John Purnell

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John Purnell, a Valla local, is a news cameraman/editor who shapes timber surfboards in his spare time and has also worked on a number of independent films. His most recent film, a full feature called “The Backpacker”, was selected for the London and Cannes Independent Film Festivals. We spoke to him about his passion for creating unique surfboards, and how that balances out with his work in the film and television industry.

Hi there, John. Can you tell us what it is about the Coffs Coast that makes it such a special place to live and work for you?

We moved here from Newcastle in 1995, looking for a “sea change”. I’ve found it very refreshing – a cleaner environment with a good diversity of people and minimal hustle and bustle. It’s also a great place to raise a child.

How long have you been shaping surfboards?

I started making timber boards in 2009; I’ve only ever made surfboards for myself, with the exception of close friends. It’s my hobby, as I have always had an interest in design and what makes a board tick ever since I discovered surfing as a kid. Drawing surfboard shapes and imagining how different shapes and designs could work took up a lot of my thought at school.

I did make the odd fibreglass board and worked for a time as a sander, but I found it smarter to get experienced shapers to shape what I liked; that gave me time to play around with fin design.

What inspires and influences your work?

People in general who make and repair things – the creative people of the world. I find them all fascinating.

Growing up in a time that was so diverse in regards to surfboard design, as a young grom watching the likes of surfing great Mark Richards and the late Colin Smith, two totally different characters in and out of the water, who both “ripped the bags” on completely different craft. Also, working as a rigger and industrial fibreglass fabricator within the steel/mine/power industry when I was younger and seeing first hand the damage caused by some methods we use in manufacturing.

Can you tell us a bit about the process of making a board?

It all starts with felling plantation Paulownia, which grows in abundance throughout the Nambucca Valley, getting them milled, stacking and drying and then machining to the required dimensions for either a chambered or a wood wrap surfboard. A chambered is shaped from a solid timber blank, dismantled and hollowed out then reassembled. A wood wrap is a shaped foam core with 6 mm timber strips steamed and wrapped around the core. With both techniques I prefer to finish with a wax/oil mix and avoid fibreglassing them.

More details at:

Many would say surfing is a lifestyle, as well as a sport. Do you find you surround yourself with other keen surfers?

For me, surfing is a lifestyle. As grommets we all wanted to be pro surfers. I had some minor contest results and sponsors at that time, but the whole competitive thing just didn’t sit right. I just loved going surfing, chasing waves, exploring, watching the tide, learning to read the weather and subtle coastal changes, the whole free range nature of it. In saying that, surfing today is a totally different beast than it was in the late ‘70s early ‘80s; gone are the judgement days of being “a long haired dole bludging no hoper”… Today’s surf industry is huge and employs many people.

Yes, I have “surfer” friends, but also enjoy the company of non surfers too; humans and conversation are way too diverse to just hang out with one mob.

How does surfing in Valla or on the Coffs Coast compare to other surfing destinations you have been to?

I really enjoy surfing here with its warm, clean water (unless it’s flooding). Generally I find the  area relies on the north movement of sand, which comes and goes with the changing seasons and currents, so that makes for lots of nooks and crannies to keep your eyes on, although it is shadowed by South West Rocks and misses a lot of the deep raw swells generated further south – unlike the beaches I grew up on south of Newcastle, with its open coastline, where chunky waves can be found on the many flat rock platforms.

When you’re not in the water or shaping boards, you also work in the film and television industry. How long have you been working behind a camera?

I’ve been in the industry for nearly 30 years and am currently employed at a local TV station as a news camera/editor. I learnt my camera skills in outside broadcast working on live sporting and television events. After moving to Valla, I did many midnight train trips to Newcastle/Sydney for gigs, and I soon realised I had to diversify, so transitioned into news and commercial production. I enjoy working in TV, as you get to meet many interesting people from all walks of life.

What are some of the personal projects you have worked on?

The Backpacker, Director of Photography (DOP), Embassy Films – selected for the London and Cannes Indpendent Film Festivals – 2011.

Gemseek, DOP/Editor/Producer, documentary on fossicking for semi presious stones – 2010.

Back to Bawaka, DOP, Documentary – Yolngu people of NE Arnhem Land – 2006.

The Last Resort, award winning short film judged by the late Bill Hunter – 2003.

How do you find balancing the film/TV industry and shaping boards?

It’s a nice blend of two creative processes. The news world can get intense at times with deadlines etc. and in film you’re dealing with the crew and shoot scripted scenes that need to be kept on schedule … Building a timber surfboard is a nice slow process that helps me relax – a great balance.

Could you tell us how you first broke into the film industry?

I had dabbled a little with short films with some success, when a friend of mine in the film industry sent me a link for a position as Director of Photography. I applied, had a chat with the director, Dion Bolland, and it all went from there … It was an Indie film called The Backpacker, shot within the Liverpool Range, between Nundle and Murrurundi.

Do you have any advice you could pass on to any aspiring filmmakers here on the Coffs Coast?

Sadly, here on the Coffs Coast it’s pretty much a desert as far as film opportunity goes. It all happens in the big smoke, so be proactive, make short films and docos, develop shoot scripts, learn three point editing, play with camera technique and lighting, direct your family and friends as actors … but most importantly, capture clear sound. You can have the best looking pictures ever, but if the audio is rubbish, forget it.

The experience will give you a feel for what’s involved and what you may like to do within the industry. So if an opportunity does arise, you’ll have some knowledge and most importantly, “a showreel”.

Is there a difference in the way you approach a documentary to a full feature film?

From my experience, feature film has a shoot script and you generally don’t record in sequence; you may shoot the last scenes first, the middle scenes last, first scenes second etc. … it all depends on how the Producer has arranged it due to other circumstances i.e. availability of locations, actors, extras, night scenes, weather … Whereas in documentary, you can use a script but also have that freedom and flexibility to see what develops and unfolds when you’re there on location.

What was it like being on the set of The Backpacker movie? What were some of the highlights and some of the challenges you faced?

Shooting a 90 minute movie is fun, but hard work. The Backpacker (starring Vincent Stone, Superman Returns 2006) was shot over five weeks with a crew of 13 on a low budget. My role as DOP was with a single camera and two lenses; we had a jib and dolly, but we didn’t have time to set them up, so I needed to be creative with just a tripod and my shoulder. I had a good understanding of what the Director wanted and he trusted me on many of the scenes, and I believe that shows in the finished product; all the reviews credit the cinematography.

I remember filming very late one night deep in the forest near Hanging Rock, the script required Nina (Lauren Anderson) to bellow a blood curdling scream – she nailed it! It freaked the whole crew out! Check it out at:  

How did it feel being selected for the London and Cannes Independent Film Festivals?

Very happy; pleased I did my job as well as I could in the circumstances. Sadly I wasn’t in the audience at those festivals, although the feedback I received via the Director was very positive. I would love the opportunity to have another crack at a feature.

Thanks John.

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