Tim Bonython: On Filming 'Massive Monsters'

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Talking Heads

Friday February 25th was the biggest swell of the Nazare season. The morning started with clean conditions, which wasn't just ideal for the surfers but also for the hordes of photographers and videographers filming it.

For Tim Bonython, however, a subtle change in the weather meant a quick change in strategy, as filming Nazare at this size is as tricky and complicated as surfing it.

Tim chatted to Swellnet about the ongoing hunt at Nazare: the shot that will translate to viewers what's really happening in the water.

Swellnet: Whenever a Nazare video gets published there's always someone, and I'll admit it's sometimes me, saying "It's not a good looking wave. It's a burger".
Tim: Yeah, I've heard that a few times...

Yet every single person who sees Nazare in real life is astounded by it.
Agree. I first went to Nazare in 2015, and I stood in front of the lighthouse and went, "Fuck, this is unbelievable!"

I had to see it for myself. To see if it is that burger wave, but you go there and you can feel it, you can see it, it breaks so close it's in your face. It really is something special.

So that makes me think that something's not translating in the footage we're seeing, and does the thought ever cross your mind, that you guys - the filmmmakers and photographers - need to capture it better?
As a filmmaker, I think that the ultimate angle is a unique angle, right?

So you've got to do something special. To do that, there's no place better than being in the water...although there are some conditions where other angles work which I'll explain later...but you've got to tick a lot of boxes being out on a ski.

Two years ago when I was last there, I was out there all the time on the ski and there's a lot to cover. Firstly, your number one priority is you need a ski driver that knows the ocean better than anyone out there. You really need to know that the guy that you've got is someone who spends a lot of time in that line-up, and understands how it works out there. They don't just need to know the ocean, they need to know this ocean.

It's a unique wave. People can drive a ski round there, and they might be pretty good, but to put you in the spot, make you sit in the right angle for when the wave's coming at you, and then actually turn the ski into the wave a bit so I can follow that surfer down the line, coming past me, it's a unique job.

So there's a real art to driving a ski around?
Yeah. And then when you get caught inside you need to know which way you're going to go. You don't want to be going through 10-foot white water, and certainly not while holding onto a freaking 12 kilo waterhousing.

I've fallen in the water four times out there. One time I was scrambling to get my housing, and then I heard Nic [von Rupp] screaming at me, "Fuck the housing! Get on the fucking sled."

I just went, "Aw, shit." And luckily when that happened the housing didn't go to the rocks, it went into halfway, and Elmo came over and he grabbed it.

Nazare isn't like Jaws, Teahupoo, or Mavs, where you can set up in the channel and surfers come riding past you.
Yeah, getting the right angle is much more complicated. It's a very unique wave and it's hard to get a camera angle that really does it justice. The whole time you're out there the waves are moving around, so you don't really know if you're going to be in the right spot. And then suddenly you're in the wrong spot. I've seen lots of good waves missed by the filmers because they're just not sitting in the right spot.

Also, you've got to be mentally prepared to deal with a wave if something happens. It doesn't matter how good your driver is and how quick the ski you've got, if, say, you ride over some fishing nets. Like, it's a fishing town, you've got plenty of fishermen and they put their nets out around those rocks there, if the nets gets broken and washes through the line-up - which happens, I've got footage of it - if you go over that, the ski just stops and you're fucked.

So that's the worst case scenario?
You've got to be prepared mentally to deal with a possible 60, 70-foot wave on the head. How're you going to deal with that mentally..?

I reckon I'd already be dying before the first whitewater had hit me, you know? Because mentally that would freak me right out.

February 25th was the biggest and best day of the season. Tell us about shooting that?
You see in the video that the morning was super clear. Sometimes at Nazare, when you've got a really good offshore wind that blows the mist and spray out the sea, and the swell is big enough, like 50 feet or so, then I find the ultimate spot, is back up on the hill where you can bring the lighthouse into view. If the wind is from the north, which it often is, there's too much spray, and if it's below 50 feet then you see the surfers take off before they disappear behind the headland.

That last swell I had to get a permit to film from the school at the top of the hill. I thought, "Right, we're in the really sweet spot here. This is great". And then suddenly the wind stopped and I just saw this foggy air moving in past the farol [the lighthouse] and I'm like, "Oh, don't tell me the wind's changed."

It can go from really good to really bad real quick, and it can last three hours. A world-record wave could be ridden in that time, and if I'm up there I'd miss the shot, so I just said, "Fuck this, I'm packing the gear up."

I did it quietly, didn't say anything, then just raced down the hill with all my equipment and set up in front of the lighthouse where I knew that, maybe it's not the best angle, but at least I'm seeing things, you know?

Though there are negatives about that spot. When it gets that big, then you might have three waves, and the biggest wave could be the one in the back, and you might not see the surfer drop down the third wave because there's one or two waves in front that stops you from seeing it. 

So the best angle to shoot from changes all the time?
Once again, it's really determined by the conditions: the weather, the wind, and the swell size...and also the shot that you're looking to get.

For instance, during that last swell, Laurent Pujol, who's pretty much the man there, he's the most professional camera outfit, that's his job, he's got a ski and he was in the perfect spot for Mason Barnes. That wave looked seriously big, but then you look at the drone shoot by Tucker Wooding and it doesn't look very big at all. It just looks like a simple Nazare A-frame, it doesn't translate the same way that the water angle by Laurent Pujol does.

In May, Tim will tour his ASMF including 'The Big Wave Project: 2' - stay tuned for details


Philip Dewick's picture
Philip Dewick's picture
Philip Dewick Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022 at 1:58pm

Maya breaking down forecasting and what we can/can't predict was really good to listen to.

bluediamond's picture
bluediamond's picture
bluediamond Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022 at 4:27pm

Agreed about Mayas breakdown.
Great flick. Really enjoyed that.
Never bought into the mushburger/boring to watch thing.
Ive stayed up each time its been shown live.
I dont think crew realize how high that lighthouse sits above sealevel. 110m. Byrons sits 8m higher for comparison. Thats a long long way up and something to consider for scale. And like most giant days of waves anywhere around the world, it can be lully and hard to b patient enough to wait for some action. Probably something thats hard to capture is how all that converging energy runs out of water very quickly before it reaches the shore. So much energy just piling on top of itself as it gets shallower.
Tims pics have really been bringing some new perspectives and appreciation of the size.
Another photog worth checking out is @heidihansenphotography on insta. She also captures the power really well
Can imagine it'd b a nightmare to try to get a great shot w all the variables there especially the sea mist once it gets to a certain size.
Cheers to Tim for this great clip.

wally's picture
wally's picture
wally Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022 at 5:32pm

A very good edit of surfing footage and interviews.

A bit of a moment with the wave starting at 17:30.
Nic Von Rupp is having a good ride and then goes over the handlebars. He gets buried and then some time later reappears to enjoy a trip over the falls.

Lucas Chumbo does a very deft job with the jetski pickup.

dastasha's picture
dastasha's picture
dastasha Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022 at 6:13pm

I was admiring that pickup earlier today also.
Makes me see NVR in a different light

LeroytheMasochist's picture
LeroytheMasochist's picture
LeroytheMasochist Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022 at 11:17pm

Chumbo with the late fade and chop hop just below the lip. Would have been glad to stick that. Animal.
Portugese old boys society needs a mention also. Great vibe on this from Tim. Von froth always provides

simsurf's picture
simsurf's picture
simsurf Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022 at 9:30am

Two things can be possible at the same time. It is amazing to see such a large wave, the volume of water, the height etc., and it's also a burger that gets boring to watch after the 100th video watching guys go down a shoulder.

PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan's picture
PCS PeterPan Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022 at 10:55am

Yeah , I agree , just shoulder hopping eh !

simsurf's picture
simsurf's picture
simsurf Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022 at 12:28pm

I much preferred the last Jaws video on here, where at least they did turns, than going straight down every wave. Though obviously Tim does some great story-telling.

harrycoopr's picture
harrycoopr's picture
harrycoopr Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022 at 1:23pm

Everything has to be HYPERdramatic these days. YES it is a dramatic wave/place but do we need to hyperdrive. What about some Blondie or Dire Straits or something... Madness maybe! I for one am sick of the exaggodrama

epictard's picture
epictard's picture
epictard Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022 at 1:32pm

Dramatic sells; don't like it? don't watch it.
I am not sure about Blondie or Dire Straits, but Madness would add an interesting tone to it for sure.

epictard's picture
epictard's picture
epictard Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022 at 1:29pm

I wonder, why the skim-board, why would he not ride a board designed for the conditions instead of flailing his arms around just to keep his balance centred?

Great little movie, and great to hear a couple of 'I thought for sure that I was not coming up this time' stories to add a bit of gravitas to the day for the neigh-sayers. Someone will inevitably die, the real question is going to be how many before they start restricting the numbers in the water.

How terrifying to have your inflation vest deflate and still have sets approaching!!! I am with Tim if I were caught inside: "I reckon I'd already be dying before the first whitewater had hit me".

jetson.rover's picture
jetson.rover's picture
jetson.rover Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022 at 10:45pm

No one is ever going to get barrelled anywhere near the likes of what they have at Jaws and Mav's there.
And no one is ever going to paddle into it.
Does that qualify it as a burger by big wave standards then?

Bob Sacamano's picture
Bob Sacamano's picture
Bob Sacamano Thursday, 24 Mar 2022 at 9:19am

I agree with the sentiment above the intensity just doesnt translate to the viewer, well not me anyways. Its mind boggling big wave and amazing what the ocean produces here - but it's just so boring to watch people ski and try and outrun a foam ball. Burger it is.

dean maddison's picture
dean maddison's picture
dean maddison Thursday, 24 Mar 2022 at 7:58pm

If your sponsored enough and have the balls to have a serious shot at the biggest wave in the world, then you should have to surf all the way down that wave and at least ride out of the foam, as Joey would say.
Not get towed onto the shoulder at 60 k's and pull off before it got too serious. I think a surfer bottom turning with a hundred feet of wave above them is the person. The bottom of the wave is pretty clear at spots like Chopes and Cloudbreak and Jaws etc. No one bottom turns at Nazare where they measure the height of the wave from. I wonder whether some of these legends would put it out there at 25 ft Chopes or 60 ft Jaws. Just sayin".

loungelizard's picture
loungelizard's picture
loungelizard Thursday, 24 Mar 2022 at 9:17pm

yeah, I know.. accusing someone of shoulder-hopping (on a jetski) on a wave several orders of magnitude more than I have ever ridden, but I'm not making videos of myself, so..... shoulder-hoppers!