Bottom left, that’s Riley Blakeway in the second chapter of his multi-faceted career, ‘the skate filmer.’ Top middle, that’s Matt O’Brien in front of the lens for once, showing off his real passion, travel photography. And to the right, as you know, is Chris ‘Chippa’ Wilson, one of the most progressive and damn likeable characters in the game.
Meeting Kids On The Web Isn’t Always Wrong
Little Weeds alumni.
Little Weeds was born in 09. The idea was to give talented teens a chance at a dream career. Getting a start in any creative field, especially one as niche as surfing, is totally the hardest part. Once you’re in it’s easy, you’re one of the popular kids and employers’ll be begging you to take their money. The first Weeds was a quantified success, not wanting to brag, but we found Chippa Wilson, for starters. Pre-Weeds, Chip was working in the Cabarita chicken shop and digging holes. Now he owns a couple of houses and is widely recognised as one of the most technically innovative aerial surfers, perhaps ever. If you cast an eye over the movers in the surf industry in the last five years, you’ll see that our first crop of Weeds made quite the impression. Mike Jennings won the writing category and went on to be the deputy editor of Surfing World magazine, and the winners of the film, photography and surf category you’re just about to meet. We’re about to launch the next chapter of Little Weeds this year, only this time we’re going global. Weeds from the States, Europe and Australia will have a chance to compete in their own country before progressing to the global showdown. At the death we’ll end up with a surfer, a model, a creative, a photographer, and a filmer that’ll be given a chance to make their mark on the surf industry. For a taste of the talent that’s lurking just below the surface, come and meet Matt, Chip and Riley, a couple of talented kids that we met in a chatroom.
It seems that as soon as Riley Blakeway won Little Weeds he took off on a worldwide tour of fun and destruction that literally hasn’t stopped. Here’s just a few moments from his many laps of the globe. While he earns his keep making films, Riles is damn handy with a stills camera too.
My name’s Riley Blakeway and I won Little Weeds.
If you don’t start somewhere you’re gonna get nowhere. Back in ’09, the backend of the Global Financial Crisis was upon us, Obama became the first black Prez, the king of pop moonwalked his way into the grave and Riley Blakeway won the film category of Stab’s Little Weeds. He was a brisk 18-year-old filmmaker from Sydney, hungry, and ready to make his name heard in the world of surf. Ultimately, his career wouldn’t linger in the surf genre, though when he chooses to, he still does it rather well – last year he directed Chippa Wilson, Dion Agius and Nate Tyler in Light Therapy for SURFER mag’s RED direct competition. He didn’t win, but took home a Vimeo staff pick. “Last year was the first time I did something in surfing in three years,” Mr Blakeway tells me over a few beers in a dark corner of Echo Park, Los Angeles. “That was a weird realisation. After taking a step back from surf films, I was able to use everything I’ve learned outside of surfing and apply it back to where I started. That was super rewarding. I think I needed a break to make something that I was proud of.” “The whole thing was so new, at the time there was nothing as nichè as a surf film competition,” says Riley. “That wasn’t really a job then, it was still the same people making movies that went to DVD.
Little Weeds was the first step in Riley’s continually flourishing film career. “I found out about Little Weeds on my first real trip,” he says. “I was with Dustin Humphrey and Nathan ‘Noodles’ Webster, it was a film called Lover’s Land that we were doing with RVCA. It was the first time I got paid for filming. I was making $400 a week, working all day. And, I was stoked! I learnt so much from Dustin, just soaked everything up. I caught him right when he was leaving surf photography to work on motorcycles and the Deus ex Machina stuff.” He pauses. “It’s crazy man I can’t tell one of these stories without telling another, so much stemmed from Little Weeds. I think everyone involved in the competition benefited.”
“After hearing about the contest on the trip with RVCA, I started submitting my work,” Riley continues. “The first round came about and I didn’t win or even place. I was young, hungry and frustrated. Then Analog came to me, saying that Stab sent over my stuff from Little Weeds. So that’s how I started working with Analog. We did a trip and I started making my first movie.” A relationship between Riley, Analog and Chippa Wilson bloomed. Chippa, coincidentally, became a known name from the same competition. “Chippa’s story is crazy, nobody knew about him until this one clip came out in Little Weeds, then everyone was like, ‘Who the fuck is this?’” “The whole thing was so new, at the time there was nothing as nichè as a surf film competition,” says Riley. “That wasn’t really a job then, it was still the same people making movies that went to DVD. There wasn’t the platform to go make three minute videos for web. There were no DSLRs, it was a different time in film. Which feels weird to say, since I’m only 26. When the last round of Little Weeds came up, I ended up winning and went to the Gold Coast to do the main event. I was so excited and glued to the platform. It was like MasterChef, go shoot this, and here’s what you have to put it all together. It was fun, I’ve always been competitive. Back then probably a little more so.”
Riley started in surf, then went to skate, and he’s now cutting his teeth in the brutal commercial world of Hollywood CA. However, when a project in surfing pricks Riley’s interest - like the Surfermag RED contest last year - he returns for a celebrity shift and showcases all that he’s learnt outside of the surf realm. Smart kid.
Riley’s moved on from filming surfing full time. He currently resides in Echo Park, next to the Sunset Strip where Nikki Sixx, Mick Mars, Vince Neil and Tommy Lee once wreaked chaos. "I’m repped by a production company that has a sales rep who goes to a creative agency and tries to win jobs for their clients. Right now, I’m bidding for a beer commercial, and just to be bidding on a commercial job means that the creative agency’s sifted through about 100 different reels and chosen their top five. Then I have to spend the next week writing a treatment, and if you don’t get the job, it’s like, well, thanks for trying. Every job’s a competition.”
“Right now, directing’s where my head’s at,” he tells me. “I just signed with General Population of Santa Monica. Commercial directing’s been amazing, I’ve been heavily learning about it over the past two years. It’s a whole different beast.” Mr Blakeway’s also invested in directing music videos for bands like Froth and Night Beats. “Nobody ever got into film to make commercials,” he says. “But it’s the effective way to still be artistic and have an income. The budget for commercials are huge. The amount of money that’s pumped into 30-90 seconds is unbelievable. But it gives you the ability to be so creative. A lot of my reel is based off surf stuff. That Light Therapy video I did last year’s played a huge roll in getting me jobs. It all comes from the same place.”
Matt O’Brien’s photos are some of the most recognisable in surfing. Nailing action with amazing backdrops is a lot harder than you’d think. The more elements to a shot, the more margin for error. The tweaked out shot of Noa in Morocco that you see here (and also that ran on the the cover of Stab) is an absolute piece of art.
My name’s Matt O’Brien and I won Little Weeds.
True artists burn bright and vanish. Lucky for us, Matt O’Brien burnt, not out, paused to breathe (and open the Sunshine Coast’s chicest cafe TOME) and now he’s back. Now, however, Matt only dips his toe into surf when a project piques his interest. When choosing a photographer to bring our precious cover concept to life, Matt was our first call. How fitting that the photographer to freeze the death of surf photography was one born of our own hand. “I always maintained from day one that I was going to be out of the surf industry by the time I was 30,” says Matt days after our cover shoot. “But I still look back on Little Weeds and can’t believe that I actually won.”
“I originally entered Little Weeds in the film category,” Mr O’Brien continues. “But then I saw Riley Blakeway’s work. I was like, ‘there’s no way I’m going to beat this guy.’ So I ended up putting all my travel photos into the photo section.” Up until this point, Matt had only shot photos of surfing once. Seriously. “I started shooting surf as the contest was going on. I knew a few surfers from home, guys like (Mitch) Coleborn. I saw what everyone was doing and I wasn’t really backing it: lots of fisheye barrel shots. I was always interested in angles and backdrops. That comes from my love of travel photography, which I’ve been doing since I was 10.” Post Weeds, Matt and fellow victor Chippa Wilson went on a worldwide exposure rampage. Technical aerial surfing, pulled back photography, and interesting backdrops were seriously fresh in 2009; Remember, these were the days of crystal stroking and questionable remixes.
“I hit Chippa up on Facebook because he’d won the previous surf round, and said ‘hey, I dig the way you surf, let’s meet up.’ I was on holidays from film school. I was working with my dad to keep the money rolling in with odd jobs, and then I just went ham on shooting for Little Weeds. I think I almost went over the top with my entry. Like, I took it really fucking seriously, because I thought that I might be in with a chance of winning.” And, win he did.
Post Weeds, Matt and fellow victor Chippa Wilson went on a worldwide exposure rampage. Technical aerial surfing, pulled back photography, and interesting backdrops were seriously fresh in 2009; Remember, these were the days of crystal stroking and questionable remixes. One might even go as far as to say that Matt’s work is the only aspect of that strange period in surf culture that hasn’t dated. “I was really lucky because as Chippa’s career was taking off, so was mine,” explains Matt. “Everything that we were shooting for the magazines was running. Everyone wanted a piece of him.” Matt’s not the first photographer to realise the benefits of starting their career coat-tailing a hot young surfer. “Relationships are key,” agrees Matt. “With the surfers foremost, and then the magazines, and then the brands. The brands are always going to try and stitch you up on rates, but magazine rates are set.”
Matt’s honesty is an invaluable insight into the ride that ensues should you win the photographic section of Little Weeds. Matt’s able to say what he means because he’s out of the game, as it were. But lessons learned are as much a part of the Weeds process as winning and losing. The balance of being a yes man and rubbing people the wrong way is something that everyone has to work out for themselves in any industry, let alone an industry as insular and ‘small’ as the surf game. “I had no experience dealing with people in the surf industry,” says Matt of his coming of age. “I think I pissed a few people off. Coming from a trade background I was used to standing my ground, I didn’t really get the hierarchy of the surf industry and realise how incestuous it was, and that reputations spread like wildfire. I went from the job site where I was used to having a little bit of authority, and that kind of backfired a little bit (laughs). But I learnt such a valuable lesson, and it’s definitely curved the way I approach things now.”
Matt’s premier love is travel photography, and, his shots are deadset breathtaking. It’s this interest in backdrop, depth and field that’s given Matt’s surf shots something special.
So, what sucks about the surf industry? Nadirs compensate for the peaks of any ‘job,’ and while it may seem glam, travelling the world and getting payed doesn’t always equal the warm and fuzzies. “The surf industry likes to promote travel, but I don’t think there’s much respect for culture,” says Matt. “I ended up going on trips to really rad places, and then people just weren’t interested in where you are.
Everywhere I go has surfing, and culture, and I’d always try and shoot both. A lot of the time the magazines would just run the surf stuff. Why the fuck would you go halfway around the world to somewhere like Chile, that has such rich culture, and then only care about the guy’s bottom turn, or how high he got? You’re not just there to surf a left point, you’re there to surf and check out what the place is about. Why are you shooting tight when you can’t see where you are? You could do that anywhere.” “The surf industry likes to promote travel, but I don’t think there’s much respect for culture.”
So that brings us to the hiatus. Six years after winning Little Weeds Matt called it a day, and the surf print world was certainly worse off as a result. “I was travelling so much and starting to burn out,” says Matt. “This was around the time that Instagram started to come into play and I was working harder than ever, and I kept getting stitched up all the time. I came back from that Morocco Stab trip with Noa and Jay Davies, and I had such a rad trip that I was just like, ‘Fuck, I may as well quit on a high note.’” Being sharp of mind, Matt plunged his pennies into something worthwhile, opening TOME, his cafe/gallery in Maroochydore. “My chick’s a baker, and she’s so good at what she does that I was like, ‘You shouldn’t be working for someone else, you should have your own shop.’ We looked into it, did up a proposal and got into a street that was kinda run down, but was turning itself around. It’s just taken off, it’s great. It’s on Ocean street in Maroochydore.”
Matt’s time taking photos of men on fibreglass floating devices is far from over. I tell you this because having spent the day with him shooting the Craig cover, his passion and love of the art form is unquenchable. Once on the job, Matt works hard, and his patience is admirable. Especially on a shoot with as many moving parts as ours: kids, skis, talent, other photographers. You don’t just nail a cover shot like the one on the front of this very magazine by chance. Perseverance! If there’s one trait that’ll link Matt to the future photographic Weeds winner, then it’s certainly the ability to stay until the job is done.
Chippa was the shake up that surfing needed. He was the first surfer to bring the rotation speed to surfing that complimented the new found interest in skate-style manoeuvres. He might not go as high as say, John, but the technicality and roter-speed at which Chippa operates is truly unique.
My name’s Chippa Wilson and I won Little Weeds.
Chippa Wilson was the reason that Little Weeds was invented. A kid from an obscure slice of the coast, who’d somehow slipped through the cracks of the surf industry and was surfing back beaches and redefining technical aerial surfing in silence. I remember first seeing Chippa surf, and not knowing what to think. What he was doing was so fast and skate orientated, that it took a little while to adjust and appreciate; as most works of art do. Little Weeds shone the global spotlight on Chippa, and soon he was a legit surfing force.
“Little Weeds sure got things going quick,” says Chippa. “I got a hell of a lot busier after that.” Chip went from the best surfer in Cabarita, to the world’s foremost technical aerialist in a snap of the fingers. “Me, Riley (Blakeway) and MOB (Matt O’Brien) got to go to America and shoot for Stab, and then I think I went to America four times that year after that.”
The forward-thinking Analog (R.I.P) jumped on the Weeds momentum, and threw budget and round the world tickets at Chippa and film winner Riley Blakeway. “We got a super rad opportunity to make a movie with Analog,” explains Chip. “I remember Riley and I both got the email and it had a brief and little points of how many trips we were going to be doing. We both couldn’t believe it, Little Weeds and then that, it was pretty amazing.” The resulting film, ‘Now,’ was a cult classic. Ask any surf nerd currently between the ages of 20 and 35, they’ll tell you with unbridled enthusiasm how on point the music and vibe of the flick was. The pants were tight, the music backyard hazy, and Chippa was spinning faster than previously though possible. “We pretty much travelled the world and had a rad time,” says Chip in reflection on the project. “That’s totally when you make your best stuff.”
“I remember Riley and I both got the email and it had a brief and little points of how many trips we were going to be doing. We both couldn’t believe it, Little Weeds and then that, it was pretty amazing.”
Chippa’s recently lost his main sponsor, and has used his brief hiatus to spend some time at home and tinker with his precious motors. But don’t fret, Chip lives in a very wave rich part of the NSW coast, and he’s been surfing. A lot. Expect there to be another, and most spectacular phase of the surfing career of Chris Wilson.
Chippa’s just left the legion of high profile freesurfers without major sponsors, his brothers in un-stickered arms being Dane Reynolds and Craig Anderson, after his major Fox recently bowed out of surfing. Like the other Weeds winners, Chip’s in the enviable position of being able to cherry pick the trips and projects that he wants to be a part of, and spends the rest of his time in his beloved Cabarita, tinkering with his vintage motors. “I still get pretty pumped when I get a magazine cover, and even when I just get invited on trips,” says Chippa of his current situation. “I get really proud of the end product.”
Apart from the obvious success of unearthing talent that might’ve otherwise gone unappreciated, one of the epic things about Little Weeds is that the winners are all friends, and still collaborate seven years on. “I get to hang out with MOB a lot,” says Chip. “We just went to NZ two months ago and that was a blast. I get to see Riley when I go to LA, he’s hanging over there skating and doing heaps of creative stuff.“ We’d be lying if we said that there weren’t a few proud parent moments in the revisiting of the Weeds winners. One might even go so far as to say that there was almost a tear shed on a number of occasions.
“You’ve got to do whatever you can to stand out. Whether it’s funky board art, or riding different boards like twin fins, you want to stand out somehow. If you’re having fun and giving off positive vibes then everyone’s going to see that and be stoked on you and your surfing.”
As for farming the latest batch of Weeds, Chip emphasises that doing something a little different is the key. The surfing world’s changed a lot since 2009, and what was different then, isn’t necessarily still fresh. “You’ve got to do whatever you can to stand out,” is Chippa’s advice. “Whether it’s funky board art, or riding different boards like twin fins, you want to stand out somehow. If you’re having fun and giving off positive vibes then everyone’s going to see that and be stoked on you and your surfing.” One thing’s for sure, if we find a surfer half as awesome as Chippa in this years Weeds, then it’ll be high fives all ‘round.
Article from Issue 84 (April 2016).
We will have a new round of Little Weeds launching this year, stay tuned!