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{ THE OSCARS }

The board members who loved 'Surf's Up'

The animated flick was a bit of a washout at the box office, but real wave riders gave it a thumbs-up. And now maybe Oscar will too.

February 17, 2008|Joel Sappell | Times Staff Writer

On one occasion, Quiksilver Entertainment, a partner in the film, supplied a surfer to show animators what it's like to nearly drown under a churning mountain of water. "He was a writhing ball on the floor," says Jenkins. "You absorb moments like that."

Going to the experts

In their early research, Jenkins and directors Ash Bannon ("Toy Story 2") and Chris Buck ("Tarzan") planted a table on the sand during a world-class surf contest at Trestles, just south of San Clemente, and interviewed surfers as they got out of the water. Former U.S. champ Machado says he didn't know what to make of the guys with tape recorders and odd questions.

"They told me they had this idea to make an animated surfing movie," Machado recalls. "I figured they were going to animate me. I walked out thinking, 'That was really weird. I don't get it.' They didn't ask about me. They were more interested in my feelings and emotions when I surfed."

But months later, when he was asked to be a consultant, Machado says, "it all made sense. They weren't just tapping into surfing as an avenue for a movie. They were learning about the surf culture and how it evolved."

By then, Machado's pal, eight-time world champion Slater, also had been recruited through his sponsor, Quiksilver. Together, the pair helped animators create dead ringers for waves at such legendary spots as Pipeline on Oahu and Mavericks near Half Moon Bay in Northern California. They described the physics of the waves, how the bottom influences speed, how the rider interacts with the tube.

"They wanted to do good by us and create something we could be proud of," says Slater, who with Machado and extreme-sports announcer Sal Masekela were later written into the movie as contest commentators for SPEN (Sports Penguin Entertainment Network).

No one was more obsessed with film's realism than John Clark, who led the wave animation team and recently won an Annie for his work. He grew up near Slater's home break in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and started surfing when he was 5. He never let up.

Clark considered the waves as important as any character in the movie and scoured surf videos and photographs for every conceivable angle. He was obsessed with guarding against visuals or story lines that would "make surfers groan."

"My goal," he says, "was to fight tooth-and-nail to 'keep it real.' "

One of the film's most dramatic -- and real -- moments is a wipeout scene in which the aspiring penguin champion is pounded and dragged under by a succession of dark, monster waves, modeled after Mavericks' dangerous break. Clark says he drew from experience. "I know what it's like to be annihilated by huge waves."

And by smaller ones.

During the film's production, Clark suffered a freak accident while surfing head-high waves in northern Malibu. The tail of his board sliced the bottom two-thirds of his eyelid, denting the eye itself.

"I scared everyone out of their wits," he says. "I was the only one animating waves at the time." But two surgeries and six days later, Clark was back at work -- and back in the water.

Clark says that although everyone was disappointed by the film's showing at the box office, the Oscar nomination "is confirmation that the movie is as good as we thought it was. . . . I wanted my part to be such that it was the one movie that came out of Hollywood that surfers really liked."

The dude got it right.

As the review in Surfing magazine put it: "For the first time ever, Hollywood doesn't make us want to quit surfing, it makes us want to go surfing."

--

joel.sappell@latimes.com

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