Vagabond filmmaker Jason Baffa is always searching for the next adventure in the great outdoors. Growing up on a healthy dose of surfing most weeks as a youngster into his university years, today he has found a way to combine his passion for the surf and his talent with the camera. From the first moment he saw his cousin making a Super 8 movie he knew that he wanted to pursue a career in film. With his family’s support and many after school summer classes, he began to develop his own filmic language that favored traditional analog techniques and a nostalgic form of storytelling. During this time Jason Baffa Films was born. Today Jason works on a range of independent projects while also working for Farm League – a company renown for the successful marriage of commercial and creative projects in the form of commercials, films and branded content.
Connecting evocative imagery with uplifting narratives about the human spirit, his documentary feature films, such as Singlefin: yellow and One California Day, conjure a particular cinematic style of documentary. His most recent production, Bella Vita, is a visual stunner. Filmed throughout Italy, this personally motivated film traces the family history of his friend and fellow surfer, Chris Del Moro. According to Jason, it is a film about “honoring traditions”, something that he is fervently interested in maintaining in contemporary society. At his studio he discusses his latest projects and shares his top five films of all time, while revealing his love of the classic movie theater experience.
When did you start surfing?
I grew up in Los Angeles in Southern California, so the beaches and ocean are a big part of my life here. My first trip to Hawaii was when my mom was four months pregnant with me, so technically I was in the ocean before I was born. My dad instilled a love of body surfing and spending time in the water. As I got older, I had a cousin who was board surfing and he started leaving boards with me. My brother-in-law also surfed. I looked up to these guys, so I gave it a try. By the time I was finishing grade school and going into college, I was obsessed with surfing. I knew I was going to study filmmaking, but I actually chose Loloya Marymount University right near LAX airport because I knew I could surf at Manhattan Beach and Malibu. Surfing was a big part of my life growing up.
How did you start making movies?
The filmmaking really came first. I’m one of those weird people who decided I wanted to do this at a very young age. When my cousin was fifteen I was about seven, he was making a Super 8 movie. I remember I was so enamored with it that I said “That’s it, that’s what I’m doing”. Luckily, I had a supportive family: a grandmother who bought me a Super 8 camera, and parents who gave me video equipment and sent me to after school and summer classes at the Art Center. I’m very blessed that I fell in love with it early and that I’ve been able to stick with it.
Where did you study?
I trained at Todd A-O Sound, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California and at the Universidad de San Luis in Madrid, Spain. I graduated from Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production.
Have you always used analog cameras?
Yes, in general I think I’m nostalgic, especially in my surf films there’s always a bit of a theme of nostalgia towards the history of surfing. The first one being Singlefin: Yellow, and the second one California Day. To capture that story, film just seemed like the only choice to me. Historically, it’s where the “surf film” came out of. We were using the same cameras as Bruce Brown and these guys in the 1960s who were making travelogue pictures. Today these are the cameras that we are still using 50-60 years later.
With Bella Vita, I knew I wanted to shoot film but it is more of a modern story. Consequently, we did a mix of high-end digital cinema while also shooting 35mm film, being the ultimate in what you can capture in cinema. It had the nostalgia of Italian film, and I wanted to raise the bar and do something that looked up to the Berlucci and Leone in that history of cinema. It’s a mix of HD and film that I hope in the end is a seamless transition.
You write, film, and edit your own films?
Yeah, there’s definitely a collaboration. Because they’re documentaries, I rely heavily on the people who are in them and how much they’re willing to share in crafting the stories. The writing process really happens with the camera. I often outline a structure for what I think the arc of the project will be, and how the themes will weave in and out of that. My process is a mix of documentary and the cinematic. Certain things I’ll set up and shoot in the way you’ll shoot any movie, and other things are much more fly on the wall, let’s hang out and see what happens – the camera being the audience’s eyes. A lot of that weighs on the editing. I’m lucky I have a good friend whom I’ve been able to cut my films with who’s super talented. We work symbiotically through the editorial process.
The edit lives in a digital space. It’s interesting, I’ve already organized it and gone through the HD because that’s so immediate. Now, 30 days after the last shot, I’m going through the film footage. It’s nice, even for a still photographer, there’s something about that lag time where you get to look at it with fresh eyes. As a filmmaker, it’s good to remove yourself a little bit from the immediacy of the shoot to where it ends up.
You work for Farm League, can you explain what it is all about?
Farm League is a creative platform that evolved out of the original team that supported Chris Malloy on his projects. We started out as filmmakers and have chosen to work on specific projects that we are passionate about and believe in; often surfing and environment related. We also realize however that the bills still have to be paid. Therefore, the commercial space is something we’ve crossed over into. This gives us a center where clients can come and know they’re in a safe creative haven that will deliver on a high end commercial level. It’s rooted in the foundation of who we are as surfers and travelers, some might say we are vagabond filmmakers. It’s a neat blend of both, by having an infrastructure of very talented producers and commercial makers, allows people like myself to be surrounded by a creative team.
How does Farm League maintain the right balance between creative and commercial?
What sets us apart is that when a client comes to us with a creative vision, we can deliver and bring them a mix of freeform documentary filmmaking by also achieving what they want to do, which is ultimately connecting with consumers. That’s always the tough part of the commercial world, at the end of the day you’re selling a product. But I think we’ve been fortunate enough to work with brands that we believe in, that tie into the ethos of what we do. I did a project with Farm League called One Beach. It is a documentary about taking care of our beaches through the voice of five people. Barefoot Wine sponsored it and this allowed us to make a creative piece that now lives online. Anyone can watch it on Youtube for free. I think it is a less commercial film than it is inspiring. It’s a perfect example of the marriage of the two worlds.
Who are your clients?
It’s a mix. I often work with Patagonia Clothing. There’s an established relationship with Malloy brothers also. They’re phenomenal. I’ve also done work for Spy Sunglasses. Farm League has been approached by Ford Motors, different shoe companies and a vast array of clients and advertising agencies looking for creative support.
What are your top five films?
Big Wednesday, the original Endless Summer, Bruce Brown’s first film. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the first movies I remember seeing. I think it celebrates the fun of movies – it should be fun to do it and it should be fun to watch. As a kid I always loved watching David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia so that’s my number four. The fifth would probably be Rushmore because of Wes Anderson and all his quirkiness.
You didn’t mention Point Break! What do you think about it?
Point Break is what it is. As horrible as it is in the surf genre, it’s entertaining and silly and we all love making fun of Johnny Utah and “I am an FBI agent”. That said, I think Hollywood has done a horrible job with surfing. It’s always tough. Even going back to this space and Farm League, we always see people trying to emulate or document our surf lifestyle. So often it just seems wrong. We wanted to create a space where they could just come to us. This is what we do! This is how we live, these are the stories we enjoy telling.
Would you be interested in working on a drama surf movie?
Yes, I’m very interested. I’m always looking to collaborate with writers and other filmmakers who maybe have more of the discipline to sit and write a 100 page script than I do. Filmmaking is a craft, so it’s all about control. Controlling the light, controlling the action. You get into surf filmmaking and it’s anything but control. It’s the most chaotic thing ever. You’re dealing with mother nature, the most tumultuous talent. So the concept of taking on a project where there’s maybe more control from the get-go sounds very exciting. I would jump at the chance if the right project came along.
For you, what surfing film got it right?
I think Big Wednesday is a good example where surfing is the subcontext but it’s really a story about friends, the journey of adolescence into adulthood, and the difficulties that often take place. The foundation is that these guys are all surfers. It paints a nostalgic picture of that time, and when it came out all the guys who were living it thought it was ridiculous,but now people see it as a classic. I think John Miller did a good job of capturing the time and the atmosphere. I would even say Bella Vita, being my third film in the genre, I really see it more as a movie about surfers than a “surf film”. It’s my first step in opening up this idea about bigger stories that could be related to a broader audience. There’s always going to be the foundation of my surf world, because they’ve been so supportive, but they do want to be moved or taken on a journey rather than finding the next great surf spot. To really get the audience invested I think you have to offer a bit more and that’s really what we’re trying to do with Bella Vita.
Tell me about Bella Vita project.
The idea for Bella Vita came through a conversation I had with Chris Del Moro. We were both in Bali on vacation and we were both laughing at the fact that here we are, these two blonde, blue-eyed surfers, but both our fathers are from Italy. Chris was born in Florence to an Italian father and his mother is from Southern California. When they split, his world got divided between Italy and California. My dad is the only family member not born in Italy, so I’m one-removed from Calabria. But my uncles and grandparents are all from this little town called Santa Maria. So it was fun to connect on that. It kind of evolved into a conversation about me wanting to make another film in the genre but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make something with more of a story that wasn’t so predictable.
So it developed from there?
Chris started telling me about his experience of surfing in California and going back once a year and the surf scene in Italy. That was hard for me to process, having been there and seen the Mediterranean, I never saw it as surfable. Then he sent me a few photos, and it blew me away. We started talking more about his experiences there and his friends, and I got to meet with some of these people through emails. I realized there was a thriving surf scene in Italy. Yet, it’s very Italian. It’s so infused with style and passion and all these things we love about Italian culture, and yet it slams into surf culture and it makes this really interesting thing. That was the inspiration for the film.
We went into it knowing that we would tell a story about Chris reconnecting with the place he’s from, and his friends, and his journey to chase waves. But through that journey, we would unfold a greater vision of not only where Italian surfing is now, but also on its everyday culture. Italy is so passionate and proud of its tradition and culture, and I feel that other places like the America are losing their connection. So to see how surfing fits in was very interesting.
Who else is included in the film?
The other surfers that appear in the movie are Dave Rastovich and Lauren L. Hill, Conner & Parker Coffin, Leonardo Fioravanti, Alessandro Ponzanelli, and a few surfers that are considered by many to be the first surfers in Italy, Marco & Alberto Fracas and Alessandro Forte.
Where did you go during filming?
We were anywhere from Venice to Rome to Sardinia. We traveled as much as we could because it’s by no means a roadmap of surfing in Italy; it’s a story about people. We didn’t have enough time to spend on the mainland in the south as I’d hoped, we only had three months, which sounds like a long time, but when you’re chasing storms and weather and trying to get everything you need to make a film, it wasn’t a lot of time at all.
We interviewed a lot of artisan craftspeople, a marble sculptor, a family that have been making pasta for around for nine generations. We combined these personalities with that of Marco in Pisa, who’s been making surfboards for most of his life. He had to come to California to learn the craft. His mentor recently passed away, Donald Takayama. Now, Donald’s legacy lives through the hands of Marco in Italy. I think that’s really special.
What do you think about watching your movies on a small device such a cell phone?
I read a quote that if David Lean knew you could watch Lawrence of Arabia on a cell phone, he’d roll over in his grave. I definitely go into making a film with the idea that the audience can watch it on a large screen. At least the home cinema system is a nice way to see it. I think it’s exciting that media is so transportable and that if I’m on a plane I can pull up a movie and be entertained. But the way we shoot, the way we frame, and the visual subtext, I want them to be enjoyed in a cinematic context.
We found out the hard way using the 35mm camera. It’s big and cumbersome. We had a three person team and 200-300 pounds of camera gear. It changes the way you shoot. You can’t just run and change angles and shoot 20 times more than you need. You have to really think about what’s the best shot and if I’m going to be happy with it six months from now. It’s an exciting time, I think there’s good and bad with everything. I love that so many independent filmmakers can get their work out. I definitely start with the idea that it will be seen big. Hopefully if it looks good big, it’ll look good small.
So you like the tradition of the movie theater?
There’s something romantic about being in the theater and the lights getting dark, the opening title coming out. I would hate for us to lose that. It’s akin to what I was talking about in culture, that maybe we’re losing traditions too fast. With Bella Vita I hope we can touch on the importance of keeping our own identity. I see so many people running around saving this and protecting that, but maybe we need to be protecting what we are at our very foundations.
Jason many thanks for this interview. We look forward to keeping updated on your future projects. To find out more about Jason’s films visit his website here.
Photography: Marco Annunziata
Interview & Text: Marco Annunziata