Photography by Guy Williment
Australia’s Gold Coast is a mecca for surfing. Even at night.
To avoid the crowds, Sydney-based filmmaker Spencer Frost and his mates chose to rush the twilight hours and surf under a full moon. Perfect point breaks, no kooks. Possible werewolves. Get acquainted with one of the country’s rising sons of surf filmmaking.
How did this project come about?
Coincidentally I was scrolling Vimeo and saw I had a message pop up in my inbox. Normally, I would never ever check my Vimeo messages inbox, but it was from the content creators from Red Bull over in the States. And they said, ‘We love your style of filmmaking.’ I think I had a ‘Staff Pick’, which is where they found my work. They said, ‘If you have any concepts, throw them towards us and we’ll approve one and you can run with it.’ I got back to them and locked it in. I think from memory, I gave them three ideas. One was the moonlight surf film that we settled on. After locking it in, I realized how hard it was going to be to pull off. But they threw me the budget and I had to make it work [laughs].
So how did that go from concept to execution? Obviously, you had to think about how that was going to go with pulling it off.
Yeah, it’s a whole other world. I’ve filmed surf films and branded surf ads and everything all over the world, every angle, over water, underwater, pretty much. But it’s usually daylight. So when we threw a nighttime surf film in the mix, everything got thrown out the window from what we knew. We had to start from scratch. The camera gear was key. We had to get some pretty specific camera gear to shoot all the surf scenes and all the nighttime scenes if it didn’t have any lighting sources. There are a few cameras out there that are amazing, but Canon lent us this one, which I think was called the ME20. It was never actually made for filmmakers to use, it was initially a military camera that could see in the dark. Despite that, it was pretty much built for this project. They luckily had one in Australia that they could lend out to me since Canon was pretty keen on the idea. They lent me the camera for the week so I basically had to make it work. We lucked into a full moon. We shot up on the Gold Coast and the surrounding areas. I kind of got a little bit of good surfing content, but I wasn’t totally happy. Since the moonlight only happens once a month, we put tools down, came back to Sydney, and reassessed. I hit up Canon again, and luckily, they lent me the camera again. So a month later we went back to the Gold Coast and shot again all night. We were probably filming from 10 pm to 4 am when the full moon was highest so that it could light up the water.
Was the moon the only light source? Did you have anything in the water?
No, we really wanted to make sure there was no light—that it was only the moon. I’ve seen other videos where they’ve lit up surfing with brought in lights and I didn’t like the look of it. I thought it looked fake. You can’t really fake the moonlight. So we just decided to do it totally natural.
How’d you achieve the look? Did you just crank the ISO?
Well, this camera that they have shoots at an ISO of 5 million, which if you know cameras, is just outrageous. I think the step down from that is the Sony AS7-2 which was meant to be the game-changer in low light, which I think only gets down to about 20,000 ISO in the dark.
I’m sure you’re used to surfing in the morning or afternoon. What’s it like going out so late? Did it affect anything?
Yeah, for sure. With the subjects who were my mates that we were shooting, I just said, ‘Don’t do anything too tech. Don’t do airs or anything. I’d love just a high line cruising in the moonlight. Maybe a cutback. You really don’t need to be ripping.’ And I think from their feedback, they said the first few waves were a bit wobbly and once they got the flow and their eyes adjusted to the dark, they said it was amazing. They said there was shimmering water underneath their board and they were loving it.
Was it hard for them to see?
The moonlight was a super moon. It wasn’t pitch black. The water was lit up. But from what I heard from them, they actually got by okay. It’s hard to see the waves coming in, obviously. But when they were riding them, they said they were fine.
What’s the Gold Coast like on a normal summer day?
The Goldie is outrageous, the crowds out there. I think it’s some of the busiest waves in the world, I’d say. Per meter, per person, it’s the most crowded waves I’ve seen in the world. It’s such a long wave—all those point breaks are such long waves—you can’t even get a break if you’re surfing in the day. There’s always someone surfing on your inside, there’s always someone in the wave. So, yeah, I guess that’s why this idea came about. We wanted to escape the crowds. There are actually a few core surfers who do moonlight surging every full moon up there, so that was kind of how we based the concept around.
I was gonna ask you if anyone barged your session.
We shot one session at Byron Bay, which is about 45 minutes around Snapper, which is a famous surf town in Australia. There were people surfing there one night. They loved the idea. We filmed them, I gave them some footage. But apart from that, we were totally on our own. It was pretty nice to have it to ourselves.
Yeah, you never have it like that, right?
Yeah [laughs]. Never up there. It was pretty crazy.
What’s it like directing daytime surfing versus nighttime surfing? I’m sure there’s a huge difference, but I was hoping you might be able to break it down a bit.
I think going with the trend of my filmmaking, doing ideas outside the box, and kinda pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I definitely wouldn’t do another nighttime surfing film. But I like to push myself and my filmmaking into things that aren’t ordinary. I think people appreciate that a lot more at the moment. Obviously, with Dancing in the Dark, that was shot at night. And our feature film we’ve worked on, Corner of the Earth, we shot that up in the arctic, so I’ve tried to throw concepts that aren’t really the average surf trip like Indonesia or Fiji.
How do you prevent it from being a gimmick? Obviously, there’s a fine line.
Yeah [laughs]. To be honest, there were so many ways that this could have been the most cheesy film ever. There were a lot of shots where I was like, ‘Wow, that was a little cringey.’ I think some core surfers might be like, ‘Ugh, that’s not really for me.’ But it’s not about the surf market. It’s about everyone else. I think that concept about surfing at night is pretty outrageous for anyone, even non-surfers. It’s hard enough to keep authentic enough when you throw a concept in there, especially with surfing because people love to pick apart anything in the surf world. But yeah, I think we just scraped past with this one.
So my next question would be that you have certain scenes outside of the water. I wanted to touch on that. There’s some stuff of you guys walking through the city. Where did that come from? Why not keep it all in the water?
I really wanted to establish the characters to the people. It might not have read how well as I wanted it to, but the whole idea of the city scenes was leaving work. There’s an office worker. He’s just been grinding all day, basically, and he didn’t get to surf in the day. So he’s coming home, grabbing a board, going out there at night. That’s what people do. They actually do that in real life. They miss the day session so they go surfing in the moonlight. And then same with the guy who lives in his cabin up there. He was a massive help to us, but there was a little caravan scene. He loves it. He’ll go surf up there in the moonlight all the time. I guess it’s just that escapism thing that we try to stick with everyone. I think there were three main characters: there was a girl, a businessman, and a bit more hippy-looking dude. And yeah, they all surf every day, but then they love surfing in moonlight.
Tell me a little bit about your new film that you’ve been working on?
Yeah, so, at the start of last year, Guy Williment, Fraser Dovell, and myself spent two months up in the arctic working on a feature film called Corner of the Earth. Since then, we’ve spent a whole year editing it, we’ve released it. It’s done pretty well. I think we’ve had about 10 international awards now. Following up from that, we’ve started planning another pretty wild adventure surf film. We’re going to the craziest parts of the world. We want to go where nobody wants to surf but we know there’s good waves and make another film.
What’s next for your own career? Do you want to keep making surf films for the rest of your life?
For sure. I’m always trying to find a balance. Surf films don’t pay the bills. As much as I love doing them and they’re my favourite thing to do, it’s more of a passion project. If I just filmed surfing, I probably wouldn’t even scrape a living, unfortunately. In my day-to-day life, I’m a cinematographer or a director of photography. I do a lot of commercials and ads. I’m actually heading out for a NatGeo shoot next week with a crew coming here to shoot from the States, which will be awesome. But when I do get a chance to shoot surfing or make surf films it’s fun. It’s my passion. I love it.
What’s the difference between shooting a commercial project versus a surf film where you have full creative control? What is it like shooting something like this?
It’s incredible. I can’t even explain it. I think most of my day-to day jobs are very strict storyboard, shoot schedule, everything is laid out. We’re going to shoot this frame from this angle, this lighting. It’s all planned, it’s all ready to go. So it’s so refreshing for me to just get a clean slate and make whatever I want. Especially like this Red Bull job when they threw me a budget and said go crazy. They had very little creative input from start to finish, which is almost unheard of with a client. And same with my passion projects and our film A Corner of the Earth, I think I have to do those projects in between working on these corporate ads. I’d go crazy. I need that creativity in my life. It’s so refreshing to just make what you want to make and get creative.
Going back to Goldie, what’s the scene like there? How would you describe it?
It’s full-on. Hardcore. Packed. Crowded. It’s an iconic part of the world for surfing. Snapper and the Gold Coast and even Kira… some of the best waves ever have been surfed there. Some of the best heats have ever been surfed there, some world titles, everything else. Apart from that, it’s kind of the mecca in Australia for surf culture. It’s the centre of everything there. Obviously, we have Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, all those guys who are from there. Even some of the younger guys coming up, they’re incredible. It seems like it’s a breeding ground for talent. But it’s also such good waves. There are so many good people that it’s always crowded [laughs].
What was the biggest challenge for you on this project shooting at night?
This was just proof that I was like, “Wow, I have no idea how to shoot at night.” I did a test with Kevin Schultz and Letty Mortensen when they were in town competing in Australia. We did some moonlight tests at night and I looked back at the footage and I didn’t get a single clip. It just didn’t read on camera. It was pretty much pitch black. That was before I had the high tech, crazy camera. After that, I was like, “Wow, this is going to be a very big challenge because I can’t see anything in the footage.” Wrangling the talent was pretty fine. I had a good connection with everyone already. Everyone was happy to help out and I had heaps of mates to jump in. All the city stuff was fine, I was just managing people, which was all good. I’m used to that in my day-to-day job. Once we did the surf scenes, I figured it was whatever we’re gonna get, we’re gonna get.
That’s part of the fun though, right? Figuring out how it’s all gonna work out?
Absolutely. I’m a big problem solver. I love a challenge. It’s kind of what I do day-to-day. On my day-to-day, if someone’s got a problem with something we all put our heads together and think, ‘This is how we’re gonna do it, this is how we’re gonna shoot it, this angle, this lighting, this is the direction, and that’s that.’
I’ve got a few things in the pipeline. Obviously, we’re going to make another feature film. A follow up to A Corner of the Earth. As soon as travel restrictions are up, we’re going to throw everything at this one. We’re going to go to some of the wildest locations in the world and make a surf film. We’ve got a lot of people supporting us now and everyone’s keen to help out. It’s pretty much up to us to pull it off.