Interview With Surf Filmmaker Arsen Brzostek

By John Virata

Surf movies have been around since the late 50s, starting with the overblown Gidget flicks that detailed little about what was really happening in surf culture. It was an interesting series of movies with fake surf shots and pretty boy actors trying to emulate the surfer look. It wasn’t until Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer in 1966 that mainstream America got a real taste of the surfing lifestyle. The modern surf flick of today are mostly corporate sojourns sponsored by surf clothing companies, showcasing their sponsored surfers tearing into waves in exotic locales to the beat of a punk or rock and roll sound track. There is little, if any dialog, just shot after shot of insane waves with nobody but a few surfers out. Every once in a while, a surf moviemaker tries to tell a different story, without having to rely on surf stars. Arsen Brzostek’s Arsen Productions has taken a decidedly different route with its films Jungle Juice: Surfing Adventure In Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, and Going With The Flow: Classic California Soul Surfing. A commercial artist previously focused on graphic design, Brzostek picked up a DV in camera 2004 and began filming his passion for surfing. Digital Media Net’s John Virata spoke with him on aspects of his filmmaking and why and how he got into it.

Arsen Brzostek

John Virata:Do you have formal video production training?
Arsen Brzostek: No, I don’t have formal production training. I’ve always been a creative since childhood and have kept my fire burning by utilizing and refining as many media as I could. After completing every art class in high school I wanted to sharpen my creative talents further. I have an Associates Degree in Commercial Art, from what is now the Miami Art Institute (was International Fine Arts College), and a Bachelor’s in Communication from St. Thomas University also in Miami. In art school I had two photography courses which I liked because they taught me how to compose good shots. I then took a couple of computer print production classes. Photoshop had just been introduced in art school and it got me interested in digital media. I began freelancing as well as took on a full time computer artist position at a high profile Miami design firm while working on my bachelor’s degree.

After a year at the company I was promoted to computer director developing projects for American Express, Disney, Hanna Barbera, Esso Oil, Burger King, as well as many professional national sports teams from football to hockey (I designed the inaugural season tickets for the Carolina Panthers). For the past fifteen years I’ve been a professional graphic artist running my company, Green Dot Design in Tampa, FL, which has allowed me to efficiently utilize the computer and it’s many applications for print, web and video production projects. Everything which I’ve learned in regards to video production has been a combination of reading online articles at industry websites such as this one, talking with people in the industry as well as reading related books. I read a good quote from the guru of surf films, Bruce Brown of Endless Summer fame, when he spoke at a film school and was asked, who was on his production team. He laughed and told them he did everything himself, virtually a one man band running the camera, directing, editing, producing, distributing, etc. Bruce also said that if he had to go to film school he’d never make any of his films due to all the do’s and don’ts you learn in school. Making films is about utilizing what you have to tell the story. If you don’t have a production crew, lack the knowledge, etc. but have a story to tell and the inspiration and motivation to pull it off, anything is possible. You just need to go with the flow.

JV: When did you get started in video production and why?
AB: I started my first production in 2004 titled, Jungle Juice: Surfing Adventure In Costa Rica’s Southern Zone. It’s a documentary about friends and family experiencing the fun and adventure found during a Costa Rican surf trip. I had traveled to Costa Rica every summer since 1997 to surf the country’s many breaks. I’d live for the surfing part of the trip but once out of the water I’d feel the need to be creative. After telling the annual surf trip story to several friends they concluded I spin a good yarn and should make a film about my next trip. I made a commitment to myself that the next time I’d return to Costa it’d be with a video camera to document the experience.

JV: When did you form Arsen Productions?
AB: Arsen Productions was formed close to the end of the post-production process of Jungle Juice at the beginning of 2005. I was going to reuse my existing company’s name and just replace “Design” (Green Dot Design) with “Productions”. I decided to get out even further into unfamiliar territory and knew from the past that a fresh start is a good way to instantly make you think from a different perspective. I then thought of names which would feel right. I obviously went with Arsen, my first name, as it’s not a name you see or hear often and knew would be remembered. In addition I feel like I’m always on fire with ideas and a drive to create and make things happen, so it stuck.

JV: How long have you been making surf movies and why surf movies?
AB: I’ve been making surf films since 2004. Surfing is such a great thing it’s a lifestyle more than a sport to me. I wanted to give back to surfing some how and in turn be able to give the stoke to others while being around some of the worlds best surfers/surfing personalities and surf films were the logical direction to accomplish all of this. Another reason for wanting to produce surf films was the lack of quality surf films out on the market. The majority of surf films are what I call “Surf Porn” based on their fast cuts of one surfer riding a wave after another, punk rock music as the score and lack of a story line. I had seen maybe a handful of surf films with a good story and cinematography and so felt I had something to offer.

Not that my first film was revolutionary or anything but it did carry a story line, had decent camera work and cool original music. After my first film was released to DVD I wanted a break and just go surfing. I planned a week long surf trip to California with a friend. I stopped in at a local surf shop where I knew the owner and was telling him about the upcoming trip. He then picked up his phone and called his friend in San Diego and told him I was going to be there producing my next surf film. At that point I had no desire to make a new film right away which I knew would be followed by late hours of post production and would surely suck all the life out of me. It was hard to turn down the possibility of my next film especially since it was almost effortless to line up interviews with some of the worlds greatest legendary surfers such as Linda Benson, Lance Carson, LJ Richards, and Hank Warner as well as two phenomenal longboard surfers, Kevin Connelly and Jesse Timm. So I went for it and the second film was shot in January 2005, based on how the project came to be is titled, Going With The Flow: Classic California Soul Surfing. My third film shot summer 2005 is the continuation of the Going With The Flow series subtitled, Surfing Costa Rica’s Jungle Breaks shot entirely on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. The cast included surfers, Kevin Connelly and Jesse Timm as well as Allan Weisbecker (screenwriter of Miami Vice and other movies, TV shows, author of 3 surfing related books and surfer).

JV: What kind of camera set up do you use to shoot your footage?
AB: Jungle Juice was shot entirely on a Sony PD170 using Sony DVCAM 40 min. tapes combined with a Manfrotto 503 head on a Manfrotto 745B tri-pod. For Going With The Flow California I added a Sony PC109 recording on Sony Premium miniDV 60 min. tapes. I picked up a Canon XL2 for the production of the third film (Going With The Flow Costa Rica) and also used the Sony Premium miniDV 60 min. tapes and added another Manfrotto 503 head on top of a Manfrotto 525MVB tri-pod.

JV: How do you handle archiving your footage?
AB: The footage is kept on the drives which it was respectively captured too. I’ve been using 250-300 gig drives and have the projects separated onto multiple drives. If I know the projects will not be used the drives are stored off site.

JV: Why did you go with those cameras?
AB: My first camera would have to do several things, last for many years, be inexpensive, compact, versatile, utilize miniDV and have good resolution. The Sony PD170 was what I wanted. I did my research and found excellent reviews about it in addition to the good word of mouth I received from friends in the industry. The Sony PC109 served as my unobtrusive cam which I used in restaurants, in vehicles and out in the water. The Canon XL2 was my third camera purchased and was perfect for long distance shots and as B Cam to later have two angles to utilize during post. The XL2 has too many good features to list. Being able to swap lenses with my still camera (Canon 20D) was also a major factor in the purchase decision of the XL2.

JV: What about lenses and water housings?
AB: The Sony PD170 shipped with a wide angle lens and for the third film I purchased a 2X Century lens for getting those far away shots. The Canon XL2 I bought with the manual 16X lens which is comparable in magnification to the 2X on the 170. The manual 16X lens gives me excellent control and with the XL2 set accordingly gives you a good focal length to capture surfing action without having to utilize an autofocus lens which tends to lose focus at times. The Sony PC109 received a Sony wide angle lens and was used in an Ikelite waterhousing made for it. The housing worked great along with the camera. I put large silica packs into the waterhousing when shooting in California and the interior stayed fog free. When I brought the housing to Costa Rica we at first put the camera into the housing at the beach. This caused fog to build up inside. After that we prepared the camera and housing at our lodging and that eliminated the fog issue as we were somewhat removed from the humidity.

JV: Have you damaged or lost any equipment while shooting?
AB: Luckily nothing major. I lost the plastic lens cap for the Sony PC109 wide angle lens, one of the battery pack plastic covers for the XL2 come apart (it didn’t cause any issues during production), and I also have a Varizoom 5.5″ LCD which I use with the Canon XL2 and it has a foot which slides into the accessory shoe and is poorly designed. There’s a screw which holds the unit rigged. While out shooting about a mile out from shore on a low tide in Costa Rica the foot screw went loose. It was unusable since walking back to get tools wasn’t an option and I didn’t bring a screw driver with me. I ended up using the Canon XL2’s eye piece which proved very challenging as the subjects (the surfers) were far away so maintaining a smooth and steady pan while keeping the subjects accurately positioned in the shot was nearly impossible. Standing out in the sun and having one eye closed and then looking to see where the next surfer was getting ready for the next wave provided a nice headache due to the constant adjustment of the eyes. We cleaned the cameras and other equipment daily to ensure proper functioning. I believe constant maintenance is very important when shooting in challenging environments such as jungles were hyper levels of humidity are constant.

JV: What are some of the more interesting locales that you’ve shot footage with your camera?
AB: I believe every surf spot is an interesting locale. The first film was shot in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone and allowed for some amazing angles, wild life, scenery, you name it. Going With The Flow California also allowed for some interesting shots as the coastline is amazing and varied. We shot at one classic surf spot called Swamis which overlooks the break from about one hundred feet above the beach. The high angle gave me an interesting vantage point of the surf break, so much in fact that when the film was premiered at theaters several people positively commented on it. When I went back to Costa Rica to shot the third film we were treated to several interesting shooting locations. As I mentioned filming on dry land a mile out to sea due to the extreme low tides experienced in Costa Rica was surreal. After about two hours I had to get back as the tides came up about 15 feet and would’ve easily been way over my head. We did a jungle tour one day following our two surfers together with our tour guide.

The humidity on the hour long tour was so intense that after we were complete I put the cameras into their bags later opening them up and wondering why the insides were not just damp but wet. I later realized it was the humidity coming out of the cameras themselves which caused the camera bags wet insides. When we were shooting in the Tamarindo area of Costa Rica we encountered another spot which during our filming offered an exposed reef from where I shot to get closer to the surfing action. The Arenal Volcano located in Northern Costa Rica was also incredible. Seeing the eruption followed by giant boulders rolling down the volcano together with the sound emitted was as if the earth was breathing. When I shot the volcano the clouds which surround it swirled in different directions uncovering and covering the colossus provided a fantastic image.

JV: What editing software do you use to assemble your movies?
AB: I use Apple’s Final Cut, it’s amazing. Since I’ve had over a decade of Mac experience where I utilized various creative applications I felt Final Cut provided a short learning curve. I also use Adobe After Effects as it’s invaluable for my films graphic elements such as the titles, credits, special effects, and composing of animations. The many different filters AE provides gives me everything I need to get the specific results I want.

JV: And on what hardware?
AB: I use a G5 PowerMac with dual 1.8 GHz processors together with a 23″ Apple LCD display. The Mac and display I feel are vital to keeping things moving in post. I have a Sony DSR-11 deck for capturing footage combined with a Sony PVN-14N5U NTSC Monitor. The Sony DSR-11 is great for capturing as I’m not wearing out the heads on the camera/s. The Sony 14″ monitor I use mainly for capturing footage to see how the video actually looks (the motion isn’t accurate on the Mac/LCD) and then later on when color correcting as the LCD will also not give me an accurate luma/chroma display.

JV: Can you describe your production workflow?
AB: My production work flow is all about going with it as the most important thing is having a mind set which works in the most demanding situations and still allows for creativity to happen. When I shot Going With The Flow Costa Rica I had a camera person operating the Sony PD170 for surfing and lifestyle, the Sony PC109 in the water housing in addition to a still camera at different times. I ran the Canon XL2 from shore for filming surfing as well as for some lifestyle scenes. The camera person I hired is a surfer and knew what surfing shots I wanted and knew how to get them, so very little direction was necessary after we discussed everything in the beginning. My camera person also handled the day to day maintenance and preparation of the equipment they were using to be ready to go every day. As the director/producer I didn’t get much sleep during our two week production. Every morning all the equipment had to be put into our vehicle, then once at the location, set up was quick. We were either shooting with two cameras from land or one from land and the other in the water. We’d shot for about 3-4 hours of surfing footage then move onto lifestyle and back again to the water for the evening. Each tape was marked as Cam A (Sony PD170), B (Canon XL2) or C (Sony PC109) followed by it’s number. We shot a total of 65 tapes (about 4.5 tapes per day) not missing any action. All the tapes from each days filming were put into large zip lock bags together with silica packs to keep the humidity low. Once back at our lodging the equipment was unloaded and brought inside. Every night I checked the footage to make sure I was getting the shots I wanted and have the surfers see how they looked and what they needed to do or not do the next day to get the best shots. After everyone went to bed I would still run around making sure everything was ready for the next morning from cleaning equipment, charging batteries, putting tapes in the cameras, labeling and organizing the daily tapes, etc.

JV: Do you author the DVDs as well?
AB: Yes, I author my own DVDs. I want complete creative control over my films and feel it’s important to be hands on during every part of the process. I use Apple’s DVD Studio Pro for the authoring together with Adobe Photoshop and After Effects to create the GUI. Once the DVDs are complete on my end I send them out to a replication house to have them produce retail ready units to be sent off all over the world.

JV: Have you looked into the new HDV or P2 format cameras? What are you impressions with those solutions?
AB: I’ve looked into the HDV and P2 cameras. Technology is ever changing and you have to be on top of it or you’ll be left behind. There’s a catch 22 to this. New technology comes out so often you’d go broke trying to keep up. I obviously went with SD video rather than HD because HD Cams were so new and expensive at the time of the purchases. I know I’ll eventually switch to HD once the technology isn’t so new, expensive and is widely available to the end viewer. When I bought my cameras there were only several affordable HD cameras, channels and no HD DVD’s, etc. I figured why spend money on something which won’t be fully utilized for several years when I can get equipment for a much lower cost which has been proven as industry standard. The P2 cameras are awesome. Going directly to a digital memory card is much better than to a tape. Digital or not you’re going to loose quality when going to tape. Once again with new technology I’d wait and let the manufacturers work out the kinks and let the equipment become industry standard before spending my money.

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