Bud Browne: Originator of the surf movie

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The Independent Online

Now, after Big Wednesday, Point Break and The Endless Summer, the two words "surf" and "movie" slot together as easily as "board" and "wax" or "awe" and "some". But before Bud Browne there were no surf movies. Virtually single-handedly, he invented the genre and celebrated surfing culture on celluloid.

Browne was born near Boston on the East Coast of the United States, but moved to Los Angeles in 1931 to attend the University of Southern California (USC) where he majored in physical education and soon became captain of the swimming team. While Europe was gearing up for war, Browne was learning to surf at Venice Beach.

He got a job as a lifeguard in 1938. When America joined in the Second World War, he served in the US navy, teaching marines to swim, then went back to lifeguarding post-war. He acquired the nickname "Barracuda" and a reputation as one of the world's best body surfers. In the early Fifties he worked as a PE teacher while attending film school at USC.

The original commercial surf movie dates from 1953, when Browne edited together some of the 16mm surfing footage he had shot during one of his annual summer expeditions to Waikiki, where he met the legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku. Forty-five minutes long and called Hawaiian Surfing Movies, it was rough-hewn but had energy and charm.

The world premiere took place at the John Adams Junior High School in Santa Monica. Tickets cost 65 cents. Browne provided a musical soundtrack by playing a tape recorder and instant narration via the school's PA system. The take-up reel malfunctioned and the film spooled straight onto the floor. But Browne kept the film rolling anyway. And he kept on rolling and gave up teaching. A genre, an addiction, and a whole new way to finance hanging on the beach had been born.

Over the next 11 years, Browne produced a film a year, including such instant classics of their kind as Cat on a Hot Foam Board (1959), Spinning Boards (1961), and Cavalcade of Surf (1962). They had a simple formula: loosely strung-together montages of surfing action in California and Hawaii, punctuated by hit-and-miss comedy moments and on-the-road vignettes. But they were cheap to make, costing less than $5,000, and the publicity was fairly rudimentary, consisting of nailing up hand-made posters on telegraph poles.

He was a one-man production company, barnstorming his movies up and down the coast, from San Diego to San Francisco, setting up his tent in school auditoriums and Rotary Club halls. In the early Sixties the market had grown enough for Browne to employ DJs to tape a commentary and to ship the films out to the East Coast and beyond to Australia and Europe.

Beyond covering his expenses, Browne never made any money, but he said that "it was always worthwhile for me because I got such a big hoot out of everyone enjoying the films". After Browne, it was no longer enough to surf, you had to be filmed surfing.

An experienced diver, Browne became a pioneer of the water shot, developing his own waterproof camera housings and his own dry suit that enabled him to stay in the water for hours at a time. He was the first to take a movie camera out at Pipeline, the notoriously dangerous North Shore big-wave spot. He had a habit of holding the lens on the surfer just a little too long and getting caught by the board or the lip of the wave as it broke. He lost a few cameras that way.

Browne inspired other movie-makers to follow him, notably John Severson (Going My Wave, 1962) and Greg Noll, whose footage would provide the core of Riding Giants (2004). His reputation also earned him the job of shooting the specialised water sequences for such other works as the MacGillivray-Freeman collaboration Five Summer Stories (1972) and, finally, when he was in his sixties, John Milius's Hollywood feature film Big Wednesday (1978).

Andy Martin

Bud Browne, surfer and film-maker: born Newtonville, Massachusetts 14 July 1912; died San Luis Obispo, California 25 July 2008.