The 50th Anniversary of Five Summer Stories showcases the evolution of film in the last century.
Through surf, we’re able to escape from the world into a simpler, more pure environment” - Five Summer Stories
On Wednesday, November 9th, 2022 the Coast Film and Music Festival in Laguna Beach kicked off with a short discussion with filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, and professional surfers Shaun Tomson and Jericho Poppler, followed by the night showing of the MacGillivray Freeman surf film Five Summer Stories. The film takes the audience on a journey through water, the growth of the surfing community, and why it’s so important to appreciate what nature provides for us.
Locals, surfers, film enthusiasts, activists and many more filled the Hobie shop with great anticipation. Whether it was someone’s first or tenth time seeing the film, everyone’s eyes were glued to the projection screen. Amazing, bright, and awe-worthy visuals flashed across the screen, leaving the audience with a smile.
The main question is, why is this film so impactful and how so many decades later, is it still considered to be the best surf film of all time? To fully understand the gravity of this film, we have to travel back to when the concept of filming was merely an idea.
“Surfing is the one way that we could all find some serenity and some peace and some connection to nature in the wild. And that's what this film was all about, how a surfer is so lucky to get away from all of this despair onshore and go out into the waves, even if there are no waves at all—just to sit there and watch.” - Greg MacGillivray
The films we watch today envelope a whole new century of technology – from CGI and IMAX to high-quality visuals and effects. The stories we see on screen are so well created and executed, viewers don’t think twice about the advancements the film industry has undergone to deliver these premium projects.
The concept of the film was created back in the late 1800s, when the Lumiére brothers created the first Cinèmatographe, combining a camera and projector to create what we know today as Cinematography. Deriving from the Greek phrase “writing with light and motion,” the concept of cinematography and how to capture was still a newborn. The idea of capturing your surroundings in a photograph was conceptualized by French inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in the early 1800s—eventually evolving to capture visuals and motion. The first attempt at the creation of the film camera was by Étienne-Jules Marey, a French scientist, who created a camera gun that shot 12 images per second. Now, reviewed and improved by Thomas Edison and Scottish inventor William Kennedy Dickson, the first true film camera was born—using 19mm film, shooting circular images and settling upon 35mm film, the standard of film used today.
In 1917, the first technicolor camera was produced introducing the world to bright visuals, but it did not become popular until the 1970s right at the time of the creation of Five Summer Stories. During this time period, the introduction to IMAX occurred. IMAX is a higher quality, three times bigger film screen, digital equivalent to a 12K, or HD image. This style of filming was very rare at the time because the equipment used was hard to come by and also only provided around an hour of film time. Rolling into the 1980s, digital film started to increase in popularity and became the standard equipment in the 2010s, which led to many production companies, such as Paramount, to eliminate the use of traditional strip film material from the cinematography equipment.
Now, fast forward to 2022, you’re watching a high action film in theaters, wondering—what camera did they use? What kind of film? Or if you want to go on a more philosophical journey, what made them choose this storyline? What was the initial inspiration or emotion?
Cinematography advances parallel to technology—there is a wide variety of cameras that are used today. Many of these styles of filming and the types of cameras used depend on what the film is and the filming locations. For instance, GoPros are used when shooting in water or taking point-of-view shots. The 35mm is the standard digital type of film and shoots the majority of movies we see today in theaters. If you see a movie that was shot in IMAX, that usually means the movie is a documentary or a short film, due to the shortened alloted film time.
The creation of Five Summer Stories was innovative and visionary for its time. The ability to see ahead into the future and give the 1970s generation an insight on what visuals, production and overall creative execution would be like in years to come, was truly a wonderful treat
“We learned storytelling and we learned how to photograph in slow motion and how to do telephoto lens scenes that had never been seen before. And so we wanted to try one more time to give surfers kind of our going away present. And it was something from our heart.” - Greg MacGillivray
Now, picture it 50 years ago—the 1970s, the nation is in upheaval—there’s controversy over the United States' participation in the Vietnam war, a battle between the sexes, the Watergate scandal just occurred and there’s a growing division between the political parties. Society needed a peaceful escape, something to bring serenity and remind the nation of the importance of community. All of a sudden, a surf documentary called Five Summer Stories debuts and the nation finally takes a deep long breath.
Five Summer Stories was revolutionary for its debut date of 1972 – the style of filming was not introduced yet. During the early stages of filming, MacGillivray and Freeman were working together on movies in Hollywood and had too many jobs to complete the film on their own, so they hired on the pioneer of surf films, Bruce Brown. So, the brilliant minds of MacGillivray, Jim Freeman and Bruce Brown opened up a whole new style of filming, use of camera, sound production and overall editing techniques.
“The teamwork over the two years that we made this movie was kind of legendary.” - Greg MacGillivray.
The film takes the audience on a journey through the turmoil the nation was facing at the time and the controversy that occurred in the surfing world. Paired with rock music and stunning visuals, this film went on to become monumental. Filmed with cameras that shot at 200mm, captured the crisp visuals of water droplets. The filmmakers used standard cameras that shot in 35mm, capturing everyday scenes, interviews and landscapes. The fresh introduction of 200mm and 600mm cameras allowed them to capture crisp slow-motion action shots, adding to the detail of the film and building up the audience's adrenaline as well. Some visuals were shot with a fish bowl style of lens that gave a strong point of view that added to the natural chaos of the sports environment.
MacGillivray, Freeman and Brown bought two specific cameras for the production of the film. The normal and standard frames per second of a film camera was 24 at the time, the cameras they used were 10 times flowers—gaining immense detail in each shot. They also had to get creative with how they shot point-of-view water shots, waterproof cameras like the GoPro were not produced just yet. In order to get proper ocean visuals, Brown found a way to put a bunch of batteries in the camera at once and wrapped the camera in a rubberized casing. Strapping the camera to himself, Brown was able to capture shots within and outside the waves. This innovation was also used when they wanted to get point-of-view surfing shots—they strapped the covered camera to professional and film documented surfer, Corky Carroll. This technique gave more of a point-of-view perspective and really submerged the audience into the ocean alongside the surfers.
“The film got better and better and better—and then it became the combination of a rock film with great music and beautiful surfing visuals and a lot of controversial storytelling that dug deep into the problems that were going on with surfing at that time and how we could solve them.” - Greg MacGillivray
Now, surf documentaries are created with fewer but more advanced cameras, technology and filming equipment, because cinematography advances parallel to technology.
Whether from the younger or older generation, surfer or non-surfer, a local to water or traveling from a distance, each person can find something within this film to resonate with. Initially, the film was supposed to capture five stories total, but MacGillivray decided to add in partial sections to give exposure to certain sports, events and athletes that were growing in popularity at the time.
“It worked to our advantage because it really gave the film a tremendous amount of variety. And when people saw it, they picked their favorites.” - Greg MacGillivray.
Five Summer Stories grew tremendously in popularity after the first debut, so they decided to show it for seven consecutive years following – adding in a new sequence each new year. The decision to add in more sections came from the unorthodox idea of changing the movie each time to show the audience something new every year. Shortening and dropping other sequences to fit in the new ones but still keep the same run time. The newest version was shown on the first night of the Coast Film and Music Festival and it took MacGillivray six months to completely edit together. The original film received three lawsuits due to the copyrighted use of certain music and the filmmakers had to cut down the film in order to prevent lawsuits.
The decision to add in a story about women surfers and their important role in the surf community came a bit later on—and was beyond monumentally controversial for its time. The story “Women in Motion” showcased the ingenuity, personal stories and impressive talents of many female surfers—focusing mainly on Jericho Poppler and Margo Godfrey-Oberg for profiles. Godfrey-Oberg won World Contest in Puerto Rico in 1968 & the Lancer Cup which set a new standard for female surfers—and by MacGillivray showcasing these talents in the film, knowing it would be seen by millions, show the immense support and admiration he had for the sport of surf and it’s loyal players. Balance and equality was given throughout the film and the exposure gave the female surfing population more opportunities and push for acceptance in the ocean.
Factors such as this give a deeper meaning and purpose behind the creation and then showings of the film. Allowing people to see women in a position of high influence and inspiration, gives a strong foundation for the generations to come.
“I don't think any of us knew the impact of what we were doing back then because it was something that we had to do. We just had to serve. And for the women, it was a dance.” - Jericho Poppler.
Poppler continued to state that the athletes today have trainers, sponsors and good funding, back when Poppler and the other women were making a name for themselves, they didn’t have any of that as a foundation or to work with. Poppler grew up practicing in dance and gymnastics, so that gave her a coordination advantage when she started surfing.
The overall philosophy of the film isn’t the only reason why it has gotten so much admiration—the use of audio alongside visuals gives it an edge over many other athletic, sports or surf documentaries at the time. Pairing rock music during specific athletic or social scenes adds a relatable and satisfying viewing point. It also makes for a really fun movie!
Shaun Tomson took a brief moment during the pre-film showing discussion to give thanks and praise to MacGillivray and discuss the impact he has had on the surfing community over the years.
“I'll tell you what was one of the most special things about surfing films was that there was a moment when a community got together, a community that loved surfing. They got together in that one auditorium and they experienced something unique and something mystical and something magical—surfing films have way more power because they burn into your consciousness and they burn into your memory and ultimately they've inspired and you've influenced so many lives, great with your work. And I want to just say thank you for that inspiration.” - Shaun Tomson
Every Coast Film and Music Festival unites society's love for outdoor sports and nature with the creative mind to showcase brilliant artwork, film and music. The purpose is to bring everyone together and spread greater awareness on pressing issues while entertaining the masses. This year, Five Summer Stories had its 50th Anniversary and the festival had the pleasure of having multiple showings. To end the five-day event and overwhelming festivities, the festival showed the film for the second time on Sunday, November 13th. The film was shown in the main area of the event, with hundreds in attendance admiring the work and innovation MacGillivray, Freeman and Brown underwent many years ago. The showing paired the film with live music tributed to the 1970s surf rock band Honk, which was featured in the original film.
This showing marked a turning point for this new generation of artists, activists, athletes and town locals—it brought together the passion of surf and community with the drive to continue on the positive messages within the film. Giving the young filmmakers a voice between watching the creativity of the film and being able to participate in the Emerging Filmmakers Student Film Program – the kids of today left inspired and motivated to create something they are passionate about.
With the late Freeman not being physically with us, the film now gives a deeper meaning to the word—legend. What is a legend? The dictionary’s definition means someone who is extremely famous or notorious in a particular field. The word notorious rings very strong, especially when it comes in tune with a person’s legacy left behind. MacGillivray spoke about how when they started to create this film, all three of them did not expect it to become so famous so quickly. They had an idea to showcase the immense talent in the surfing industry along with the turmoils that the nation faced at the time—these being their strong passions.
Now, years later MacGillivray speaks of this film being his favorite film he had worked on, not because of the publicity it got, or the praising reviews it received but because at a time when anger and confusion were at their highest in the country, he and his friends were able to transport themselves and the audience into a world where they could escape. They had the pleasure of traveling around the states to beautiful destinations, filming famous surfers and using their new innovative ways to capture their emotions on film.
Five Summer Stories continues to be a ground breaking surf documentary for its technology creativity and positive philosophy – inspiring every generation in the community to find a passion within themselves.
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