The footage is mind-bending. There seems no better way to appreciate the full majesty of a wave, in all its beauty and danger and magnitude, than at 1,000 FPS. The same could be said for the surfers, Slater and Florence and Mathews and company, whose skill, technique, and style gets lost in the speed of waves at real-time. What you see in the above clip came from Australian cinematographer Chris Bryan, who swims in these lineups with a camera that costs the same as a house in the Midwest and weighs as much as many of the household appliances that’d go into it. He’s distinguished himself as surfing’s Phantom cam man, and explains below how it all came to be:
1,000 FPS—what’s it really mean within the context of surf video? How many FPS are we used to seeing?
Regular speed, real-time footage, is 23.98 frames per second (FPS). So my camera is set up to capture 1,000 frames every one-second. And every shot in the above reel has been set up to capture approximately three seconds of real time.
How’d you get into documenting the world in slow-motion?
I started out shooting slow motion back in the days when film was the only possible way to shoot high-quality slo-mo (16mm and 35mm). With today's technology, it was just a general progression to move onto digital. But still, my operation isn't all just about shooting slow motion. It is a great tool for showing extreme situations, but you still need some regular-speed footage with sound to tell the whole story.
Though you have made Phantom cam footage your signature. What’s it taken to do that? What kind of purchases, gear, commitments, and dangers come with shooting with that camera?
Yeah, it seems like it has become that way with the Phantom and me. Though it’s not just a matter of having a camera that can shoot slow motion, because you can shoot slo-mo with the GoPros and iPhones. It's more about the subject and where you can position the camera than what camera you can afford. I could go out and buy a sword, but that doesn’t make me a samurai. It comes down to knowing how to use the gear. The Phantom is a huge camera, and when you're shooting from the water in waves of consequence you can get yourself in some dangerous situations. It's like swimming around with a waterproof microwave that has a $250K price tag. But if it were safe, cheap, and easy, everyone would be doing it.
How’s your gear compare to other filmers in the lineup?
With the Phantom cam being so expensive, I’ve never been in the water and seen another guy out there with the same camera. You will see a lot of guys with Red cams, which are also amazing. Different tools for different styles of shooting. For me the Phantom is for action, and my Red or Canon 5D for storytelling. But still, I think the camera operator is always going to be a lot more important than the camera.
What are some things a Phantom cam is capable of that we don’t know about?
One of the best features of the Phantom is its end-trigger feature. Basically, I can hit the trigger after the action, and the camera retroactively records. So if a surfer comes flying down the line to hit a big air section and mistimes it, that's a shot I don’t want, so I don’t hit the trigger. But if he hits the section perfect, I hit the trigger immediately after he hits the ramp. That way every shot is something worth saving, because you’ve already seen what happened, and in that brief half-second, you hit the trigger to save the take. The file sizes are huge, 16GB for a 3-second take, so you're not wasting all that data and time in editing.
What looks best at 1,000 FPS? Airs? Barrels? Slabs? Big-wave surfing?
I think airs and barrels all look great in slow motion if you can get the camera right in among the action. I always try to position myself as close to the action as possible, so if I’m shooting the guys doing airs I want get right underneath, so he almost feels like he's going to land on me and the camera. And if I’m shooting barrels, I'm in there with the surfer in the most critical spot of the wave. Big waves don't always look great slowed down though. I've shot Jaws a few times, and my personal opinion is that the Red footage shot at 60FPS looks better than Phantom at 1,000 FPS. With big waves you want to feel the speed. Slo-mo is best for short, dramatic situations.
How has surf filmmaking changed with the intro of slo-mo? Is it for better or for worse? How do you decide if something is better in regular or slow speed?
This sounds contradictory, but I honestly think there is too much slo-mo these days. When I see land shots of guys pumping down the line in slow motion it makes me cringe. It's boring. Slo-mo should only be used if the situation is extreme or heavy, when the viewer can feel like he or she is there among the energy. A water-angle of Shane Dorian on an 8-foot wave at Backdoor? Slo-mo. A land-angle of someone surfing Snapper Rock? Not so much.