Accidental Innovator

Dane Reynolds Reinvents the Signature Film

Dane Reynolds, rewriting the book on how to make a signature movie. Photo: Glaser

This fall, Dane Reynolds released two films.

The first, Seen/Unseen, is an extremely straightforward 32-minute compilation comprised mostly of surf footage that originally aired on Dane's blog, Released as a free download, it features Dane surfing in and around Ventura County, where he's lived since he was a kid, and little else. Seen/Unseen has no titles or plot twists (in fact, there is no plot or even organizing principal to speak of), nor are there any interviews or helicopter-mounted Red Cameras or 3D motion graphics. Most of the film is simply the baby-blue emptiness of a California midday sky on the top half of the screen, the translucent green-gray water color of powerful Ventura beachbreaks on the bottom half, and Dane's silhouette moving effortlessly between the two. Shot and edited by his friend and personal filmer, Jason "Mini" Blanchard, it's surf porn at its finest—a stylized freesurf highlight reel of the 25-year-old who many consider the best Californian surfer since Curren.

The other film, Thrills, Spills and Whatnot, is much harder to be succinct about. While it features some bright, tight surf action throughout, the glue that holds the film together is grainy 8mm footage of obscure things like someone's feet and birds flying and light reflections on the ocean's surface and Dane giving himself a shave with a pair of scissors. The soundtrack is an amalgam of recorded children's voices, rock music, and punctuating moments of silence—aspects that hearken to a student art film far more than the slick signature surf film many expected. Though it shares a lot in common with Seen/Unseen, Thrills Spills and Whatnot is trying hard to be artsy and mainstream simultaneously, without fully committing to either direction.

While neither Seen/Unseen nor Thrills, Spills and Whatnot claim to be authorized signature films—a genre that, while not new, is becoming increasingly common as a tool of marketers—they certainly could be misconstrued as such. Each features a single subject and serves to brand them through editing, music choices, promotion, and distribution.

Dane Reynolds is an inovator above the lip, on the face, and apperently while fully submersed. Photo: Testemale

Julian Wilson's summer release of Scratching the Surface was visually stunning and full of mind-numbingly progressive aerial surfing, though the message seemed to be "Julian rips and always has." The surfing in Jamie O'Brien's new signature film, Who is JOB, was a powerful argument that the regularfooter deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of post-Momentum surfing, though the goal of the project seemed similar to Julian's—a kind of hybrid between a brand-building exercise and a major contribution to surfing's body of inspiration.

Julian and Jamie's films are the HD products of big corporately financed budgets, years of chasing swell, technological breakthroughs in surf-filmmaking, and directors with their own distinctive style, so when you compare them to Dane's recent public offerings, the differences are profound. But just because they look and feel dissimilar, that doesn't mean their purpose isn't identical: to take control of the narrative about the famous surfer away from media and place it in the hands of those with the surfer's best interests at heart.

In late October, during a brief break from Tour responsibilities, Dane spent a few hours at Channel Islands shaping a board that he specifically wanted to have no dimensions or plan—he'd hoped it would instead be the product of immediate inspiration. "I didn't even want anyone to tell me which tools to use, but a couple times I really wanted to ask," he laughed. "I just want to cut loose on the [blank], but people are telling me, 'You've got to do this and that,' and I'm like, 'F–k man, just let me do it!' Then, all of a sudden there's no one there to help me, and I'm like, 'Oh no, what do I do now?'"

The theme of his shaping adventure is evident in the idea behind Thrills, Spills and Whatnot. "I deal with really big productions a lot, where people have these big concepts, and I feel like details get sacrificed when you have these really big concepts," he stated with conviction. "So I wanted to make something with zero concept, and focus on the details. I wanted to focus on the moment-to-moment aesthetics that get lost when you're chasing a big concept."

While he may be a maestro on a 6’2″, the challenge of creating art without a guiding principal is the stuff of pure genius. Dane acknowledged that Thrills suffered from a lack of structure. "We should have been more critical of the content and cut it down 10 minutes. Thirty-five minutes is probably too long for something that has no narrative or motor pushing it forward."

"I never felt like Seen/Unseen had to have a motor," he continued, "because it was just this free download. I feel like it almost turned out better [than Thrills Spills and Whatnot], or maybe more natural in a way, because my concept with Thrills was to have no concept…but that's still a concept."

Dane laughed out loud at the irony of his statement and admitted that, unlike Thrills, Seen/Unseen's creation was more natural and "just kind of fell into place."

The reality is, neither of Dane's films are artfully crafted masterworks. Like the experimental surfboards he makes in Al Merrick's shaping bay when the legendary craftsman is fly-fishing in Montana, they are exercises in understanding one's purpose and challenging established norms—both are natural curiosities for young people with active minds. In actuality, the real signature film is itself.

Since its launch a year ago, Dane's blog has become an ongoing, casual but honest conversation with fans and viewers. Told from the comfort of home, without the pressure of studio lights or the stress-inducing deadlines of larger-scale productions, Marine Layer gives users a window into Dane's mind and his daily surf sessions without beating them over the head with logos and promotions. And the results are tangible. Monthly, the site is visited by 150,000 unique viewers—10 times the number that will pay retail for the next big signature film.

If signature films were a way to take the narrative from the surf media, Marine Layer has allowed Dane to reclaim it from people with big concepts and tell his story his own way.

For more, look for the January 2011 issue now available at newsstands.