This is the first in our Auteurs series by Ben Powell, read his introduction to the series.
As a film-maker, Colin has done everything: from working on some of the earliest attempts to present skateboarding in a ‘reality show’ format, (via Slap’s ‘One in Million’ series); to creating skate-related content for Viceland; going on to produce music videos for the likes of Radiohead and direct shorts for the likes of State Footwear, Converse and DC; through to creating his own independent body of work under the ‘Mandible Claw’ moniker which encompasses the hugely successful full-lengths ‘Tengu – God of Mischief’ and ‘Spirit Quest’.
I caught up with Colin recently to discuss his recent involvement in shooting skits for the Girl Skateboards ‘Doll’ video, only to find our conversation rapidly drifting off in various directions to cover everything from Italian horror cinema, right through to the relevance of 19th century philosophy’s predictions of the inevitability of Art’s diminishing power to the status of skateboarding in 2019.
I would highly recommend taking your browser over to Colin Read’s Vimeo to see more of his work after you’ve read through this. Thanks for your time Colin.
I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time, but the impetus to reach out here was your collaboration with Girl on their recent Doll video. How did that come about? Were you already connected with Crailtap, or did they reach out to you?
Girl hosted a short film contest, for shorts related to skating, judged by Spike Jonze. I wasn’t going to enter, but a friend basically demanded that I did, so I sent in ‘Solos’, which I’d made a bit prior. It was directly inspired by Spike’s Pharcyde video, so I figured it would be cool if Spike got to see it.
I assumed that they’d disqualify me; I wasn’t exactly the target demographic to take part of the contest. When they called me and told me that I won, I asked if they were sure, since I hadn’t made my video specifically for their contest. I said I’d be happy to take backseat and let the grand prize go to a younger kid, or someone who worked hard to make a video just for this. But they insisted. Part of the prize was a trip out to LA, which I had actually never been before, so I was glad to go.
Anyway, I suspect that they gave me the win in order to lure me in to make some stuff for their video, because that’s exactly what happened. They asked me if, since I was coming, I might want to make some skits for the video.
Historically, Girl/Choc have embraced the idea of adding a sense of narrative to their video output, something which I’d say is also central to your own oeuvre, was that part of the attraction of getting to work on these two skits for Doll?
Definitely. I grew up on Girl videos, and always loved the charm of them, which was born out of the narrative pieces in them. Tiny Keenan, Paco, the magic board. I was honoured to try to continue the tradition.
We’ll return to the notion of narrative shortly, but focusing on these two skits in Doll first – how much direction were you given (if any?) in terms of what they were to focus on?
They had a few ideas of people they’d like to focus the skits on. Mainly, they wanted to try to include some people that otherwise weren’t very present in the video—that’s how we ended up making a skit for Mike Mo.
I originally had planned a skit for a different lesser-featured rider, but the day I got out there—the day before we were supposed to shoot—they realized that he’d be unavailable. So we had to think fast. We sat down and watched the video in its semi-finished state, and we noted some places and people that would be good points for skits. They said that since Griffin didn’t have an intro, maybe I could make something for him. I’d never met him, but someone mentioned that he was freakishly good at fingerboarding, so that’s where that skit came from.
Photo by Rye Beres
Was there much in the way of ‘anxiety of influence’ for you here? I mean – Girl’s track record of skits is pretty untouchable and you’re treading in the footsteps of the likes of Spike, Ty, Wing Ko and Meza by picking up the gauntlet on this one surely?
Luckily, the timeline was so short that I didn’t have any time to worry this. If I had had more time for pre production, I’m sure anxiety would have crept in.
You said on your site that you shot them both in one day in LA, so I’m assuming that you had a pretty formed idea of exactly what you wanted to shoot and how, given the time-constraints. Do you storyboard shoots beforehand, or just wing it once you know what you want to do?
I have a little notebook in which I scribble rough storyboards. I usually write down a simple shot list, and rough out any boards if I need to solidify an idea or image.
The ‘skateboard as an animate being with its own voice’ concept is kind of a repeated trope of Girl skits, (‘Magic Board’ from Yeah Right, ‘Double Yellow’ from Goldfish, ‘Chaplin’ from Mouse, etc) but I think this is the first time that ‘revenge’ has featured within that idea. Where did the inspiration for this one come from, and did involving Mike Mo add to the narrative aspect, what with him recovering from injury personally?
Yeah, I wanted to try to continue the legacy of the magic board. I liked the idea of trying to imbue an inanimate object with real malice. I thought the dichotomy would be funny.
I’ve been friends with Mike Mo for a few years; we bonded over stories of nerve damage and stem cell research. (I have serious back injuries that make it hard for me to skate.) So I was really happy to see him skating a bit again. I wanted to shoot that short with him as a way to help include him in the video. I think that, as you said, his history adds to the story.
Are you a fan of Dario Argento by any chance? Some of the lighting/sound design in the Mike Mo skit, and the dolly shot of the board stalking him in his house reminded me of the oppressive atmosphere of the Italian giallo film genre. I might be reading too much into it here though…
I am! And that’s also why I think the skit is funny, it’s putting those horror tropes against a pretty stupid idea.
There’s an alternative ending on the Mike Mo skit you posted on your site, one that kind of dilutes the menace of the one featured in Doll. What influenced the choice to go with the darker one used in the video?
The one I put on my site asks the idea, “What’s the worst a skateboard can really do to you?” And it’s a shinner. That’s all it can do.
I was still pushing for that one to be in the video, but I think they wanted to keep it “scary” and let the impact act as a “wake up” from a bad dream into the McCrank section.
With the Finger board skit, there seems to be a very conscious nod towards the infamous miniature Keenan skit with the 360 flip over the battery, (along with maybe a subtle Strobeck reference too) – was it important to you to try to retain a sense of continuity with the skits you were making as regards earlier stuff that Girl had used in their videos?
Yeah, you definitely caught both of the references there, (laughing). Yes, both with the Keenan nod, and the magic board, I wanted to let things feel familiar to Girl.
Those close-ups, which are ever-present in skate videos now, thanks to Strobeck, just feel so self-important and overdramatic. So I thought it’d be funny to smash it together with fingerboarding to show how silly it is.
Fantastic way to introduce one of the heaviest parts in Doll too – did Griffin film any of those tricks specifically for the skit, (aside from the slam obviously) or did you work around pre-existing clips?
Those were all throwaway clips that he’d already filmed. I only thought of the skit the day before we filmed it, so there wasn’t any time to film new stuff.
What camera gear were you using to shoot both of these on? What about lighting?
Super low budget: a GH5, a gimbal, some handheld LEDs.
From your perspective of the person usually doing everything alone when it comes to skateboard film making – how was the experience of only being one part of a larger whole like this, where the onus is only on you to produce what you’ve been tasked with?
It was great. I didn’t have to sit at the bottom of steps for hours, or chase a skater back and forth for days trying to film lines. I just got to do my fun little thing then leave, and wait for the finished product.
How did the experience of watching Doll at the premiere compare to a premiere experience for one of your own videos?
I actually didn’t get to go to any premieres, I was out of town for the NYC one sadly.
To return to something I touched on earlier – you’ve been around the world of skateboard film-making for a long time Colin – dealing with everything from the earliest (albeit abortive) attempt to create a skateboarding reality show long before the likes of KOTR with Slap’s ‘One in a million’, to making regular web edits in the early days of online ‘content’ for Slap and the Ride Channel, through to producing full-length independent videos of your own and collaborating with other brands. Given that wealth of experience – what’s your perspective on the current state of the art form, (if we can still call it that) of the skate video?
I think it’s equalized a little bit. A few years ago, full-length videos really seemed to be dwindling, and the focus had shifted to hyped-up standalone web parts. Those are still prevalent, but companies seem to be caring about making longer, more thought-out videos again. There’s room for a lot of cool stuff.
Despite the deluge of the necessarily forgettable ‘individual part’ – the last 12 months or so have been a strong era for the full-length I think with the likes of Sour’s ‘Instagram killed the video star’, Palace’s ‘Palasonic’, Girl’s ‘Doll’, GX1000 ‘Roll Up’ and most recently ‘Blessed’ all adding to the legacy of the full-length, whilst also deviating from the conservative norm of the ‘trick, trick, line, banger, song’ formula. Which productions have stood out to you recently and for what reasons?
I’d actually point to some web edits: Jacob Harris’s edits are some of the best work in skating right now. His Atlantic Drift series is amazing.
As I was saying before, there’s room for new ideas. A video doesn’t have to be either a single part, or a full 30-minute video. There are plenty of in-betweens that you can carve out, which is what Jacob is doing.
I mentioned the incorporation of narrative into skate videos earlier because your own productions seem to always have something cohesive along those lines, whether it be context-specific like the roof skating section in Tengu, or thematic as with the Aquatic Journey section of Spirit Quest, or even in a more over-arching way such as with the spirit animal concept of your last full length vid. How does this approach relate to the way you see the meaning behind the act of skateboarding itself, and the ways in which you personally represent it?
I think that skateboarding is actually pretty meaningless, inherently. It’s a toy. But you can make it mean anything you want. For me, it has meant a creative outlet, a physical outlet, and a way to get out my mental frustrations. And it has been the means by which I’ve made my most lasting friendships.
So, narrative is just what I find interesting, and my way of making a skate video be a little bit more than that. But many of my favourite videos are just skating, and not much beyond it. I don’t necessarily think that a literal narrative has to be present in a skate video.
But what I do find necessary is some sort of visual language. You have to put a skate part together so that it makes sense. If that makes sense, ha. The tricks have to be placed in an order that seems logical, and inevitable. Same with the order of parts. Each should be a reaction to the last, and inform the next, and so on. I guess it is a way of telling a story, not with words, but with tricks, and ideas.
There’s a famous Walter Benjamin essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction where Benjamin argues that the inherent power of art has been irrevocably diminished due to the technological ability of the modern world to replicate original pieces of art, thus removing them from their unique existence as an original thing in and of itself. Although written nearly a 100 years ago now, Benjamin’s commentary about the loss of ‘aura’ or magical power of art works in a world where everything can be infinitely copied and reproduced seems to me to be relevant to the contemporary situation with skateboarding.
The omnipresence of the Internet has consigned everything to the category of ‘content’ to a certain extent, whether it be a photograph, a full-length video, or a single trick. Superficially everything is afforded the same value because the context that earlier generations took for granted, that was ministered to by a benign dictatorship of magazine editors and brands, has almost completely dematerialized now, with the Internet and its chaotic (supposed) democracy as its replacement. What are your thoughts on this idea?
I agree. When I was a kid, videos were special. Really. You’d hear about them before they came out, or from some other kid who’d bought it first, and then once you got your hands on it, you and your friends would get together and watch it religiously. And it might be a few months before you’d get another one. You’d wear out the VHS tape from rewinding it.
The magic of that is gone now. But there’s a new type of magic, which comes with there being an endless ocean of skateboarding to watch. I’m not sure which world is better. If you want to re-watch a single video a hundred times, you still can. You’re just not forced to.
With my own videos, I try to add enough “special” elements to warrant repeated viewings. So I’m happy that people are still watching.
I suppose I could have explained the above much more simply by just asking if you were pissed off at ‘going viral’ on Reddit because somebody ripped a trick from Spirit Quest and posted it without attributing where it came from to garner Reddit upvotes… That clip went nuts right? I’m having trouble finding it now but didn’t you intercede in that whole phenomenon personally as well?
Someone filmed it off their TV screen, posted it to Vine with no caption, and it exploded. It’s been reposted thousands and thousands of times across all platforms. I’m really happy that lots of people have seen it, but it does annoy me that many (most) of these are still reposts of the original low-quality TV filming, or even lower-quality rips from the DVD. I wish that people would at least see it in context; that whole section with Connor (Kammerer) is full of those perspective-shifting match cuts.
The reason I asked that rambling pseudo-question above is because your own output seems to me to strive to add that missing component back into skate videos. I’m not even sure how to describe it; ‘spiritual’ is probably wrong, but you seem to have been able to infuse your videos with a sense of magic and wonderment to complement the trick performance side of them. That recent Magenta/DC piece is a great example of what I’m struggling to illustrate: despite being nominally a vehicle to sell products, it still has that sense of wonder to it that I remember feeling watching say Life’s ‘Soldier’s Story’ or early Powell videos. Am I barking up a non-existent tree here?
As I said, I consciously try to inject a little bit of wonder into my videos. I think that people have already made plenty of really great skate videos, so I don’t see the point in just making another “skate video.” People have those pretty much figured out. For me, if I didn’t do a little bit more, I wouldn’t have thought it worth making.
You said in your Jenkem interview prior to the release of Spirit Quest that you had retired from making full-length videos but you’re still very much involved in the craft of creating documentation of skateboarding – what influences your decision to take on a project for Vice or for a brand like Magenta these days?
I love skating more than anything, so I like to stay involved in some respect. I just can’t really spend a long time filming tricks anymore. So when people approach me to make things that I’m capable of doing, I’m happy to try.
What’s your physical situation now? Did your back surgery solve the herniated disc issue that you had? A friend of mine had the same thing and spent 9 months unable to move, only for it to be eventually remedied by a fairly simple (albeit risky) operation to trim the disc. VX fish eye is still off the agenda I assume?
My back is still terrible. Past procedures have not helped. So still no fisheye for me.
You’ve done a fair bit of film work outside the charmed circle of skateboarding too – music videos for Radiohead and Brother Dege etc – strikes me that you’re perfectly placed to take your skill set into that world because your use of music in skate productions is central and integral to the end product, rather than being a case of simply cutting up tricks and adding a track at the end. Is there much cross over in terms of your approach to filming and editing for music projects?
The difference is all in pre-production. With skating, I’d have a more overarching plan, and then had all the time in the world to improvise, rethink, retrace my steps, retry ideas. With music videos and commercials, I don’t have that luxury. You generally only have 1-2 days to shoot, so you have to have everything planned to a T in advance. There’s very little wiggle room for spontaneity.
It’s an open secret that unless you work directly for a big sports brand that there is no money in filming skateboarding, at least not as a ‘career’ for a grown adult. How does the world of music video making compare to kneeling in urine waiting for somebody to land a kickflip?
It’s pretty comparable, honestly. You don’t do music videos for the money. You do it to have a chance to make fun concepts and work with cool people.
What else do you have scheduled film making wise? Any plans to turn your hand to creative writing or has the visual medium taken over from that entirely now?
I’m actually entering the early stages of pre-production for a narrative film. Wish me luck!
Ok Colin, I’ve taken up way too much of your time already so, if you’ll allow me, can we finish this off on a little quick fire piece please?
Favourite pairing of music and skater?
Most influential skateboarder for you personally?
My friend Alex Fogt, whom I started skating with, and still skate with today.
What about filmer/editors? Who inspired you early on and who inspires you now?
Off the top of my head: French Fred, FESN, Tightbooth, Dan Wolfe, Joe Perrin. Jacob Harris.
Who would be the one skater that you have had the most fun filming with over the years?
That’s impossible to answer… Connor Kammerer and Alex Fogt have been some of my most frequent and long-running collaborators and friends, and are always fun out in the streets.
How many VX1000’s have you owned cumulatively?
Oh, man. Close to 20, probably.
Anything else that you’d like to say to Slam City Skates readership?
Take care of your back! Do yoga and keep that core strong!
Interview by Ben Powell