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Welcome to ANI-MATOGRAPHY! A series in which I examine the cinematography and camera tricks employed in some of your favorite animated films!
Subject: Surf’s Up
Studio: Sony Pictures Animation
Year of release: 2007
Directors: Ash Brannon and Chris Buck
Misc. Info: Second film from Sony Animation.
Eight years before the smash hit success of a little film called Frozen, Chris Buck teamed up with animator/artist Ash Brannon to co-write and co-direct what became the second film from Sony’s then new animation division. That film in particular was Surf’s Up.
Surf’s Up is the kind of animated film that I wish Sony Animation made more often. Looking back, it actually felt (and looked) more unique than some were initially willing to give it credit for. This is all due to the way the film was shot and edited, and how that particular camera style accentuated the humor and the timing of the jokes (in addition to serving as an extension of the film’s overall tone and execution).
Gimmicky in Concept, Perfect in Execution
While Surf’s Up does tell (for all intents and purposes ) a very traditional underdog story, it does so in a way that feels very ‘real.’ Even though we see talking animals here, the ways they interact with each other were written to feel human and relatable in the best way possible. Even the humor has a level of sophistication to it, and it all comes from the interactions and personalities of the characters. This extends to the film’s cinematography, which uses all the handheld techniques that one normally sees in real life documentaries. This gives the world of Surf’s Up a more dimensional breadth and feel.
This is intentional, as the filmmakers apparently went out of their way to motion capture a physical camera operator’s movements. Despite that this was effectively a ‘mockumentary,’ the fact that Chris Buck and Ash Brannon were adamant in treating the film like a real documentary pays off dividends in every way possible. In other animated features, the camera often tends to zip around everywhere, with whiplash-inducing movements that are made in an attempt to keep the viewer’s attention. Here, the camera’s movements are just as natural as the characters are. Not once does the camera ‘break character’ and go for the usual bag of tricks. With the exception of key moments (like some of the surfing sequences), the camera stay fixated and committed to creating the intended feel of a documentary.
A True-Blue Documentary
For example, notice how the camera (for a good majority of the film) keeps at a certain ground level with the characters and generally stays there. This is unique for animated films, as it further accentuates the characters and what they do. When Lani brings an unconscious Cody in for Geek/Big Z to inspect him, we don’t really stay in one area, or ‘float’ in place, while the scene happens so much as we follow the in-universe camera operator as he begins to walk around the characters while it all plays out. Speaking of the ‘camera operators,’ the film keeps up the documentary feel as it occasionally make the viewer aware of the cameramen. This is accomplished by way of the character interviews or general interactions (like Tank giving the filmmakers a look at his trophy collection). The film even does a good job of bringing in certain things one would think would be difficult to pull off well in animation and making them work (archival footage, slowly zooming in/zooming out, etc.).
But the biggest props I have to hand to Surf’s Up is the way it accomplishes (and perhaps even perfects) the ‘shaky-cam’ aesthetic in feature animation. Again, it’s something that gives the world a sense of depth. It even nails the imperfections of shaky-cam movement (not being able to fully capture each and every movement of the characters, for example). However subtle the shaky-cam is throughout each scene, it’s another way to let us know that there is a person behind the camera at almost all times.
Slipping Out (Without Breaking Mood)
But, even with all the stylistic points of reference I pointed out above, Surf’s Up still comes out to hit all the tonal beats that one would expect. And that’s where the surfing sequences come in. Fortunately, the filmmakers were smart enough to still carry over some base techniques while they let the camera slip into ‘action mode.’ As a result, the surfing sequences in Surf’s Up manage to have a feeling of scale and weight to them. Whenever we cut to a forward-facing angle on Cody, as his board lifts up on the wave, the viewer can really kind of feel that sense of adrenaline. When the big wave comes down near the end of the final sequence (with Cody and Big-Z on the rocks), the viewer really does feel dwarfed . Also, extra points for the fact that the characters are never lost in the action.
Putting the action aside, the filmmakers also know when to break from documentary form when absolutely necessary. This leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the whole entire film (which oddly enough, is right at the very end). When Cody and Big-Z swim inside the funnel or the ‘cone’ of the big wave, we are treated to this idyllic, almost artful representation of the sheer and utter joy of what it’s like to surf and what it’s like to be caught up in one of those moments. Even though it’s a week after I watched this film, that scene still lingers in my head.
An Underrated Experiment
As I alluded to above, Surf’s Up draws heavy inspiration from what could be considered a sub-genre of surfing documentaries. As a result, Surf’s Up is very much about surfing and the culture around it. Even as it functions as a parody, it still feels genuine in its subject (to the point where in almost becomes a ‘loving’ parody). All the aesthetics and techniques employed with the camera really do help to cement this idea.
Like I said at the beginning of my article, Surf’s Up is the kind of animated film I wish Sony Animation made more often. But now that I look at it, I actually wish that this was the type of film that the animation industry gave us more of, even just once in a blue moon.
Surf’s Up is now available on DVD/Blu-Ray and all digital platforms.
That does it for our analysis of Surf’s Up! Next time, we’ll look at the old school cinematic trappings of Paramount Pictures’ The Adventures of Tintin!
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned (I promise the next one won’t take me as long)!
Do you have any thoughts on what was covered in this article? If you have any suggestions for movies I should cover, leave them in the comments below!
Previously on ANI-MATOGRAPHY:
–How to Train Your Dragon 2
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes