Ryan Burch and Thomas Campbell. Photo: Ellis
Ryan Burch and Thomas Campbell. Photo: Ellis

Do Something: Make Your Own Surf Films With Thomas Campbell

"Idle hands are unable to receive inspiration."

"Get out there and make some shit."

That about sums up Thomas Campbell's advice for would-be surf filmmakers. Or artists. Or musicians. Or anyone who wants to get creative, really. Known for his soulful, quirkily fun take on the alternative surfcraft scene, Campbell's made some of the best surf films of the past couple decades: "The Seedling," "Sprout" and "The Present." He's also a well-respected visual artist with gallery showings in posh art districts in the world's coolest cities. According to Campbell, none of that would have happened had he sat around and wondered, "Is my art any good?"

Campbell got his start in surf filmmaking 20 years ago. "I was filming a movie with my friends back in 1996 called 'Blue Fucking Corduroy, Man!'" Campbell says. "We were riding old logs from the '60s and I thought that filming old longboarding would be fun because it wasn't really a thing people were doing back in the 1980s and 1990s. But a year later I met Joel Tudor and he asked me if I wanted to make a surf film. That became 'The Seedling,' so I ditched the 'Blue Fucking Corduroy, Man!' idea."

He'd already had experience behind a camera as a photographer and photo editor for Skateboarder magazine, but Campbell doesn't think lack of experience should stop anybody from creating. "Everyone has something to offer," Campbell says. "The people who don't know what they're doing have something special because they're not confined by their creative history. People tell me all the time 'I can't draw,' but actually, you can draw, and what you think are just shitty drawings might be really cool."

Even as an established filmmaker, Campbell relishes opportunities to work in ways that don't necessarily play to his strengths, tapping into his inner novice. He explains that he did this recently when making a video for Glitterbust, a band featuring close friend and eccentric surfer Alex Knost and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame. "I usually don't edit my own stuff, but I decided to try to edit that myself," says Campbell. "I got really into it. The process felt cool and expressive, like finger painting with the images. That's the thing: Just try. At the end of the day, don't worry about whether or not you think something is good or bad. You're not going to get anywhere if you don't try."

Which gets to the meat of Campbell's above advice about getting out there and dirtying your hands.

"Idle hands are unable to receive inspiration," he says. "If you're working and you're trying, you're going to learn how to make a film. The more you're trying, the more you're learning. There are a lot of possibilities for how to make one; you could make a really great movie on an iPhone. You might already have all the equipment you need right there in your hand to make something interesting with a unique feeling. It's limitless."

[This piece is Part I of the DIY series “Do Something,” where four surfers share their how-to secrets for board-building, moviemaking, swell-chasing, and alternative living]