Filmmaker Feature: Cole Slutzky

Cole Slutzky is a senior at Rochester Institute of Technology studying advertising photography. On top of getting through school, Cole has been braving the conditions lake-side, shooting his surf film, Preconceived Noceans. This project aims to raise awareness about a very different and unique surf culture, that of the Great Lakes. It describes the passion and drive that pushes people to face extremely harsh conditions to pursue the sport they love, in and out of the water. Cole sheds some insight into what it takes to make a film like this where the conditions are less then ideal and what he has learned about a culture that is truly in it for the the love of the sport…

What is misunderstood about the Great Lake surf culture that you are trying to expose in this film? What is the message you are trying to convey in highlighting this alternative region of surf?

I think the majority of the surfing world has heard about Great Lake surfing or seen it in a few films (Unsalted, Step into Liquid). I will expose the ability to keep the passion and love for the sport alive, even if you are hundreds of miles from the nearest beach. When I first got to Rochester, NY for school, I felt like a fish out of the water. I never though it would be possible to surf on a lake and wasted about 2 years of my life out of the water.

I really want to show the dedication of the surfers to the Great Lakes. It requires a lot of storm tracking and keeping your schedule as open as possible. The waves are usually choppy, the water is cold, and you’re usually surfing in near gale force winds and snow. Anyone on an ocean would sit out and wait till the next morning to get waves, but we don’t really have the option on the lakes and I think that’s what defines us and even makes us stand out a little more than someone who surfs perfect warm waves everyday. They’re probably better surfers but we’re straight up more ballsy and dedicated. This is the basis of my film, Preconceived Noceans, a project that demonstrates the power surfing has on different subcultures and to what extent they go to get their fill of waves.

What part of the Great Lakes is this film shot? Where else are you exploring for your film and why?

The majority of the Greats Lakes footage thus far has been on southern and western shores of Lake Ontario and the eastern coast of Lake Erie. I am hoping to get out to Lake Superior sometime next fall or winter for a few weeks. I have seen footage of Superior and the waves produced out there seem to dwarf the waves we get on Ontario.

Aside from the Lakes, I will be filming in New Jersey and NYC to demonstrate the capabilities of the northern Atlantic and to contrast/ compare the cultures on the ocean. In Asbury Park, NJ, there is a woman who is trying to reshape the city and is taking inner city kids into the ocean and out of the streets. There is a few other places I would like to go and film, so I’ll take it one step at a time and keep researching and saving.

It seems as though the conditions must align perfectly for there to be waves in the lakes. What does it take to get good surf?

To get waves on the lake we need strong powerful onshore winds, usually conjured during the fall and winter months. This past winter there was so much wind that we got a session almost every week. The downside of the winter and fresh water mix is the ice build up. There were times we had perfect wind and swell direction but had ice build up sometimes a mile out into the lake which just shut us down. Even when the ice breaks up with swell, it becomes too dangerous to surf with all the dislodged icebergs floating around in the lineup.

The upside offered on the Lakes, especially Lake Ontario, is the ability to drive two or three hours to the coast getting the best direction. A northeast wind is the best direction for us here in Rochester. When it’s blowing west, Oswego, NY is the spot to be. There is also a great reef right outside Rochester that can work really well on west/northwest. On an eastern direction, Toronto lights up. So as long as your willing to travel, you can really always find a wave.

Surfing in the extreme winter conditions of the Great Lakes is one thing. Filming is a whole another ball game. How do you approach shooting in the cold, stormy conditions? How do you keep your equipment from getting ruined? And how do you keep yourself from freezing?

Awesome question that usually is overlooked. I have surfed through winter in NJ in a 3/ 2 and have been surfing through the winter on the lakes in a 4/3mm wetsuit. So I have felt freezing water and have come dangerously close to hypothermia a few times. At least in the water your moving and if you can keep your head out of the water and not flush your suit too many times, its really not too bad.

Filming in these conditions is way more difficult. It usually entails setting up some sort of barrier, whether it’s a tent, or tarp wrapped around stands to break the wind from the tripod and keep the snow off the gear. The batteries usually don’t hold full charge, so your forced to keep your hands on the camera and try to keep it as warm as possible. The cameras I have been using, (mostly Canon 5d mark II and 7d) have presented us with some technical issues but have proven excellent resilience to the harsh conditions.There’s so much going through my mind when filming, so to trust the cameras in the cold is one less worry I don’t need.

When I am standing there, taking full wind and snow, its gets really cold, despite the five layers of clothes I am sometimes wearing. Usually I have my wetsuit on underneath everything for the extra warmth and to be ready in case something was to happen to one of the surfers. With the icebergs rolling in the waves and cramps from the cold water, I want to be prepared in case someone needs help out of the water. So there is a lot on my mind and conditions to battle but it’s pushed my film/photographic ability to the next level and has better shaped my skills. I feel there are no conditions I cannot work in now.

Obviously buoyancy is different surfing in fresh water but what are the other differences between surfing in fresh water as opposed to salt water?

Buoyancy is definitely the major difference. The surfing season ranges from fall through early spring, so we are always in wetsuits. The lack of buoyancy and the extra weight and resistance from the suits really adds up and challenges us. This also makes it much more difficult to ride shorter boards.

The other major difference is the inability of the lakes to carry groundswell. Waves on the lakes are generated mostly by wind, so swells usually only last a few hours. Once the wind switches or dies out a little, its pretty much over. But in the same regard, swells can start up really fast. I’ve driven by the lake early in the morning and seen it flat. An hour or two later, there were small whitecaps. And maybe two or three hours after that we were surfing waist to chest high waves. So it can start very quickly but it also dies quickly. The ocean is much more sustained.

As far as waves go, the lakes can get really big but it does not always have a line you can cruise down. On good days, there is a little pocket you kind of have to try to work in. The wave won’t really catch up to you, so you have to stick in the pocket until it walls up on the inside section.

Being a student, how has that helping in getting this project going? Or are you ready to be done and spread your wings?

Ha, definitely not ready to be done. I truly love school. Being a student has allowed me to use the infinite amount of gear my school has to begin filming this project. Lots of teachers and students are backing and encouraging me and it is really a big help in getting the project started. It’s much easier to be skipping class to shoot and surf rather then a job. I just got a camera and am saving for lenses and other gear necessary for the film. After I graduate this spring, it will be a tough transition to rent and buy gear. It’s very expensive and I have very limited finances to travel, get gear, and produce the film. We just got our project funded on, which will definitely help out with this transition right out of school.

I am very excited, though, to enter the professional world and put my training to use. I feel ready to be put to the test and know I have the drive and ambition to work with the big dogs. I hope to balance freelance work during the filming of Preconceived Noceans to allow me a flexible schedule to travel and film for the next two or three year.

What does being a surfer mean to you?

The definition of surfer for me has really changed since I have been subjected to Great Lake surfing. I still think the base of being a surfer is universal but there are many different subcultures and each has unique attributes. Being a surfer involves dedication and devoting your life to the ocean or lake, in our case. It’s about being addicted to it really.

A surfer has an appreciation for the environment and a very powerful respect for the ocean. It becomes about shifting your whole life to make it the most important and leaving open a window to always be ready for waves. It’s also about never giving up, and if your stuck on a lake, or even a river, you can make it possible. Day dreaming of a new line to try or place to surf. It’s something that is always in your immediate conscious and you can’t get rid of it. You can just try to satisfy the thirst as much as possible.

Coming from the East Coast and Great Lakes, I’ve never known the feeling of having waves everyday. Swell is almost a special reward, maybe 50 days a year. So to me, it’s a very special thing that you have to take advantage of when its there. Whether it is my fourth session of the day in overhead surf and I can barely paddle any more, or I spend a few hours trying to catch some knee high chop, when there are waves you got to go.

Here is a behind the scenes of Cole doing his thing. Shot by his friend and roommate Nicholas Beaudet…

For more information on Cole and the film (you can donate to the project at the link), please check out:

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