“Jeremy Wray front three-sixty-ing the Santa Monica triple set was the first thing I saw with that lens and that camera. It was shockingly powerful.” Josh Stewart is telling me about the day he fell in love with the Sony DCR-VX1000 camcorder. “The VX1000 and that original Century Optics fisheye, the combination of those two made it this super camera. So seeing Jeremy Wray three-sixty over that lens was like, ‘What the fuck is that? I have to figure that out.’”
Consumer video technology has seen extensive innovations since the time Sony introduced the VX1000 in 1995. Hefty camcorders with resolutions under 500,000 pixels have been made obsolete by cell phone cameras with resolutions of over 12 million pixels. Bulky tapes that hold one hour of footage have been replaced with thumbnail-sized memory cards that hold five-and-a-half days of footage. As camcorders progress faster and faster, the lifespan of any given model becomes increasingly shorter, making it harder for older camcorders, especially those as old as the VX1000, to compare to anything current.
And yet among skateboarders, the VX continues to be heralded as not merely a useable camcorder, but a preferred one. Why?
The short answer: The VX1000 and Century Optics MK1 fisheye lens just work well for skating. The MK1, better known as the “death lens,” is still the biggest, roundest fisheye available. The VX’s top-mounted handle and weight (about four pounds) make the camcorder easy to hold and stabilize when you’re cruising around, and the thing is durable enough to sustain being dropped or smacked by an errant skateboard.
The longer and more fun answer: Skateboarders made the VX1000 an institution.
Making skate videos in the pre-VX era was a fiddly mess. “Before digital video cameras came out it was the Wild West,” Stewart told me. “People were filming with so many different types of cameras, there was no standard.” If the Hi8 or VHS tape you were using didn’t glitch while you were filming, you were still at risk of having your footage lost or damaged on its way to whichever video editor you sent it to. “When you were filming on Hi8 you’d have to physically send the original tapes to whoever you were sending footage to because you couldn’t make dupes [duplicates],” Stewart said. “If you made a duplicate you’d see the degradation in quality. DV was such a huge step because you could make dubs via firewire,” a cable for connecting your camcorder directly to your computer, “and it was the same quality.” Before firewire, few filmers could even transfer footage to a computer. Often they edited directly from one VHS to another using their home VCRs.
“Before digital video cameras came out it was the Wild West. People were filming with so many different types of cameras, there was no standard.”
It also wasn’t unheard of for skaters’ entire video parts to get lost in the haphazard network of mailing out tapes. Stewart suffered this fate with a part he filmed of Ed Selego for Planet Earth skateboards. “I sent all my tapes to Planet Earth and that video ended up getting cancelled, so there’s footage of Ed that never saw the light of day.” (Years passed before Stewart learned his tapes had been forgotten in shoe boxes under the bed of Chad Fernandez, who briefly rode for Planet Earth.)
The VX1000, with its DV tapes and firewire input, solved practically all of these problems.
Although digital video was available to professional television and movie producers beginning in the late ’80s, amateur filmmakers had to wait until 1995 for Sony to release the VX1000, the first consumer-level digital video camera, and its accompanying miniDV tapes.
Jay Sato, vice president of Sony’s personal video division from 1990 to 1998, oversaw the entire design and production of the VX1000. “The primary market was the broadcast industry,” Sato told me. “Television stations, newscasters, those kinds of people.” In the early ’90s most news crews shooting outside a TV studio used huge, shoulder-mounted camcorders that recorded onto Betacam tapes, themselves only slightly smaller than VHS tapes. That setup was inconvenient and not conducive to much camera movement or travel, plus it cost a shit ton.
With the VX1000, Sony took the power and quality of professional grade equipment and shrank everything down into a compact camcorder that even amateurs could afford. Sony used the same image processing equipment from Betacam for the VX1000 — a computer chip-looking thing called a charge-coupled device or CCD — but they were able to make the CCDs smaller and less expensive.
When the VX1000 debuted in ’95, the kind of Betacam camcorders used by newscasters cost around $30,000. The VX1000 retailed at $3,500. “There were a lot of news stories they could never do because they would never take the chance of damaging a $30,000 analog Betacam,” Sato said. But with the VX1000, “they could shoot forest fires, floods, all sort of different stories. It allowed a lot of amateur people to get involved in documenting a story they wanted to tell.” This included low-budget skateboarders as well as filmmakers in higher-end businesses – like porn.
“We started seeing huge sales to San Fernando,” Sato said about the Southern Californian hotbed of the porn industry. “We got backorders, we couldn’t believe it. People were buying ten at a time.” Sato’s division initially thought the camcorders going to San Fernando were being resold overseas, but after looking into the customers, they realized the camcorders were going to porn producers looking to strip down from the more cumbersome film cameras. “It actually revolutionized the porno industry. The quality was so much better and it had low light visibility. And the zoom to get in those tight spots. I think at that point everyone gave up on film.”
Famed pornongrapher John “Buttman” Stagliano found the VX1000 perfectly suited for filming the gonzo style of pornography he pioneered in the ’90s, where the cameraman doubles as a performer. In a 2014 article for Reason magazine, Stagliano said this about using the VX1000 for porn: “All of a sudden, people who had been actors could shoot and people who had good ideas could shoot, so you had people into porn shooting porn.” And what worked in the bedroom also worked in the streets.
In 1996, while filming for Girl Skateboards’ Mouse, Aaron Meza got a call to pick up a new camera before leaving for a skate trip to Vancouver. “That was the first camera where I knew the model number as the VX1000,” Meza told me. “The first day we went to Vancouver, Eric [Koston] did a nollie nosebluntslide and nosegrinded a long square rail. I think it was literally the first day I filmed with it. All the footage is darker than it should be because I was trying to figure it out.” Those tricks ended up in Mouse, and, as far as I can tell, they’re the first skate clips ever filmed on a VX1000.
Word of the camcorder spread among skateboarders as other filmers and photographers saw Meza using the VX1000, but it didn’t really come into its own until 1998, when Century Optics released the MK1 fisheye lens. “Back then fisheye lenses ran the gamut of fitting the camera well or not,” Meza said. “I knew it was a better camera, but the fisheye we had didn’t look as good, and that seemed more important than whatever image quality I was getting.” At 4.5 inches wide, the big bubbly MK1 transformed the VX1000 into the ultimate tool for translating skateboarding’s awesomeness onto a screen.
“I saw an ad for that fisheye and I was like, ‘Holy crap, this looks amazing… This is the best fisheye ever.'”
Dan Wolfe was the first filmer to have the MK1, and he remembers spotting it in a catalog. “I saw an ad for that fisheye and I was like, ‘Holy crap, this looks amazing,’” Wolfe told me. “This is the best fisheye ever.” The first clips Wolfe filmed with it ended up in Element skateboards’ World Tour video that came out in 2000. “Donny Barley tried to switch hardflip the Santa Monica set when I had the VX3,” a Hi8 predecessor to the VX1000, “and he wanted to go back and do it. I had the VX1000 by then with the fisheye. That same day Jeremy [Wray] frontside three-sixtyed it.”
The photographer Atiba Jefferson was shooting photos at the session and was amazed at the sight of Wolfe’s new lens. “I remember [Jefferson] calling Ty Evans like, ‘Dude, you gotta see this fisheye Wolfe has. Thing is crazy,’” Wolfe said. By the end of 1999 every legitimate skateboard filmer had an MK1 for their VX1000, and for the next decade, it was basically the only camcorder skateboarders used.
The period between 2000 and 2007 may be the most profound time ever for skate videos. Videos that progressed and defined modern skateboarding and skate video filmmaking — Photosynthesis, Yeah Right!, This Is Skateboarding, The DC Video, Baker 3, Fully Flared — were all released during those years, and they were all filmed on the VX1000. Skate video output and quality ramped up so much during the early 2000s it changed many skateboarders’ relationship to skating. In a Skateboard Mag article titled “Has This Thing Ruined Skateboarding,” pro skaters aired their frustrations about how the VX1000 was essentially forcing them to skate harder than ever.
One pro, Anthony Van Engelen, compared the pressure to land tricks perfectly on camera to achieving an orgasm: “You always got that camera in your face and it’s not like when you used to go out skating with your boys…The video camera is pretty hardcore these days…You got to get business done. But of course when you do pull that trick… it’s better than sex. I would give up sex for a lot of tricks.”
The culmination of VX1000-induced progression was ’07’s Fully Flared, a video that took four years to make and for which filmer Ty Evans hooked up his VX1000 to elaborate dolly and crane equipment previously unheard of in skate videos. By this time Sony had stopped manufacturing the VX1000 in place of the updated VX2000 and VX2100 (which, for several reasons, principally their inferior microphones, skateboard filmers generally avoided in favor of the VX1000) and Panasonic had released an HD camera, the AG-HVX200, that, when paired with an even wider Century Optics’ fisheye lens, could capture skateboarding at a higher quality.
Panasonic’s HVX200 also used solid-state memory cards that provided greater, sturdier, and more compact storage than miniDV tapes which could occasionally glitch. Evans started using the HVX200 toward the end of Fully Flared, and after the video’s release, he decided his next project should be shot entirely in HD, even if most of skateboarding at the time wasn’t interested in making the switch. “We got those cameras at the tail end of Fully Flared, and were using them for scenic shots and B-roll,” Meza said of the HVX200. “Right after that video came out Ty was like, ‘Let’s do the next video in all HD.’ I didn’t think the tide would turn. I didn’t think a lot of guys would have access to HD cameras and it was just gonna make a video that takes forever to make even longer.”
It wasn’t entirely out of habit that skateboarders clung to the VX1000. Very few HD cameras have the top-mounted handle needed to not drop a camcorder while jamming down the street. The MK1 lens’ circular shape is also ideal for keeping a skateboarder right in the center of frame without showing too much of the environment ahead or behind them. The HVX200’s fisheye is rectangular, which not only risks cutting off the skater’s head or board when you try to keep them centered, but makes oncoming obstacles move more slowly into frame, deadening the spontaneity and excitement that make skate videos worth watching in the first place. If the MK1 is a spotlight, focusing only on what the skater is doing right now, the HVX200’s fisheye is a flood light, giving too much away at once.
By the early 2010s, more filmers were using HD camcorders like the HVX200, and senior guys were moving on to the realm of 4K Ultra HD. In response, younger filmers who grew up watching classic VX1000 videos chose to stick with the camcorder that felt truer to their memories of skateboarding. Brian Panebianco’s Sabotage videos — filmed primarily in Philadelphia’s Love Park, a spot the 2000 video Photosynthesis turned into a globally recognized icon of street skating — and Ryan Garshell’s GX1000 series both became adored by skateboarders across the lo-fi to high-def spectrum.
The VX1000 quite literally became a label of authenticity. HD skate videos are rarely labeled “HD,” but when companies film videos on a VX1000, they jump to titles of cringey puns like “VXtinct,” “VX-tras,” and “VX-clusive.” Top-tier pros like Shane O’Neill, who we usually find filmed in HD, use VX1000 footage to bolster their street cred, and young filmers often grab VX1000s to align themselves with the older, “core” side of skateboarding.
But if the VX1000 is a ticket to legitimacy, available to any skateboarder with a couple hundred bucks, it risks diluting the same distinction it’s supposed to preserve between the skateboarders busting their asses in the streets — the ones actually making skateboarding cool — and the wannabe skateboarders who just consume skateboarding culture.
When I asked Wolfe what he thought of kids filming with VX1000s today, he said he sometimes wishes the camera would die. “It’s like, are you really buying a camera to make a video, or are you buying it to make a statement and have an accessory?” Fortunately, filmers like Panebianco, Garshell, and a handful of other VX1000 disciples are making sure the camcorder keeps its cred.
“There’s a movement of paying homage to the things that made skateboarding feel raw in the ’90s and early 2000s that are less attainable now,” Stewart told me. “When I was a kid you were hated on for being a skater and it made it feel that much more special. Now skateboarding’s hugely popular so kids find ways to make their style of skating a subculture, and the VX is one of those things that keeps it underground.” For Panebianco, the VX1000 isn’t just a way for him to make raw skate videos like Photosynthesis. It allows him to relive that history. “Looking through the VX at Love Park a year or two ago, it kind of was like a time machine,” Panebianco said. “It looks just like that video. Same exact camera, same lens.”
That filmers like Panebianco and Stewart, as well as younger kids just starting out, are able to buy VX1000s 16 years after Sony stopped manufacturing them in 2001, says a lot about skateboarders’ dedication to the old camcorder. Panebianco finds VX1000s on eBay for $400-$500 and MK1 lenses for about $600, and websites like VX1000Market have made a business of selling refurbished ones. While every damaged or broken VX1000 brings the global supply ever closer to zero, there are a few camera shops saving the camcorder from extinction.
Kerry Adams owns Video Electronics in Boston, and he’s earned a reputation as the guy for VX1000 repairs. When I asked him over email to name some of the countries he’s received repair orders from, he said, “VX1000s arrive from all over the world. The countries NOT represented would be a shorter list.” Since most replacement parts for the VX1000 are no longer manufactured, and available ones would be out of his customers’ price range, Adams relies largely on parts from salvaged camcorders, of which he maintains a steady supply. “As long as I’m working, the VX1000 will go on. After that, they’ll become shelf ornaments, each with hundreds of stories.”
Whenever the VX1000 finally does fall out of use among skateboarders — in five, ten, maybe even twenty years — that date won’t signify much. The VX1000’s contribution to skateboarding is that it gave skateboarders everywhere a standard to live up to for filming skate videos and preserving skateboard history. That contribution won’t be erased simply when the world runs out of VX1000s, because it has already been living on in the progression of skate videos since the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Before the VX1000, it was hard to make a good-looking skate video that was actually visually and aurally pleasing to consume, and many videos in the late ’80s and early ’90s were not. After the VX1000, big skateboarding brands could make beautiful, timeless videos, and no-name skateboarders could also film and edit videos just like the pros. The VX1000 was a landmark step in solidifying filmed skating as the central goal and product of skateboarding in general. It’s democratized the preservation of our culture forevermore. The VX could die tomorrow, but we’ll never be able to lose sight of its influence.
July 13, 2018 3:59 pm
July 13, 2018 5:19 pm
no mention to fat bill? damn.
July 13, 2018 6:47 pm
“It’s like, are you really buying a camera to make a video, or are you buying it to make a statement and have an accessory?”
July 13, 2018 8:33 pm
July 28, 2018 8:33 am
In other words “I don’t want to accept that this old thing is cooler than the expensive stuff I use now.”
July 13, 2018 8:32 pm
I despise this camera!