Documenting the Grit and the Grace: Surf Filmmaker Kyle Buthman

By Chris Van Leuven

Kyle Buthman pulling into the barrel in Sumbawa, Indonesia (Buthman collection).

Sometimes Kyle and his friends surf fast, accelerating through their turns, catching big air off the lip, gunning through barrels, slashing, carving and spinning out 360 aerials like they’re in a skate park. Other times they ride the waves peacefully, skimming along the water with subtle movements to keep their boards steady against the glassy water and straight on the line.

To professional filmmaker and sponsored surfer Kyle Buthman, who’s been in the water since his dad got him into it at age five, it’s all about the ocean – if he’s not surfing, then he’s capturing surfing footage for one of his many projects that range from five to 30 minutes to up to an hour.

“I’m trying to make people feel as if they’re there, to give someone the feeling of that day, instead of just watching someone surf. This means [capturing footage] in the most scenic way possible, like in the water and from land,” he says.

Filming surfing also takes patience, as it takes time for surfers to get in position and also for good, solid waves to roll in. “Then you’re finally rewarded – but sometimes you aren’t,” he says with a chuckle.

His favorite thing in the world is traveling to remote surf breaks in Indonesia and along the coasts of Africa, and he’s managed to – at least at times – make a living from what he captures during his trips. To Buthman, making surf films is as much of a passion as surfing itself. “I just want to go on as many trips as I can and surf the best waves out there.”

Buthman, a muscular 29-year-old raised in Santa Cruz, has surfed voraciously ever since childhood. But even in his early days, youth wasn’t to his advantage. Sometimes he had to deal with territorial locals who kept him and his friends out of certain breaks.

They didn’t want some punk scooping their perfect wave.

Had it not been for an accident at age 13, when a surfer rode over Buthman badly slicing him with his fin, his life could have taken a different path. While paddling out and duck diving to dodge under an incoming wave, “as I pushed down with one foot the other one came up and his fin went right through my heel, right at the very bottom,” he says. “A fin is essentially a knife and when you ride over someone with a knife you’re going to get cut pretty bad.”

The nasty gash on his Achilles tendon meant Buthman had to spend four months in a cast and had to stay out of the ocean – time that felt like an eternity at 13 years old.

Eager to get back out with his friends – or at least to get close to the water – he borrowed his father’s video camera and started documenting his buddies ripping it up at the local breaks near town.

The problem was, once he’d collected enough footage for his first short film, he had no way to stitch it together because he didn’t have a computer. So he spent months talking his parents into getting him one.

What they could afford “probably came from a used computer store,” he says. “It was some sort of PC – not a nice one by any means.” The family machine was barely powerful enough to handle the heavy workload required of editing hours’ worth of digital footage, but Buthman kept at it anyway, spending days in front of the computer screen to produce his debut 30-minute film Tricks are for Kids. At the end of the project and still unable to edit music tracks in the film, he dropped in a single 12-minute song, “the longest one I could find,” at the start and when it ended there were 18 minutes of silence.

Once healed from his injury and back in the ocean, Buthman didn’t put the camera down, instead combining his strong skills on the surfboard with his new love of filmmaking. It was his skills in the water – not behind a camera – that got him his first sponsor, at 15, with the apparel company Quiksilver.

“They were looking for a ‘grom,’ a younger kid from Santa Cruz,” he says, “and a few guys dropped my name and helped make the connection.” Today, 15 years later, Quiksilver is still his primary sponsor.

After Tricks are for Kids, Buthman noticed legendary still photographer Dave Nelson making a living off his surf imagery and thought he could do the same but with motion pictures. After capturing new footage, he started frequenting his friend Paul Johnson’s house (and superior computer) to edit surf videos and together they worked on projects. As Buthman continued to pump out surf videos, Quiksilver started asking him to produce projects specifically for them.

Over the years, Buthman’s style on the water has transformed from that of an aggressive kid cramming in back-to-back tricks to a 29-year-old man with a distinctive, poetic style. And his movies have grown from hit-after-hit action-sports films to blending complex storytelling.

But it took time and a few lucky breaks. In 2006, at age 18, Buthman got a lead that spurred his career forward when Quiksilver asked him to make a video of big wave legend Peter Mel who had an upcoming competition in Chile. To get footage, Buthman traveled an hour north from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay, home of the deep, heavy waves of Mavericks and set up his camera.

After the Peter Mel project, Buthman decided formal training was necessary to take his skills to the next level and he attended film classes at the local community college – which he didn’t learn much from – and began picking up work outside of the surf world including CrossFit. He also filmed and edited footage for TV shows. His friend Ryan Moss mentored him while doing real, paying work. “Doing it is the best way to learn it,” he says.

As his experience grew, so did his client list. This included Vice Media, which publishes “original reporting and documentaries on everything that matters in the world,” reads their website. His first gig for Vice was to produce a short documentary on his surf and skate friend and UFC fighter Luke Rockhold. The assignment was to capture footage of Rockhold at the skate park and at his favorite breaks. After that, Vice sent Buthman to Liberia to shoot a documentary. It was during this time that Buthman transitioned from merely capturing action sports footage to documentary filmmaking. Soon UFC hired him to shoot additional athlete profiles for FOX Sports and he continues to work with the UFC today.

After learning the ins and outs of filmmaking with a camera crew, he decided to break out on his own. Acting as a one-man show with no budget, Buthman produced Brainwork: Anthony Tashnick (2015) about Santa Cruz-based big wave surfer Anthony Tashnick, an unapologetic grom in a 30-year-old body, riding giants at Mavericks.

“He thinks differently than most people,” Buthman says. “He’s the only guy that surfs Mavericks on a twin fin. He [also] rides shorter boards than most people and he shapes them. He’s this big dude who rides surfboards that are three and a half feet long.”

Brainwork: Anthony Tashnick was the first of two of his films nominated for Best Documentary by Surfer Magazine’s Surfer Poll Awards.

To Buthman, the thrill of completing a passion film is similar to kicking out of the exit at the end of a ride – the projects leave him filled with excitement and confidence.

After years of running his own company, Buthman Media, Kyle and his friend Perry Gershkow started Treehouse Visual in 2016 in order to add to their revenue stream.

Buthman is currently working on a project on the history of big wave surfing for Red Bull.

He also knows he needs to be in the water. “I try to keep my summers open so I can go to Indonesia or Mexico for a few months surf and make films of my own,” he says. “It’s always surfing and filmmaking – there’s not much else that I do.”

To see more of Buthman’s work, follow him on Vimeo at vimeo.com/user17830136.

Buthman capturing footage for a project with Treehouse Visual (Perry Gershkow).

Buthman flying a drone over Anthony Tashnick “having fun” (as seen in Brainwork: Anthony Tashnick).

Tessa Timmons and Kala Buthman as seen in Camel Point (Frame Grab: Kyle Buthman).

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