Instant Surf: A Film by Adam Bell

We had the opportunity to chat to Adam and Matt about their exciting project, Instant Surf. Instant Surf is a film by Adam Bell, telling the story of Matt’s relationship with Polaroid instant film and surfing. Read on to find out more about these two awesome guys and their unique project!

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Thanks so much for doing this Adam and Matt! First off, give us a little bit of background information on yourselves. Adam, how did you get involved in filmmaking? Matt, how did you get involved in photography? How did you two meet?

AB: I got involved in filmmaking through a love of skateboarding. Specifically skateboard videos. I watched my first 411 Video Magazine three times in a row the day I bought it. At that point I knew it was something I wanted to be involved with. I saved up and bought my first video camera as soon as I was able, and filmed as much skateboarding as I could. I inherited a small amount from my grandfather, enough to buy a decent mac laptop and editing software and taught myself to cut. Later I got into snowboarding and would regularly film that as well, dryslope every week in the UK, holidays abroad, seasons and extended stays.

In 2004 I had the opportunity to start work for a small independent film company covering Judo. I learned a lot about filming and editing from the company’s founder Simon Hicks, who had made feature films and corporate videos as well as being an expert on sports coverage. I’ve been self employed since 2009, and I’m lucky enough to regularly travel all over the world to film at some of the top sporting events. When I’m not traveling or working on the highlights edits we produce, I make documentaries, music videos, promotional and educational videos.

Matt and I met over 20 years ago at university. It was one of the first nights we were there, we got talking and both released we were into skateboarding. We went for a skate the next day and have remained friends ever since.

MS: I’ve always enjoyed taking photos but initially more just of holidays and friends and recording things I want to remember. Then back in 2006 some good friends were shooting polaroids and as soon as I saw one being peeled I went and bought a camera for myself, and haven’t stopped since.

I can clearly remember when Adam and I met – first week of Cardiff Uni back in 1996, in those days if someone was wearing skate shoes they were likely a skater… so that got us talking and we’ve been friends since.
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Image: Matt Smith

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Image: Adam Bell

Adam, what compelled you to make this film? What drew you to Matt’s photography?

AB: I knew Matt was into instant photography and had seen him shoot photos when groups of friends had got together or at friends weddings, and saw shots of his surf trips. Over the last few years on Instagram I’ve seen more and more of his work and was really drawn to the aesthetic and effects that he was getting from expired film. Striking images made with old cameras and film that shouldn’t really still be working. I released it was something I wanted to try out. About a year and a half ago I took his advice and invested in an SX70 Alpha, I wanted something small and light that I could travel with and it fitted the bill perfectly. From the first test shot I took I was hooked. The SX70 now comes with me on every trip abroad I make. Shortly after I got into shooting peel apart film, investing in several cameras, as much expired film as I could get my hands on and a fridge to store it in! I could really identify with why Matt was so into the format, and how pleasing it can be when you get good results with a challenging method of photography.

I wanted to document what Matt does, as it’s pretty unique, and even more of a challenge shooting surfing. As well as the photographs and the method behind making them, I wanted to document the obvious passion he has for the format. Having experienced it myself, it was easy for me to see why he has been shooting instant photos for over a decade, but I wanted to capture some of his passion on camera and share this.

I wanted to work with a small crew on this project. I developed the questions over quite a long period of time with Adam Murray, a writer and filmmaker I have worked with on many projects. He conducted the interview with Matt and my girlfriend Katy worked as camera assistant. As soon as I was back from the shoot, I showed the rushes to another long term collaborator, Ben Crystal who created the perfect soundtrack. Everything came together really well in the edit and I’m very happy with the outcome.
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Image: Matt Smith

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Image: Adam Bell

Matt, tell us a little bit about your photography. What draws you to shoot instant film? What about it excites you and what is your relationship with surfing and instant film?

MS: I really enjoy the process with instant film. Getting old clunky cameras and super old film to produce something good is really rewarding. I love how it looks, but I also find the battle to get all the elements in place to get an image I am happy with really satisfying.

Even though I am probably close to 4000 polaroids now I know the next one is going to be as exciting to peel as the first.

Also, whilst it sounds obvious, I like the fact I am holding a unique developed image 90 seconds after hitting the shutter.

I think that polaroids allow me to capture surfing and the culture and things that surround it, with a look that fits. Some of it goes back to still wanting to record things I want to remember, but it’s also become part of going surfing for me and trying to grab a photo or two before or after getting in the sea.

And I think as you do more of something, you start to appreciate all aspects of it. That makes me want shoot not just the best turn on a wave but also all the other things that happen alongside.

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Image: Adam Bell

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Image: Matt Smith

Matt, the peel-apart film industry is certainly not what it used to be, with Fuji discontinuing the last professional peel-apart instant film. What do you see for the future of peel-apart instant film and do you believe a revival is in the future?

MS: The days of $10 packs of film are gone forever. I’m so pleased that Supersense were successful with their recent kickstarter and they’ll deliver lots of high quality films, and it sounds like maybe some variations of previous ones too. New55 also seem to be getting going again which is great.

I think we all need to give them the chance to settle into production and support them when we can, it’s pretty incredible that there are people out there who are willing and dedicated to keeping these beautiful formats alive.

I think there are enough polaroid addicts out there to keep buying film. Hopefully from that more people will see and appreciate it and shoot it themselves.

It won’t be many millions of packs a year like it has been previously, but hopefully enough to keep our cameras in film for a long time to come.
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Image: Adam Bell

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Image: Matt Smith

Matt, what cameras do you enjoy shooting for what purposes and why? Also tell us a little bit about your favorite film stocks.

MS: For pack film when I’m out and about I use a manual camera, as I prefer the control they allow compared to automatic exposure. I’ve got a 180, 195, Mamiya and a few I have made.

It often comes down to which ones have film in and how much stuff I can carry. If I’m out with the family it’s normally the smallest one! If I have more time or I am trying to shoot portraits I often use the speed graphic as working with that beast is lots of fun.

I mainly shoot expired polaroid film and I love any I can get my hands on.

If I could choose any type to find a case of somewhere, it would be 108 or 669 pack film because of the amazing blues and reds, time zero for my SX70 because that stuff really is magic, and 59 or 54 for my speed graphic.

Those films all give the iconic polaroid look that make us shoot this stuff in the first place, and for me are the films that work best for the images I am trying to create.

Saying all that, the fuji black and white peel apart is pretty amazing stuff too.

Matt, who are your inspirations when it comes to surf photography and photography overall? Who’s work did you grow up loving?

MS: My parents never took many photos, and really until I started shooting myself I didn’t think too much about a photo other than the skater or surfer or whatever it contained.

I am drawn to images that are a mix of action and landscape, rather than close cropped images of a surfer. This is probably partly because that’s really the only kind of images polaroids let you take, but also I appreciate seeing the whole scene and getting a feeling for the entire moment.

Now most of my inspiration comes from other polaroid photographers, and surf, snowboard and skate photos. There are way too many to mention them all. but they include Leroy Grannis, Joni Sternbach, Ron Stoner, Leo Sharp, Bastian Kalous, Ryan Tatar, Thomas Zamolo, Matt Georges, Matt Schwartz, Francois-Xavier Laurent, Adam Harriden, Al McKinnon, Arto Saari, Bernard Testemale, Atiba Jefferson and many many more.
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Image: Matt Smith

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Image: Adam Bell

Adam, what is the relationship between your filmmaking and photography? Have you made films on photography before? What do you enjoy about making films about photography?

AB: As kid I always enjoyed photography, but it never really went further than 110s, disposables and few second hand 35mm point and shoot cameras. I tried shooting skateboard photos with friends, but never got good results as you really need a manual set up. I never really had first hand contact with Polaroids, except for birthday parties or at a friends house. My first experience of peel apart was seeing tests shots brought home by skateboarding friends who were being shot professionally. A Polaroid back on a Hasselblad to get the set up right before the photographer shot film.

As soon as I found filmmaking I put all my energy (and money!) into learning and doing that. Going from 8mm video tape, to digital video tape and now several digital cameras deep. Across the time I have been interested in shooting video the technology has accelerated very fast. From those first 8mm tapes, to 4k or shooting super slomo on a live broadcast. At home I never had access to a cine or video camera, so I had no connection to those formats. For me it was always about better quality, larger resolution, digital workflow. The first file based edit I worked on was a revelation, no tapes! Of course everything is digital now. A lot of the work I do professionally is very fast paced. Filming on a live broadcast, cutting a news edit for delivery to a tight deadline shortly after the event.

Shooting analogue instant photos is the complete opposite to this, and I am really enjoying the process. It’s slow and the results are unpredictable and often far from perfect. Each single photo can work out expensive, the film is scarce and I don’t want to waste it, so I think more about each shot and don’t overshoot. The cameras are often awkward and heavy, but I am loving the challenge. I am able to apply what I have learned from shooting video to photography. From the basics of framing and composure, to how to expose the shot. I have worked with and owned many different types of digital camera. Several of them DSLR, so I have learned the principles of how to operate a manual camera. I recently bought a Polaroid 600se from Matt and it’s an amazing piece of kit, I’ve shot some of my favourite photos I ever taken on that, with expired film. Packing that beast into a bag next to my tiny full frame Sony always makes me laugh. It’s refreshing learning how to shoot a new format and how the different film types react to temperature as well as light. Luckily Matt has given me advice on the whole process, which cameras to look for, which film type gives good results, what expiry years to look for. So I feel like I have had an accelerated learning process because of this. I’ve shot hundreds of pictures and really happy with the results I’m getting. I try and shoot an instant photo most days if I can. Traveling for work has been inspiring as I’m often in really photogenic cities. I’ll always take a Polaroid camera with my video kit and once I’ve filmed what I need to, I’ll take some instant pictures. I’m also finding I shoot less digital photos or even snaps on my phone – it gets used more as a light meter these days.

Last summer I even managed to shoot some skateboard photos on polaroid that I’m happy with.

This is the first film I’ve made about photography, but I’m inspired to make more. I’ve got a few ideas that need some work, but hopefully it’ll be soon.

Adam, who are some filmmakers that have inspired you? Did you ever encounter any other work that inspired you to make this film specifically?

AB: I think I’ve honestly spent more hours obsessively watching skateboard videos than any other type of film. So they have all been a massive inspiration to me. I still have all the VHS tapes now! But I’d have to say Spike Jonze for his work on the Girl / Chocolate videos and later his music videos and films. Also Ty Evans, who shot the Transworld Skate films amongst many others. RB Umali for the Zoo York Mixtape film. The 411 Video Magazine has a lot to answer for as well, but that was a series with footage shot around the world by many different film makers and pieced together into a magazine format.

Some of my favourite films are documentaries. I discovered the photo book Spraycan Art by Henry Chalfant when I was about 9 years old and that had a big influence on me. I was obsessed with it and even used to take it with me to school to look through it at break times. It was years later that I found the documentary Style Wars which is produced by Henry Chalfant and directed by Tony Silver, made during the same era, documenting early Graffiti in New York, one of my all time favourite films. Dark Days by Marc Singer is also great, which documents the lives of homeless people living in subway tunnels in New York.

I cant say that any specific work directly inspired me to make this film, but I am definitely drawn to honest stories about people living in an unusual way or doing things that are not considered the norm and interacting with their environment.

Thanks again for doing this guys! Where can people find more of your work?

Adam:
www.adambellfilm.com / 
@adambellfilm

Matt:
www.instantsurf.co.uk / @instant_surf