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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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Athletes

May 04, 2017

Taylor Steele’s Latest, Proximity: Creating a Longer Lifespan For Surf Films?

Fighting back against the webisode culture, this legendary filmmaker has brought together some of the world’s most talented—and interesting—pairs of surfers for his highly anticipated latest.

WRITTEN BY

Alyssa Fowler

Today is Proximity’s world premiere in NYC and no one is more unsure about what people’s reaction will be than Taylor Steele himself.


“I’m curious to see if people gravitate towards it or completely reject it,” Taylor Steele told The Outdoor Journal. “And that’s a fun place to be as a filmmaker, to wait and see.”

Although we imagine that’s something Steele’s gotten pretty used to.

Both the cameras and font choices having changed a little bit in the past 25 years.

Since the early nineties, more specifically the release of game-changing Momentum, Taylor Steele has created surf films that inspired and motivated generations, playing a definitive role in surf culture. They were made with shitty cameras, an aggressive style of both filming and surfing, and set to a soundtrack of punk rock that kickstarted the careers of bands like Blink-182 and The Offspring. Although in complete contrast to the more aesthetically pleasing surf movies at that time, they also happened to capture soon to be legends like Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Taylor Knox, Ross Williams, Shane Dorian, and others before their accomplished surfing careers took off.

Decades later, the technology has changed, people’s attention spans have shortened and Steele’s back at it:

“I haven’t been doing very many surf films lately, more commercials with a shorter window of filming and production time. Even in the last 8 years, I haven’t invested that much time beyond a 2 week window.”

His film Here and Now was filmed entirely on May 2nd, 2012. One day.

Behind the scenes shooting Proximity. Photo by Nathan Myers

However, he says that “the concept of something that has a longer lifespan sort of steamrolled into this project.”

A longer lifespan than the 30 second viral videos that we’ve become accustomed to—often made by anyone with a GoPro attached to their head?

Yes.

“It’s how we watch surf films right now. I think just having so much access to them and watching them on the internet is a major factor of us just getting numb. We treat it as sort of temporary. And sort of disposable. And so that was part of the inspiration for this, to make something that has a basis, or something that will hold up for longer than a year.”

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Having so many aspects (art gallery, photo book, theatre tour and even virtual reality), was all part of giving the film a longer breath.


The whole movie’s tempo is sort of an anti-webisode.

Needless to say, the technical advances in equipment have given way to some pretty cool opportunities for filmmakers to rejustify putting time and quality in film—and how effective it can be. The use of 4K RED cameras in John John Florence’s View From a Blue Moon reminded us all of the value in such raw and beautiful footage. Although, we imagine that should be the case with them costing around $50,000 a pop.

Using RED EPICS in Proximity, Taylor also says that despite the quality of these cameras where everything is “so shiny and sharp, I like them to feel more like film, so we use some older lenses to counterbalance that.”

True to Taylor Steele form, it’s not the cameras that set this film apart.

Almost as easy to carry as a GoPro? Photo by Nathan Myers

Slowing down the pace and trying to dig a bit deeper, Proximity merges two generations of surfers: four surf icons and four wildly talented young-guns. Steele pairs them up based on personality and talent, takes them to remote and often candid locations, then sits back and observes. We’re looking at 11-time world champion Kelly Slater and current champion John John Florence in the South Pacific, 6-time women’s world champion Stephanie Gilmore and eco-activist Dave Rastovich in Baja, big wavers Shane Dorian and Albee Layer in Chile, and stylists Rob Machado and Craig Anderson out of their comfort zones in cold Northern Europe.

All (shivering) smiles from Rob Machado and Craig Anderson. Screen shot taken from Proximity trailer.

“The idea of merging two different generations that have the same sort of ethos was something that inspired me as more of a surf fan. Being a fly on the wall and seeing what they would talk about. Seeing how they would surf, if and how they would push each other and inspire each other. Would it be in a super competitive way? 

One of the big parameters of getting surfers involved in my projects is that they have to have much more than just being a surfer.

“If we mic them up and sort of get out of their way, what would happen? Would they talk about anything interesting?

“So we did that with Shane and Albee. We were just in a pub in Northern Europe and they were playing darts and talking. And what they talked about was so inspiring. I was sitting there and forgetting that we were even filming, just listening to their conversation about dealing with big waves for the next 20 years. Shane saying ‘I’m almost done with my career and you have 20 years of putting your life on the line! How does that feel?’ It was their answers to these types of questions. They were generally curious.”

“They have so much to talk about that no one else would be able to really relate to. I wanted to see how those conversations would go.”

Despite anticipating all the interactions in the film, we were especially curious about both the competitiveness, and also the playfulness that might have come out of Kelly and John John on their first trip together.

“It’s interesting that you picked up on that playfulness. John just takes that playfulness to another level. He’s sort of like a little brother, antagonising, but at the same time super curious about him [Slater]. It was fun to watch. To have them on this remote island in the south pacific where it was just them, not worried about any other filmers showing up, or not worried about any other surfers…

Checking shots during the making of Proximity with John John Florence and Kelly Slater. Photo by Nathan Myers

We actually had Kelly and John John playing chess and see these sides of competitiveness, but also just talking casually. John comes off as very laid back, but he’s as smart as anyone. He reads chess books. It was fun to see this side of him that doesn’t come up in a lot of other places.”

It turns out there are actually moments where Taylor Steele’s not behind the camera and Kelly Slater’s not in the water. Photo by Nathan Myers

Also going way beyond Steele’s expectations were Stephanie Gilmore and Dave Rastovich.

“I have always been a huge fan of Steph, especially in the way that she holds herself. She plays music, she has a guitar, she’s a great traveller with a great spirit.”

Being the only female in the film, Steele wanted to put her in a category she deserves—for both the incredible person and surfer she is. Hoping Dave Rastovich would be a fit turned out to be a pretty good call.

“Their conversations were some of the most profound and interesting. Talking about people and how to live life and how to approach situations. I felt like at the end of these car rides and conversations that they had together, I was evolving as a person. I was really surprised at how connected they were in spirit.

There’s a lot of great women surfing out there, but they don’t necessarily carry themselves as well as Steph does. Or make me excited as a filmmaker. I think when people watch the film, they’re going to be blown away by how great she surfed and comes off as a person.”

And tonight is the first chance for people to be blown away! The film premieres first in New York City, followed by tour dates around the world over the next year.

All Teton Gravity Research tour dates in North America & Europe here, Australia & New Zealand by Garage here.

Head to the Proximity website for more information about the film or to Taylor Steele’s website to see what else he’s up to.

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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