Making a film, skateboarding or otherwise, is daunting, and unless there’s a strong creative vision behind the wheel, the outcome can be pretty dull too. Which is why it’s so easy to find formulaic, repetitive skate videos, and so rewarding when you find good ones that offer some distinct viewpoint or new aesthetic (that will inevitably be ripped off and bastardized).
To understand a little better how some of our favorite skate video makers think about filmmaking, and learn where they get their inspiration from, we asked three different filmmakers—Colin Read, Bing Liu, and Greg Hunt—to tell us about their favorite films.
All of these guys have contributed something special to the skate video cannon, and they also make films completely outside of skateboarding, so they have interesting takes on what makes a video work.
Basically, we attempted to do Inside the Actor’s Studio with dudes who make skate videos. Enjoy the show.
Do you remember the first movie that moved you emotionally?
Probably The Land Before Time. When I was a kid, that was the movie I would watch over and over again. That was a super emotional movie, so I’d say that one.
Since you’ve worked on films in and outside of skating, do you pay more attention to the craft when you’re watching films?
At the end of the day, movies are all about the story. Story, story, story. If the stories aren’t good, the rest won’t really make up for it. But that being said, it’s also a billion other things.
I think half of any movie—more than half—is the sound, so things about the sound and how the sound design works and how the dialogue was treated. Then there’s also performance, but from the performance you could infer that the director directed the performers in a certain way.
Even when I was just making skate videos, I was always paying attention to things that I could borrow from or learn from or just wholeheartedly steal from movies and stuff. And I did that all the time. They’re both films in the end, so I think crafts could be applied from one to the other.
There’s clearly a line between inspiration and ripping something off. How does a filmmaker know when they’ve crossed that line?
The saying goes, “Everything has been done before,” so it’s always good to pay attention to different things and see what resonates with you and how you could adapt that and combine it with all the other references that are inside of you to make something that is unique to yourself.
For example, Jacob Harris, he’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel in terms of filmmaking or doing anything that the world has never seen before. However, the way he puts those different pieces together and combines them and turns them into a skate video makes for something unique and new. And that, within skating, feels super fresh. Nobody is an island, creatively. Everybody has to lean on references and what they grew up enjoying and what inspired them.
That being said, I think you know if you’ve crossed the line. Right now in skateboarding there is a lot of line crossing. For example, Bill Strobeck, with the first Supreme video, sort of changed the game in terms of what people see skate filming as and what a skate video is, both with the way he films and the way he edits. You look to now and that’s what half of the videos are: complete wholehearted rip-offs of Bill’s style.
“Bill Strobeck…sort of changed the game in terms of what people see skate filming as and what a skate video is.”
If all you’re doing to influence your own style is looking to other skate videos, then of course your videos are going to look like other skate videos. I think it’s important to have the awareness to know what’s going on in media outside of skating so you could put some new spin on your video. Or you’re just some bizarre genius, like the people who make the Beez videos, and then you make something all on your own. There’s no right answer, but I think people know when they’re crossing the line.
Do you think the similarities between skate videos just become the standard at a certain point?
In skate videos, and even in commercial and music video spaces, things follow the same formulas a lot of the times, and that’s why things end up looking the same. There are all these different trends but still, everything ends up looking the same because they’re from the same influences.
So I try to approach everything with a bit of a blank page, so that rather than just making it feel like everything I’ve done before or that someone else has done before, I at least try to come up with something that challenges me and my ideas for projects. Otherwise, what’s the point of even making it? It’s like when people make a skate video and they make the sequel skate video and it feels exactly the same, the only thing different is that different tricks are being made. So it’s like why did you bother making this, you already made this video?
Do you like to reference your old work?
Sometimes I revisit ideas after a long absence. For example, I just shot this Danny Brown and Run The Jewels video and I completely and blatantly stole from myself, skate filmers will realize. Like in terms of VX1000 techniques that I’ve done pretty much though the last decade, from the Open Skateboards promo I made in 2011 all the way up to Spirit Quest. I used like 15 camcorders and VXs and a ton of VHS cameras. I wanted to put the nail in the coffin on how videos use all this glitchy shit. I’m just tired of it and I hope people stop doing it, so I wanted to go as far with it as you possibly can.
Any directors or films you would recommend to younger people who want to get into filmmaking?
I would kind of step back for a little bit from the people who are bigger now, because the people who are bigger now are largely influenced by who came from generation before them. So if your main influences are the people who are working a lot today, you might just be getting a second-hand watered-down version of the ideas of the people they looked up to.
People who are still working but they were more pioneering when they were younger too are people like Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-wai, and then people like [Michel] Gondry, who is a fairly obvious influence on me.
I think you should also try to experience as much art as you can. I read a lot and I think a lot of my ideas visually have maybe seemingly paradoxically come from books. Don’t close any door off for yourself and feel free to try anything out and borrow anything that you want to try out, especially if people are young. There’s no consequence.
Do you remember the first movie that made you want to get into filmmaking?
The first movie that made me want to explore being a filmmaker was Richard Linklater’s rotoscope movie, Waking Life. I saw that when I was 15. The movie, at its heart, is kind of asking a lot of questions about existence and what we’re out on this earth to kind of experience. All the limits of knowledge and the limits of our relationships with each other. I think at heart I’m very much an investigator, so it really tapped into my curiosity in a way that was really accessible for me.
Then I saw Richard Linklater’s other film, Slacker. It’s about a community, sort of the weirdos of Austin, Texas. I started doing that with my community in Rockford, Illinois. I got a bunch of people I hung out with who I felt like were the weirdos of Rockford and we spent the night improvising something. We had a few people riffing about a subject like existentialism or religion, and then I was like, “Okay, at this corner you’re going to bump into someone.” That would be sort of the handoff moment. That was the first thing I did shortly after watching Slacker.
While making Minding the Gap, were you watching a lot of other films for inspiration?
I was actually. I didn’t grow up being a cinephile, but once I was in my mid-20s and Minding the Gap started getting some traction in the industry, that’s when I started watching more films, documentaries in particular. I saw Hoop Dreams for the first time and that was mind-blowing. There’s this other movie, In A Dream by Isaiah Zagar, that really touched me for some reason. I felt like 75% of the movies I have watched over my entire life have been in the last five or seven years. Once I realized that I could be a filmmaker I basically started freebasing movies [laughs].
I do believe that you need to become very adept at the rules in order to break them. Nowadays I’m developing mostly fiction projects. In the fiction realm, I’m less interested in style and execution, which I know will come later, but I’m more interested in how to get something that is true that I’ve never seen before, but I know has happened in the world.
In documentary films, you kind of only have these nuggets of truth that you capture and what you’re trying to do is mold it through style and execution into something very digestible and entertaining. So there’s a little bit of inversion happening with the work I’m doing now, in terms of process.
“The Oscars feel like film prom and the lead up to it feels like a political election.”
Looking forward, you’re not trying to limit yourself to one genre or style, you’re just looking to see what’s next?
Yeah, it’s sort of like in Waking Life, the main character pulls whatever is next on the string if it’s interesting to keep pulling. But if not I’ll find a different string to pull on. I do think there’s truth in the theory about how some filmmakers are trying to tell one story really truthfully throughout their whole careers. Like if you look at Scorsese, his films are about these troubled males who have violent tendencies and they’re trying to control or not control their alienation from society. And all of my projects have to do with coming of age and parent-child relationships and what that means as you become an adult, so those are still relevant themes to me.
Why did you film skating in The Yeah Video on a glide cam thing?
I got the idea from this guy who’s in the Louisville scene. He was just telling me about how he liked to film a run-up shot with the glide cam and then film it fisheye or long lens and get more of a traditional angle. At the time I was assisting in a few high-budget wedding videos and one of the camera operators was using a glide cam. I was also a camera assistant with some other steady-cam operators, so it all kind of congealed at the same time and I got the glide cam. It took me like a year to get used to it. The Yeah Video was sort of the documentation of that year of learning how to use it and the limits of it and what I can do with it. The only critiques I really got for that video were like, “Oh, I got a headache watching this” [laughs].
Your film last year was in the running for an Oscar. Did you learn anything from that or did it change your perspective on filmmaking?
I sort of just got a peek under the hood of how the game works. The Oscars feel like film prom and the lead up to it feels like a political election. Which distributor is going to spend five million dollars on billboards in L.A. and radio spots? And which filmmakers are willing to stump for their films over the course of the campaign? So that was sort of interesting. If I ever have another film that’s up for an award I don’t think I would do the circuit as much.
Do you remember any films you saw that made you want to pursue a career in film?
Maybe Days of Heaven, this Terrence Malik film. Actually, I would say before that, it was Anton Corbijn’s music videos. I lived with Gabe Morford and he had a DVD with a bunch of Corbijn’s music videos on it. Especially these Super 8 Depeche Mode videos. “Behind the Wheel” is still one of my favorite music videos and pieces of film. I think that’s what really got me interested in the thought of wanting to make little films myself. I think it was just the imagery, it has such a specific style and feel.
What else were you watching at the time besides those music videos?
Around that time I started to get a lot more into films. I was pretty lucky as a teenager. I would spend the summers at my dad’s house and he was a bit of a cinephile. He would go to bed pretty early and I would just stay up and watch all his movies.
I didn’t even know what I was digesting but I was watching like [Francis Ford] Coppola’s The Conversation or Apocalypse Now, Mean Streets, and all these old [Martin] Scorcese films. I would just eat ice cream and watch movies. I was 15. But once I got into shooting photos in my 20s I was more comfortable with myself as a creative person. I was watching Days of Heaven all the time, also watching Blade Runner all the time.
Was it helpful that you were shooting photos before making films?
It made cinematography a little bit easier. Photography is sort of where I found confidence in being able to get images. You start looking at the photos and figure out what it is you like about that photo, especially with film. Then you get better at it where you can actually go and achieve the shot you want pretty easily. The sorts of moods or a feel or a type of image that you are really inspired to get.
Once I started shooting film, like 16mm, I had this thing in me where I knew I had confidence. I would start looking through the camera and know, “This is going to be a really cool shot.”
“Once I got into shooting photos in my 20s I was more comfortable with myself as a creative person.”
So now you’re a director for a company called Farm League. How different is that than working in skating?
They do everything from very straight-forward commercial production to documentaries and branded films and things like that. Making a skate film and working with them is completely different. To shoot skateboarding, I think you have to get kind of guerrilla to get stuff. It’s hard to shoot the skateboarding itself in a traditional production environment.
For example, the Geoff Rowley Yeti piece is a branded film made through a proper commercial company which means you have to go through a proper channel to make that film. Yeti is the client and Farm League is the production company. You have to obviously stay within the budget and you have to abide by your union rules. With a skate video, you’re this one-man band who is ready at basically any time to go shoot.
I’m super happy you wanted to be a part of this. When I saw Mindfield, I was in high school and that was one of the first skate videos I saw that had an enhanced artistic look.
It’s funny, I always thought that skateboarders are underestimated in their sophistication by the skate industry. 14 year-old kids who skate are a lot more sophisticated than people think they are. You’re talking about Mindfield in that way, and I think it’s important to not set the bar low and really try to push what you’re doing.
But even now when I make skate videos, I think I’m most influenced by those first skate videos and photos that really inspired me as a kid. I think in a weird way I’m always trying to make Sick Boys or Wheels of Fire. That 16mm in Wheels of Fire, I want that feeling of that old Natas part and the look and feel of Sick Boys. Whether I’m always aware of it, those videos have a huge influence on how I film and shoot photos. I would say they even influence my non-skate work just as much. It took me a long time to realize that, but it’s true.