safety-orange 11-pound modified crash helmet, with a 16mm camera bolted to the left side and a brick-sized battery pack on the right. Where Greenough gave up nothing of the process by which he took us inside the tube—no shots of him wearing, or surfing with, the camera gear; nothing to break the illusion that the viewer himself is piloting his way through the barrel—Mastalka is clearly in with love with the gear he assembled, and proud of the all-star cast he recruited to wear it: Rory Russell, Jeff Hakman, and James Jones, among others. The Rocketmen, each magnificently be-helmeted (there was only one helmet) they passed it around like a joint—are filmed in slow-motion as they prepare to enter liquid space and make the giant leap for surfer-kind.

Not everybody dug it. “The sequence starts to drag heavily,” Surfing said in its review. “Too many shots on the beach, as if to say, ‘Look, audience! This guy’s surfing with a far-out camera on his head!’”

I disagree completely. No doubt it has everything to do with the lethal level of GoPro fatigue I’ve experienced these past couple years, but I like the making-of shots way better than the money shots. Jeff Hakman striding down the beach, jaw set, helmet gleaming in the tropical sun—that’s as close to Neil Armstrong as surfing is ever going to get.