Interview. Amanda Valenzuela and Nivardo Valenzuela
Cover Photo. Brett Novak
The downside to the abundance of [skateboarding] footage is that 90 percent of it looks like shit. Discovering an aesthetically pleasing skateboarding video these days feels like finding a missing button to your cardigan at the Arthur Kill landfill.
VAFFANCULO MAG (VM): What got you into skateboarding? Film?
Brett Novak (BN): From as early as I can remember, I've always had a healthy obsession with video cameras. Stop-motion, in particular, was of huge interest to me. I spent many hours at a young age creating and tediously moving small clay figures, capturing the frame-by-frame movement with a "record-stop, record-stop" approach as I only had an old family VHS-c to experiment with. As my older brother began his own brief interest in learning TV production I naturally wanted to follow his footsteps and delve in deeper. He eventually shifted gears (now in the U.S. Navy), but my interest only grew deeper. It was around this time I slowly became introduced to the films and filmmakers that would influence me heavily many years down the line.
[At fourteen years old], my best friend Mike started trying to push me into his main interest: skateboarding. It was obviously nothing new to me, but he picked up on the few things that would hold my interest about certain videos/skaters over others and started to introduce me more and more to the videos/skaters that he thought I'd enjoy. The clip that embodied the "aha!" moment for me was Rodney's part in Rodney Mullen vs. Daewon Song Round 2.
The style of skating, the strangeness it held in contrast with everything else he showed me had me hooked. But the way Rodney's part is introduced, this art-house intro which feeds into his part sparked something in me; excited that it could be done differently, and still "count". I was in. From that point forward my circle of friends slowly started to consist mainly of other local skateboarders and anytime I wasn't behind the lens filming them I was at the park or down the street skating solo. It probably wouldn't be until my mid-twenties that I could tell you which was more of a priority for me: Skating or filming it.
VM: Well, you’re “truly rewriting the rules of skate videos” to capture images that go beyond tricks. What are some of your favorite non-skate films? How have they influenced your craft?
BN: Growing up I definitely was much more deeply affected by music videos and films from directors like Darren Aronofsky, Tarantino, Spike Jonze, Tim Burton, Chris Cunningham; artists that had created their own unique approach to an otherwise unsuspecting topic. Don't get me wrong, I watched skateboard videos daily to do what skaters have been doing for decades; to get pumped before a skate sesh, but narratives such as Pulp Fiction, Requiem for a Dream, Beetlejuice - these were the movies that made me look at capturing skating different.Altered Route (2012). Director. Brett Novak.
VM: Do you create a production plan? Scout locations before hand? Is there some sort of (non-written) script that guides the skate film along (in terms of shots)?
BN: Typically not so much, but it really just depends on the piece. For [the film with Kilian] that's currently in the works, it took several locations and a hell of a lot of of planning and foresight. Others, such as India Within or Altered Route, it's more about deciding, somewhat blindly, on a location and seeing where it takes us. In Altered Route, for example, I had only seen it from the highway. Never had actually gone in there. We had no idea how well (or not well) it would work. Obvious problems can occur from this, but at the same time it really digs on fundamental ideas in street skateboarding: allow your environment to craft and shape your skating. Too much planning and everything can turn out kinda flat.
VM: Internal Departure visually explores the exchange/relationship of art and skateboarding, accentuated with a soundtrack like “My Only Friend” by The Poison Tree. How did the collaboration with Austrian artist Kay Walkowiak come about?
BN: As a matter of fact, Kay originally reached out to me shortly after Regeneration came out in 2010. He had a concept in mind, combining skateboarding with his own minimalist sculpture work and focusing the project around a performance approach. A loose concept that we would later refine and see what worked for the three of us in our respective crafts: sculpture, film, and the skating itself. He stumbled across us on Youtube [and] reached out, but it wouldn't be until almost two years later that things would come together to actually make it all work. We traveled to Vienna, Austria in August, 2012, and spent four straight days filming and driving ourselves insane in that place. 10+ hour days, no windows, feeling like the place was closing in on us. That feeling was a heavy influence on the vibe of the whole thing once I got to the edit. Trying to instill a similar emotional response in the viewer that we experienced while filming. A mixture of solidarity, strangeness, claustrophobia, the urge to escape - all coming from within, hence the title.
Since the project, Kay and I have become good friends. We've worked together on several projects, spending many weeks at a time in countries like China, India and Canada. His work definitely does not have an easily accessible approach. Most mainstream people simply [might not "get it"], but I think that's what draws my interest. He does in the traditional art world that which interests me in skateboarding. Easily unlikeable, yet deeply impactful for those that give it the chance.
VM: Watching behind the scenes footage of the short films you shoot, especially with Kilian, your viewer discovers that part of the fluidity of your camera work is owed to the fact that you shoot while riding your own skateboard. Does this really feel like work, or are you always having a really good time?
BN: Hahah. Everytime someone asks me if a particular travel is for work or holiday I always have a genuinely tough time answering. I enjoy what I do, and I wouldn't do it if I didn't. That's been a major life approach for me over these past few years. Even so, it's most definitely very physically exhausting. These videos are generally shot over the course of 10-14 non-stop days in random countries in various temperatures. It usually means a lot of floors to be slept on and long hot days. Typically starting, jetlagged, around 7-8AM, skating full-force all day, and ending at sunset; often while skipping on food throughout the day. Every day. People definitely grasp that a skater trying a trick over and over is extremely physically demanding, but they often overlook the filmer running back and forth skating alongside the skater, hunched over and low to the ground for the 300 tries it often takes. That position destroys your back and definitely instills new empathy towards professions that can relate; dentists, tattoo artists, etc. Plus, given that we're usually hiking hills, hopping fences, all while carrying 30 lbs of camera equipment and boards, the skaters and I usually sympathize pretty hard for each other by the end of each day.
VM: Kilian has commented that “[the] industry wants you to skate a certain way and young kids are influenced by that and by that they limit themselves.” Also that “skating shouldn’t be defined as just one thing. Skaters should be able to open their minds a little more and try different things. It’s an art and should be expressed in a variety of different ways and still be able to be called skateboarding.”
Do you think the image of the skateboarder as a rebellious, non-conforming youth has faded in recent years? Are skateboarders like Kilian, who are transforming the sport into an art, likely to replace the figure of the subversive-skateboarder with that of a performance-artist-skateboarder?
BN: It's a weird situation, for sure. The thing is that it all comes with the territory of the mainstream. How do you reconcile coming from a culture completely embedded in doing things "different," when you're quickly becoming a huge percentage of a generation? It's the punk band playing a hugely corporate festival, massive hip-hop artists rapping about being poor; skateboarders holding onto to their feeling of non-acceptance. It all comes from a very real place, but that doesn't mean it will always be applicable to what the next generation goes through. Here lies a big part of the resistance brought on by older generations trying to make sure that their version of the sport continues to be the norm. It happens with music, it happens with art and it happens with skateboarding. I don't expect a "performance-artist" vibe to take hold in any majority way, but I think more importantly the acceptance in the diversity of what's going on in skateboarding will be the needed change moving forward.
VM: Aside from maintaining a certain level of creative control by funding one's own projects, how does one continue to innovate the art of skateboarding and skateboarding videos with so much commercialization and corporatization of the sport?
BN: I think once you disconnect from the idea that things have to be a certain way (ie: the only way to make a living is getting sponsored or major corporate branding or what have you) - [then] whatever happens next helps keep the creative integrity.
I've always held on to the belief that doing what you're supposed to do, the predictable/consistent approach with art/life that, yes; you will make a living. But if you do what comes naturally to your head, and not always weigh it against "will this work on some grand scheme of security" then that is how you make a name for yourself. It's a tougher road, but a thousand times more fulfilling (and, ironically, usually much more financially rewarding in the end). If you're the type of filmmaker that doesn't mind working with major commercialization, fine, but don't be afraid to stand your ground creatively. Do you want to be a filmmaker or someone that helps some third party company make their name and you just happened to know how to run a camera?
VM: Interesting that you point out disconnecting from ideas that things have to be a certain way and about not being afraid to stand your ground creatively. You have done visual effects for music videos and commercials. For some creatives, there seems to be a disconnect, a conflict between creative integrity and commercial success. There's always this notion of "selling out", but as Elizabeth Hyde Stevens in Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career writes: "It is foolish to think we can’t be both artists and entrepreneurs." Doing commercial work for Henson was not a mean in itself since he "viewed money as energy, the energy that makes concrete things happen out of worthy ideas" and it provides the the physical infrastructure to pursue, as you said, "what naturally comes to your head." Altered Route was created particularly for mb! by Mercedes-Benz, how was that collaboration? Were you given any parameters?
BN: I think what best explains the common ground within the dichotomy of art and commercialization is that Altered Route wasn't "created particularly for mb!", but rather was supported by [it].
mb! started the conversation, and after agreeing to the understanding that I was extremely protective over the creative aspect of my work (and thus wouldn't really agree to any "parameters") - they were still on board. This is why the only mention of mb! is in the credits and other elements that surround the film, but not the film itself.
[The] car in the beginning was a cool way to tie everything together but [more] for the sake of narrative rather than a client request. A free way to interject an epic element to the film that I would otherwise have no access to (a 1980 classic convertible with less than 3000 miles on it ripping through the desert a la 'Hunter S. Thompson' to open my film? Yes, please.)
All in all, they were amazingly supportive of my creative battles and great people to work with.
VM: Have skate videos also been limited and put in a box to make them more easily marketable and readily available for consumption?
BN: I don't really think so. Skate videos haven't changed that much in the past 20 years. Your biggest change may be that the emphasis is on the individual parts now, 3-4 minutes, rather than a collection of them to make a 40 minute video for sale. I'd say this is more of a consequence of the internet generation than some corporate decision. If young skaters today wanted to wait the 3 years for company X to film a 40 minute part that they'd buy, company X would do it.
VM: Where do you see skateboarding videos going in the next few years? Where do you want to take them?
BN: Oh man, not sure about this. I think with film technology getting cheaper and cheaper and more in the hands of the young and creative - we'll see some super cool stuff. It's inevitable. Sure it'll be weaved in between lots of garbage, but good art always is. People too often compare today's music with generations past. "Oh we had The Beatles, Pink Floyd, etc, etc." Ya, but you also had garages after garages filled with terrible high school experimental startups that we (maybe, luckily) never got a chance to hear. The only difference now is that content is democratic. We pass around what we like, but we have the chance to hear and see it all. If this wasn't the case, people such as myself would never have had the chance to do anything but make my weirdo skate videos and burn them to DVD for only my friends to see.
For the record; I love The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Hahah.
VM: Haha. Yeah, The Beatles and Pink Floyd are classics, but with content being democratic these days, any unknown, experimental start-up bands/artists/films that you're currently into?
BN: Not that these all qualify as unknown or start-ups, but these are a few that's been rockin through my eyes and ears as of late:
Vensaire - Super interesting and incredibly humble group of dudes/dudettes from NYC.
The Growlers - The newest addition to my vinyl collection. I saw them at a festival just outside of LA [in early 2014], and then happened to be in a record store in San Diego while their newest album was playing overhead. Not making the connection I asked the shop who it was and bought it on the spot.
The Orwells - A young group of guys that have been blowing up big lately. They grew up in the same suburbs I grew up in outside of Chicago which, anytime one of us makes it known outside of, is a big deal for us. Super pumped for them.
Mark Adamusik - San Francisco based artist who I've recently become good friends with. Incredible style.
Randal Roberts - I've become obsessed with Randal Roberts' work over the past few years as my interest in the psychedelic art has grown quite a bit. His colorful detail within an organic approach of course speaks to the Alex Grey fan within me, but with a much more playful attitude. An awe-inspiring yet ultimately "enjoyed" experience, if you will.
FILMMAKERS (You'll find that I gravitate much more often towards animation than searching for my own medium. It's less to do with film and more to do with the obsession I've had for stop-motion for as long as I can remember.)
Cyriak - One of my favorite Youtubers I've been watching for years. There's almost no way you haven't caught some gif animation of his morphing across your screen at some point.
Anthony Francisco Schepperd - The Music Scene, Scheppard's official music video for Blockhead. Arguably my favorite music video.
Filmbilder - An unbelievable collection of absolutely incredible animation from the German-based animation studio. I get lost in this channel for hours at a time.
VM: You and Kilian have a strong skate-film-creative collaboration, but what other skateboarders (established & up and coming) do you admire and what about their style appeals to you?
BN: That's a tough one to narrow down. There are so many talented, interesting characters out there that have and continue to inspire me everytime I experience what they do. No shocker to anyone who skates and knows my work, but Rodney Mullen was always a massive influence. But that in itself is a fascinating situation in skateboarding. It's quite a popular thing to dog on skaters that do strange tricks, freestyle, etc - and to compare them to Rodney. But what other skaters don't understand is that it's his approach, not his specific trick repertoire, that we become engrossed with. The fact that you can look at a skateboard and see that every part of the board is skateable; not just wheels-to-ground. I see it all the time in comments on my videos. People try to call out Kilian for "copying Rodney", but the only thing Kilian is doing similar to Rodney is that he's doing completely unique stuff. Rodney wasn't known for handstands off stairs, for wall plants, for two board tricks - it's just that he sparks the same emotional response one gets while watching Rodney skate. A mixture "holy shit, that's new", "holy shit, that's amazing" and "holy shit, that's too weird for me to like". Ironically (and borderline poetically), Rodney invented almost any trick that a "regular skater" would claim one must do to fit into the "not copying category" (kick flips, heelflips, 360 flips).
Similarly, the skaters I enjoy watching most have a similar approach to their own skating. Not letting their own self-consciousness get in their own way. Embracing that nothing is too weird. Consequently, these are the people I tend to seek out to film with so not surprisingly my favorite skaters tend to be the ones in my videos: Joe Moore, Alex Rademaker, Jason Park. These guys are beyond technically good, but what makes them special is their open-mind.
VM: There are some skate videos utilizing helivideo (aerial cinematography), for example, the intro to Pretty Sweet. Any plans to experiment with helivideo anytime soon?
BN: Maybe. The main turnoff for ariel stuff for me has always been the quality trade off. I don't shoot with GoPros or DSLRs (currently using a Sony FS700) so my camera tends to be a bit too heavy for the type of drones that I may have access to every now and then. This is all definitely changing, though. Plus, given that I shoot everything 100% myself in my films without any rigs I think my ego gets in the way sometimes hahah. But who knows - I'm sure this will change.
VM: Lastly, now that you're experimenting with surfing, are you looking to make a surf video somewhere down the line? A collaboration with Kilian perhaps?
BN: Haha! We'll see. Skateboarding will always come first - and at least cement doesn't try to drown you when you film.