In Frame: Riley Blakeway

Surfing was just the beginning for the Australian film director

Riley Blakeway tells a damn good story, though his brief run in surf is a story in itself, starring a blonde Aussie with eternally young features and a remarkable knack for picking the perfect track for a segment.

Riles arrived on the scene sometime in the late 2000’s as a young filmmaker pumping out Analog Clothing’s edits. From the beginning, you could spot a Blakeway edit. That extra umph, plenty of lifestyle. It was, in fact, a commitment to showcasing surfers’ real lives that you weren’t seeing in a lot of films. It was personal.

You got the impression that subject and story ruled over everything in Blakeway’s world. He threw himself into films, like the acclaimed short “Peninsula South,” a beautifully heartwarming film about father/son duo Nathan and Herbie Fletcher.

When it comes to his tools, Riley utilizes each like a master carpenter. From shooting on Kodak Super 16mm Film to the RED Epic — He’s the modern-day Bob Vila of surfy cinematic expressionism, building his own house of films using every tool in his box.

So why don’t we see more of his work in surf? Truth be told, talented people typically don’t stay in our little world. They expand, mutate, evolve, do whatever the hell it takes to make sure, at the end of the day, they’re getting to a place financially and creatively that best suits their career.

“I don’t really shoot anymore,” Blakeway admits. “I’ve been directing a lot. Now it’s just a lot more writing and pitching, but it was always going to go this way for me. I’m sure at some point I will make a return to surf of some kind. Just not in the foreseeable future,” says Riley.

So what started out as an interview to catch up and discuss future edits, and profile films galore, quickly turned into a reflection on a broadly evolved career.

Tell us about working on those early films. What were some of your most fond memories shooting those? 

My earliest commissioned work was pretty much the Analog days. I had done a few bits and pieces before that, but NOW was my first international release. Then we made a film called Chromatic. I had two other full-lengths, but other than that, my career in surf film making was mostly defined by my web films.

I came up at the same time as the digital camera boom – DSLR’s and affordable Prosumer cameras – and once I found out about self-releasing on Vimeo, I just ran with that. One series that did super well was the Fiji Vignette series. That’s probably my most fond memory. Taj took me and five other mates on a luxury yacht in Fiji for a week. We had double bedrooms, full butler service. We got airlifted to play golf, went game fishing. We radioed in banana smoothies from the back of a ski after long afternoons surfing. We flew in five more people and partied on the boat. I got to shoot Taj and Kelly out of a chopper…Sorry for the rant, reliving the trip in my mind. Feels like a lifetime ago!

Your palette is incredibly diverse — Natural light, tungsten constants, film, low lighting, silhouettes, black and white grain, muted tones, saturated landscapes. How do you approach each medium?

That’s a hard one to answer. I feel like I just followed my nose and felt my way through everything. I’m self-taught, apart from some mentoring from more experienced filmmakers. But for the most part, I just pay attention to imagery that inspires me and try my best to emulate that with my own voice. It’s trial and error, and some styles worked out better than others. I’ve narrowed it down to a more defined style, maybe? I think my visual palette is pretty defined nowadays. Most of my time is now spent on story and idea rather than aesthetic.

How does shooting skating differ from shooting surfing? Not just the action element, but personalities and whatnot? Can one activity learn from the other, and vice versa? 

I mean, there are obvious differences between surf and skate; even just from a technical perspective, your equipment is totally different. But I never really subscribed to the traditional “rules” of how you have to shoot skating. There are just things that make obvious sense – showing someone’s frontside wherever possible, trying to do spots justice. But I feel like I had a different eye for it, and I attribute that to growing up filming surfing, I suppose.

You’ve been doing a lot of band videos as of late (Froth, Cherry Glazer, etc.). And skate has always been your jam. Anything surf-related coming soon? You really should make another surf flick, Riley…

My focus right now is just concepts and stories. I don’t really shoot anymore. I’m a commercial and music video director. I work with crews and DOP’s that handle the camera. I sold all of my equipment a while ago. Now it’s just a lot more writing and pitching, but it was always going to go this way for me. I’m sure at some point I will make a return to surf of some kind. Just not in the foreseeable future. On commercial work with proper budgets or music videos, you get to be the most expressive or creative. I think it was always a natural progression, because pairing visuals with music has always been an integral part of my work. It’s what first hooked me as a high school kid staying up editing all night.

I haven’t made a skate film since “Eight and Sand,” and I haven’t made a surf film since “Light Therapy.” Before that, I hadn’t made anything surf for three years. I feel like “Light Therapy” was the film that everything else I ever made within surf was leading up to. So once I made that, I felt comfortable to step back and focus on other genres.

I might slowly work on another 16mm skate film now that I’m back in Sydney, but only when I get the spare time. It would be self-funded and personal. Mainly, I’m sitting around banging my head against my computer writing.

How do you approach each edit? “Peninsula South” felt so smooth, like being three beers deep in a warm jacuzzi. A lot of your films are so easy to watch. Why is that? What’s going on in that editing bay of yours?

Oh shit, I forgot about Peninsula! That was my last surf film. I guess I always thought of it more as a Father & Son story than anything else. I think the editing process is the first thing that got me hooked. Even in the early days, I had a feel for connecting stories or images together with audio. It’s the most intuitive and unexplainable part to me. Search How Does an Editor Think and Feel on Vimeo. It’s brilliant and very relatable to anyone that edits.

You’ve just moved to Sydney, why the move? 

I miss my country, man. I miss my family, the beach, all my mates. I did four years in the States and it just felt like it was time to come home. I still have a visa and I’ll always be back and forth, but I want to always have Australia to come back to.

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