Surf’s Up is an animated mockumentary that is nearly pitch-perfect in the movies it spoofs — surfing films such as Riding Giants, and interview-on-the-spot sports documentaries in general.
But it has surfing cred, too. The waves and those who ride them look so right it’s scary — even if the surfers are penguins.
As critic David Edelstein says in New York magazine, “Kids won’t know how terrific Surf’s Up is.”
The surf of Antarctica and the fictional South Pacific Pen Gu Island is dazzling. But it had its origins in the milder-mannered waves of Florida’s east coast. That’s where Cocoa Beach natives Kelly Slater, the eight-time world champion surfer who consulted on and appears (as a penguin version of himself) in the movie, and animator and animated-wave specialist John Clark first hit the water.
“The movie got it all, from the `surf talk,’ which isn’t all over-the-top cliched, to the elements of the water, to how you look riding it,” says Slater, 35, marveling at the finished film. “The one thing that sticks in my mind is the way the palm trees in the background sway to the wind on a beach where you surf. Unbelievable.”
“You really have to be a surfer to get the shape of the waves and where the surfer would ride on the waves,” says Clark, 39, who grew up “in the water: Cocoa Beach, Indian Harbor Beach, that whole stretch of coast.”
What Clark wanted, working with Slater and his fellow Imageworks animators, was a surf look “that was really authentic. If somebody from the Midwest sees it, we want them to say, `Cool.’ But we wanted surfers from Florida, California, everywhere, to go `That’s awesome.”
Slater says that “learning to see, to read, a flat surface, when you’re learning to surf, is pretty hard.” That’s what Clark and his team were up against.
“My job was to figure out the wave science, to go over tons of reference materials and to find the actual shape of the waves, figure out how it is supposed to move, how a surfer would ride it and where the [nonexistent] camera is supposed to be that’s capturing this image,” Clark says. “What sort of surfing is happening on a wave that shape? Kelly came in early on to look at our waves, and he stood up and drew, on the screen, what the arc of the trough of the wave should be and how he’d ride it.”
Clark, an animation veteran, says that understanding how fast the water moves, “how fast the lip is moving, the curl, getting the physics right” allowed him to create those perfect waves for the penguins to ride.
“I did an animated spot on surfing for ESPN a few years ago, but this is the place where being a surfer really helped the animation,” he says.
Clark and Slater crossed paths many times in the water, growing up. Slater picked up the sport more than 25 years ago on the surf rolling into Cocoa. Clark was friends with Slater’s older brother, Sean, and “all of us knew, back when Kelly was 10 years old, that he was going to be a champion,” Clark says.
But a champion from Cocoa Beach? An upstart kid facing the scorn and confidence of “the big boys”?
Sounds a lot like the story of Surf’s Up. Slater can certainly relate to Cody Maverick’s climb to surf respect.
“When I started off, East Coast was frowned on by California surfers,” Slater says. “It’s flip-flopped, now. On the World Tour, we have more Florida guys than California guys on the water.”
Slater says that his years in the Atlantic off Cocoa Beach were the training he needed to make it big, “where you learn on small waves, long, slow four-foot waves where you can make more turns, do more stuff, spend more time on each wave and learn faster.”
And like Cody Maverick, the brash penguin surfer in the movie, Slater had his Big Z, the guru who teaches him not just about surfing, but how surfing relates to life.
“Tom Curran is a world champion, still around, still was a guy I looked up to, who sort of taught me how to take the surfing to the next level, but how to carry yourself, how to love what you do, even if you’re at the competition level,” Slater says.
“That used to be just a surfing thing, that `love what you do’ lifestyle,” Slater adds. “But you see people in my generation and younger really living it. It’s translated into all parts of life. That’s a great message for the movie to have because it’s kind of the best thing about surfing.”