Taylor Steele, Jack McCoy and Bruce Brown are probably the most well known makers of surf films since the idea of a surf movie first came about. Now of course there are hundreds of people doing it and with the advent of the HD GoPro in 2013, even pro surfers are putting out significant amounts of footage. It is still a rarity however to see a film combining cinematography, music and narrative in a way that gives you goose bumps or makes you grin from ear to ear and crave being there, in the film, surfing like that. Something that you want to watch over and over again.
Morgan Maassen is a young surf film maker who’s ability to do just that has impressed and inspired us all here at Surf Simply. We have his films on loop both in the surf coaching resort and in the office, so I was delighted to get the chance to chat with him this week and get to know a bit more about the man behind the movies.
(Above: Morgan shooting at Teahupoo. Photographed by friend and fellow photographer, Zak Noyle)
Ru: How did you become interested in making surf films and how did you become so good at it?
Morgan: When I was 13, I had a bad accident surfing, which left me out of the water for more than a month. This coincided perfectly with a apprenticeship program school, so I gravitated towards working with my Dad’s friend Jim Knowlton, a wildlife cinematographer. He got my feet on the ground in working with cameras and editing video, so with my best friend Cody, we began to explore documenting what we loved to do in our free time: surfing. From that point on, natural progression occurred through trial-and-error, experiences, and dedication.
Ru: Which do you prefer photography or film making?
Morgan: I cherish both equally, but for very different reasons. Photography, to me, is a way to freeze fleeting moments of beauty, curiosity, emotion. I tend to take photographs then forget about them, moving on to document the next thing that inspires me. Whereas filmmaking is an ongoing process of telling stories, working with elements of music, personality, and motion to create way more detailed windows into certain subjects.
Ru: It seems that now the best film makers are making short 3-10 minute films instead of 30-60 minute films. Which do you prefer and would you like to make a full length surf movie?
Morgan: A feature film can cover a lot of ground in concepts, ideas, and story, as well as be a true work of art… but in the age of the internet, the best way to reach people is through their computers and devices. It’s a double-sided coin, but I haven’t had the time or means to make a feature film yet.
Ru: The music you choose is unlike the guitar driven sound of traditional surf videos. Where do you get the music from for your films?
Morgan: I’ve always been into alternative music, and between intensely exploring the categories of electronic, world, and alternative music while at home in America and traveling abroad, I’ve amassed a collection of songs that both work well with my visuals and inspire me to think of new ways to use it.
Ru: The traditional paths of selling DVDs/videos in surf shops seems to more difficult to do now. Some people seem to sell through iTunes while others are paid by sponsors, rather than sales. Do you spend time thinking about how to make a living out of your films and if so which direction do you think you’ll go in?
Morgan: I’m fortunate enough that I make my living through both photography and filmmaking for commercial clients, but that has also limited my free time and ambition towards making a feature film and distributing it on my own. If and when the time comes, I’ve strategized to distribute it as freely as possible online and in store, as the ultimate point of me making it would for it just to be seen.
Ru: Which other surf (or non surf) film makers have you taken inspiration from and who do you think is making the best stuff now?
Morgan: I grew up really appreciating the works of Spike Jonze, Darren Aronofsky, Alfonso Cuaron, and Werner Herzog. In the surf world, I really like what Blake Myers and Victor Pakpour do… they are incredible filmmakers.
(Above: “Daze At Sea” was shot and directed by Victor Pakpour)
Ru: What is your favorite film?
Morgan: Werner Herzog’s “Lessons of Darkness”. Its a truly spectacular film that appreciates the beauty of evil. That ethos really opened my mind to what can be done with cinema and storytelling.
Ru: We were both out at Teahupoo in May while you were shooting “Frankie”. It was my first trip and I found the wave extremely intimidating. What did you think of Frankie’s performance at Teahupoo and what is it about that place that keeps drawing you back there?
Morgan: Frankie (Harrer) is like a little sister to me, so her performance in Tahiti was both spectacular and terrifying! I was so proud of her surfing out at Teahupoo, but there were moments when I thought we were going to have to scrape her off the reef. I find myself returning to Tahiti year after year because of the amazing mountains, water quality, and just how good Teahupoo is.
Ru: Shooting Coco Ho surfing naked for ESPN recently must have been a slightly bizarre experience?
Morgan: Coco is a really good friend of mine, so the whole concept of the shoot was awkward. But once we were there, shooting in the water, we just laughed and joked around as we always do. She did amazing and surfed her best despite being completely naked. The shoot went off without a hitch, and we both had a blast.
Ru: Lots of your footage is shot in the water. Do you like getting in the surf more than shooting from the beach?
Morgan: As a life long surfer, shooting surfing is always painful because… I’m not out surfing. But when I’m in the water, swimming with my camera, it’s like combining two of my passions and is equally as enjoyable as being on a board. Plus I am a terrible surfer so it’s not like anyone is missing out on anything. If i wasn’t a photographer/filmmaker, I’d be working a desk job and not in the water at all.
Ru: We’re kind of camera geeks here at Surf Simply, as well as surf geeks: can you tell us what equipment you like to use?
Morgan: For photos: Nikon D4s’s and a Hasselblad H4D-40, as well as various film cameras. For video: a Red Epic. I have SPL waterhousings for both, and share Nikon prime lenses (14mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm) between the two.
Ru: Have you got anything new that you’re working on which we can look forward to?
Morgan: I’m working on several short films right now that are pretty unique departures from surfing but still incorporate my traditional cinematography. So there’s that, a website launch and an amazing lineup of trips and travel – so hold tight.
– This article was by Ru Hill, founder of Surf Simply