Desert Surfers is a multimedia documentary piece made up of photographs, interviews and atmospheric sound effects taken whilst in Nevada, USA during the 2012 NABX (North American Buggy Festival).
Situated not far from the state that dissects California from Nevada, the Mojave desert swamps them both. A hot arid, cracked-earth expanse where temperatures soar in the daytime and plummet during the nighttime, documenting the life of a village of extreme sports enthusiasts brings its own challenges. Covered in pumice rather than sand, the terrain is tough on the electronics as it is on those who use them.
Taping up air intakes and cooling vents stops the pumice from destroying the insides of your camera but with the vents now blocked, overheating becomes a very real and immediate problem.
The solution? Shoot in the day and edit in the night at a nearby hotel 30km outside Las Vegas. Fortunately shooting on the hardiest of the Canon camera line-up (the Canon 1-D) with its excellent weather sealing, things only dusty without overheating.
In documenting the travelling annual caravan that makes up NABX, shooting with still photographs seemed the best way to go. Shooting on RAW with its inherently better post-production possibilities in dealing with extreme over-exposure to light and super dark shadows, it was also a quick way to measure the progress of the work and missing chapters that needed filling.
Capturing raw ambient sound was the next required character to bring the audience into the desert. When a desert wind appears out of nowhere, the audio detail of its buffeting gusts could easily disappear in a wall of crackly static. By properly shielding the microphones we were able to finally capture both the fury of a sand storm and the lull of a breeze that it left in its wake, thereby capturing the full range of the desert’s quietness and fury.
Leaving the festival-goers interviews to the later days of the event turned out to be an astute move. With the sandstorms backing off and many of the transient travellers breaking camp early, key figures and organisers were now also free to talk and assess the festival with an extra degree of hindsight.
“…Yesterday was just magic. It’s like everybody had a perma-grin. No one wanted to leave, y’ know? Even though the wind died, just everyone was seduced
by the setting sun and long shadows.”
Standing on the outside of a documentary it’s hard to imagine exactly in with direction a story will ultimately grow. It’s only when you been there, met the people and gathered up all their thoughts and feelings that you will know what kind of community portrait you have.
By painstakingly listening through interviews and assembling the imagery into a cogent, visual narrative, the story of these deserts surfers finally emerged in between the tracks of the edit. The clear narrator here was the wind. As it arrived it would change not just the circumstances of the shoot but the feelings of those being shot. Taking this as our ‘red line’, its arrival and interruptions became as much a character as those on tape.
Shot over ten days both at Harper Dry Lake Bed (California) and Ivanpah Nature Reserve in the Mojave desert (Nevada), a huge thanks must go out to event organiser Dean Jordan and all those who attended the event and were kind enough to speak to us.