Questions by Ryan Tatar
Surfer, Ryan Thomas spent much of the ’90s drifting back and forth between his native Southern California as a freelance artist in the surf industry, and extended escapes to Northern Cal for the study of marine biology. In 1998 he picked up a super-8mm film camera from surf cinematographer, Greg Weaver (Forgotten Island of Santosha, Stylemasters), and soon finished the mysto road/art/surf film Scratch Miscellaneous (2000). He graduated from Art Center College of Design in 2001, and since then has directed surf films such as The Bruce Movie (2005) while becoming a key creative at Volcom’s Veeco Productions. RT’s filmmaking extends beyond the surf/skate/snow genres with his independently made music docs such as Concentration Face (2005) and Portals (2007)about the band Hella. And he continues to work in still photography and the other art mediums he formed his roots in prior to filmmaking.
What is your favorite artistic medium (ie, film, photography, dancing, etc) for your creative work around surfing. Which endeavor best conveys the stoke for you?
I don’t really have a single favorite. My roots are in drawing, graphic art, still photography, writing and music, which moved towards film as a place to combine it all. And since a film is made over a period of time, I enjoy doing the rest as a more immediate creative outlet along the way. Whether it reads in the work or not, they all inform each other in the creative process.
As Scratch Miscellaneous was filmed on super 8mm film, do you think (specifically in motion picture filmmaking) that new technologies in video can capture the essence of surfing as much as film?
That question can be easily answered in one word: Litmus. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t made on film emulsion, and it was a huge head change for countless surfers. Hydrodynamica is primarily being shot on video and even the low-res rough cut edits on the Hydro blog are essential viewing. I’m pretty sure The Tyler Warren Experiments and Displacementare being shot primarily on video and I’m excited to see those films too. I love the look of super-8 and 16mm, but the essence isn’t in any camera type or emulsion, it’s in what the camera is being pointed at and the choices the cameraman is making, coupled with the editing. Surfing is motion, so any medium that captures or even freezes motion has the potential to portray the essence.
Describe the differences you see in the two mediums besides personal preference?
There’re a number of differences. First off, they look different. Film carries a sense of sculptural density and depth that I feel like I could grasp and mold if I was able to reach my hand into the screen. It looks both pleasingly dream-like and totally real all at the same time. Whereas, video, when compared to film, has had a history of looking like, at least to me, more of a thin façade I’d poke my fingers through if I tried to reach into the screen. With some of the Progressive HD video cameras the gap between the two looks is norrowing. But it’s not so much a need for video to fool one into thinking it’s film, as much as it is video becoming a more pleasing look of it’s own. And on the flipside of new technologies, even some of the really old analog video types can be pleasing in their own lo-fi way. Another difference between the two mediums is sometimes a video camera is the better tool for documenting in certain production scenarios. For instance, as one person running around with nothing but my own two hands to run equipment, there is no way I could have captured the amount of footage and audio in the immediacy that I wanted to capture it in when I was shooting the two Hella documentaries I made. If I demanded of my self to shoot film I would have missed capturing a lot of moments and the end product would have suffered because of it. Also, Film can be cost prohibitive for a lot of people and the most important thing is to make what you want to make. If you can’t afford to make it with film, then make it with whatever you can before your inspiration or chance to make it passes. I’m totally supportive of anyone who will stall production until enough budget money is landed to shoot on film. But don’t stall so long and stoically that you end up never making it. On one hand, I don’t think advances in video technology will ever be able to replace the visual qualities I love about film, and I hope film is never rendered unavailable by it. On the other hand, to completely disregard video is bourgeois.
What is it like making an underground artistic surf flick versus a more commercial approach with a major sponsor giving you a budget to complete a project?
I don’t think the difference should be one is artistic and the other isn’t. There’s no reason why the film backed by a single company’s budget can’t be artistic. One of the most distinguishing differences I’ve experienced is that money is harder to come by when you make a film independently, and time is harder to come by when you make one for a company. In the final phase of making my personally financed Scratch Miscellaneous, I lived out of the back of my truck for 3 months so that I had money to pay for super-8mm film transfers rather than putting it into rent. My truck shell leaked when it rained, but it was a really healthy and peaceful period of time. Making a company film, the rent is paid, but time gets swung into sleepless deadline mayhem for months on end.
Did you find it easier or more difficult?
Both are challenging. Completing a film is challenging no matter who or what you’re making it for. Even though it’s easier to put together a budget for a company paid film, it’s still gonna have budget challenges of it’s own. And even though the company paid film is gonna be more pressed for time, the indie will have time challenges too. With the company film you might not have enough time to do everything you want to do. Not enough time to think something through as much as you’d have liked to, not enough time to have as much input into the marketing or packaging of the film, etc., etc. There’s not always proper time to let things simmer and then go back to it later for revision if needed or wished for. It forces you to let go of perfection to a certain extent. Whereas a film without a deadline has the danger of taking too much time to let things simmer and revise and simmer and revise in sort of a vicious cyclical attempt at achieving perfection that stalls everything out. Time can be ruthless on both sides of the coin. The indie schedule, in general, is healthier and better for your personal wave count. But for me these days, when I’m making something independently its during my personal free time aside from my daily responsibilities at Volcom— So no matter how I cut it, time is always the hardest variable for me to master.
Were you inhibited at all in artistic expression with either? For example, was a sponsor too keen on showing a board logo in a certain section? Is it too difficult to work with the right folks without the backing of a corporation whom owns relationships with certain athletes, marketing folks, distribution folks, etc?
I can’t remember ever feeling creatively inhibited while working on a personal indie project. I’ve made a couple creative decisions on some of those projects that I haven’t been happy with after the passing of time. But it wasn’t due to outside inhibition as much as it was being so close to the project and loosing sight of the big picture at a challenging point in the process. As far as my company film experience goes, Volcom is built on creativity and there’s never been a mandate to force the logo into a film unnaturally. Obviously a Volcom film needs to focus on Volcom riders, but there’s never been any sort of unreasonable handcuffs within those totally valid parameters.
Being a surfer, its no surprise that you’re interested in marine biology. What kind of knowledge have you gained in marine biology that has had a positive correlation with surfing and/or vice versa?
Yes, I’m very interested in marine biology, but not so much in the scientific sense anymore. For instance, sitting between sets I love to pick up pieces of drifting kelp and find little creatures living in it, but I don’t feel the need to know their species names anymore. Not that my scientific intrigue is completely gone. Sometimes I still try and find out what something is or how it works, just not as a rule anymore. These days my analytical interests are more into surfboard design than they are the science of marine life. I didn’t finish my studies in Marine Biology because I’d be studying for a test and find myself wanting to make something inspired by the ocean more than anything. I discovered I didn’t need to actually know it all inside and out to feel close to it. And striving to know it scientifically started to interrupt where my inspirations from it were naturally pushing me. But studying Biology was an important period in my life. It required a discipline that unveiled what I needed to recognize about myself to find long-term direction. As far as it having a positive effect on my surfing, I’d say it helped bring to my conscious level what was always at work in my sub conscious: I don’t surf just to ride waves. There’s more to the whole experience that keeps me wanting to be at the beach on a daily basis. You don’t even need a board. It’s good just to be in the water. Being cognizant of that helps keep me open minded to other people’s trips out in the lineup.
Please list your current quiver of wave sliding and shredding devices?
The boards I’ve been riding most lately are my: 5’4″ Eric Christenson traditional twin keel fish 4’11″ White Pony #2, twin keel oddity. The second of two White Pony’s shaped via Richard Kenvin’s Hydrodynamica project. Tyler borrowed it for about 8 months— I’m looking forward to seeing the footy of him on it in The Tyler Warren Experiments. 6’7″ Greg Liddle single fin displacement hull 5’6″ Nine Lights, hi-aspect twin with small center trailing fin & balsa wood “Open Face” composite sandwich board construction And others I keep within arms reach are my: 6’0″ Carl Hayward swallowtail thruster 5’11″ Campbell Brothers 5-fin Bonzer. Sort of a stretched and foiled out version of the Bumblebee model. 5’10″ Channel Islands 80’s quad that I had modified into a boxed single fin 5’8″ single fin displacement hull, co-shaped with Jeff Beck of Nine Lights 5’4″ Self-Shaped fish derivative, hi-aspect twin with small trailing fin
What kind of upcoming projects are you working on with Volcom’s Veeco Productions?
I just finished the film BS!. It’s primarily a thruster film. Dusty Payne and Mitch Coleborn are pushing it above the lip. They’re both radical, smooth, and go for broke, but it all comes together beautifully different in their individual styles. It’s also got Ozzie Wright, Alex Gray, Nate Tyler and Andrew Doheny in it. Punker Pat Towersey shows up surfing a displacement hull in Andrew’s segment. And I’m really stoked there’s a few shots of Ryan Burch on the White Pony and one of his self-shaped, finless, foam boards. The BS! DVD with bonus features just released and it has a 20 minute short called Tweakin’ on Boards with Ryan Burch that features Ryan riding and talking about a handful of different boards that I think will be appreciated by surfers with open minds. There’ll be plenty more Volcom projects in the future, and I’m starting production on a personal independent surf film of mine as well. It’s gonna be pretty trippy. At this point I’m referring to it as: Temporal Collections In the General Vicinity of Inner & Outer Space. It’s a mouthful, but there’s not a better way to put my pre-visualization of it into words.
Whom are your biggest artistic influences?
It’s hard to put it all in a nutshell. Especially considering that even the things I don’t like can be influencing through my reaction to them. Being raised by parents that are creative in their own ways and who supported the interests of my brothers and I is the primary influence. Of all the art I was exposed to as a young kid in grammar school, Picasso is what clicked with me. Over the years I’ve liked looking at a full range of art, from, say, Dada and Op Art to the California Impressionists, to what people are doing in the streets. I pay close attention to Graphic Design and Typography. Music has always been a big influence as well. The Who was my gateway into music other than what my parents were listening to when I was a kid. And then it was Punk, which led to Psychedelia, then American Folk which opened my ears to different world music and cultures, and then Jazz, etc. In my twenties I went through a phase of reading a lot of Herman Hesse. A short list of feature film directors that have been important viewing for me are: Sergei Paradjanov, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Nicolas Roeg, Andrei Tarkovsky, Barbet Schroeder, Eric Rohmer, and Jim Jarmusch. The surf film I probably watched most as a grom was Beyond Blazing Boards. And of course there’re favorites like Innermost Limits of Pure Fun, Evolution and Magna Plasm. Pacific Vibrations was the film I watched that inspired me to make my first surf flick, Scratch Miscellaneous. Reading the writings of cinematographer Nestor Almendros was influential for me at the time that I started shooting Scratch. Most importantly though, is the raw, unfiltered, inspiration and observations of my day-to-day surroundings. I’d say I get a lot of my best ideas on road trips.
Is there anything you’re hoping to learn how to do yourself this year?
2009, BS! (director, edit, animations & graphics) 2007, Hella: Portals (director, camera, edit) 2006, Escramble (co-director, edit) 2005, The Bruce Movie (director, edit, additional camera) 2005, Hella: Concentration Face (director, principle camera, edit) 2004, Chichagof (editor) 2002, Football Shmootball (editor) 2000, Scratch Miscellaneous (director, camera, edit)