“Now this is some crazy shit,” Thomas Campbell said, nodding at the bizarre surfcraft that shaper Travis Reynolds was carrying into a glassing bay at the Santa Cruz Board Builders Guild in Northern California. The tall, husky Campbell had short brown hair that looked vaguely self-cut and the early stages of his salt-and-pepper beard did little to hide his smirk. Reynolds laid the 9’6″ surfboard–if you’d like to call it that–on the glassing racks. The board’s wildly curving outline resembled a slithering sidewinder, the whole thing adorned with a bright pink-and-purple paint job by Campbell.
The soft-spoken, typically subdued Campbell was buzzing with excitement as he traced the curving rail line of the unconventional craft with his fingers, eventually ending at the sharp pinpoint of the nose. He explained that this board wasn’t built to be ridden, but would instead serve as a kind of prop for an interstitial scene in his new surf film.
“And here we have a slight double-concave to vee through the tail, which is really going to work great for turns,” Reynolds joked, running his hands along the bottom. “But seriously, somebody’s gotta try to ride this thing.”
Although the board looked unrideable, Campbell’s previous films have shown surfers sliding around on stranger craft, including longboards with wooden coffins, ladders and Nordic elliptical machines affixed to them.
“It would be interesting,” Campbell replied. “Plenty of edges to catch.”
Campbell has spent his life surfing and creating oddball art, whether that meant making films about surfing or skateboarding, shooting photographs, painting cartoonish creatures, sculpting those same creatures in three dimensions, or publishing books and producing music through his publishing company, Um Yeah Arts.
“Today, people always try to pigeonhole you–you’re either this, or you’re that,” Campbell had explained earlier, as we drove from a breakfast cafe in Davenport down to Santa Cruz on a chilly January morning. “But I’m a creative person, and I like doing different things because it keeps it interesting. Like, I really enjoy painting, but I don’t want to do it all the time. It’s way too intense. Too emotional. When I’m working on a painting, I experience all of my emotions–everything from complete elation and connection to complete despair. A lot of times, my body does not want me to paint. It’s like, ‘Really, dude? Again? We’re gonna do that? Sure, you could have this emotional revelation…or we could go surfing or just sit on the couch.'”
Lately, however, Campbell hasn’t allowed himself much couch time. When we met, he had just finished an exhibition in downtown San Francisco at Chandran Gallery, which had him holed up in his studio working 14-hour days for months on end to finish the pieces for the show. The fruits of his labor were nearly floor-to-ceiling paintings featuring gnome-like characters in abstract forests, surreal quilts of kaleidoscope patchwork, intricate ceramic and bronze sculptures and a two-story spray-painted recreation of one of his hand-sewn mandalas.
Now that the exhibition was over, Campbell was mentally and emotionally eager to put down the paintbrush and turn his focus to another project, namely, a new surf film. After nearly a decade since his last surf feature–2009’s “The Present,” which acted as the punctuation mark ending a cohesive trilogy that started with “The Seedling” in 1999 and “Sprout” in 2004–it may come as a surprise to many that Campbell is returning to the genre. In fact, it even came as a surprise to Campbell himself.
“When I finish a surf movie, I always say that I’ll never make another one because it’s so much to give and to do,” Campbell said. “But it’s one of those things where I get further away from that statement and then I think about the good times and the things that are enjoyable about making surf films. And there were some more things that I wanted to say and more people that I had always wanted to work with on a movie.”
Campbell views his first three films as “kind of educational, in a way.” In an era dominated by cookie-cutter thrusters, Campbell’s films showed electric waterborne talents sliding all over the joint on fish, logs, alaia, surf mats, bodyboards or no boards at all. Single-fins, twins, tris, quads and finless were all presented as equally worthy vehicles, capable of connecting the wave rider to the ocean in a way that can enhance and even define their life. But that was almost 10 years ago, and if you survey the lineups today, things have changed drastically. The surfcraft and mindsets that seemed novel then are the new norm. But while surf culture has never stopped evolving, neither has Campbell.
“With this film, I really want to explore more and do something different,” Campbell says. “In a certain way, this is probably going to be one of the least accessible films I’ve done–it’s going to take place in a more creative realm, without the traditional narration that my other movies have had. Just more exploratory and abstract. It’s going to be wild.”
Today, if you roll up to Doheny State Beach in Dana Point when there’s so much as a dribble of swell, you’re bound too see a crowd of surfers on traditional single-fin logs, modern eggs, Costco soft tops and a whole spectrum of other wave-sliding craft. But in the 1980s when Campbell was a teenager, that wasn’t the case. Longboarding was years away from its renaissance, and for the most part the few surfers who bothered with the typically mushy waves at Doheny were beginners struggling to figure out their shortboards in the gutless fare. Campbell and his friends, however, figured out early on the benefits of keeping an open mind when it came to surfcraft.
“I have this great group of friends called ‘The Hawgs,’ and we’ve been friends since high school,” explains Campbell. “Back then, if the waves were fun, we’d go surf Strands Point on shortboards. But if it blew out, rather than forcing it on shortboards we’d head over to Doheny and ride logs. If we didn’t want to do that, we’d go skimboarding in Laguna, or go skateboarding. So that’s how I always thought. It was just like, ‘Whatever, who cares what we ride? Let’s have fun.'”
Years later, after Campbell graduated high school and established himself as a skilled photographer and filmmaker in the world of skateboarding, it was that same open-mindedness and appreciation for overlooked surfcraft that eventually drew him and master logger Joel Tudor into each other’s orbit.
“I knew of him originally because of skateboarding,” says Tudor. “I remember his skate pictures running in TransWorld and I kind of tripped out, like, ‘Wow, this guy is super talented.’ Two years later I was at Cardiff getting my shit together to go surf and my buddy introduced me to Thomas, and then we just started shooting the shit. Just the way he talked about surfing, he clearly looked at it all differently than everybody else. At the time, there was no one like Thomas in surfing.”
“Joel was like, ‘Wanna make a movie?'” Campbell recalls. “And when the best guy asks if you want to make a movie, the answer is ‘Yes.'”
Campbell had the artistic vision, which was essentially a modernized take on the traditional surf film format pioneered by Campbell’s idols, like Greg MacGillivray, Jim Freeman, Bruce Brown, Alby Falzon and John Witzig, complete with narration from Campbell. Tudor brought the world-class surf talent as well as the connections to bring together a cadre of longboarders and shapers that would be the faces of logging’s rebirth. Tudor, Devon Howard, Dane Peterson, Kassia Meador, Donald Takayama, Skip Frye and more filled each frame of “The Seedling” with equal parts style and soul, evangelizing a religion of trim, tradition and elegant footwork. Coupled with the jazzy soundtrack, impromptu mural painting and an “American Gladiator”-style surf showdown between two characters named “Fecal Man” and “Star Man,” “The Seedling” was clearly in a category all its own.
But while history has since proven Campbell and Tudor right, with “The Seedling” now seen as a watershed moment in surf cinema, it wasn’t always clear that they’d have a receptive audience. They had to beg, borrow and steal for the necessary funding to make the movie, shot entirely on expensive 16mm film, and once the film was finished, it was rejected outright for distribution by Sex Wax (California’s biggest surf movie distributor at the time) because they didn’t think anyone in their right mind wanted to watch a full-length film about traditional longboarding.
“I remember when we finally had the premiere, we did two showings for two nights at the La Paloma, which I thought was excessive, but we did it anyway,” remembers Campbell. “I was upstairs on the balcony while the movie was playing, and the audience is just f–king quiet. I’d been going to surf movie premieres since the ’70s and usually it’s a ruckus. So I’m sitting there, and the self-doubt is really creeping in. Toward the end of the movie, I was in real despair, thinking, ‘I thought they’d get it, but they’re not getting it. The guy from Sex Wax was right!’ But then the movie ends…and everyone just goes crazy. It was a standing ovation. I’ll always remember that moment.”
“The Seedling” was an underground hit upon its release in 1999, and it established Campbell as one of the most unique filmmaking talents in surfing. The growing swell of support that followed “The Seedling” would help Campbell connect with even more diverse wave-riding talents and propel his next two films, “Sprout” and “The Present.”
Both “Sprout” and “The Present” took the ideas of “The Seedling” and expanded on them. Traditional logging remained a central focus, but now fish, quads, bonzers, alaia, bodyboards, surf mats and even thrusters came into the picture. And with them came some of the greatest wave riders of multiple generations, including Dane Reynolds, Dave Rastovich, Gerry Lopez, Rob Machado, Ozzie Wright, Mark Cunningham, Belinda Baggs, Dan Malloy, Chelsea Georgeson, Mike Stewart and Alex Knost.
The big names and more varied surfcraft made “Sprout” and “The Present” more accessible to the shortboarding masses, and the experimental message of the films couldn’t have been clearer although not everyone was quick to drink the “Ride Anything” Kool-Aid.
“When I made ‘Sprout,’ journalists would tell me, ‘What you made is not real. You’re making up this fantasy world where all these things work together, but in reality they don’t work together.’ I’m like, ‘Uhhhh, I think they do.’ For me, if the waves were tubing and good for turns every day, I’d ride a shortboard all the time. But that’s not how it is. So why not try to ride something that’s fun in the different conditions? It’s all sensational, so how can you access the different sensations and enjoy yourself in the different conditions? It’s not f–king brain surgery.”
Somewhere, a handful of surf journalists are blushing today. For many surfers around the world, Campbell’s films were a catalyst, causing them to look hard at their own quivers and wonder what they’d been missing out on. The aesthetic of Campbell’s movies also helped change the way those same surfers thought about their culture, offering an alternative to the bro-centric version of surfing being peddled by most surf brands, and reaffirming that the pursuit of waves could be an artistic one.
“I give him complete credit,” says Tudor of Campbell’s role in shifting surfing’s cultural consciousness. “He had a different approach and it really changed the way people thought about surfing and kind of created what people see as surfing’s hipster generation, and that’s the truth, dude. It’s 100 percent Thomas and Alex Knost. I don’t know two people that have been more knocked off in the last 20 years. And the difference between Thomas and the other guys was that he was really pushing art. Most surf movies at the time were all presented by the brands, pushing their thing, just logos everywhere. Thomas came into the picture like, ‘I’m not in this for money, I’m making art.’ That’s why his shit stands the test of time.”
It was a cool day in Lemoore, California last fall when Alex Knost found himself flying down the line of a perfectly-groomed, olive-colored wave face with a self-shaped bonzer underfoot. His flamboyant line was quintessential Knost, linking swooping turns on open walls and lengthy cheater-fives through the man-made tube with a contortionist’s bodily awareness.
When the Instagram clip of Knost’s Surf Ranch visit came out (and proceeded to explode the Internet), there was one thing that seemed odd for Knost. As someone who grew up logging, cross-stepping his way up and down hulking planks of foam and fiberglass in ways a leash would hinder, Knost developed a knack for hanging onto his board sans leg rope. But apparently the Surf Ranch doesn’t budge on their leash laws, and Knost agreed to play ball in exchange for a shot at the artificial peelers.
Campbell, on the other hand, couldn’t make the same compromise. He’d been talking to Surf Ranch representatives for about a year and a half, organizing a day for the best traditional longboarders in the world to showcase their footwork and tube-riding prowess. It was going to be a section of his new film, until it wasn’t.
“I’m not going to have traditional single-fin longboarding with a leash in my movie,” says Campbell. “No way. It just looks so bad.”
Campbell has a reputation for being uncompromising when it comes to his artistic principles, whether that means keeping would-be sponsors for his films at arm’s length to maintain creative independence, or telling surfers that they can’t wear a certain pair of boardshorts while filming.
“Thomas was the first guy to be like, ‘Dude I’m not filming you in those long trunks. Those things are so ugly,'” says Tudor. “And he was telling this to Machado and all those high profile guys. He was a really good editor in the way that he knew what he wanted to shoot and he knew that what he was making was the right way.”
“When I watch someone take off on a wave–how they look, what they’re doing–I can tell you when they kick out if I’m going to use it in the film,” says Campbell. “When I first started filming with Rob, he wore long shorts that went past his knees. I don’t like how long shorts look. They just make a person’s body look truncated and not as dynamic, especially on a longboard. It just looks awkward. So yeah, I’ve told a few guys that they needed to cut their shorts. What else can you do? If I don’t say something and let them wear that, and then I don’t end up using the images because I don’t like the way it looks, that’s not helpful. They’re like, ‘Cut my shorts? This is crazy.’ But in the end I think they get it, maybe.”
In other ways, however, producing a surf movie while maintaining independence and creative control has gotten much more difficult in the modern era. Back in the aughts, before the proliferation of web videos and digital downloads when Campbell’s movies were sold on DVD, the financial side of producing an independent surf film was much more straightforward.
“I’m still trying to figure it out, apparently,” says Campbell about his new film. “I’m quite personally in debt on this project and I’m just trying to figure out distribution with the new forms of digital release and how that plays out in different countries. I think I can get the movie paid for, but it’s not looking great for profitability. But I would say that a big percentage of the things I do, I don’t do for money–I just do them because I want to do them and be expressive.”
Even with the obstacles inherent to making a surf film in 2018, Campbell isn’t resigning to half measures or cutting corners. Campbell won’t say the name of his new film, because it would “reveal too much,” but he will say that it’s going to be “science fiction, in a weird, indigenous sort of way.” And while what that actually means is probably only clear to Campbell himself, what is clear is that it’s going to be ambitious. He plans to include psychedelic interstitial scenes with bizarre props, costumes and handmade sets that will call upon all of his skills as a visual artist. Not to mention he’s assembled a Justice League of left-field surf talents from his previous films along with the vanguard of surfboard and surf style experimentation in the modern era, including Knost, Tudor, Rastovich, Wright, Ryan Burch, Bryce Young, Craig Anderson, Jared Mell, Lauren Hill and Trevor Gordon. So far they’ve shot sections for the film in Fiji, Morocco and Indonesia, with more trips penciled in for early this year. And, of course, most of the movie will be shot on gorgeous 16mm film.
Campbell’s new, more abstract approach to filmmaking sounds like a far cry from his previous films, which were driven by a kind of manifesto: a call to action for surfers everywhere to expand their minds and their quivers. But 10 years later, now that Campbell’s surf ethos is shared by more and more modern surfers, can this movie have the same kind of deep cultural impact of his previous works? For that matter, can any surf film achieve that in 2018 amid the relentless white noise of digital video content? I put the question to Campbell.
“I think so,” he said. “Do I think that I’m going to be the one to create that moment? I don’t know. I think that what happened with my films before is kind of serendipitous in some ways. But I do think that people are highly capable of being very creative and having new perspectives. We don’t know where surfing is going to go and we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to imagine, but then again it always is until it happens.”
After we left the Board Builders Guild, we climbed into Campbell’s van, loaded with boards, wetsuits, and framed art that he’d been meaning to mail off, and headed to check the surf at Steamer Lane.
A pulsing northwest swell was in the water, although a high tide was swamping out the overhead rights. Campbell leaned on the railing that lined the cliff overlooking the break and watched a galaxy of different surfers of different ability levels on different design trips find their fun in the wonky waves. Garage-sale guns, resin-tinted fish, imported soft tops and well-stickered thrusters were all part of the surf-culture stew that swirled and roiled throughout the high-tide peaks.
Looking out at Steamer Lane today, or countless breaks around the world, it seems that we no longer need a film to turn surfing on its head. A decade ago, Campbell helped spark a cultural change that has since grown into a roaring blaze. Perhaps Campbell’s next work will simply be a way of celebrating how far we’ve come; a way of sitting back and enjoying the warmth.