Why Is One Of Australia's Top Surf Cinematographers Shooting Film In 2022? - Stab Mag

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Why Is One Of Australia’s Top Surf Cinematographers Shooting Film In 2022?

“It’s the last great magic trick.” – Tom Jennings

Words by Ethan Davis
Reading Time: 6 minutes

If you follow surfing, you have seen Tom Jennings’ work.

Some of his most notable work appeared in Cluster and Psychic Migrations, Noa Deane’s Head Noise, Billabong’s Good Call, Real Axe and Desert Hilton, Dane Reynolds’ Chapter 11, Brendon Gibbens’ Home Body, Shaun Manners’ Blastoid, Globe’s Cult of Freedom, Ando’s Harmony, Jacob Wilcox’s By Default, Jack Robbo’s Snapt 4 section, and even a BBC Attenborough doc, which featured a few of his shots from Cyclops, and many more.

He’s one of the best surf filmers in the the world and he looks at things a bit differently. You can read about how hanging with Clay Marzo indirectly led him to a diagnosis of a High Functioning Autism here.

Tom’s been locked down in WA for the past two years, work’s slowed right down, no one is in and no one is out with the hard border closures, but it’s given him the opportunity to go through his archives and assemble this reel shot entirely on a 16mm Bolex from 2016 onwards. Jenno’s ability to connect and work with the superstars of surfing is a testament to an obsessive work ethic and an eye for aesthetic that has elevated his work from a highly competitive talent pool.

Tom’s got the scar-tissue from a career spent in surf biz, and an aperture that sees the bigger picture. He doesn’t see what’s tangible about NFT’s and, if anything, what they might mean for surf cinema, but he does offer learning and insights that plenty of young filmmakers would benefit from hearing.

Stab: What year did you start filming this? 

Tom: This wasn’t exactly a project that I started filming for… it’s more a collection of shots or a progression from when I started learning the basics of film. I’d say towards the end of 2016 and throughout 2017 onwards.

Why shoot film in 2022?

It comes down to what you want to achieve. There’s certain qualities about film cameras that’s missing in digital capture. Film is expensive, finite, there’s an infrastructure problem in a lot of places in terms of sourcing and developing it. With digital you shoot first and ask questions later. Spray and pray. With the Bolex I use, there’s 100-ft of roll. That’s not much. You need light to cooperate, you can have mechanical problems. In a way it simplifies it. You can’t watch it back, you don’t log the footage. In another way it complicates it. It is what it is though, digital can’t replicate the subtlety of film. Digital can beat film in every way bar aesthetic (resolution, frame rates, ease of use…) but it will never look as good as film.

You need to remember that everything high-quality used to be shot on film, including surf cinema until around 2010 when RED’s became popular, but before that film was the go-to. All the brands and big-budget surf films were shot on film. So it’s not some tired antique, it’s really just the tried and tested rather than new and exciting. 

Do you make your work with an audience in mind?

Every job I do whether it’s for myself or a company, I try and make something I like. I want to be able to work with surfers I like, go to the places I want to shoot, make something I would want to see. When a brand gives you a pitch, you need to try and get that for them. But at the same time, the people who hire me, hire me because they know what I’m good at. Crew don’t hire me to shoot vlogs, they hire me to shoot top-end, good-looking clips that sell board shorts and wetsuits. Phrase that how you will, but at the end of the day they want to create an image around the product that they’re selling. That’s marketing 101. You’re trying to sell something to someone that they don’t necessarily need. 

Can the noise of social media create a warped perception of success?

I see a lot of filmers posting clips with cliche songs or oversaturated edits, and yes, they can amass followers and a bunch of re-posts but that means absolutely nothing. If you want to achieve something you’ve got to actually get out there and make physical contact, build a network. You have to be tangible, you have to be present. Sure, social media plays a part in it, but by its nature social media is predatory and takes advantage wherever possible. You have to stick to your guns, don’t throw everything away for a few followers. 

What’s a successful filmmaking career to you?

I’m not sure if you can have a successful career in shooting surfing that is traditionally successful. Everything I’ve done in my career that’s related to surfing has been in the service of my passion and interest. If you want to make a financially profitable career, you’re looking in the wrong place.

Some companies and brands will try and exploit the fact that you’re so passionate about what you do because of what it means to us. We should, but don’t often ask for higher day rates because it takes away from why we do it in the first place. That probably applies to a lot of creative people, artists, musicians and so on. Money and contracts take away from the reason you do it. At the end of the day, you do need to make an income. Equipment gets more expensive all the time and if you don’t keep up, you’ll get left behind. 

Is there an unequal surfer-filmmaker pay gap?

It strikes me as semi-frustrating that you can be on a trip with a fifty-thousand dollar camera and all this equipment, and you’re working to create images that not only make the companies more profitable, but also you’re working with surfers that are getting paid a lot more than you are (which is fine because they’re the ones that are super talented). It would be nice to see brands that are in the position to do so to give a little extra credit to the people who make the imagery that sell the product and creates the value. I’ve been super fortunate with the people I’ve worked with so it’s no complaint, it’s just an observation. 

How do you feel about NFT’s?

I’m not qualified to answer that. I’ve got a feeling it’s a bit of a distraction. I think it’s great that there are emerging avenues for people to get images out there, but I’m also not sure how well it applies to filmmakers. 

Thanks Tom. What’s next?

It all depends on what happens in WA in the next few weeks. We’ve had the shit kicked out of us with these hard lockdowns over the past two years. Everyone from families to businesses and so on. I don’t envy anyone tasked with making policy around COVID regulations, I understand it’s complex. But as for what’s next I guess that’s sort of at the mercy of what the WA gov decides. I would love to travel or at least see some new faces arrive here. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the WSL event and all the requirements to get in and out.

You can view more of Tom’s work here.