Surf Filming at Nusa Lembongan

Ever wanted a real filmmaking adventure?  Exotic tropical travel, danger, beauty and glory?  Well this could be your next project, but first, a word of warning: Rat & Dragon will not be responsible for injury, death or worse – kit damage – caused by attempting the following.  (Although we’ll totally claim the credit for any epic surf footage you score). Read on and get inspired, and hell yeah – get out there and do it – but don’t say we didn’t warn you…


A small and beautiful island rises up from some of the deepest seas on earth. It’s a type of paradise, and it’s called Nusa Lembongan.  It lies about halfway between the iconic islands of Bali and Lombok in the middle of the treacherous, whirling Lombok Strait. One particular beach on this island is fringed on its landward side by a small fishing and seaweed-farming village, and on its seaward side by a wide, coral reef lagoon.  The outer edge of the reef is colourful, jagged and teaming with sea life, and it points into the direction of a sumptuous ground swell – oceanic waves that have travelled the surface of the Indian Ocean, uninterrupted, from as far away as Antarctica, before colliding with the Indonesian Archipelago.


Where this reef and this groundswell come together, something quite incredible happens.  Wind direction, tide, swell and the shape and depth-profile of the reef conspire to create a powerful, hydrodynamic min-miracle – a near-perfect surf break – which barrels down the reef edge in flawless, fleeting slabs of hollow, crystal-clear Indian Ocean. Surfers call this type of mini-miracle a right hand reef break and named it Lacerations because that’s what happens when you surf it.  The power of the waves as they thunder into the razor sharp coral simply shreds skin like grated cheese if you’re in the impact zone.


Aside from the danger in it, there is nothing short of unsurpassable beauty too.  To a surfer, the scene is heaven – an opportunity to ride perfect waves, to feel like you’ve tuned into, and even mastered, the very nature of the universe itself inside a dynamic, hollow, seawater cavern as it rages around you.


To a filmmaker, it’s mind-blowing.  There is sensational beauty in the motion of clear blue prisms as they contort into perfect forms.  Tropical sunlight refracts inside, through and around ten thousand facets of seawater, in angles and directions that water can only exist in under tremendous forces, and never for more than a fraction of a millisecond, before it re-forms again and explodes. Add a surfer riding these perfect forms in sublime synchronicity, and surf filmmaking becomes a type of performance art of the highest order.


Filming surfers at Lacerations can be done in one of two ways.  The safe option is from a pontoon anchored in the channel beside the breaking waves.  You’ll need a boat to get yourself and your gear here, as it’s about 500m from the shore.  Locals will take you on an outrigger for a dollar.  Stash your kit in a quality dry bag and bring a dry towel.  A zoom lens at 200mm and higher is a requirement for tight shots from this angle, and naturally a tripod or steadycam.  The pontoon itself will of course be moving so keep this in mind.


The position of the pontoon is perfect for viewing right down the line – surfers will be riding directly towards you as the wave curls perfectly behind them, or closes around them completely.  It’s like looking down the barrel, quite literally (a hollow wave is called a barrel – riding inside the hollow wave is “getting barrelled”). From here, on a clear day, Mt Agung, a massive volcano on neighbouring Bali, entirely dominates the skyline behind the action.  It’s poetry of composition.


By far the most dynamic and engaging way of capturing surfers at Lacerations, however, is to get wet and swim out into the action.  DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS UNLESS YOU ARE AN EXPERIENCED SURFER YOURSELF.  As well as surf techniques, surfing “rules” and physical abilities surfers are likely to know or have, surf waves have readable predictability IF you know what you’re looking at. There are safe zones, currents, sections and rips that can keep you in the clear.  Likewise, there are places you just never want to be caught in.  Ever. So assuming you’re a surfer excited about shooting Lacerations, or you’re a strong, confident swimmer who plays by your own rules regardless of what any crazy Rat & Dragon says, or if you’re just keen to hear how we pulled this off, please read on.


You’ll obviously need a camera with waterproof housing.  We simply used a GoPro on a “selfie” pole.   Set to 60fps, 1080p, you can slow the action right down to get incredible images of tumbling, exploding, vertical and over-vertical water. For us, the real magic on screen came from filming from within the wave itself.  Showing a fish’s-eye view of the surfer, crouched and speeding through a raging tunnel of water  (getting barrelled) from inside the wave.  The surfer is slotted inside a tube of crystal seawater, as if in command of his own twisted air bubble under the sea.


Shooting with a wide lens for optimum dynamic feel, you need to get as close as possible to the surfers.  There’s countless inherent risks in this – not least that the surfer is moving at great speed on a sharp, pointy piece of fibreglass with sharpened, rigid fins on the back.  He or she is also going to be at the most powerful part of the wave, only a split second or so away from the moment that part of the wave pitches over and smashes into the shallow, razor-sharp coral below.


To get in this position, you need to be just outside of the impact zone and directly down the line from the surfer’s take off point. There will be steady currents dragging you into the impact zone so you need to keep constantly swimming outwards.  As a surfer approaches, hold your ground with camera rolling until the wave’s lip is almost pitching out over you.  Dive down into the wave (duck dive) but keep the camera pointed at the surfer.  The pole will allow the camera to be in position longer than you are safely able to be.


Another word of warning on this – the water at Lacerations can be extremely shallow.  Be careful not to dive too deep and hit the coral.  On the other hand, don’t dive too shallow and risk being hit by the surfer.  There’s an extraordinarily thin line between the two, and even with the years of surfing, freediving and ocean living experience that we have, chance probably still played as much a part in the Rat & Dragon crew not getting injured as positioning and technique at these critical moments. Remember, even when completely submerged, keep the camera panning on the surfer for as long as you’re able.  The water at Nusa Lembongan is often so dazzlingly clear that you can film the surfer riding off into the distance through the wave as it passes over you.


Lastly, a word on your subjects – surfers.  For this project, the Rat & Dragon crew had a team of talented athletes from Mojo Surf, Australia’s biggest surf school and surf experience providers.  Not only were they willing subjects, but they were positively excited about getting into frame and show surfing in it’s greatest light.


Having your own willing team of surfers to shoot is the only way to do it.  An unknown videographer flailing about in the surf will be less than welcome or even actively discouraged by surfers in the line-up.  You could become an annoyance or even a danger to the surfers (or yourself) if you’re in the wrong spot.  And surfers you’ve never met  – like anyone – may not appreciate having a camera in their faces while they’re getting about their own business. If you don’t have a team yet, don’t let that stop you.  Once you’re on location, get talking to groups of surfers on land and see if any are keen to have some images of themselves.  You’ll more than likely find some willing subjects.  Just make sure you have a solid rapport first.  Everyone’s enjoyment, and maybe even safety, depends on it.


Being the Rat & Dragon’s first surf assignment, we were really lucky to score good-sized waves and incredible water and light conditions with some really cool crew.  Nusa Lembongan’s Lacerations is such a cool surf break to shoot in stunning location and we managed to get away with only minor coral scratches as the price to pay for some for awesome video content.  Get there now, have fun, but play safe. If you’ve shot or are planning to shoot at Nusa Lembongan, please get in touch with us!


And if you’re curious to see what it all looks like, check out MojoSurf Bali & Beyond wrapped into a wonderful 2 minute package: