Surfer and director Crystal Thornburg-Homcy travels the world as an ambassador for Patagonia and environmental campaigner. Filmmaker Dave Homcy has shot film on everything from Come Hell or High Water to Riding Giants to Lost, while always feeding his passion for ocean cinematography. Together, they’re a force: telling thoughtful, truthful, surf stories on film and bringing people together on the water and across a global community.
How did you get into filmmaking initially? Were you shooting film or digital?
Dave: My very first experience in the industry was shooting a BB King concert. I was just a helping hand, but got to sit down, have dinner with BB King and talk story. It was rad. I started doing more odd jobs, and eventually got to do some camera work in Miami, where I was hired as 1st AT.
We shot mainly all 16mm on that job, but the late Sonny Miller was the first person to really take me under his wing and put a film camera in my hand. He gave me a camera on the cliffs of Jaws [the surf break in Hawaii], while he ran back to get more film and said, ‘Can you shoot for me while I’m gone?’ So I just started shooting. He left 5,000ft of 16mm with me for the rest of that winter in Hawaii and told me to just roll and shoot all I wanted to, Pipe and Back Door, and he would process it. That was my introduction to the surf filmmaking world. Everyone I ended up working for and with for the next 20 years, I met through Sonny.
Crystal, how about you? Working both in front of and behind the lens, have surfing and filming always come hand in hand for you?
Crystal: My dad was a pioneer of hang-gliding in Hawaii. My mum and my dad would make hang-gliding films, and we’d have dinner parties where we projected them in the living room listening to Pink Floyd. My mum was a professional photographer, so I grew up around that. Although it wasn’t until I met Dave that I was more exposed to motion film, 16mm usually.
Dave and I got to do a lot of films together where I was surfing, and he was filming. And we wouldn’t be as involved in the creative process as we wanted to be. We would have all these ideas of our own of what to do. Finally, we said, ‘Let’s just do it’ and made it happen.
Dave: As the digital age was taking over, we were adamant that if we were going to do a project, we’d shoot it on film.
Why is shooting in film so important to you? What draws you both to it?
Dave: I’m more present when I shoot film. There are so many incredible digital cinematographers – I'm not taking away from that. But, for me, it’s a more natural experience, a slower process. And I’m used to it. Yes, you might end up missing things, you might look at a wave and think, ‘That doesn’t look good, I’m not going to roll on that one,’ and then something crazy might happen – as opposed to digital where you roll on everything. But you still end up with an amazing amount of gold, without having to sort through miles and miles of digital roll.
Setting up the shot right, thinking about it, checking the light with the light meter instead of looking through the IPs to see what the light looks like – that’s filmmaking to me. And it’s way closer to the eye; film can transition from a heavy sun flare to backlit. You can tilt onto your subject, and you can ride that image without having to change the stock. It’s got so much latitude, you don’t lose definition, like you do in digital, with hot skies and so on.
Pixels are squares, grain is round and random. There’s nothing that’s square in nature. The grain structure is what gives film its life to me, even the odd hair that builds up in the bottom of the grate. It’s more organic. Film taps into something in the brain that really resonates. Digital’s still very new to me and it’s constantly changing – it hasn’t stopped. Film has been film for so long and it’s magically beautiful. It’s perfect.
Does it change the way you surf, Crystal, knowing you’re being shot on film?
Crystal: Because of my background with Dave, I know what it takes to make something on film, so I do put more energy into it. You’ve only got a couple of shots, you’ve got to make it good. And when it comes to film, you don’t have the opportunity to say, ‘Let’s look at that real quick … how’d that look?’ If you’re making a documentary on film, you only get that one shot, and there’s an authenticity to that. When you reshoot so many times, people get tired of it. You’ll never get that same feeling as the first time.
Your films Beyond the Surface and Sliding into the Light use surfing to bring people together and talk about issues beyond the water. What compelled you towards these kinds of stories?
Crystal: One of the reasons to incorporate a story into a surf film is education and being able to broaden your audience. If you tie in stories that are environmental, economic, political or personal, you open up your audience globally – instead of limiting it to the surfing crowd. You can make something people connect to, or learn from, or feel like they want to share their own stories. I definitely felt like that with Sliding into the Light; sharing the story about our miscarriage. After I screened it at the Byron Bay Surf Festival, I had middle-aged men come up to me with tears in their eyes saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing that … I had my own experience of miscarriage.’ To have people come and give me a hug and say, ‘I went through it too’, it suddenly felt like everybody in the whole world had gone through it, but nobody had talked about it. Sharing how the ocean had been such a big part of healing and re-birth, and to have that platform to share our experiences with others was really special.
It was also a way to broaden and enlighten people about women surfing, other than ‘That looks cool, let’s go take shots in my bikini.’ There’s more to the story than that. I wanted to empower women in general, to have a deeper sense of who we are. Like Ishita from India in Beyond the Surface – who’s branching away from what her culture thinks she should be doing.
You have a unique collaborative relationship; how does it work?
Dave: I wish I’d had Crystal’s input and creativity earlier on; she has an incredible eye. She’s an artist. We just did a project in Brazil and having her there to push me to things that I would never have come up with has been incredible.
Crystal: I gained a lot of confidence being a mom. I just became stronger. I apply that to life in general, and filmmaking. I now think, ‘We can keep doing this – let’s keep doing it … why not?’ It’s been really exciting to work with Dave more. We’re getting into our flow and are growing support from other people who believe in us as a team. I think that’s really important. Dave’s a really good director, he’s been in the industry so long, so he knows exactly what he needs to get, especially with different film stock. When Dave and I are working on a project together I’ll say, ‘This is the framing I want, and this is where I want the subject to be.’ He’ll be able to take my vision and creativity and actually accomplish it technically. It’s nice to able to blend the knowledge and experience with art.
Dave: If you stood us both in front of a plant in a pot and said, ‘Shoot this,’ we’re going to shoot it totally differently. After working on TV shows and in the industry, I sometimes I feel I’m stuck with the standard formula. So I love when we get to do projects together and break away from the formulaic stuff. Crystal brings a whole fresh look to everything.