Nick Carroll: How Bill and Dan Changed the World

14 Feb 2019 5 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

The famous MR and Shaun Tomson barrel, shot by Dan Merkel for Bill Delaney's Free Ride

The famous MR and Shaun Tomson barrel, shot by Dan Merkel for Bill Delaney's Free Ride

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

The legendary maker of “Free Ride” and his hotshot shooter

Bill Delaney, who died on Tuesday aged 72, drove the production of two of surfing’s great movies. One was Surfers: The Movie, an epic, almost no expenses spared documentary that connected the dots between every wayward brilliant surfing superstar from Miki Dora to Martin Potter. The other was Free Ride.

Flip Bill’s age of departure to 27 and you find him at home in Ventura, California, beginning to think about a surf film. Bill was a surfer, but he wasn’t part of the surf industry, such as it was at the time; instead, he filmed and photographed cars and motorbikes for a living.

But if you were into surfing in the early 1970s, you were seduced by it, and Bill decided to turn his filmic talents to this waterborne lunacy. Rather than go down the then standard Nature’s-Fantasy style of surf flick, he envisaged something more documentary, dramatic, close-up and front lit, revealing character and motive among its stars, if indeed any was present.

Idea in head, he parlayed an introduction to his near-Rincon neighbour, Dan Merkel.

Merkel was the hot shot surf photographer du jour, an ex-serviceman and frothing-keen surfer who’d taken up a camera in the late ‘60s after leaving the Navy, gone to Hawaii in the winter of 1970 and seen his life’s goal before him. Dan trained like an athlete, a thing almost no other surf photog had done to that point, and learned to out-swim everyone in order to get the shot. By 1975, his almost ruthlessly accurate water images had become a highlight of surf media, maybe the highlight.

Bill wanted Dan to turn those images into moving pictures. Dan had never shot film before. They went into the winter of 1975/76 armed with a high-speed Milliken rig, built specially to hold the running film tight on the edge of the inner lens plate so it wouldn’t waver and wobble as it whipped past. This meant the rig could shoot at 200 frames per second, over eight times “natural” speed; if you pushed it and doubled the frames in developing, the rate was more like 400. Crazy slo-mo, in other words.

But it was tricky. The rig in its box, with battery and a 200-foot film mag, weighed a bit over eight kgs, and to get the wide-angle look, Dan had to hold the thing straight out from the wall of the wave. He was the strongest lensman in surfing, but even still, the early rushes saw the camera drifting down in the shot, as Dan’s grip loosened, so the surfer’s head was cut off. Bill and Dan got the hand-grips re-fixed at a slight angle, so the lens would naturally sit higher. Bingo.

The camera and the idea were Bill’s, but the execution was all Dan – his and the wave’s and the surfer’s. Off-The-Wall pitched, Shaun Tomson pulled in, and Dan held the box, tracking Shaun right along the horizon line, and everyone had to trust that nothing went horribly wrong. Shaun was astonished by what he later described as Dan’s ability to be “still – to hold it still. Just stop dead. You were never scared he was going to put that big camera box into your face, so you could go as close as you could. He would become part of the wave, yet not part of it.”

You could say they lucked out that winter – with the weeks of clean medium-sized surf at Off-The-Wall, with the unusually gorgeous non-windy weather, and most of all maybe with the fantastic historical moment, when the whole 1970s was on deck, and the young crew, Shaun, Rabbit, MR, Larry Bertlemann, Michael Ho, PT, MT and the rest of the Free Ride Generation stepped up. But there’s no luck in filmmaking. It’s full on hard work. Later Bill told the Surfer’s Journal moviemaker series: “You didn’t go to town at noon, you stayed on the beach just in case … I took my work ethic from Merkel’s work ethic – that is, if you look the other way, you’re gonna miss the best ride of the year.”

People have called Free Ride “the last great surf movie”. I’m not sure that describes its actual impact. Delaney’s initial cut, released in 1977 along with a full cover Surfing mag campaign, was more a first than a last. It broke the accepted surf movie mould by treating its subjects as people, not gods, and Merkel’s footage – shot fully in the present tense, front-lit, perfectly framed and so clear you can see the surfer’s feet digging into the wax – told you exactly that. Here you were, in the barrel, and there was Shaun or Rabbit or Bertlemann gunning for the exit with water streaming down their faces.

We’re kinda used to that now, but nobody was then. Kids left theatres feeling they knew their heroes, and surf stardom would never be the same.

Anyway Dan and Bill went their ways. Dan worked on Big Wednesday and a bunch of TV stuff, won an Emmy, lost a pile of footage and stills (including the Free Ride stuff) in the maze of US stock agency take-overs, and now travels the western US in his camper-van, shooting photos of whatever he likes. Bill eventually made Surfers: The Movie for Michael Tomson in 1990, then never did another surf flick again.

Check out this nice short doco on Delaney’s career:

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