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Documenting the Sublime: An Interview with Phillip Mansfield


It takes someone who grew up on the beach to understand the culture, to capture the particular energy of the surfing lifestyle. There’s something about how the waves curl around a board, the sun hits on deep blue water, that witnessing a combination of the exhilaration of the unknown and the steady footwork of the familiar. That’s what surfing looks like, at least to an outsider.

Communicating that vibe is the job of California-based editor and camera operator Phillip Mansfield, who vacillates between the commercial world, with clients like American Express and Redken, and his own short film projects. You’d know a Mansfield piece by his deft combination of film and music, favoring more obscure tracks from the likes of John Maus and Son House to anything obvious or immediately recognizable. It’s that juxtaposition of movement and energy with the unexpected that perhaps defines surfing itself—a sport that is at once meditative and athletic, living somewhere between the sublime.

To understand what it’s like to capture those moments, we were able to talk to Mansfield about how he fell into this whole filming gig, the importance of music in his films, and the possible benefits of an upcoming El Nino winter in California. 

Alright, your childhood near the beach in Jersey. Let's discuss.

I grew up in Ocean Township, NJ. It's in Monmouth County, and it’s a 5-10 minute drive to the beach. My parents started taking my brother and I to the beach at a young age. My cousin was a professional surfer from Florida (Bryan Hewitson) and gave me my first surfboard probably when I was 9 or 10. It’s hard for most young kids to surf year-round in the Northeast because of the weather and gear required. When I was about 14 I got a winter wetsuit and my first custom board and I was hooked from then on.

Did you grow up watching surf films? Any directors or videos that influenced you in particular? 

I definitely have some old VHS tapes memorized. Some that stand out from growing up are Misled Youth (Zero Skateboards), The September Sessions (Jack Johnson), Computer Body (Volcom), Momentum: Under the Influence (Taylor Steele) and Secret Machine (Globe). I think being involved in that culture has shaped my interests and passions throughout my life.

Me really getting into film as a career happened once I was attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. I was a Communications major and was focusing on journalism.

As I started traveling a little more on breaks from school, I bought a digital point and shoot camera, which I would document my trips with. I realized you could tell a story in other mediums than just writing. As semesters went on, I started taking more of the video production courses that the Communication program offered, as well as a basic photography class. I was becoming more and more interested in film and that world of lens-based arts.

I think the final push at that time to pursue a career in film was when I interned with Dustin Miller, a filmmaker based in St. Augustine. I remember Dustin once saying, "I love what I do," and I think that's how it should be.


Photographers whose work you admire?

I look up to Scott Soens. I think he's originally from NJ, too, so that's pretty rad. I really like Robert Frank's work. Chris Marker and his film Sans Soleil was a big influence on me as well.

What's the goal when you're shooting? 

The goal for me is to get the viewer to feel something. Whether it's a mood or an emotion, I want to get across a feeling.


Where's the most interesting place you've gone to shoot?

A personal favorite of mine was Chile. I went during their winter, and the climate reminded me of fall at home. The nature in the country is gorgeous, not to mention the waves are amazing. It also has a special place in my heart because I shot a good portion of my short film, The Diamond Light Was in My Eyes, while there. I really like Barbados, too.

Music seems like an integral part of your work. How important is it to you as an editor to integrate into film?

I think the relationship between music (or lack there of) and image is really important, especially in surf and skate films. Usually there isn't much dialogue in these films, so music can help move the piece along and help share the feeling you want to get across. I like to use diegetic sound in my work to enhance the experience as well.

Do you keep a list of songs you want to use?

Because of that relationship, I'm constantly pulling songs that I think could work for something down the road. Sometimes the images come first, sometimes I'll already have a song in mind when I'm shooting something. But either way I end up working, it's good to have some music on ice.

If you could film anything, anywhere, where and what would it be?

There are a lot of places in the world I'd still like to travel to and shoot. I'd like to do a Southern Hemisphere tour one day. Back to South America, Africa, Australia, some islands in the South Pacific... I feel like my process is documenting the environment I'm in with a pretty loose idea of what I want to capture. Things happen that you can't plan for, and often those are the magic moments.

Now that you're based in San Diego, are you a West Coast convert?

I've only been out west for about six months, so it's still pretty new, but I'm happy out here. I lived in NYC for a little over two years and I'm really glad I did. I met a lot of great people, and there's no lack of inspiration, that's for sure. There are things I miss about NYC and home is home; I'll always love NJ. There is still a lot for me to explore in California, but the West Coast has my heart at the moment.


Any exciting upcoming projects?

I'm working at a video agency in San Diego and I've been getting to work on some fun branded content there. We've also been adjusting to living in a new place, so I haven't had much time to work on personal work aside from shooting photos.

I have few themes I've been thinking about for a surf film that I've been collecting references for. We're pretty settled now, and there's talk of an El Nino winter coming up, so maybe now's the time to start another one...


Photos courtesy of Phillip Mansfield via Instagram