Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones slaying monsters in 3D.
Big-wave surfing just got bigger, now that Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones are slaying monsters in 3D.
The ocean has dropped to an icy four degrees. It mirrors the sky’s marbled, stormy gloom. Without warning, the sea lurches up and rips through the marble canvas with a great, white tear. With a force that could pull limbs from a torso, the wave’s lip pitches, sending a forty-foot barrel into the air.
Ross Clarke-Jones lets go of the rope that pulled him into the wave. As he starts his descent, a freak side-chop bumps the Jet Ski that towed him in, sending the driver, Tom Carroll, back onto the wave. As if in slow motion, all 670 kilos of man-and-machine comes tumbling over the falls.
“He turned directly underneath me,” says Tom. “He had no idea I was there and that I was coming down on him. It was a really scary moment. I hung on to the Jet Ski as long as I could, trying not to hit him.”
“He almost killed me!” adds Ross. “But with all the stuff that was going on, I won’t hold it against him. He had a helmet on with voices in his head. He was trying to operate the Air Knife that blows the [camera] lenses free of water. And he was trying to make a commentary through the microphone. I’d like to think there is an unspoken connection between us, but sometimes it gets disconnected.”
After twenty-five years of friendship and a fourteen-year tow-in partnership, Australian big-wave surfers Carroll and Clarke-Jones have faced their fair share of surprises. But nothing could prepare them for that day, on the Margaret River ‘set’ of their new film Storm Surfers 3D.
Like the previous episodes in the Discovery Channel series, which sees the pair hunting down the world’s biggest waves, Storm Surfers 3D is not a surf film – it’s a documentary.
Co-director Chris Nelius explains: “We’re influenced by good feature docs like Touching the Void. And we’ve got really good characters that we believe in who are at a critical point in their lives.”
“It’s a buddy film,” adds producer Marcus Gillezeau. “A tale of two dads in their forties. They’re at the age where anyone else would be at the peak of their career, but these guys are at the twilight of theirsecond career.”
Tom Carroll may be the ‘two-time world champion’, and Ross Clarke-Jones the ‘slayer of monster waves’, but with Storm Surfers the pair are uniting and going back to their roots.
“It was 1984-85,” explains Tom. “We met each other doing a movie called Mad Wax.”
Laughing, Ross adds: “He was a two-time world champion. I was a two-time loser. I was in the top thirty, but my passion was to do well in Hawaii, which I did in my first year at nineteen. I was soon labelled a big-wave surfer, but it wasn’t much advantage when you’re in one-foot surf.””
“We hooked up in Hawaii and noticed we both liked to ride bigger waves,” continues Tom. “There’s a camaraderie between two people when it’s bigger; there is machismo involved. We turned into a little team of guys who liked to challenge each other in nasty conditions.”
The current chapter in the Carroll/Clarke-Jones story kicked off in 2008, when the pair took on Tasmania’s mythical Dangerous Banks for the first Storm Surfers. By then, Ross knew 6xty Foot Films co-directors Chris Nelius and Justin McMillan well, having worked with them in 2003 on The Sixth Element: The Ross Clarke-Jones Story, narrated by the late Dennis Hopper.
Shooting for the 3D film is set to last throughout August, or until surf forecaster Ben Matson runs out of waves. So far, they’ve taken on Tasmania’s Shipsterns, Sydney’s Northern Beaches and the NSW Central Coast, where they were joined by Brazilian big-wave prodigy Maya Gabeira.
It’s a huge undertaking, but with over fifty-five years of big-wave surfing between them, Tom and Ross are more than prepared. Experience is a good thing, but what about age? “At forty-nine, your body doesn’t heal as fast,” concedes Tom. “And I want to be around a lot longer to play with my grandkids. I’ve had to pull back a few times in the last year where Ross would’ve gone. He fully respects my decisions. Sometimes we rag on each other, but it’s all in good fun. For Ross, he’s gung-ho – he’s always been that way.”
“I hated competing,” adds Ross in agreement. “I’d rather be at one with the ocean, excuse the cliché.” In 1999, after twelve years on the ASP tour, Ross left the competition ring in search of bigger things. Over the years, he’s tamed 80-90-foot beasts, surfed a tidal surge on the Amazon River and taken on a Japanese typhoon. At forty-five, he’s still going strong. “When I got smacked by the lip the other day, I felt ninety-five, but generally when I see these guys aged twenty-to-thirty, it doesn’t mean anything. I’m enjoying my surfing now more than ever.”
As partners, they admit to being an odd couple. Ross is happy with a reliable but dinged-up board; Tom’s gear must be perfect. And as a psychological test in the first series helped reveal, Tom faces his fear through rationalisation, while Ross just takes the plunge. But in the water they need to be in sync. “You need to have a chemistry as there’s no time to talk,” says Tom. “Communication is about a movement, or even a grunt, like a dance partnership or doubles on the tennis court – almost like a sixth sense.”
When we meet on a rest day, Ross uses the time to unwind in the rainy mountains, hiking through mud up to his knees. TC goes grocery shopping. But as soon as the swell is up they’re back together, side-by-side. “Like bulls at start-gates, we’re just frothing to get out,” says Ross. “But usually we can’t because the cameras aren’t right.”
Storm Surfers isn’t just about unknown surf territory; it’s about unknown 3D territory, too. “The scale of the film is such that you physically need to be in two places at once,” says co-director Justin McMillan. “Shooting in 3D is twice the effort in every way to shooting in 2D.”
Carroll admits he wasn’t a fan of Avatar, then adds: “But I think for this, because we can slow it down and see the natural form and action in the water, 3D is ideal.” Yet, unlike Avatar’s controlled studio environment, Storm Surfers has to unfold in raging storms. With twenty-five members of crew, 1000 kilos of equipment and no second takes, the whole endeavour is a logistical nightmare. Especially when you throw excitement into the mix. “To have two guys with Attention Deficit Disorder is hard,” adds Julian. “It takes about five minutes to get a 3D camera on the cameraman’s shoulder, and in that time they’re off. It’s really frustrating.”
But the footage is worth it. Thanks to specially built cameras – mounted on boards, boats, helicopters and carbon rods attached to the surfers – the audience is deeper in the barrel than ever before.
“We’re not against nature,” says Tom. “We’re just trying to understand ourselves in the wild elements. If I put myself against her, I’m in trouble because she’s a lot stronger than me. But if I work with the water, I’ve got a much better chance of survival.”