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A few weeks back, if you’d got wind of it around the Byron underground, a special film screened at the Community Centre on Jonson Street. Over 50 years after it was originally shot, George Greenough’s groundbreaking Echoes was shown, digitally remastered, the door proceeds going to feed the homeless. George wasn’t there of course. He’d bailed back home up the hill by the time they dimmed the lights. The vertiginous, cross-dimensional epic had begun life as a nine-minute closer to George’s earlier film, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun. Then, in a cosmic alignment, the band members of Pink Floyd happened to watch the movie while on tour in Sydney and sought George out. They struck a deal to use George’s footage projected behind their live shows. In return, George got to use their 22-minute prog rock epic, Echoes, and promptly set to work shooting a short film of the same name. The signature sequence was shot at Lennox on a rare, long period east-south-east swell, George riding a mat with his camera shooting over his shoulder. Nobody had ever managed to capture the view inside the tube, certainly not like this. It was a technical feat, a cinematic feat… a pure surfing feat. Only George could have shot it. This is the story of how he did it.
George Greenough: “In 1970/’71 I was shooting Echoes. I had bought a 1955 Humber Super Snipe for $100 in Sydney after getting off the plane. I took the back seat out and built a bed in the back. I also built a couple of hatches in the bed so I could keep the camera and camping gear out of the way. I lived in the car camping at Lennox point or along Seven Mile Beach. You can see this car parked on Lennox Point in one of the water shots in Echoes where I am swimming with the camera filming a wave going by. The night before the swell hit I was driving out along the bottom to spend the night at the end of Lennox Point. It was wet and the car slipped off the track and was bogged, leaning over at an angle. I slept partially on the side of the car that night. Up at first light, wind offshore, looking at the surf, new swell. I had never seen Lennox look like this. Very long period swell coming out of the east-south-east. Sets from the swell hitting every 10-to-15 minutes. In between these sets it was three-to-five feet normal Lennox and there was nobody around.
“The long period sets were too big for the point and were breaking way out off the cove, south of Lennox Point. Running across the outside, backing off and then reforming into a very hollow thick tube running down the bank. The water running back down into the face off the bank. Very long period swells like this – which was over 20-second period – are extremely rare on the east coast and are very powerful for their size.
“The camera weighed 17 pounds. There was no way that I could take off on the spoon with the camera in surf this big and hollow. I needed a spot with an easy take-off where I could get going and set up the shot. So I remounted the camera on the backpack so it was looking over my shoulder and I could use the mat – a four-pontoon Hodgman that I bought from All American Sporting Goods store in the States. With the mat’s flotation I could catch the wave easier. The problem with the mat in waves of this size is control. There is no fin or edge to help it hold in and I had to be deep so the camera’s vision doesn’t show me or the mat. Just your point of view to look like you are riding the wave as I am behind the camera, the camera looking over my shoulder down the line.
“I took one of the reforms on the inside, didn’t get very far as the wave was black with sand and over-running me, pulling me out the back with the mat. I watched the next set hit the outside off Red Rock. Even with the extra flotation of the mat there was no way to make the take-off. The face was going past vertical, pushing out double its height in the slab section. Even if I took off wide of the slab section I don’t think that I could have made the take-off. It was too big and steep. The only thing that I could do was paddle past Red Rock further south until I was off the coast, south of Lennox Point. But way out. The take-off was easier out here, the wave had a lot more face in it and it was bigger. I could’ve taken off with the camera on the spoon out here.
“I took the largest wave in the next set. This set was perfect, not a drop of water out of place. I wasn’t going to film this part of the wave, just use it to get going and build speed to set up the shot and trim through the tube off Red Rock. There was enough film in the camera for two takes if I didn’t film the outside and just filmed the hollow part outside Lennox Point. But the outside was too good, and as I moved up into the pocket I switched on the camera.
“There was enough film for one take if I let the camera run for the length of the wave. The wave backed off a bit as I headed for the outside off Lennox Point. The mat started to slide. I almost lost it but recovered it and lost a bit of speed, which put me deeper than planned. I could see the wave running down the line ahead of me starting to go square in the slab section. When you see the film you can see it drawing off the bottom there as well. Looking up at the section of the lip pitching out ahead of me, the face going past vertical and pushing out double its height ahead. At this point I am not surfing for the camera anymore… I am surfing to make the wave. You can see how much the camera is looking into the face of the wave, how much I am drifting. I pushed the mat to 99 per cent, right to the absolute edge of its performance envelope. If I hit a 101 per cent, I would lose it and will not be able to recover it.
“I am low trimming along the bottom through the slab section, the wave past vertical, coming out of the slab section… coming back to 95 per cent and starting to move up the face. You can see the camera’s view change, looking more down the line as I am not drifting as much and surfing for the camera. The tube changed shape ahead, there’s more face and looking more like something you would draw at school. I am moving up the face as I want to come in high into the third part. The wave is starting to run off into deeper water. At this point the wave spat, fogging the lens with fine spray as I climbed higher, coming out of the tube, staying high in the pocket. The wave backing off as it hit deeper water as I pulled out over the top, my arms shaking from the rush.
* * *
“Shutting off the camera I knew I had the shot and didn’t take any chances getting in. The next day I went to the Lennox Head post office and sent the film away for processing. A week later I picked up the processed film at the post office and had a look at it. It was unbelievable. Anybody who shoots stills or movies has a fantasy about getting the ‘hero’ shot. This shot exceeded any fantasy I had. I was so lucky to get it with only enough film for one take. When I edited Echoes I used the shot from the outside and then an earlier part, then the ‘hero’ shot close to the end of the film. Pink Floyd did a really good job with the music, building in intensity as I trimmed through the tube.
“I used the same lens and camera that I used to film Coming of the Dawn, the ending part of The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun. The camera was an old military camera that was pretty worn out when I got it. It ran up to 200 frames per second. I had a small battery pack in the underwater housing. This was good for short takes on a shot that was as long as the big wave in Echoes. It was running out of power towards the end of the shot, the camera slowing down as the voltage dropped towards the end of the wave. It looks like I am going faster as the camera slows down. When I first switched on the camera it was running close to 200 frames on the very outside per second. Towards the end of the take, less than 150. When I was close to the end of the wave I could hear it slowing down with the voltage dropping. The lens was an ex-military lens, 3.5mm – F1.5. I needed a very fast lens, the film stock was 7255 with an ASA rating of 16, which was slow. I needed the speed for shooting in the early morning or late afternoon. This lens was modified by Century Optics, originally being a 170mm fisheye lens which produces a round image on 16mm film. Century Optics changed the shape of the optic to a large circle in the lens cover so it reached the size of the 16mm frame. I wanted to get as close as possible to our vision. The enlarged circle produced an oval shaped picture top and bottom of the large circle cut off by the shape of the 16mm frame.
“Scott Welsh is in charge of the restoration of both Echoes and The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun. Ray Argall of Piccolo films did the 4K scan of Echoes. He is one of the top guys in Australia who does this type of work. I decided to go with the original format of 4:3 instead of 16:9. With 4:3 you can see more of the top and bottom of the wave. This was the original format Crystal Voyager was shot in for the 35mm –16:9 blow up for general viewing in theatres.
“Scott, Wardie, Steve Shearer and I watched Echoes at the Byron community centre theatre. This theatre has been upgraded and is a really good place to see films with the larger screen and 5:1 sound. To see the 4K scan that Ray had done of Echoes from the A and B rolls was unreal. Scott took notes of any changes that needed to be addressed with the colour, balance, or sound. I couldn’t believe how sharp the film was. Normally when you see a projected film print it’s a copy off a production negative. Which makes it a copy off a copy and it’s never going to be as sharp as the original. The 4K scan is off the original. Going through the big tube it was so intense, in the heaviest part of it I didn’t hear the music, I just felt the energy from it. The 4K scan showed detail that I had never seen in a way particularly along the bottom of the wave. You could see it drawing off the bottom and the slab section coming down the line where I kept thinking I was too high in the wave.
“After the show I realised that the camera was higher than my eyes were looking over my shoulder. It was like I had never seen it. Using the 4:3 screen shape instead of the 16:9 widescreen format showed more detail in the top and bottom that was cropped out in the 16:9 widescreen format.
“This tube was shot over 50 years ago; I wonder how many people have seen it in the last 50 years and how many more will see it in the future?”