Australia-based filmmaker Chris Bryan has a magic eye. By now, you may have seen his slow-motion surf videos. In one of his recent films, a surfer slides through the barrel as the wave breaks, drop by crystal-clear drop over his head. Bryan’s creations are the result of cutting-edge technology married to meticulous technique.
To make his unique images, Bryan uses high-resolution digital video cameras such as the cameras built by Red and the Phantom made by Vision Research. Bryan’s cameras give him image resolution, color vibrance, and dynamic range that previous generations of filmmakers could only imagine. The latest version of the Phantom has 4K resolution, and it can click out 1500 frames per second. To put those numbers in perspective, the video in a television newscast is typically shot at 23.98 frames per second, and an HD television has a resolution of 1280.
The frame speed of the Phantom camera creates the unique slow-motion of Bryan’s videos. For action sports, he typically works at 800-1000 frames per second. If he pushes the frame speed any higher, the motion is brought nearly to a standstill. Speeds in the 1500 fps range can capture ice dropping into a glass or milk splashing over cereal. “When you shoot the slow motion stuff, the camera is clicking off 1000 or 1500 images every second,” he says. “You’re pretty much freezing the moment.”
When that massive stack of frames is played back, the action gets slowed down to reveal each integral part of the movement. “Like the surf roll you saw, every shot in there is three seconds real time,” Bryan says. Before Bryan uploads the video, he slims it down, because the full file size for those three seconds is 16 gigabytes.
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Bryan is meticulous about his equipment choices and set-up. He uses Arri Ultra lenses, which are widely used in Hollywood features. The lenses can cost as much as $23,000 each, and Bryan uses “primes,” which are lenses that have a fixed focal length. When Bryan heads to a shoot, he may have three or four separate ones in his bag. “I never use the zoom lenses, myself, because they’re not as sharp, so I always use a fixed focal length,” he says.
Though he currently lives in Sydney, Bryan grew up in western Australia near Margaret River, a surf hotspot, and was influenced by the films of Jack McCoy. “He was a level ahead of everyone else,” Bryan says. Watching McCoy’s videos over and over, Bryan studied his technique and dreamed of capturing similar images one day. “I’d come home from school, and straightaway I’d put in Bunyip Dreaming or Sons of Fun,” he says. “McCoy’s picture quality, the way he positioned himself in the water — to me, he was just a complete idol.” Bryan is quickly catching up with his childhood idol. Because of his stature in the filmmaking world, he typically receives the latest cameras before they are officially released. He works with fabricators who build custom, aluminum water-proof housings for each new camera.
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A surf photographer’s worst nightmare is flooding a water housing, which spells doom for the expensive camera inside. Bryan says he’s never yet flooded a housing. (“Touch wood!”) He’s made sure all of his cameras are insured. “The whole package together — you’re putting close to $300,000 in the water,” he says.
Thanks to the tech, Bryan can create his signature slow-motion videos and shoot feature-film-quality images from the water anywhere in the world. Recently, he put his equipment to the test doing water video work for the upcoming Point Break 2. Bryan can’t share too many details from the shoot, but he calls it an intense experience. The locations for Point Break 2 included Maui’s famous big-wave spot, Jaws, and the shallow mutant reef break at Teahupo’o in Tahiti. “For me, it was some of the craziest surf scenes I’ve ever seen, because the waves were so big and heavy and the director, Philip Boston, had some pretty amazing ideas,” Bryan says. For some of the sequences, two or even three surfers towed into the barrels at Jaws or Teahupo’o at the same time. One day last winter, Bryan filmed from the water at Jaws in 50-foot surf for the film.
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The Point Break 2 crew also used Red cameras to capture point-of-view images from inside the barrel at Teahupo’o. The surfer deepest in the barrel held a 30-pound Red camera in a water housing and recorded images of the surfers ahead of him. For the surfers, it was an incredibly high-risk endeavor, because the surfer with the camera was deep in the barrel at the most critical section of the wave.
“There were situations where the surfer in the back with the camera would get blown off by the shock wave [from the wave breaking], and I’d see the camera go flying through the air,” Bryan says. “That whole set-up, with the housing and lens and everything, that’s $100,000, and to be seeing these things getting thrown through the air in 20-foot waves — like, oh shit, hopefully we’ll find it again. It was pretty wild.”
Bryan is constantly in demand. When we reached him by phone in Australia, he was busy packing for a trip to Vanuatu, a remote island in the Pacific. He was scheduled to shoot a diving scene set in a shipwreck for a feature film. “I don’t even know what movie it is,” he says, laughing.