Behind the Lens with Rising Surf Videographer and NYC Firefighter, Etan Blatt

Good eye, sniper. Photo: Rob McEnaney.

Before last week, I had only come across Etan Blatt’s name during third-or-fourth-degree journeys down my Instagram’s explore page. I knew the man was producing some relatively rad surf edits shot on Long Island, and I knew his style was on a page of its own. What I didn’t know about Etan was… well, there’s a lot I didn’t know — too much to put into an intro paragraph.

So, after discovering Etan’s edit from Jonas had hit nearly 50k views within a week of being uploaded, I decided it was time to reach out and see what was up with the creative eye behind a heavy portion of the New York surf footage you see today. I think you’ll be surprised to find that not only has Etan worn several hats, but he continues to juggle an unlikely sort of work and passion — all while finding time to edit footage from the Long Island Railroad.

Yo, so can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from?

I’m originally from Hartford, CT. I grew up there while spending my summers in Long Beach. It wasn’t until after high school that I made Long Beach my permanent home. I was always running back and forth. I had my friends up there and my friends down here. I loved New York though — obviously the beach but also the city. The traffic, the people, the hustle and bustle, I loved it all which is funny because now I can’t stand any of those things. But when you’re running around as a teenager those kinds of things are exciting. I remember my friend Chris and I used to always take the A train down to West 4th street, walk down to Fat Beats record shop, cut through Washington Square Park and then to “Bomb The System” on Canal Street which was a graffiti store. You could get different caps for spray cans, t-shirts and all kinds of bullshit to get in trouble with.

We thought we were so cool. Shit, we thought we were “Telly” and “Casper” from KIDS. Looking back its almost comical but there we were, heading back to LB with some sweet vinyl, various spray caps and a new NYC subway T shirt. It was the 90s and we were all about it haha. Aside from my love for the city, I naturally developed a love of the ocean and water sports. I did the surfing thing and I did the sponger thing, and I stayed with the sponger thing. Yes, I am another sponger turned video guy but do some research, former bodyboarders are some of the best water photo and video guys out there!


The man himself. Photo: Shaun Cleary.

After high school I spent a quick 2 years living in Boston while completing a degree in Music Production and Sound Engineering. I was obsessed with music and wanted to make a career out of it. I made beats and recorded all kinds of music from rappers to jam bands. It wasn’t until I took my Advanced Non-Linear Digital Audio class that I said, “holy shit, this is fucking sick!” I think because of the video aspect of it. My final project for that class was to take a scene from “The Matrix” with absolutely no sound in it and create my own. Everything — dialogue had to be recorded by talent in a booth, footsteps had to be recorded in a foley session, ambient noises, gun shots, whooshes… everything had to be created by either recording or dropping in an effect from an effects library.

I didn’t make it easy on myself either. I chose the lobby shootout scene. It was horribly amazing. But I was hooked on post-production. I landed an internship at Soundtrack Studios in Boston and by the time I graduated the good people there had lined up a entry level spot for me at Soundtrack Studios in New York City. This is where I learned to be a professional nerd. 

I moved to Long Beach full-time and lived rent-free at my family’s house. I was living the dream; commuting on the train over an hour each way to work, working 12 to 16 hours a day while getting tons of new tasks thrown at me that needed to be done immediately. It was magical (sarcasm) but that was the best way to learn. Sometimes I would assist on ADR for “Sex and The City” or run the machine room all day hammering out D-Beta and 3/4 inch tapes of McDonald’s commercials for ad agencies. Occasionally, I would score an assisting engineer gig in one of the music studios. Eventually things slowed down over there and I was let go. Back out there to hit the pavement with my resume. It sucked. So after a few years as a personal trainer, physical therapy assistant and EMT, I became a New York City Fireman. It’s the greatest job in the world. 

Can you recall the first video that made you think, “I need to take a stab at filmmaking?”

Honestly, I never had a thought about becoming a filmmaker. I never use that term to describe what I do as a hobby because that’s all it is to me at this point: a hobby. Anyone can go to B&H, grab a DSLR and a tripod, shoot their boys surfing, throw everything in iMovie, load it to YouTube, share the link on Facebook and poof! He’s a “filmmaker.” It’s a very loosely used term. I’m a video guy or videographer/editor if you want it to sound more professional because I do get paid for some of my stuff. But I don’t want to give myself the credit of “filmmaker” because I’ve never made a film. Basically, if I knew about all this stuff in high school I would have been the techie nerd running around in a black t-shirt and black pants setting up lighting and cameras for the school play or talent show. Like that kid who chases Meg around in Family Guy. He’s Jewish, too.

"He's Jewish, too." Photo: Shaun Cleary.

“He’s Jewish, too.” Photo: Shaun Cleary.

But to answer the question, I must say that the original No Friends Bodyboard videos inspired me the most. Brian Stokes aka “Stoker” inspired my style the most for sure. Those videos were so motivating and had such a creative style. His intros were the best. And the way he edited to the music was spot on. That’s the way I do it now: always tapping my foot to the beat, counting the bars, and trying to line the clips up with the snare or kick drum. Bodyboarding is so explosive so you can line up that one big air to the hit of the crash cymbal. So in that sense, I guess you can say they made me want to take a stab at it.

Then Will Skudin and Mike Cimino started NYSEA and Will got in touch with me about starting to do some videos with them. That’s when I realized that I could start having a lot of fun, when I started shooting talented guys in the water. That motivated me to step my video game up. I met Leif [Engstrom] and started doing videos for him, and his style of surfing really afforded me the opportunity to develop my style of editing. The big pumps into an air section. It was almost like bodyboarding (not taking anything away from Leif) but it was explosive and exciting. Will helped me tweak a few things and showed me how to edit surfing as far as showing a bottom turn and keep a landing in a little longer before cutting stuff like that. 

You’re videos have a unique style… what’s your mentality/process in the editing bay?

I have my certain formulas. The workflow remains the same but I’m always tweaking the formula. I try to stay super organized and I get that from my days at Soundtrack. I don’t just start editing after a shoot. I organize all my clips and get them all on the same page. Meaning frame rates, codecs, etc. I’ll get everything laid out in Final Cut and go over all the clips creating little visuals in my head. Then it’s on to music. This is the most essential part for me. Choosing music takes me forever. Occasionally, it’s not my choice and I have to edit with what I’m given but that’s what makes a great editor. Making something great with what you have to work with.

For NY Bender, we had a guy make us a beat specifically for that edit. It wasn’t exactly my style but it worked. I like to choose music that other people won’t. Sure I can throw a Pennywise or Rise Against song down and it would be epic but my mom used to always say “conform and be dull.” I like to edit to music that people think I’m stupid for choosing. People love hip-hop and at the root of all that hip-hop are these great old songs that producers sampled. I like to find those songs and use them if I can. I get lost searching for music sometimes. For example I’ll start pulling up an old record from let’s say, “Tommy Tate” and the next thing I know I’m downloading old infomercials from the 70s. Mix the two together and you have some silly shit.

Now throw that down to a clip of a guy getting barreled at 120 frames per second and you have even sillier shit. I love that shit! Then with some color grading you can create a mood to go with that music. Color grading is a very creative process. I try to be as subtle as I can with it but I can go overboard. There’s nothing wrong with doing that either. It’s like there are these rules for how a surf edit should look and I’m like, “Nahhhh.” My background in audio plays a major factor in my style and it’s a good thing. I get different types of feedback. Mostly good but you never know with people.

Give us some insight into your latest edit, Greetings from Jonas. 50k views is no small accomplishment… how’d that happen?

I have no idea how that happened. Most of that edit was done on the Long Island Railroad.The morning after the blizzard, it was wall-to-wall sunshine and I could see out my bedroom window that it was firing. I grabbed my gear and went out to shoot around town. I had no intentions of creating a “Jonas” edit or anything like that. I thought maybe I could score some cool shots to put up on my Instagram — empty waves, spitting barrels, snow on the beach, shit like that. I went over to Lido and it was packed. There was a bunch of guys shooting including Nelly (Mike Nelson) and a good crew of guys out in the water.

I shot for about three hours that morning. I got home and looked at the clips that I captured. I knew I had a few good ones of Balaram and James Theobald but that was about it. I had one clip of Pat Schmidt getting crazy barreled but I had no idea it was him. The next morning Nelly shot me a text about clips that he had and said that he would send them my way if I was down to edit. I told him if I felt like we had enough clips and I was motivated enough to make something happen. The edit started out pretty brutal. I was over it quick. I must have put down clips to about 10 songs. All different types of music and it all sucked.

I’m sure a lot of guys would have been happy and posted a video but I hated it. I get obsessed. I’m a perfectionist. I hate rushing things and doing it half-ass. I was over it, I had to go to work at the firehouse. Then on my train ride my iPod shuffled onto a song I used for a Leif Instagram video. It was sped up for Leif but this time it was playing at normal speed. “Arise, Shine” by Synanon Choir, Prince of Peace. I instantly had an idea and I could see the clips flowing in my head. The hard part was that I had to get the song down to at least 3:30. I didn’t want it any longer, but that song is close to 6 minutes. It was a tough song to cut because of all the singing but after scanning the waveform over and over, I found a spot to cut and lined up the drums seamlessly. The clip was coming together.

I knew exactly where everything needed to be. Then Corey Frank dropped an edit of the same session and I instantly hated mine. I almost hit delete but then I decided to just keep editing because I thought my edit was silly and crazy just like it should be… and besides, no one is gonna watch it anyway. My intro was super busy and sloppy. It needed something. My friend Jason Belsky sent over some drone footage from that day which was a huge help and Rob McEnaney gave me a sick time-lapse of Midtown but I still wasn’t amped on the intro. Then on the train ride home I figured it out. Audio was gonna play a major role in getting people to watch this thing.

The news is always making these snow storms into a doomsday scenario. I searched for news clips from the blizzard of 2016 and the impending doom that awaited us in New York. I downloaded two clips, cut the audio, grabbed a few select sections and placed them over the intro. I added some reverb, sample delay and adjusted the EQ to bring down the low frequencies. Simple. I thought it sounded great and opened the video nicely. I was happy with it. I color graded, added some effects, transitions and went to bed. I liked it but I really thought people were going to hate it. I thought Nelly was gonna be pissed and that people were going to think I was a kook. Well, I’m still a kook… but 50,000 have watched it and they are still watching it right now. I have no idea why.

Usually I post an edit and it gets some play for about 48 hours only to be forgotten forever. I guess because it’s still winter… beats me. 50k is cool but there are way better edits out that are more professionally done racking in hundreds of thousands of views. That’s not an easy task but from what I just spewed out, we can see that 50k apparently isn’t that hard.  

Dream scenario. You can take 3 surfers to any spot in the world. Conditions are perfect for one full day and no one but you guys are on it. Who’s in the crew, where are you going and why?

That’s easy. I’m taking Will Skudin, Kurt Rist and Leif Engstrom to Teahupoo on super heavy day for an all New York assault. I would shoot with a Phantom Flex at 2,570 fps in full HD, fly in a Red Dragon on a drone and and hand each a guy a couple of GoPros. I would make the greatest New York surf video ever seen. 

Any closing remarks? Shoutouts? Maybe a legendary sign-off?

Thanks Whalebone for taking interest in my work. I’m so glad people enjoyed the last video and all the kind words and feedback I got are much appreciated. Thanks Mike Nelson, Matt Clark, Alex Dephillipo, Andrew Gesler and Thomas Brookins for being so damn talented and professional. I’m just a fireman who has fun trying to be like you guys in my free time. And thanks to one of my closest friends Will Skudin for showing me the way, getting me hired for the Quik Pro and opening the door for me to meet so many talented people. One day I will do this the right way and have a budget for some real cameras and trips and maybe earn the title “Filmmaker” but for now I’ll settle for kook sponger video nerd.  Sorry if I ran on and on in this interview. RIP DAVE MIRRA.