Litmus was a defining moment in surf filmmaking in the 1990s – it forged an open-minded vision of surfing that still burns brightly today.
Litmus, created by Australian filmmaker Andrew Kidman along with cinematographer John Frank and artist Mark Sutherland, sparked an aesthetic revolution in surf culture. Shot in Australia, South Africa, Ireland, California and Hawaii, and featuring surfboard design guru Derek Hynd and iconic surfer-shaper Wayne Lynch (as well as appearances by Tom Curren and Miki Dora), the film, released in 1996, was entirely devoid of the hard-driving, thrash-and-burn ethos of the era. Litmus helped shake the surfing world awake to the fact that stylish, flowing surfing didn’t fade out with the advent of the tri-finned shortboard, and that the act of surfing itself is far richer than a set of saleable clichés. The film spread the gospel of what has been labeled a “retro-progressive’” school of surfing, and what was being practiced by an avant-garde core soon spread all over the world. According to Kidman, “originally cinematographer John Frank and I just wanted to make a film that showed how Wayne Lynch and Derek Hynd had remained surfing extremely well into their forties, and how they had achieved this through design exploration. Other things happened along the way, like the waves in Ireland. We just put the time into the subjects and the places until we felt like we’d represented them with honesty.”
The film evoked a type of surfing that had very little to do with the mainstream surf industry’s marketing of the surfing way of life as elemental youth cult. If surfing was a cult, through the lens of Litmus it was re-imagined as one of eternal youth — accessible by an incredibly wide range of wave-riders and the hydrodynamic potential of a universe of surfboards. In addition to its creative new approach, for the first time Kidman showed the cold, powerful quality of waves of Ireland to the surfing masses. He also represented the essential part that genealogy played in surfing’s evolution by focusing on Terry Fitzgerald’s son Joel surfing his family’s ancestral coastline with a radical style that bridged the generations. With the inclusion of Frank’s soft-focus, less than perfectly lit action, Mark Sutherland’s animation Dream, a soundtrack by the Val Dusty Experiment (Kidman, Frank and Sutherland), and an unashamedly opinionated message, the film touched a nerve with a generation of surfers who had become alienated by the way their passion was being represented by the surf media.
Today’s scene, in which surfers can ride an incredible variety of boards and, by-and-large, be respected for their choices, owes much to Kidman’s exploration of the possibilities. But the truly lasting influence of Litmus just might be the ambience, the elevated mood and the meditative approach that Kidman took to making a film about surfing. Ultimately, Kidman’s mission was to show people the beauty that surfers are heir to. “We weren’t trying to change the world when we made Litmus,’ Kidman asserts. ‘We were just trying to show how rich what we’re involved in is. We’re given such a window into how the world works each time we paddle out into that fathomless force, so surely we should take that back into what we do and reflect it.”
Passionate and contemplative in equal measure, Litmus helped to ignite a new era in surf culture.
– Michael Fordham