Video Frankensteins

As humans we seem to have a habit of creating Frankensteins we think we’ll control, and usually too late we discover the monster is, in fact, controlling us. We could use drugs, guns, or sexual habits as fine examples-but let’s take the video camera and skateboarding. Less than a decade ago, it was a big event to get filmed for a video-imagine that. It used to be four-maybe five-videos a year were produced, and skaters eagerly awaited their releases.

In the early to mid 90s videos were suddenly pouring out at a rate of two or three a month. This changed the way pro skaters thought, and around five years ago a disgusting phrase entered the skateboarding vernacular: “I’ll try it later if you shoot it with the video camera.” With many slight variations, the gist is always the same: forget the actual thrill of pushing your abilities for your own satisfaction-this feat has to be documented. Most important-the skater only has to do the trick once. This naturally led to the era of one-hit wonders that we’re just getting out of, and paved the way for numerous pros to live off a few tricks in their video part filmed half a decade ago.

Maybe we’d be better off smashing all video cameras and letting skate folklore take over. We could sit around the campfire and tell tall tales. “Oh, yes, I remember the time Mark Gonzales ollied the Gonz gap back in the day-must have been a good 30 or 40 feet at least-maybe 50. He had to push like the dogs of Hades were chasing him.”

But, no doubt a little skate rat would dispute the feat. “Bullshit, Grandpa-no one believes you. There is no way a skater would even try that without a cameraman filming. Quit telling lies.”

The argument isn’t so lopsided, though. Video cameras helped change the skateboard industry, and they fit in perfectly with the street-level revolution in the mid 90s. Video helped H-Street capture the most insane skating of the time, and boosted a company from moderate popularity to becoming one of the most talked-about brands around. The fact that it was shot horribly and some tricks were mired in darkness only better announced the changing of the guard. It put the power in the kids’ hands, which is always a double-edged sword: you got raw skating at it’s best, but as a whole, there is no doubt that videos planned better, shot better, and promoted better had way more impact throughout the 80s. Videos were eagerly anticipated and had premieres, and a lasting power that stretches to today. In short, they were more entertaining-and whether a video should be entertaining or just record tricks for prosperity is an argument that still persists.

Stacy Peralta, co-owner of Powell-Peralta up until the early 90s, is generally regarded as skateboarding’s video connoisseur. With Powell’s videos he followed the basic law of supply and demand. The videos were spaced out enough so that when a new one was produced, skating was as at a different level and the video would have a different feel to it-not to mention that skaters anticipated the upcoming release months ahead. “If you have a lot of videos coming out, it dilutes the industry,” Peralta says. “It takes the value out of the video. If everyone is doing it, what’s the point because there is nothing different? If it’s merely cataloging tricks and has no vision or artistic arc, it loses its vitality.”

Peralta shot with film as well as video, and employed an editing style that resembles cinema more than the basic style of today. He would often cut to different angles mid trick, and employed extreme close-ups on the skater or parts of the board. Whether you agree with Peralta’s assessment of videos or not, he must have done something right, because videos he produced over ten years ago still rank as favorites with many of today’s skaters.

“Powell videos pushed personality, but I didn’t care for that,” says Steve Douglas, who runs 411 Video Magazine Productions with Paul Schmitt, Josh Friedberg, and Chris Ortiz. “I know I’m in the minority when I say that, because other people loved them. And I didn’t want to see a close-up of the bearings spinning either-I wanted to see how high they the skaters were.”

Douglas produces 411VM, so he’s in a prime position to create videos as he sees fit. 411VM seems to be viewed differently than a board-company video because it showcases any skateboarder with a good trick-even if they’re not sponsored. “It keeps kids stoked,” he says. “It also offers a chance for companies to keep kids updated and promote their product without making their own video.” 411VM is structured like a magazine with different sections, such as the innovative new segment A Day In The Life, where 411VM shadows a prominent skater for a day to offer viewers insight into their life. “Video can show personality better than a magazine,” Douglas says.


doesn’t stop at making their video magazine, though; they make over ten videos a year: instructional videos, tour videos, a European issue, a biannual Best Of 411, and they’ll soon release videos of prominent contests.

411VM Productions also acts as a production house. Skate companies can hire cameramen, editors, artists for the packaging, rent equipment, dub tapes-anything and everything that is needed to produce a video.

“The old Powell videos were great,” says Tod Swank, CEO of Tum Yeto. “They had more feeling and seemed to have more of a reason behind them. Then skating videos got more basic; it got to a point where you’d just see the skater’s feet and not their faces-you couldn’t even tell who it was.”

Swank thinks videos are a great marketing tool, and feels the best time to release one is when nobody else is (a task that could prove next to impossible). Swank muses that a major problem is skaters think they have to assemble their best footage for a part. “Kids want to see them rather than just their best tricks. They’d rather see them than not.”

Swank may think this way, but skaters on the whole don’t. He has a tough time putting a video together. “Foundation hasn’t had a video for two years, and guess why? Skaters don’t produce. I think some of them are lazy . they have it pretty easy. I have six cameras that I’ve given to people, and they’re just sitting around.” Swank says the hardest part of making a video is getting the footage. “I have a hard time getting our guys to do our video because they’re all doing the TransWorld video or 411.”

All the sponsors and independent video producers out in skateboard land take a toll on the skaters. Steve Berra was recently at home working on the Birdhouse video when two different video producers called within a twenty-minute span trying to set up shooting schedules. With such a demand for footage, it’s no wonder videos lack the power they once possessed. Gone are the days when elite pros came out with one video part a year, sifting through their collections of tricks for the truly sick ones.

The responsibility of establishing a pro’s identity has always fallen in the board company’s lap, so board-company videos generally emphasize new riders more. Today, the market is inundated with cameramen who got a Hi-8 camera for Christmas, followed some pros around shooting so-so tricks and released a crappy video with a grocery list of skater’s names on the box. If a video has 30 guys mashed together and half-assed footage, the viewer can hardly gain any insight on the skaters, or even differentiate between them. Also, this type of video might contain footage the skater doesn’t necessarily want in a video part, and with the danger of overexposure it does more damage than good in the end. A few of the pros I spoke with agreed that ten insane tricks in a video have more of an impact than twenty “good” tricks.

Michael Furukawa, promotions manager at Powell, thinks that “skate videos” as we know them will eventually end up on computers when downloading becomes more efficient. Rather than just clips of tricks, which many skateboard sites already have available, an entire video could be po
sted on Powell’s Web site. Until then, Powell is doing it the old-fashioned way. They’re currently working on a video that will showcase each of their riders’ lifestyles. For approximately two weeks, a cameraman hung out with each rider in his house, skated with him, ate with the family, played basketball-whatever. In the case of Giorgio Zattoni, viewers will get a glimpse into the casual habits of a pro skateboarder living in a foreign land (Italy).

Besides their own video, Furukawa works with the rider’s other sponsors. “It’s not that much of a problem; we’ll trade off tricks with a shoe sponsor,” he says. “If Vans wants to do something with Steve Caballero, and they have footage of a great trick, it’s going to help build his personality in the long run.”

Furukawa, though, shares some of the universal woes of corralling footage for a video. “Some of the guys are great,” he pauses, before assuming an obvious PC tone, “Some of the guys are . busy.”

Birdhouse Projects is taking-or at least exaggerating-the old Peralta theories further than they have gone before. The End is a 35-minute video shot entirely on 16- and 35-millimeter film. Each pro skater has their own segment with their own theme. The riders were given carte blanche to do as they wished.

Whoops! The original 100,000-dollar budget soon became more of a downpayment. “It sort of got out of control,” says Team Manager Jay Strickland. “We just started talking all this craziness, and it began to happen.” What eventually happened was a video involving 1,500-dollar Armani suits, buckets of pigs’ blood, a Hollywood team of special-effects artists, flaming skaters, an orangutan, cameos from adult-film stars (they kept their clothes on), a matador costume, and a full film unit. They also rented a 1,000-dollar-a-day mansion (high-society segment), a bullring in Mexico (dream segment), a restaurant (food fight), a rental car (skater through the front window), and constructed a 10,000-dollar vert ramp.

It didn’t take long for the competitive-and creative-nature of these skaters to flare up. They quickly attempted to one-up each other. “It created some tension between the skaters,” Strickland says. “But it’s a good thing-everyone is only putting in their craziest skating footage, and they won’t tell anybody else what’s going on with their segment.”

Birdhouse’s vision didn’t stop once the movie was completed. They had a huge premiere with Crackhead Bob (of Howard Stern fame) as MC, and international premieres in Japan, Europe, and Canada are planned. A DVD, with behind-the-scenes footage, will be available next year. “We want to do it right,” Birdhouse Co-owner Tony Hawk says, concerning the effort focused on the release. “One of the reasons we called it The End is because I can’t see myself-or most of the team-working this hard on a video again.”

The problem with most of the videos today is that there isn’t a lot to separate them-they merge together and unfortunately most of them take on a disposable feel. 411VM uses this to their advantage, and with their vast pool of talented skaters and a magazine format, it works. It works for skaters as well, as they can concentrate on a small segment, almost a teaser for their board sponsors’ videos. And, every so often, a video like Anti-Hero’s recent self-titled release does separate itself from the pack and captures the essence of a team. With its low-budget feel, ballsy skating, and rough camera work, you quickly understand what skating means to these riders. As Peralta noted, a video should have a sense of vision, and Anti-Hero has indeed accomplished that. Furukawa says, “This is a TV generation, and that’s why videos work, and that’s why everyone is doing them.”

At a recent vert contest, Danny Way noted that he still loved the old Powell-Peralta videos because “they seemed to capture what skating was all about.”

Peralta, who turned his skate-video talents into a producing/directing gig in Hollywood, agrees with that assessment: “It was never about making money. It became an event. The priority-across the board-was to get people stoked on skating.”