When skate brands make commercials that involve anything more than just skating, they usually turn out pretty badly. Asking pro skaters to read lines and act is a time-honored tradition, but so is skateboarders’ inability to do any of that well.
Which is why the actually good (or at least interesting) skate commercials really stand out. We’ll never love them as much as we do skate videos, but they’re the kind of thing you accidentally scroll past on YouTube and click on for a quick shot of nostalgia.
We’re all familiar with the filmers of our favorite videos, but we probably know nothing about the filmers behind our favorite skate commercials. So we tracked down three guys behind some of the most memorable skate commercials and talked with them about weird behind the scenes stories and how they put these funny videos together.
Eric Noren (Former director/filmer at NHS)
How did you get into making skate commercials? Did you come from filming skating?
Somehow in college I thought if I could make skate videos and be like Spike [Jonze] that would be perfect [laughs]. We used to have a copy of Goldfish that we’d watch in photography class at the end of the day and then go skateboarding, and I think that’s what inspired it.
But I was going to film school and I bought my own camera setup with my school loans. I took out some extra loans and I bought my Bolex, my light kit, generators, and I was like, OK, I’m all in, I’m going to make skateboard videos. One night I was talking to Ron Whaley about how people at NHS needed help with videos, and the next morning I got up at 6 a.m., printed out my resume, and went into NHS and talked to [Jeff] Kendall [laughs].
What’d you say, “I’m a filmer and I want to work for you guys?”
Essentially. I started a part-time job at a software company editing videos and the guy there brought in this new thing called Final Cut Pro, so I had access to a computer over there and when I went to Kendall he thought that was good because at the time they didn’t have a video editing system. It was a weird time where you’d go out and film and then send it to a production team or go to the post production house and rent time. So Kendall hooked me up with a couple of little projects and I started doing them at the software company at night illegally on their computer.
I did my edit and it was two or three in the morning and I start rendering and it’s just taking forever. I was there all night and everyone came in to work in the morning and they were like, “Why are you here?” and I couldn’t really hide it because I had it up on the screen. It was a big deal because it was the one computer you could edit on. I was like, “Sorry, I’m just rendering this skateboarding video and it’s taking forever.” They fired me right there and I took the video across the street to Kendall like, “Hey, sorry, this was taking forever to render and I just got fired from my video editing job. If you find the budget to get me a computer I will make the video here.” [laughs] That’s how it happened.
When you started at NHS were you making scripted commercials right away?
The opportunity came up with Krux, mostly. One of the big differentiators was that I was shooting on motion picture film. That gave it a high end production look compared to most of the commercials that were going to 411VM. So I told them, let me have a film account for the branded commercials so we could do this higher end production look, basically for brand differentiation.
80% of the time we would make promotional skateboard videos, but when there was a commercial that was going to go on 411, they gave me that opportunity to come up with a conceptual commercial and script the whole thing out.
We did this one where Alex Moul spent his whole day on his skateboard and we shot it in 16mm black and white. Alex wakes up sleeping on his skateboard, then he’s flipping a pancake and doing a wallride and talking on a cell phone. Krux was a small brand so you could take risks with it and it ended up, as far as I know, doing really well. I think one month it actually out sold Indy trucks.
There was something that was the perfect storm. A small brand that’s allowed to take risks that bigger brands won’t take. Especially when you put money into a rider, a lot of times you want to go to the common denominator, and not in a negative way, but people want to see skateboarding. Like, you’ve already put so much money into the rider and the brand, let’s show them skateboarding and put some music over it.
Because everybody knows that traditional skate video content works to some extent, so why mess with it.
Yeah, right. You don’t want to put Cairo [Foster] going down a rail in a handstand or an extreme deodorant commercial with Colt [Cannon] and then have people reject it. But at the time not a lot of people were putting money into branding truck companies.
That’s also why we got into the talking truck commercial with Krux, because they have a hole in them. Nobody really thinks about it, it’s just a truck under your board, and they all sort of look the same. So we were like, OK, Krux, what does it have? It has a hole in them, so let’s make it talk. I’m really stoked [Giovanni] Reda was the voiceover.
How did the Cairo Foster handstand commercial come about?
Ron and I wrote that together and Louie [Barletta] came up with his character. That was also toward the height of Krux budgeting. We had been doing the commercials for a few years and Krux had gained traction at the time. Looking back, it was pretty expensive. We had three super 35mm cameras. We’d have to find cinematographers who had access to their own gear, because stuff like that was expensive. They were a million dollars, you couldn’t even own them at the time. You could only lease them for like $20,000 a day.
But we had a whole wire system set up for that and Cairo had gone through circus acrobat training. We went to this warehouse in Oakland one day so Cairo could try the rigging with the suit.
At that point we were all trying to come up with funny ideas to promote the full-length video, Feelin’ It, but it was also a reflection about everything getting extreme in skateboarding at the time. Everything was Bob Burnquist, Mega Ramp trend for a couple of years. Nike SB, adidas Skateboarding, all that stuff was starting up at that time.
Would you guess the budget for that commercial was over or under $100,000?
We probably pulled it off for under $100,000. It was definitely in the tens of thousands. People would help us out and work for a discounted rate. We used film ends, so there was a lot of stuff I did to make it look like a massive big-budgeted production, but we were saving every penny possible.
When they do a big movie production they put 1,000 feet of film in the camera and shoot like 800 feet of it, and then they would cut off the end and resell that. It would be like if you bought a used hard drive or new data card for your Red cam.
Skateboarding was becoming mainstream in advertising, and advertising people are always looking to differentiate themselves, so I would go to some of the bigger post production companies in LA and say, “I have this skateboarding commercial I directed, we have no money for post production. Will you edit this and put some visual effects in and you could put it in your reel?” and most of the time they would say yes.
So a bunch of those Krux commercials were colored at Company 3, which is the most expensive color house in the world. The colorist in Santa Monica drives Lamborghinis. They colored Armageddon and every major film. But I would hit them up with that proposition and offer $1,000, even though they charge $1,000 an hour for that stuff, and they would say cool.
Are there any rejected commercial ideas that you really wish you could’ve made?
I have a storyboard for Kenny Reed that I pitched. Kenny is skating through a bazaar and all these kids were chasing him down the street, he’s in this far off land, and he’s ollieing over somebody pushing a cart in the middle of the bazaar. Then the camera pulls back and it’s just a movie set in Hollywood and Kenny pulls of his shawl and is in normal clothes.
Do you think Kenny would’ve been into that idea?
I don’t know, probably [laughs].
Kevin Kerslake (Director: DC’s “The Chase”)
You’re known for making music videos, but can you tell me about your background with skating?
It was all sort of back in the Dogtown era, around the time pool skating was popping up. Then I went to film school. I kept doing all the action sports stuff so I just filmed surf and skating, and then I veered off into doing more narrative and experimental stuff. Once it got a little later I ended up sustaining concussions mostly from other activities and I just couldn’t risk any more neurological damage so I tapered off my skating. Now it’s just skating down the beach to surf or getting around Venice.
Does anything about skateboarding lend itself naturally to storytelling?
I think the hunt for spots and the persistence in trying to pull off certain feats, those threads have a pretty strong narrative. I think also that you get tired just watching things that are bereft of a narrative. It’s just stuffing a bunch of candy in your mouth, in a way. It’s cool to see and I watch a lot of that stuff but it sort of ends up being just wallpaper.
So you made the iconic Rob Dyrdek “Chase” commercial for DC Shoes. How did you become involved with that project?
I had co-founded an action sports film festival that ran alongside Sundance that was called X-Dance. Every year while Sundance was going on we would take over a couple rooms in Park City[, UT]. My partner, Circe Wallace, introduced us to Ken [Block, DC co-founder,] and the whole DC team because we were looking for sponsors. Ken and I became good friends and then we started developing a project that was set up at Warner Bros. It was going to be a TV series involving the whole DC team.
The project was called “Pavement.” We were going to live at this huge estate and put street and vert spots there, so we were going to have all these skate features through the house and then they’d pick up and travel the world. The idea of the show was bottling up their universe and putting it on a single piece of property.
We were on the eve of shooting this whole project when an executive at Warner Bros. said he wanted to direct it. He wanted to write the script, which we said we were absolutely not going to work with a script, because having words memorized by skaters, that wasn’t the way to play that. But there was this executive who ended up saying, “I skated when I was in junior high, and I’m gonna write the script and direct it.” That then became the movie Grind.
Holy crap. I had no idea that movie came from a DC reality show.
I don’t know where chronologically the commercial fit in, but I know it was within that time zone. Ken proposed this idea of doing something like Hard Day’s Night, by The Beatles, with Dyrdek basically playing The Beatles getting chased by adoring fans. I can’t remember the song that went along with that sequence, but its a pretty prominent sequence in the film.
So the handrail Rob skates is normally round, but it’s square in the commercial. Why did you guys modify it?
That was a Dyrdek choice. He was pretty fanatical about the details and I’m not sure why he steered it in that direction. It could have been its original slickness or some other factor. But it was a pretty big rail. I know at that point it was definitely the biggest that he’d done.
It’s funny because he nailed it on the third take. It was like, disarmingly quick. We expected to get a few shots that we could use fragments of if we had to piece stuff together. I know that’s satanic to say when you’re doing skate videos, but in a commercial you have a finite amount of time to squeeze them in. But his is all the same take.
Do you remember where you got the square cover for the handrail? You get it custom built somewhere?
He did. I can’t recall. I know Colin [McKay] was pretty involved with it too.
Do you remember how it was attached to the rail?
That’s the benefit of doing things when you have that sort of crew. It was all permitted and had approval. It might have even been welded. But done in such a way that when we left nobody would have ever known that we did that.
How big was the budget?
Probably low hundreds [thousands]. Nobody was getting rich off it but it was still more expensive than it would have been if you went guerrilla with it.
Yeah, it’s way more expensive than just going out to film that trick for a part.
[Laughs] That wouldn’t cost anything, right? But yeah, we had lights and there was a big cast, definitely north of 50-75 people. It was a big group that was chasing him. You probably put more than that because you’re doing different takes of kids running so you’re dealing with burnout factor so it’s like, well, we just lost a quarter of our cast so we pull in the reserves [laughs]. Sort of funny production problems.
Federico Vitetta (Former filmer/director at Girl Skateboard Films)
What was the first skate commercial you worked on?
After Fully Flared, Kelly Bird, the brand manager for Lakai at that time, asked if I wanted to move to L.A. to work at Girl Films. I’ve always been a fan of the skits that Spike and Rick were doing at Girl, so I proposed to develop a new sort of department at Lakai to make skits in a commercial way. Kelly immediately said let’s do it, so the very first one I did was with Lucas Puig, “The Golden Foot.”
Lucas and I had this idea for years. When we were shooting Fully Flared we always wanted to film him kicking a ball up in the air and then do a series of tricks. We have footage of us trying it on trips and it was absolutely difficult.
I wanted to follow up later with a fake documentary explaining how we did it, saying we had a helium tank to pump the ball up. And I was telling people that we used helium because I was really trying to follow up with that.
What was the the process of developing commercials for Lakai? Were you the only one pitching ideas?
Yes. Believe it or not, they give me carte blanche. At that time it was a very informal type of company, so I didn’t have corporates to make a pitch to and explain why I wanted to do it. I would just go inside the office and say, “For the next line I want to do this,” and most of the time, like you’re experiencing now, I go all over the place with my explanation.
So by the end of the meeting they didn’t understand what I was saying, but they were like, dude, it’s great. Just do it. So I never had any formal pitch like you have to do in the outside world. Later in life, it’s better not to get used to that because nowhere else will you find that work environment.
Did any of your ideas ever get rejected?
Not from them, but I guess they got rejected from from myself if it was not working. There was not a lot of money in this so before I spent that money I had to shoot a test, and if the test was not working I wouldn’t spend any of the budget on it.
The most fun part is when I shoot the test, still up to now, because the test is something that you can go ballistic with. You’re doing it free form and there’s no people controlling you. The test is the spark in your heart, and I’m not looking for the final fire, you know, for the Burning Man. I’m looking for the spark.
I remember the underwater sequence. I had this idea and we went to a scuba diver, the same one who worked with James Cameron in Titanic. And I have the footage of myself going underwater to test it. When I see that it was working, you see my face smiling. I was so happy because in that moment I knew it was going to work.
What was the most difficult commercial you worked on?
One of the most complicated, because we went overboard in terms of how many shots there were in one commercial, was the Carroll “Out of Control.” Carroll was hurt at that time so he couldn’t skate with his foot, so I had this idea that wouldn’t it be nice if someone else was skating his shoe.
Sebo Walker was not on the team yet and I said this is going to be your chance to appear in something officially for Lakai. And then he switch flipped the downtown L.A. triple set and Kelly Bird asked him to get on the team.
You’re also known for using special effects in your commercials, like the “Twizzler.” How did that one come about?
The “Twizzler” and “Hangover Flip” were the first stuff in skateboarding where we used digital high speed cameras. We used a scientific camera, like those cameras that they were using to study bomb explosions in the army.
To maximize the budget I said we’re gonna shoot two commercials in one day, the “Hangover Flip” and the “Twizzler.” So that’s what we did, at the same location in front of the Walt Disney concert hall. For the “Twizzler,” Spike did a kickflip, but having it on the high speed camera, you were able to slice it. Like when you have cheese or prosciutto, you slice it into 100,000 slices and basically grab that frame and rotate it and make a twizzler.
I like when Spike smacks Mike Carroll in the back of the head with a board in that video. Does he really like that kind of slapstick comedy?
He’s such a fun person that he might want to become someone else that he’s not. Like the one where he slaps Andy Jenkins and his glasses go flying. He’s a happy person and creative, so you don’t really expect it. I guess it’s more interesting to play a role that you’re not in life.
I have footage of him staring at me from the camera. There’s not even one glance of him pulling away from his character, even if I was cracking a joke or talking to him, he wouldn’t leave the character. It’s like how actors will really get in the zone. Like for example, right now you keep hearing about the Joker. Other actors said they were scared of [Joaquin Phoenix] in between scenes because he was so into the part that he was not coming out.
The last commercial I wanna talk about is “Venice To Venice.” Was that the most expensive commercial you worked on?
It was the most expensive one I ever did for Girl because we were traveling to go to Venice. That one is my favorite. I pitched it as a short film with Guy in Venice, and to cover the cost I asked Kelly at Lakai if they could help out with the budget. He said sure, but in exchange I would cut a version they could run as a commercial. So that was the trade. The commercial came out in 2013 but the short film that I finally cut came out last year in November.
It was powerful to execute because if you just break it down to a few words, it’s skateboarding in Venice, surrounded by water, where there’s no cars. No one had really done that before.
We were in China before that filming for Pretty Sweet and went straight from China to Venice. I went ten days before Guy came because we decided to set it up like a real commercial, with location scouting, checking shadows and timing and everything. His wife came with him and he would walk around to find spots he could skate.
We were also shooting during the opening of the Biennale Arte festival that takes place in Venice every other year. We didn’t plan on that, but we had these Red cameras and looked like a full film crew, so people thought we had permits to be everywhere we were filming. People thought we were filming for an installation or a performance video.
And I don’t know if you noticed but when he pushes the gondola away he pushes away the camera, and from that moment until the very end the camera films skateboarding all from a boat on the water. Every single single trick is filmed from the water because I wanted the audience to look at him from that perspective.
I think we lost four or five boards in the water, at least. We rescued some with fishing line but some are still there under the water.