Meet the maker: Ian W. Thomson

Writer and Director of ‘Out In The Line-up’.

Originally published at SWELLNET.COM.


Swellnet is a proud sponsor of the inaugural Sydney Surf Film Festival (SSFF), a two week celebration of surfing on celluloid. Over the next fortnight we’ll be running interviews with the folk behind all the shortlisted feature films. First up is Ian W. Thomson, creator of ‘Out In The Line-up’. 

Swellnet:Tell us a bit about yourself.
Ian: I am originally an Aussie country boy, born a long way from the surf in Gunnedah, western NSW. But I ended up studying Arts in Sydney, then headed overseas for most of the next 20 years – London, Barcelona, Vienna, Hamburg. I met a German girl travelling, and had three wonderful sons with her. I have been working in design and advertising most of my career, but over the past 15 years I have been writing and directing plays and films. ‘Out In The Line-up’ is my first feature length documentary.

How did you get started in filmmaking and why? Did you study filmmaking formally or are you self-taught?
I took some filmmaking units at Sydney College of the Arts as part of my undergraduate degree in Visual Communications, then started directing promos and titles for TV. I become really interested in the storytelling aspects of filmmaking, so took a lot of short courses in acting, directing, scriptwriting, camera, lighting, data wrangling and interviewing etc from the Hamburg/Berlin Film School and AFTRS. After I wrote and directed my first play ‘The Garden Fence’ I was hooked on storytelling, but am very keen to explore this now over the medium of film.

How did your film come about?
I met David Wakefield [former state surfing champion and one of the main protagonists in the film] on a surfing trip to Byron Bay. That evening at The Rails pub, he introduced me to his mate Thomas Castets who had just set up the world’s first website for gay surfers []. Although I had been out as a gay man for some time after the breakup of my marriage, and was a keen but novice surfer, I never thought I could bring those two aspects of my life together. As Thomas told me of the many moving and emotive stories he had heard from people who has signed up to the site from around the world, I thought it was important to give these people a voice – and in some way, also find my own.

Where do you look for inspiration?
I love great stories. And am inspired by tales that speak to us empathically and stir our emotions. That can be a painting, a photograph, a book, a yarn, a play, a film – or many other things. I can find these on a grand stage, or in a suburban backyard.  I look for inspiration in things that spark my imagination and move the feelings within me.

“A good story usually involves a journey of some kind, and a struggle to achieve something that seems impossible. To see your protagonist rise and beat the seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve his or her goal is as stirring to an audience as it is to the subject of your film.”

How do you feel about your work being seen on the big screen?
When I walked into the first screening of our film on the big screen it was incredible. We had filmed scenes on a small camera, then edited them on a modestly sized computer monitor, so when I saw our film projected onto a screen the size of my apartment wall, it really blew me away. It made the whole experience of watching the film so much more immersive. Add to that, a captive audience, surround sound and a darkened room – it beats watching the film on a mobile phone, hands down.

What equipment do you use?
We shot most of the film on the Canon 5D. This amazing little camera shoots video that looks like film. We used a GoPro to get a lot of the underwater and surfing footage – and we recorded audio separately on the H4N Zoom recorder and synced visual and sound up in the edit suite. Important tools were the swivel head tripod, boom pole and reflector. I like to work with natural light as much as possible, but creating great images often involves careful planning around shooting at the right time of the day, and working effectively with the available light. The data wrangling was also a really important part of the filming process, especially as we were travelling with a small team with not much equipment.

What do you think makes a good story? How do you set about translating that onto the screen? What is your starting point?
A good story usually involves a journey of some kind, and a struggle to achieve something that seems impossible. To see your protagonist rise and beat the seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve his or her goal is as stirring to an audience as it is to the subject of your film. In our case it was David’s deep desire to be accepted by his surfing community and himself for who he really is. It is different making a documentary to making a drama, as you can’t control the elements that come together in the story. So after we had been filming a number of stories for over a year, I sat down in the edit suite with our brilliant editor, Campbell Wilson, and we drew up a 3 act structure then mapped out the hero’s journey in 12 stages into this on butcher’s paper on the wall. We then interwove characters and storylines, even if it wasn’t always the same character taking us all the way through. But I wanted the audience to feel that they were with us on the hero’s journey.

How much of the process do you think is creative and how much do you think is technical?
A film stems from an idea, and it is the story that makes it work. These are the most important aspects of a successful film. But of course you need the technical elements to make it happen. We were lucky that we were able to draw on some great filmmakers: cameramen & women, sound recordists, producers, assistants, editors – who worked on the film on a voluntary basis because they really believed in the message. Their contribution to actually getting the film made was crucial. Often the challenge in filmmaking is to overcome the hurdles of the amounts of money and resources you need for the technical implementation of your idea. But the struggle is worth it.

Where do you see the future of surf filmmaking going?
I think there is an incredible opportunity for surf filmmaking at the moment. I think audiences are getting a little bored with the traditional style of “surf porn” films – where two cool guys, take a beat up old car, drive to a beautiful place and surf some great waves. Surfing is so much more than that. The really interesting stories are when surfers open up to us about what is going on inside of them, their emotional lives. We want to hear of their struggles and doubts, their crisis and victories in life, not just the great surf spot they found and the awesome wave they rode. There is a change brewing, and I can only encourage surfers and surf-filmmakers more, to show us life on the inside.

What piece of advice do you wish you’d been given when starting out as a filmmaker?
Be patient. It takes time to develop an idea, research the subject matter, find the story. Filming went on for a long time, then the editing seemed to take forever. Be patient with yourself and the people around you. If you are all on board for the right reasons, you will get there in the end if you stay true to the vision of the project.

Any shout outs?
I have to say thank you to the producer Thomas Castets, whose vision and drive has pushed this project forward through times when we ran out of money and energy, found little support from the surfing community and seemed only faced with adversity.

Thanks to David Wakefield for his courage in telling his story. David is a quiet man, and I know he was unsure about being so public about his inner life. But I admire his honesty.

I would also like to thank all the people who appeared in, and helped make this film. There are so many of you. Your willingness to give of yourselves, your time, your ideas, your resources is what made it possible to get this film made. Let’s hope we can open some minds and some doors with it, and as David says at the end of the film “ so anyone who has a dream, can live that dream!”.

For dates and times of all screenings visit the SSFF website.