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The Angle Of God

The Angle Of God Sessions: Taj Burrow’s $15,000 Chopper Punt The photoshoot that tracked Taj skyward — and gave wings to a new magazine in the process. What possessed TB to burn more avgas in pursuit of hot celluloid than any other surfing photoshoot? What triggered him to gamble 15 thousand skins, over a few […]

style // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Angle Of God Sessions: Taj Burrow’s $15,000 Chopper Punt

The photoshoot that tracked Taj skyward — and gave wings to a new magazine in the process.

What possessed TB to burn more avgas in pursuit of hot celluloid than any other surfing photoshoot? What triggered him to gamble 15 thousand skins, over a few beers in Sydney, on getting solid waves and good light one week later in his home town of Yallingup? The answer, as it transpires, was a combination of extremely good timing and a little gentle cajoling in the right direction from the boys at Stab*.

*The latter, it should be declared, needed some audacious shots to launch their magazine onto the newsstands and into the imaginations of a jaded surfing public. As it turned out, Taj was willing to stump up his own money – non-refundable, by the way – to cover the hire of the bird. A little like you or me punting a grand on the ponies after a crap day on the tools… and walking home an unlikely victor.

Interview by Nathan Lynch

Taj, it’s no mean feat dragging a helicopter, a few thousand litres of nitro fuel, and a team of shutterbugs down to a sleepy little town like Yallingup for a surf shoot. Not to mention the degenerates from Stab Magazine. Can you walk us through the misfortune that led up to this epic stunt?
It was 2003, the year that I was coming second to Kelly for the title. I was in with a good chance and then I had a shocker of a heat in Brazil. I got the flu right on the morning that I had to surf, lost a heat that I shouldn’t have and everything just kind of fell to pieces. It was pretty disappointing. So I just got a flight straight home via Sydney and hung out with the boys for a while. Sam [McIntosh, Stab proprietor] and I were kind of talking about shooting with a chopper for a while, and we also had Fair Bits underway at the same time. So Sam said: ‘Fuck it! Why don’t you just do it now? Let’s get the chopper in WA and just nail it.’
I was pretty down and not feeling at all motivated at the time so I just went, ‘Yeah, let’s lay down some money and do it.’ We went for it and everything just came together so amazingly perfectly. It couldn’t have run smoother. We found the best pilot you could probably ever ask for — he’s like an ex-Nam pilot who’s just a total cowboy — and the waves turned on like you wouldn’t believe. We organised how much fuel we were gonna need for two days with the chopper, where he should land to re-fuel and where we were aiming to shoot.
The guy was onto it, he brought all the fuel down from Perth and just dropped these big tanks at Smiths Beach in the carpark where he could land the chopper to dose up. We surfed around home first but it ended up being really good at Supertubes so we pretty much went straight there. It was a bit low tide for a lot of people to surf so it was perfect for towing and getting a bunch of waves. It was amazing, we ended up nailing some of the best clips I’ve ever done, I think.

So was there a lot of logistical planning involved? Did you have to seek council permits and things like that to land a chopper above people’s heads in a public carpark?
I’m not too sure about that, I think the pilot might have just cowboyed it and landed there without asking. There’s a gravel carpark right up the end of Smiths Beach where no-one really goes too much. So it ended up in the perfect spot when we moved to Supers — he could just zip in, land, fuel up and be straight back out there. He’d shoot for 45 minutes or an hour max and then have to re-fuel so we just did that over and over and over again.

And what sort of a crowd did you have assembled to capture this thing on celluloid?
We had Dustin Humphrey, my mate Twiggy and Rick Rifici shooting stills, film and video from the chopper. Then we had Rick Jakovich shooting film in the water and my dad and Shane Dawson shooting from land, so there was about six guys shooting at least. The circus came to town for sure. But it was awesome that someone was there to document it from every angle ’cause it was just one of the best sessions ever.

What about the vibe in town, I remember there being a buzz around, people were right into it, whispering in the supermarket aisles about this mad chopper pilot that was down at Supers. Were you a bit concerned at the time though that people might not appreciate you bringing all that firepower down to little ‘ol Supers?

I definitely was wary of that. I didn’t want to bug anyone too much ’cause it is pretty intense when there’s a bird up there buzzing above everyone, with skis and photographers all over the place. But it was amazing, there was just no-one out that day. One dude kind of paddled out but the tide was just a bit low to surf it, so he kind of hung on the shoulder and watched for a bit and then left [laughs]. Besides that it was dead set just me. The perfect day — too low tide to paddle but awesome for towing and what we wanted to do. I know a lot of people that pulled into the carpark up the top must’ve gone, ‘Woah, what the hell’s going on down there?’ But everyone was cool with it, for sure.

So what about the punt you took here – if the evil WA nor-wester had blown for three days straight would you have been able to can the bird?
We would have definitely lost a bit of coin over it if we’d had to cancel, that’s for sure. We’d already paid for all the fuel and stuff and we’d got the pilot down south, so we would have taken a hit big time. But we just committed to it and charged, and it paid off. When we were looking at the charts [in Sydney] it looked like the wind was gonna be offshore and there was plenty of swell, so we thought there’d be something around. It just happened to be around in the perfect spot: Supers.

How did it feel when you’d taken this gamble and then it all came together? Was it a sensational rush, after that first session, when you took the team back to your crib on Yalls hill to check out the footage?
That was definitely the most exciting post-surf footage session that I’ve ever been involved in. It’s one of my favourite things in the world, having a good long surf and then coming home, getting a massive lunch, sitting down and watching all the footage. That’s dead set one of my favourite things in the world to do. And on the first day of this session, I just could not wait to do it.
One guy was shooting DV from the chopper so we got to see that footage straight away — even though we couldn’t see the film footage yet. It was one of the most exciting things just to see the angle of the chopper and the reef right there below the water, it was so unbelievably clear.
We surfed Bears Bombie to start with so the first few clips were of that. It was good six-foot Bears Bombie with a couple of open face hacks and stuff. A couple of fun ones from up there looked good from the chopper, so we were already stoked on that. Then it cut straight to the Supers session and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It just looked so good from up above. I had no idea, I’d actually never seen a wave like that before really. Obviously there’s heaps of big-wave stuff shot from choppers but nothing at that low altitude, hi-fi, in kind of smaller surf. When I got to see what airs look like and carves and any kind of turns from the chopper I was just blown away. It looked so sick how you could see the reef right below the surfboard and the waves coming in and peeling across the shallowest looking reef. Airs looked so crazy. They don’t look quite as high as they do from land but they look so sick. Also, even with top turns and roundhouses, you get the best angle. Watching the footage, we couldn’t believe how well it came out, we were just so excited. It was pretty cool to get in the lounge room with the boys and put your feet up and watch that. It just felt so rewarding after about four hours of just being on the end of the rope, getting about 50 waves in a row. We couldn’t wait to see the film and that eventually proved to be even better again.

So back to the session, what about performance anxiety? Does someone even at your level suffer from the fear of crabbing up when there’s all those lenses jammed in your face?
That’s true actually, that was one thing I was really nervous about, just having six or seven photographers there and the chopper and skis and then all the pressure was on me to perform [laughs]. It was kind of freaky at the start but once I started nailing a few airs and a few clips it was all okay. At the start I did a couple of airs and I landed and the chopper was only a couple of metres above me. The pilot was just such a maniac. I looked up and the lens was just right there in my face.
It felt unbelievable because of all the build-up and I just got more and more confident as it went on and then started to nail a few bigger and better ones. Every time I landed a good air and the chopper was right next to me. Even though we were in a small town and there was no-one around apart from the photographers, it felt like I had the biggest audience watching. It was strange, it’s hard to describe, it felt like I was at a contest and had just absolutely smoked my heat or just done the biggest air in a heat or something. It’s an amazing feeling when you land something and the lens is tight there in your face.

And the thump of those rotor blades just above your head …
Oh yeah, the sound is just unbelievable. It’s an awesome sound, like a crowd clapping or something [laughs]. But I definitely got blown off a couple of times just from the wind from the rotors.

How much of a challenge is it keep coming up with fresh ideas for photo shoots and movies. Is it something you’re always thinking about, how to make your footage stand out from the kilometres of tape and gigabytes of DV that are out there?
Yeah, for sure, it’s something I’m pretty passionate about. I always love a good new surf movie and I love to have my own good sections, of course. I’ve always been a big fan of just watching good surfing with good music. Everyone loves that, it gets them pumped to go for a surf. I’m the same, I love to see some good action, something creative and something new that kind of stands out. I’ve spent a lot of time watching skate movies too that are really good. They’re always so creative those guys, they’ve always got the best tracks and something new and exciting to watch. I just love trying to think of ideas that no-one’s ever done.
Even at the moment, I’m still always thinking about that stuff but I’ve kind of put it on the backburner for the time being, ’cause I’m just so focused on the events and winning a world title.

Is this life after pro surfing? Are we likely to see you slumped over a director’s chair, shouting into a megaphone one day on Yallingup Beach?

For sure! When I retire from competition I think I’d love to be involved with some kind of production of movies. I love just picking the right tracks, the right clips and also coming up with new ideas and getting the best guys together and just having these super sessions. I love it!

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