The Shaper’s Canvas

The Shaper’s Canvas, an award-winning documentary by James Embry, gives an insight into the production of handcrafted surfboards. It’s a polished and engaging short film which will inspire students thinking about making their own documentary.

When he was deciding on a topic for his documentary, James knew he needed to pick something that he was passionate about. “I always knew my film was going to be based around surfing,” he said. “It is something that I am passionate about and a subject that produces various opportunities for a film.”

During the development of his film, James acknowledged the difficulty of creating a low budget surfing video and decided to create a polished, beautifully composed documentary about surfboard maker Paul Trigger. James trawled the internet for examples of short films that inspired him – everything from music videos to cooking shows. The depth of this research is reflected throughout his film. Every shot reveals a keen eye for composition and a high level of technical skill. His judicious use of focus and depth of field reveals the artistry involved in handcrafting surfboards.

Planning a documentary can be challenging. It’s important to understand the questions that you’re going to ask your subjects and identify the responses they’re likely to give. This way, it’s possible to carefully storyboard the shoot and decide on the type of b-roll footage you might pick up on location. “Pre-production was probably the most important element of the entire production,” James said. Before the shoot, James decided on the questions he was going to ask and the types of images he could capture to realise his vision. Before embarking on principal photography, James knew exactly what he needed to capture to complete his project.

During pre-production, James also spent considerable time honing his technical skill. “Experimentation with lighting, camera and sound techniques not only provided great sources for my folio but ensured few mishaps throughout production as well as achieving my desired aesthetic and visual qualities,” he said.

Throughout the production, James took on the advice of his friends, family and teachers. “I’d highly recommend gathering honest opinions from others,” he said. “If something isn’t or doesn’t sound clear, entertaining or informative they’ll recognise it.”

Recognising that obtaining permission to use music could be costly and time consuming, James opted to write the music for The Shaper’s Canvas himself. “I had a great time recording my soundtrack,” he said. “I’d never recorded or written music before but was excited at the thought of adding another personal aspect to my process. The writing happened rather easily as I wanted a simple, subtle soundtrack. The recording was equally as simple. I used a Roland external sound recorder and layered individual tracks using GarageBand.”

Although his film came together well, the production wasn’t entirely problem free. “Prior to filming I had constructed and experimented with a semi circular dolly track so that I could recreate a matrix inspired ‘bullet time’ whilst the surfboard shaping was occurring,” he said. “However due to space restrictions in the shaping shed the semi circular dolly couldn’t function and I had to swap the dramatic semi circular ‘bullet time’ for a far less engaging horizontal slider ‘bullet time’. I also experienced frustrating difficulties with surf conditions for the GoPro filmed aspect of the film. The frustrating thing about this was the fact that it was out of my control and regardless of my carefully planned production timeline and shot list it was impossible get the footage I’d hoped.”

James encourages VCE Media to be organised.  “Ensure that every detail of your project is on paper and most importantly, clear in your mind,” he said.

“Create something you’re passionate about and do it justice. I guarantee you won’t nostalgically reflect and read over a Year 12 chemistry SAC but your film can be something you show your friends, family and the internet.”