Makers: Kev Smith, Growing
Growing, the acclaimed Line 9 YouTube show about Irish surfer Fergal Smith's life on the west coast of Ireland, is a very unusual sort of surf web series.
While much of the attention has quite rightly focused on Fergal's incredible surfing and his righteous efforts to establish the Moyhill Community Garden, Growing as a series is really the vision of his brother, filmmaker and photographer Kev Smith (left).
As Season One draws to a close, we thought it would be a good time to find out more about Kev's background as a filmer, what is was like growing up and surfing on Ireland's west coast, and the ideas and inspirations that went into making Growing such a unique series.
Where are you from in Ireland?
We’re from County Mayo, about 3 miles outside of Westport on the west coast of Ireland. We grew up on a little farm. I was born in Dublin where my Mum and Dad lived for a little while. My Dad’s originally from London and my Mum’s from Belfast and they met doing charity work in Dublin where they got married and lived for two years. They went on honeymoon to Mayo and I think they just loved being by the sea. Dad was a mechanical engineer for Phillips and they offered him voluntary redundancy he took on a run-down hundred year old cottage in Mayo with three and a quarter acres of land. He decided to grow veg – he'd never done it before and didn’t have a clue. That’s when Ferg and my sister Emer came along and that’s where we grew up.
How did he get on?
It was hectic for Dad because he was raising a family while learning how to grow organically from books. Nobody else was doing it organically, and there was a few years of set up - turning green fields into raised beds. It was so intense with the farming that the only way to switch off was to leave the farm and go to the sea.
Is this when you were first introduced to surfing?
Yeah. My Mum was keen for us to go to Achill so we went there every weekend which is an hour’s drive from the house. My parents bought a mobile home and that’s when we were first introduced to the sea. I’d have been ten and Fergal would have been eight when we first started surfing with my Dad. We had a second hand board from a surf rental place. It wasn’t a surf school, just a guy with a few boards really. The three of us shared that board at an amazing beach in Achill called Keel which had long peeling waves. It was a great beginner spot. Me and Ferg fought over the board until I got my own board for Christmas one year, and then we began to fight over that until Fergal got a board too, and we became addicted. It's funny thinking back to then. We were the only people on the beach, so we hadn’t really seen other surfers and didn't really know what we were doing. I mean, we used to put the leash on the front foot because we thought that’s where it should go.
It sounds like you were working it out for yourself.
Completely. We literally didn’t see surfers for the first couple of years. Of course there were surfers in the popular surfing towns all over Ireland but we only knew our little beach in Achill.
When did you start meeting other surfers?
It changed one winter when it was very stormy and we didn’t go to Achill. Instead we went to a surf spot called Carrownisky and met some guys there. We got to know them, started getting lifts from them and improved quickly - this was about the time we got our first customised boards.
We were pretty self-sufficient though - we started exploring the local spots. Like, Easkey is only two hours on the bus. You could surf for about two hours before getting the bus back if you wanted to do the trip in a day. We'd get so excited driving down the coast as you were up high on the bus and could see the waves. Or we'd go on camping missions for the weekend. We were quite innocent really. There were some really big days at Easkey Left where me and Fergal didn't feel good enough and had so much respect for the other surfers that we'd just watch. Like, 'No. We're just not good enough'. Ha ha.
Getting your driving licence must have changed everything?
Yeah, completely. We could travel around the whole of Ireland going wherever we wanted, rather than begging for lifts and asking permission from our parents. We went on missions where we would camp in the car for two or three days – we would put the back seats down and put towels over the windows. That was when it went from being more than just fun - figuring out turns and cut-backs and really progressing.
After that I went travelling around New Zealand for a year and surfed loads. Before I left we had started surfing some heavier waves, like Black Spot Left, but by the time I was back Ferg had stepped up a notch. Before, we were both quite equal in difficult conditions but by the time I was home he was thriving. Then I went to college to do a degree in mechatronics - mechanical and electrical engineering. That was the year he got really good.
"I learned everything I know about filming from the internet".
Was this about the time you got into filming and photography?
We used to go to Scouts when we were younger and go hiking (left). I had a camera and took photos of our treks all the time. I have shoe boxes and shoe boxes of old photos. It felt really natural and I loved it. When we began surfing in Achill, we bought a video camera and started taking footage of ourselves, purely to improve our surfing. We’d just leave it on the tripod and take hours and hours of footage that I still have. I loved the breathtaking scenery too, and it was just magical to be able to capture it. I really enjoyed the photography but filming was necessary to improve our surfing.
When did you start taking it more seriously?
I went to Australia for a year, and when I came back Fergal would tell me about the amazing waves he'd surfed with nobody there to film, which felt like such a waste. At the same time, he was getting opportunities to be in films. Like, Analog were making a team movie with people like Nathan Fletcher and Koby Abberton. It didn’t work out because the person they wanted to use to make the film was out of the country. At that point Ferg helped out - he knew I had always wanted to film so he hired me to do it and bought me my own camera including a 50-millimetre lens and water housing.
From then on I filmed and we took it really seriously. Even though I was new to the filming I think I only missed one session that year. The footage didn’t end up going into the Analog edit because it wasn’t suited to their vibe. They said they would do an Irish Analog edit featuring our footage but then they went bust! So we used the footage to make Fergal’s first proper winter clip which was released a couple of years ago.
Is that when you realised you could make a living from it?
Not really, because filming came so naturally to me that it didn’t even feel like work. Ferg covered my costs that year. No surf film-maker is going to be super rich but you can certainly get by. I mean, you can supplement your income with other jobs like promotional videos or even weddings. I just considered myself lucky to be able to do it. Digital cameras had just become good enough quality to use if you were willing to pay a grand and a half. Digital cut out a lot of the heartache that would have come with using film. It makes it very easy to learn and I watched a lot of YouTube for inspiration. I thought about going to college to do photography and film but I couldn’t face another four years, so I learned everything I know from the internet.
So you said before that you went to college initially because you didn’t think it was possible to make a living from something you enjoyed and that it felt like ‘cheating’?
It felt like everyone was working really hard doing office jobs whilst I was just filming my brother surfing as if it was an extended holiday. It felt like a cop-out! There was this massive sense of guilt having been programmed to follow a certain path at school when in reality I should have just followed my instinct. But I'm really glad I did college because now I really appreciate my life choices and the opportunities I get in doing what I love. Maybe if I had stuck with it from the start I wouldn’t have taken it so seriously.
How did Growing come about?
Ferg used to do winter seasons in Ireland and travel to places like Tahiti for the summer. Then he took a couple of summers off and really enjoyed growing veg at home. He still travelled but it was not quite so full on. For some reason we decided to shake it up and mix some gardening with some surfing because lots of surf videos just follow the same formula. We did one surfing/growing combination video (right) and it got a really good reaction so we thought we’d do a few more. Then Line9 started up their YouTube channel with the idea of following four different athletes from four different disciplines - a surfer, a skateboarder, a snowboarder and a BMXer. They were looking to do a reality series that captures each of their lifestyles for a year. Fergal’s name came up as at the time he had the highest profile of any surfer in Europe. He agreed to do the series and asked me to film it.
So Fergal decided on a bit of a lifestyle change?
He’d done so many years of back-to-back back surfing and travelling. He’d had enough of being on the road so it suited him to tone it down and we had been planning to do a couple of edits anyway when Growing came along. We had already got ten videos lined up in our heads and it didn’t take us long to come up with another ten, so we had a rough outline of the episodes we wanted to do. It wasn’t scripted but we had some idea of topics – if Fergal wanted to buy some pigs I’d just jump in the van with him and we’d film it and wouldn’t even tell people we were going to be filming. The visuals and the audio will have suffered due to that approach but on the up side it meant that it was completely natural. We didn’t make a big deal out of it and doing it that way meant we captured the energy of every situation.
Was that difficult for you as a film-maker?
It was really frustrating at the start because I was completely new to it and had never even worked with audio. I wanted to get everything set up so it was sharp and in focus with good audio and do a couple of takes so it was how I’d been seeing it on YouTube. Then I realised that wasn’t working because Fergal and the people we were interviewing felt uncomfortable and camera conscious with that filming style. Instead we decided to just try to capture the vibe, and if the audio wasn’t really working we'd just do a voice-over. Natural enthusiasm and reactions seemed to work much better.
What set up have you used to film Growing?
All the surf stuff was filmed using a Canon 7D, a tripod and a 100-400-mill lens. I also have water housing and a 50-mill lens. I recently got a fisheye but for Growing it was mostly done on the 50-mill. For all the interviews and general day-to-day chats I shot with a Canon 5D Mark II.
What about the music? You use local musicians, right?
We wanted to use the series as an opportunity to help all of our friends. That’s why we visited Eamon making his spoons, starting up his own business - it’s a really cool idea using wood that’s already fallen to make spoons and plates and bowls. One of our friends does renewable houses, and we worked with other friends who play traditional music and they are still finding their way, like us. Lots of them are architects or engineers like me but decided to do what they really wanted to do. Almost every episode uses music from people we knew or through friends-of-friends. It was amazing that our friends would do that without getting paid and we really appreciate it. It really added to the vibe we were going for and we were really passionate about getting that sort of sound.
What was your favourite part of the series?
There are so many, but my favourite is episode five - Fergal’s Quiver. It’s a bit of a selfish one because I know I put more time into it visually. It was the first proper go I'd had with the drone and it turned out well. I also liked the last one we did to tie up any loose ends and finish up Season One. Eamon’s one was nice but the edit was horrible because it was the first one I did with my broken leg. I can’t even watch it now without thinking about the pain from my broken leg. Even the first episode is nice to look back on because we had no idea what we were doing at that stage. There are so many that I can’t really remember, but Ferg's Quiver definitely stands out the most for me.
Ah yeah, you broke your leg halfway through filming didn't you? How did that happen?
There was a nice little swell so I thought I'd go for a quick surf. I’d done my hour of yoga that morning and drunk lots of water so I was feeling really springy and energetic. The waves were about shoulder to head high – nice peeling lefts. I'd been surfing for forty minutes and had caught about fifteen or sixteen waves. I was having a great surf, and on this wave I was approaching the shallow middle section, waiting to see if it was going to close out. It held up and I went out onto the shoulder, pushing as hard as I could.
I did this big roundhouse cutback and I was just about to hit the white water when I totally torqued around my whole body with my back knee really low to the board. I still don't really understand how it happened. I just felt this snap, like a breaking piece of chalk, just where my shin is. I thought ‘Oh it feels like my leg’s broken, but it can’t be’ and then I fell off and looked at where my knee should be and my foot was floating right beside it. My tibia had snapped in two and my fibula was fractured as well. There was completely no connection, and I was about seventy five metres from shore in about shoulder height waves.
How did you deal with it?
I knew I just had to get out of the water. The pain was next level. I lay on the board and got the next whitewater wave in and my foot was hanging off the back with the bones grinding against each other. Because it was low tide there was ankle high water for another fifty metres that I had to crawl through, because I obviously couldn’t stand. My leash was attached to my broken ankle and I couldn’t get it off, so I had to crawl forwards, throwing the board in front of me as I went. Then I had to drag myself up a steep bank of rocks. Yeah, pretty intense! I kept thinking it was the worst pain I'd ever feel and then a few seconds later it would just double. I was screaming but nobody could hear me and people in the surf hadn’t even noticed. I must have been there for about forty minutes before someone found me and rang an ambulance which took an hour to arrive. I got stretchered off around the shore and got some morphine when we finally got to the ambulance.
Let's talk about the creativity in what you do. Do you prefer film or photography?
I like doing both really. I really love photography because you capture a moment and you can take your time to compose your shot really well. Photography is rewarding because you can share an image with someone instantly, and either they like it or they don’t, whereas with footage you can’t just show someone a clip because of the time it takes to watch. With any good footage, especially with surfing, it has to be framed perfectly and the surfer has to make the wave. With photography, if they fall off it doesn’t matter because the frame before it looks amazing, but with footage generally it’s not a keeper if they fall off or if you shake the tripod. Filming seems like a lot more work and you can get a lot more out of photography, but when I did a photography job I decided I actually I prefer the filming. Ha ha.
When you are filming or taking photos what exactly is it you are trying to capture?
I really like filming waves of consequence because surfers are putting their lives on the line and its super critical. To capture that moment of exploration is amazing. I am still super stoked on small waves but with the big stuff they are massively putting themselves at risk. The energy around those waves is hypnotic – it’s hard not to watch it!
Would you rather film or surf on a perfect day?
If it was my only chance to do it ever again – surf.
"I really like filming waves of consequence because surfers are putting their lives on the line and its super critical. To capture that moment of exploration is amazing. The energy around those waves is hypnotic – it’s hard not to watch it".
How do you prepare for a day in some of the waves that Fergal surfs? How challenging is that?
If it’s really crazy I’ll stay on the land and use my long lens to stay dry and safe. I don’t have a heavy water background like other people who are also really good bodyboarders. I have surfed Riley’s on small days but to film out there for me I’d need to get psyched up because it’s not my natural arena. If there are normal point breaks or nice hollow barrels, grand - but when it’s heavy it takes a bit more effort. You try not to think about it too much but also you have to be aware of your abilities and your limitations because you don’t want to get hurt. It depends on if it’s clean and you can see your spot. You can assess the condition on the day.
I mean, I prefer to swim than be on land because it’s so much more enjoyable in the water as you feel like you are part of the waves and you get a buzz off it. On the land you aren’t getting the same fitness. If there is a day where I think it’s doable, I will definitely get in the water. I am kind of sensible with it - I sit back, line it up with the shore, have my 15-mill fisheye lens in and feel the reef with my feet. That’s when you know you are in the right spot, but I am definitely not the best water person. At the moment I am using it as my rehab - going in the sea filming anybody and it’s so nice to get in there again.
I saw a comment on Instagram that said Growing was the most inspiring documentary in surfing … you must be pretty stoked to hear that?
Yeah it’s awesome we’ve had great feedback. The main interaction I get is online and the feedback really spins me out. But even now, when I make them, I try not to think about people looking at them.
Is there anything that you haven’t captured yet that you would like to?
I would have liked to have shown more camping and hiking because we've walked most of the mountains in Ireland – or all the good ones anyway. That was one on the list that we never got to do because of my injury. We also wanted to do a sailing one because Ferg has a little two-man boat and a couple of missions to the islands in that would have been nice. Maybe it would have been nice to do some more surf-related ones to show off some of Ferg’s weird boards because he has so many twin fins and single fins. It would have been good to have a talk about the board, go out and have a surf to try it out and then come back and give feedback. They were things we were planning to do this time but haven’t got round to yet. Hopefully we can do them in Season Two. At the moment, to be honest, I'm just looking forward to being able to surf again.