The eternal quest for paradise 9 Apr 2013

Last Paradise, an adventure film based on the evolution of extreme sports in New Zealand, is the life's work of Clive Neeson; a homage to his childhood and adolescence – and even more so to those with whom he shares his passion for the outdoors – but also a reflection on the cyclical passing of one generation to the next, and man's impact on his environment in a rapidly evolving and forever changing world.

The film also pays its biggest tribute to the extraordinary beauty of West Australia, as being the end of the 45 year quest for paradise.

Last Paradise opens in Ningaloo Reef with a timelapse of a blazing orange sun lifting itself above the landscape into the morning sky, grey tracings of cloud are incandescently brought to life glowing like embers in the fading remnants of the night. The steady roar of the ocean maintains as the scene dissolves to a rocky bay, stark cliffs, white capping ocean presided over by now cool, flawless blue sky. Powerful waves peak and arch, one after the other breaking in symmetrical lines, great walls of water slung across the bay.

A lone surfer in a full-length wetsuit, camera attached to a protective helmet, clambers across the rocks. First-person footage demonstrates the brute power of the sea, waves crashing into a vanguard of reef, a violent recoil of foam unrestrainedly sprayed against the cold blue canvas of sky. The composition is unembellished and adrenalin-soaked; the lone surfer hurtles down the sheer face of a breaking wave, again the camera cuts to the first person and in the belly of the wave curtains of water gleam in the morning sun before dissolving into a wild mess of foam.

The resource industry has played a surprising role in the pioneering of the adventure lifestyle.

Neeson told PESA News Resources the parallels between his career in oil and gas and his passion for extreme sports are tangible, with both offering the potential to engage with and further discover and understand the environment, and both fundamentally focused on harnessing the raw power of nature.

"They feed off the very same appetite for adventure; they're very similar in as much as they will attract the same kind of people into them. As I've seen in the oil and gas industry in the generation I worked in, it was particularly dominated by engineers who had an appetite for adventure and new horizons," Neeson observed.

"The innovation of extreme sports is what this film deals with. It concerns sports which engage the wilderness and tap the natural forces as a source of energy. That's what we know as extreme sports. And, of course, like the petrochemical industry, which also does that, we're pushing the limits all the time – of gauging and braving the elements to extract that energy. There's a lot of commonality there."

Neeson himself was born into a life of travel and unvarnished inquisitiveness; he and his brothers spent their early childhood in East Africa before moving to the small town of Raglan, New Zealand.

"My parents were wildlife cinematographers in Africa in the 1950s, and myself and my brothers were raised, often in a campervan, travelling around the outback of Africa," he told PESA News Resources.

"Of course, it's a very dangerous environment – but, even though we were at times very petrified and vigilant, we actually developed a comfort zone in that daily sense of adventure, travelling and, particularly, danger. Such that when we moved to New Zealand, a place where there weren't wild animals and there weren't similar kinds of threats, we had the natural inclination to go into the wilderness, looking for the same danger."

With an absence of toys or other modern, manufactured forms of entertainment, Neeson and his brothers were obliged to seek out and make their own fun, actively engaging with their environment and creating increasingly evolved and innovative methods of doing so.

"You pretty much imagined and then you designed and then you built. That is the foundation of science and technology innovation," Neeson noted.

"So, right from the very beginning we were honing those skills. New Zealand had it all in the way of unexplored wilderness. We were looking for an exciting way to tap the natural forces, take on the natural elements – in the forest, the lakes, the rivers, the waterfalls, the mountains and coastlines – take that natural energy and transfer it into fun and adrenalin.

"And, at the same time, to understand those things we had to innovate some kind of device, whether it be from the most basic surfboard through to the bungy cord. We also had to innovate some way of measuring the elements – that is data acquisition."

This, indeed, was the genesis of the methodology Neeson employed in his quest to better understand the ocean and weather patterns as a university student and young, eager surfer.

"During the '60s we had inadvertently discovered that not far from our home was one of the best surf breaks in the world – it was previously unknown," he recalled.

"The passion of myself and my brother had become big wave riding, and this place was the perfect venue. The only problem was that by the early 70s we began studying at university in Hamilton which was some 30 miles inland."

Petrol rations, a consequence of the 1973 Middle East oil crisis, left enough fuel to visit the coastline maybe once a week, Neeson recalled, creating a further impediment to chancing on the perfect surf conditions.

"At that time there was no methodology or published information that allowed you to be able to determine when the good waves would come or how big they were – no surf predictions. So, the challenge was to be able to predict the best surf of the week and which days it was going to happen," he told PESA News Resources.

"You could imagine the pull there, to have potentially one of the best surf breaks in the world to yourself during times of petrol rations, and being able to hit it on the right day, optimising the right time at university and the right time in the water.

"I decided, thanks to the university and an inspiring physics professor, to design the first multi-channel data acquisition system.

"Digital climate monitoring systems became my passion. Of course, they evolved in the petrochemical world into process control systems and also oceanographic data acquisition systems, both of which I continued developing for the oil and gas industry."

The Maui offshore gas field had been discovered in 1969, with the New Zealand government and industry moving towards development throughout the '70s; and Neeson's first appointment was with the government-established Natural Gas Corporation.

"We had a very sophisticated control system there, which monitored not only the Maui platform, but also controlled the Maui pipeline around the country – it also had what we call a real-time pressure/volume predictive model and leak detection system, which was the first of its kind in the world, and it was very problematic. I was engaged to get the thing up and going, including the SCADA system," Neeson reflected.

"The real attraction was that it opened up a vocation that was very technical, state-of-the-art Silicon Valley-type electronics, but also being totally applied to the exciting outdoors, not only around an amazing country like New Zealand and later Australia, but also the subsea world."

They were, Neeson told PESA News Resources, exploring uncharted territory.

"Of course, everything we were doing then was revolutionary: measuring the oceanographic parameters to put in a platform," he recalled.

"This included the control systems for the platform, and being able to measure and predict waves over a long period, so that we could perform the correct engineering, be it the one hundred year wave or be it the daily wave spectrum that the tender vessels had to be prepared for.

"All of that, in the very same way as when we were kids, was very, very exciting, because here we were with a real budget – as opposed to when we were kids – to use the skills all the way from physics, thermodynamics, Newtonian laws, and then engage state-of-the-art electronics in building customised electronics systems to tackle the problem."

After a three-year stint with Natural Gas Corporation, Neeson subsequently moved to the United Kingdom, where, based near Cambridge, he worked in conjunction with companies such as STC Technology and Nortel Networks, who were designing new technologies in data acquisition.

"There were also companies involved in the design of high-criticality control systems specifically for oil and gas. – I would work for a combination of both," Neeson recalled.

"It soon became evident that oil and gas applications in Australia and New Zealand could benefit from consultants who could periodically come and bring them up to speed and design their own systems using what had been newly developed in the UK.

"So, the niche to be exploited was to immerse oneself in the state-of-the-art design in the UK involving data acquisition technology for oil and gas, and then to return to Australia and New Zealand, and apply that with the various energy companies there – that was Shell BP Todd, Petrocorp, Synfuel.

"I became basically a SCADA consultant for the southern hemisphere, including Woodside with oceanographic systems, Goldfields gas line project etc. For two decades I was working between the northern and the southern hemisphere, and as many oil and engineers can recall, we were constantly bumping into the same people."

Neeson told PESA News Resources by the 1990s the petroleum industry had undergone a raft of changes, was downsizing and concurrently moving away from designing new technology, such that work shifted to troubleshooting oil and gas control projects.

"During this era of cost-cutting in the resources industries there were one or two catastrophes that hit the headlines, and I got a phone call from the lawyers. I was called upon because I was familiar with the design of the various systems which were related to the cause or forensic analysis of those catastrophes and to the physics of the thermodynamics," he recalled.

"These lawyers opened the door to a whole new involvement. It soon snowballed and I found a new occupation in forensic investigation and expert witnessing, which actually involves a lot of time with the lawyers preparing briefs of evidence: science communication, that is translating physics and electronic technology principles to layman terms for judges and lawyers in particular.

"This is not a process of trying to nail a party, but rather to establish key information for all concerned. Obviously the side who appoints you benefits from the strength of that, because sometimes they're the culpable party and they gain the insight of knowing if they should settle the case or throw more money at the legal process.

"That's how I, in particular, ended up migrating towards the disaster investigation and prevention business which became quite a booming industry leading all the way up to Y2K."

Neeson told PESA News Resources to this day he still works in investigations involving electronic control technology of petroleum and mining, balancing his work with his passion for the outdoors and film.

Indeed, Last Paradise, created with 45 years of original footage, brings together Neeson's enthusiasm for both science and extreme sports.

"I began filming at the age of 15 with a broken camera that I bought in a pawn shop, mainly because my parents wouldn't let me touch their camera," he recalled. "By the time I was 17 years old, I had had the vision of this film and I knew what I would be filming; I would be filming places, cultures, and the innovation of new sports.

"What drove me was the passion and the dream of being able to afford the adventurous life that I had envisaged then; it was about adrenaline seeking, exploring new travel frontiers and a career that was closely meshed with that."

A film about life and a culture, Last Paradise is also an open letter to a generation inheriting a vastly different world from the one Neeson, his brothers and his friends grew up in.

"I wanted to use what I saw as being the world's most exciting adventure, that is the innovation of extreme sports and adventure travel, use that story in original footage, to address the world's biggest problems," he commented. "People are astounded to realise from the original footage just how the planet used to be a generation ago."

Neeson told PESA News Resources the challenge for the next generation is great as we seek out resources in increasingly extreme environments.

"That requires a generation of physicists and electronic engineers to lead the charge or carry on the charge. It's worrying that we don't have that generation now," he observed. "Most of our modern solutions, in transport, energy, electronics and even medical technology have come through pioneering physics. Providing for the needs of a rising population will require even greater challenges. So where are the future physicists?

"One of the objectives of Last Paradise is to create an appetite for not only recreating outdoors but studying science, in that it is an exciting adventure, that it is an opening to a very exciting life, a well paid, rewarding life.

"The film establishes the importance of bringing kids into science for the future through the playout of the story. It's not so much as finding the resources for an increasing population, it's being able to pursue them in a very clever way that does not injure the environment."

Neeson observed the challenge for the next generation – as it was for his generation as revealed in Last Paradise – lies in combining a rewarding and healthy life with a sense of purpose and endeavour.

"Everyone has a childhood dream – just imagine the most exciting thing you want to do in your life. To make that happen you'll come upon some real-life challenges. But your passion and excitement for the dream is such that it gives you the power to tackle these challenges and create whatever life you imagine. Achieving that is possible for anybody. Last Paradise is about inspiring anybody to create a fulfilling life of their own design while still serving the world."

Last Paradise will screen in main centre cinemas this June. Clive Neeson also hopes to find a sponsor partner to extend the screenings program to an environmental and science educational tour around wider Australia.

For film trailer, more info and details of screenings, go to www.lastparadisefilm.com. 

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