We are pleased to bring you this Auteurs interview with Jacob Harris. Ben Powell continues this new series with one of the best to ever do it…
Interview by Ben Powell. Jacob Harris and Max Palmer. Photo by Alex Pires
The subject for the second in this Auteurs series was a no-brainer.
There are few filmmakers in skateboarding, (let alone UK-based ones) whose output has reached a similar sized audience whilst simultaneously receiving almost universal praise from all quarters than that of Jacob ‘Jake’ Harris.
From his early days as a very driven kid making videos with a group of his friends; through to his forays into the early era of Internet content with Blueprint; to his more recent position as the man behind the lens on classics like ‘Eleventh Hour’, Isle skateboard’s ‘Vase’ and most recently, the ‘Atlantic Drift’ series for Thrasher – Jake’s output has stayed true to the vision laid out in his first full-length, mixing a sense of place and atmosphere with banging and dynamically captured skateboarding.
Ask any skate filmer of note about their influences and chances are Jake’s name will come up at some point. Pointing a camera at people doing kickflips is one thing, creating a body of work that surrounds that simple feat with a sense of context that adds depth and character to the basic act of skateboarding is an entirely different level of achievement.
The fact that you can watch 20 seconds of any video that Jake has produced and know immediately that it’s him behind the lens says everything really. As ineffable as it may be, he has an instantly recognizable eye for spots, for angles and perhaps most uniquely, for the visual ephemera that surrounds the act of skateboarding and it is that perspective, (along with a crazy work ethic) that makes his output some of the most memorable in today’s over saturated skate video landscape.
So, without further ado, here’s the man himself breaking down some of his own back-story and giving a little insight into the process involved in doing what he does. Thanks for your time Jake!
Your route to where you are today is quite a traditional one in so far as you began by making full-length videos based around your friends that followed the convention of individual sections and were released in a physical format that predates the current distribution option offered by the Internet. Was ‘Square One’ your first project?
Strictly speaking no, as I’d been making videos that I put on like video CDs since I was like 12 on Handycams. I suppose Square One was the first project that was sold – if that’s an appropriate marker?
That came out on DVD in 2009, at a point when the cultural landscape of skateboarding was very different, and also presumably whilst you were still at school – where did the impetus to make that video come from?
(Laughing), yeah I remember you interviewed me about it for Sidewalk at the time: I’m not entirely sure anymore what the initial impetus was to be honest.
I was so focused and serious about making things, anything, from a really young age and I think being completely obsessed with skateboarding, it was something I was always going to do.
Videos very much were the culture for me, and I really wanted to participate in that culture because I loved it and this was what excited me. Besides that, my friends were a group of very driven kids, whether that was to be sponsored or just to skate like people did in videos I don’t know, but as a group of kids we were very driven by wanting to do hard things and be recognised.
I’m not sure where that comes from really.
“Videos very much were the culture for me, and I really wanted to participate in that culture because I loved it and this was what excited me”
That’s like Dan Clarke, Tom Knox and whoever else was in that video – from all different sides of London – very little in common but very much united at the time by wanting to make skate videos. But kids did just make full-length videos then, (they still do now I know but it was a normal thing back then): there were loads of crews around doing it.
I bought my first proper camera from Morph and definitely looked up to him and his crew when we were younger – they were a bit older and tougher and had all had sex when they were like 14 and smoked loads of weed and we were just a lot less cool basically.
You’ve said in interviews before that it was Blueprint’s ‘Lost and Found’ that first gave you an insight into what a skate video could (and by extension maybe ‘should’) be. What was it about that video that inspired you?
I think basically just seeing that a skateboard video could have a real artistic vision was a bit of a revelation to me. It seemed to connect skateboarding much more to life and moods that existed around it, rather than just keeping skating suspended in its own space.
I think that adage of ‘the best way of talking about skating is to not talk about skating’ applies pretty well in this context – like the best way of celebrating skating in a video is by showing things that aren’t skating and LAF was the first place I saw that.
The experience of skateboarding in a city is so varied and complex, in the situations and feelings that it invites, that it’s able to support and nourish so much imagery etc that may seem incidental, but is, to a lot of people, central to the act. LAF was the first place that I saw evidence of this.
Dan Magee really helped to step up the game as far as UK skate videos went – he was one of the first people to invest in ‘proper’ equipment (at a time when the industry-standard VX1000 was still very expensive), worked with production values similar to those of US-based vids and very deliberately created a sense of place and atmosphere that resonated with British skateboarding. Would you say he’s one of the most important skate video makers in terms of both your own outlook and British skate culture more generally?
For my approach he is definitely the most important. Lev (Tanju) did something probably equally as important with Palace, but it was maybe subverting something that Magee established, so without the one it’s hard to know what would have happened.
But more widely speaking, I have no idea what even is British skate culture?
Palace has definitely had a bigger cultural impact than anything else British skateboarding has ever produced – there’s no way of measuring that I know, but I’m pretty certain that it’s a fact. Strictly within skateboarding though, I have no idea how to think about it really, but they definitely did smash a lot of orthodoxies, thank god they did and they did it so well and haven’t lost their edge.
Which other UK filmers and editors informed your own approach as you developed and why?
I would say Chris Massey, just because Portraits is so good. Definitely nicked some ideas from Hold Tight when I was younger too, he was such a force back then.
What about globally? I know you are a big fan of Josh Stewart’s output – what is it about his videos that you like? Anyone else?
I think a similar thing to Magee’s videos with Josh’s stuff really. Was well into Pontus Alv’s earlier stuff when I was a kid. These days the things I like would probably be pretty unsurprising.
So after making Square One, you did some work for Blueprint around the early days of the development of Internet-content. You filmed both the Tom Knox Welcome to Blueprint clip and the Smithy gets his pro board back one – how did that work? You were out collecting the footage and then you’d give it to Dan who would edit it into the finished project?
It was sort of like that. I did a lot of the editing myself and then Dan would just stick a wack ramp slow-mo on and credit himself, (laughs).
Nah not quite actually, he did the graphics too.
I remember he paid me something like £200 at one point and I felt so grateful, I was like 19 maybe. Now I see how exploitative it was!
I suppose it got me somewhere or something, though…skateboarding is so weird like that. At the time it would have been like doing a free internship for something that I could never really have gotten paid for, obviously it’s different now.
It was kind of inevitable even at that point that the simplicity of the Internet distribution model would eventually take over – did you feel any differently about what you were making because you knew they were destined for the Internet, than when you knew you were creating something that would physically exist?
No I didn’t really care to be honest. I think I always just wanted to do things well and didn’t pay much thought to the destination.
Following this era, you began work on what would ultimately become ‘Eleventh Hour’ which was released to global acclaim in 2013.
You publically said at the time that it was going to be the last full-length video that you’d make but you then went onto make Vase only two years later – what happened?
Hmm I don’t know really. I was always saying this and I still do every so often.
I think I always felt pressure to do something ‘proper’ for work, you know – something socially justifiable or if not at least financially rewarding.
I definitely have some complexes about this that I need to get over still.
During the period of making Eleventh Hour and Vase there weren’t really many perks to my life, I had no money and was mostly stuck in London.
These days I’m constantly travelling and I’m paid better and that makes it a lot easier to appreciate, but I didn’t foresee that. In Britain it’s tough too, it’s such a judgmental place and the class system is so pernicious in its reverberations, it’s hard not to feel heat from that. In the States it’s the simplest equation for peoples’ brains – “you do what you like that’s great” – but here I have to always reassure myself by feeding myself little sentences like, ‘I travel almost exclusively with my friends and barely ever have anybody to answer to and I like doing what I do’.
“I travel almost exclusively with my friends and barely ever have anybody to answer to and I like doing what I do”
Eleventh Hour was received really well – the skaters in it definitely benefitted as much as your own reputation as a video-maker did – and it came out shortly after the sad dissolution of the UK institution that was Blueprint. Did it feel in any way like a passing of the baton from Magee to you – or is that purely hindsight speaking?
I mean Magee always supported me and helped me out, very specifically with getting that DVD (Eleventh Hour) made and distributed. I think he saw it that way a bit, and it does make sense when said that way. But he hasn’t bowed out so I think it’s a bit soon to talk about passing any batons!
That video certainly cemented your aesthetic – lots of rough, brick spots dotted throughout the estates of London which, at the time at least, were not really seen in other UK videos, an emphasis on follow filming and a cast of your friends who still regularly appear in your output to this day.
Was there an overarching plan to the feel and atmosphere of Eleventh Hour?
I have no idea really. I remember in my head the video was really about Luka Pinto and Tom Knox so I wanted to have them bookend it. Beyond that, I don’t think there was really a plan besides – ‘use some 16mm’.
Actually no I remember: I actually had a bit of a crisis when it came to editing it because I hadn’t developed much of a vision. I think I actually got Toddy to come round to my house and watch some stuff and he was really supportive, which was cool. I had no confidence. I’d forgotten about that, thanks Toddy!
I’m actually having trouble remembering whether that did happen or not, but I think it did. I was such a pile at that point in time it’s hard to know. I’ll ask him.
Your more recent work, (particularly Atlantic Drift which we’ll come to later) seems, at least to me, to really focus on atmosphere and a sense of place – does that kind of the ‘location is the narrative’ aspect find its genesis in your earlier videos like Eleventh Hour, do you think?
My memory is so poor but I feel like my thought process is very different now. I’m sure it all contributed. I thought a lot about how spots looked in that video but I care a lot less about that now.
Following that video and its award-winning reception, you got involved in making Vase, the first Isle Skateboards video and a project really central to the success of that brand. Was that your first foray into film making with a brand-led objective, (aside from the Blueprint clips we mentioned)?
I did a Big Push for Nike SB before that but I really blew it on that one. Aside from that, yeah pretty much. Maybe a Blueprint Kingpin thing too.
Was there any extra pressure on you because you knew the expectations for the brand, the connection with Blueprint’s legacy and the fairly quick turn around required? A first video, particularly for a new brand like Isle, can really be a make or break situation I guess…
Actually didn’t feel much pressure because I wanted to be thorough for myself anyway. Besides, I had a bit of a process going and had gained some confidence from Eleventh Hour. Nick (Jensen) and I worked pretty closely playing with ideas on that video so that probably took a lot of pressure off and made it quite fun.
Presumably, the fact that most of the team were close friends who you’d worked alongside before made it less stressful though, right?
Yeah that video wasn’t stressful at all. I was really happy to be doing it.
What about in terms of aesthetics or sense of place – context-wise Vase featured a lot of places that are closely tied into your own film making practice, rather than relying on trips abroad to gather footage. Do you prefer that method?
That was mainly because trips cost money and the budget was tiny. These days I much prefer doing things on trips away. London doesn’t give me much these days – I’ve been making videos here for like 10 years and I just haven’t got any fresh takes for it. I like being in less familiar places because all the absurdities and strangeness of the places reveal themselves so much more easily because I’m looking more, and places just are different so there’s much more to play with.
So after Vase was released – how long was it before you were approached to make content for Thrasher?
It was a few months. I got Tom’s part put on the Thrasher site and the response was so large and Tony was so into it that he just messaged me. I had a chat with him on the phone and that was that really.
At this point you’d already said publicly a couple of times that you wanted to move away from traditional skate video making and work on shooting narrative fiction – what made you decide to embark on a serialized project like Atlantic Drift which potentially could go on forever?
I realised I’d found myself in a position to actually enjoy some of the fruits of my effort. Going out and filming skateboarding in London every day is not a job I want or ever have wanted, but being able to be away all the time makes the whole thing make sense.
What kind of brief was there for the project? Did you come to Thrasher with a fully formed idea?
Tony (Vitello) was super patient with it. He wanted it to be based around Tom and I, like making a part and putting out things regularly with a crew. Then I just did some thinking and, partly from a trip I did with Henry Kingsford to Nicaragua where I got to be quite playful, I got some ideas – we were just going to start with 6 episodes in a year and see if it worked out.
Atlantic Drift is episodic and has a sense of narrative continuity both in terms of the sense of place forming part of the story so to speak, along with the repeated appearance of a core crew of your friends exploring various different places and certain thematic consistencies – do you approach each one as a continuation of that established idea? Or does each one feel like a separate endeavour?
It’s definitely a continuation. It’s evolving as it goes though I hope. To tell the truth, on these trips I have a lot to do – I book everything and plan the day and film everything so I don’t have too much time to think, so it has to be quite instinctive. A feeling tends to emanate from the vibe of the trip for me – peoples’ interactions and just what a specific place does to your brain. The editing is where I have the most place to play I think.
On the subject on continuity, the music and the non-skate visuals are part of the narrative too I guess – something that a series needs, to stop it feeling like a vaguely connected selection of clips. What’s the back-story on the jellyfish footage? Where did you film it originally?
I don’t really know – I just had an image in my head of jellyfish swimming slowly and some feeling that we’d been drifting through our 20’s quite heavily. My girlfriend at the time made ambient music and I was hearing a lot of it and I guess it came from that. I shot the jellyfish in the Horniman museum aquarium in South London that I took my kid brother and sister to one day.
That visual marker worked out well in another way too in the sense of giving an identity to the range of clothing that dropped a little later – again continuity seems to be key here in order to rise above the median level of Internet content.
I think that that’s probably true. I think people like a strong aesthetic really.
Music and sound (or the lack of) are central to all your work but with Atlantic Drift you seem to have really taken this in a new direction – there are a lots of cuts between music, cuts to silence, switches to ambient sound – is this an area that you’ve enjoyed experimenting with? It certainly adds a sense of atmosphere often missing from the more traditional ‘timeline with tricks in ascending order of difficulty set to music’ approach.
Yeah I enjoy it so much. It’s funny because it’s really the basics of making any other sort of video but was largely absent from skate videos. I’m not sure why it was, but it’s still such a young culture I guess.
Another aspect of the aesthetic continuity you manage to create with these is tied into your repeated use of two different camera formats: the VX1 and 16mm. Is this a conscious decision based on achieving a specific feel with colour and tones etc? Or do you just enjoy using those 2 types of camera?
Well I find it’s fun to play with the documentary/cinematic opposition.
The VX1 is a sort of documentary camera and lends a certain sort of reality or veracity to footage, which is perfect. Then to use 16mm is so dramatic, so putting them next to each other creates this space between reporting and dramatising that I find fun because skate videos really are somewhere between that.
I think it can look pretty funny. In skateboarding we’re spending a lot of time mythologising what is actually probably the most trivial part of the act of skateboarding – the tricks, but also Tom eating tagliatelle in a restaurant in France is extremely trivial – it’s somewhere between these things that the actual thing that’s interesting is happening, though I don’t know what it is. Neither could exist alone and be very interesting, but somewhere in between is the appeal of skating.
VX fetishism aside – can you see a point where you’ll have to switch to a different camera format for the skating, purely because of the age and reliability issues of using that 20+ year old piece of Sony tech?
I guess so yeah, although I just bought a new one from you! Boredom will change it first, I’m sick of looking at this kind of image now
The first 2 Atlantic Drifts were filmed on familiar territory in London – was this always the plan in tune with the concept: to kind of start off at ‘home’ and then travel with the same crew/agenda and transplant that into a different context?
I think we needed to establish our roots in the context of the series before it made sense for us to be off to other places, so yeah I think that was the plan.
The St Paul’s episode really spoke to people I think – particularly as you deliberately juxtaposed the static use of that space by tourists etc, against the dynamic use of it by the crew. How long did you actually spend filming that one and were you surprised by the reception it received, given that it was all filmed in one space?
That one was Tom’s idea. It wasn’t that long, maybe a couple of months of going there a lot, but I can tell you it was no fun. That place sucks. We’d see the same people eating lunch there day in day out and they hated us. We were ruining their quiet. Halfway through I was regretting it so badly, I felt so guilty making people come there repeatedly.
I have no real way of measuring the reception so I have nothing of any value to say about that I don’t think, but people seem to like plaza edits as a thing so it doesn’t seem so surprising if that’s true.
Moving forwards after the first two – Atlantic Drift slowly made its way through France and to the States, stopping in New York, SF, and Vegas before ending up in Hawaii, which is about as far removed from the crusty estates and back streets of London as possible. Despite this, the aesthetic and atmosphere of each one remained continuous – how do you go about approaching this? I guess the repeated cuts to street scenes, familiar shots of cafes, shops etc create a narrative thread regardless of where you are really, right?
Just trying to shoot 16mm in a candid way always has a strange effect I think, if people look into the lens when they weren’t expecting to, you get something very odd from them, and to make this look dramatic makes me laugh a lot.
I think it comes down to that. I just try to find something off-key wherever I am. I’m a fairly happy person but I feel that most human places have a baseline of sadness and absurdity humming away – sometimes it’s very immediate and sometimes it’s more hidden but it’s there always, and everybody knows it’s there. We do such a positive and fun thing over the top of it and I like this a lot.
Mike Arnold and Jacob. Photo by Casper Brooker
From your own perspective as a filmmaker who has to some extent been defined by the context that you film within, (namely London), was there any conflict with going to somewhere like Las Vegas that’s so different architecturally?
Places are all very different but also the same, right? A lot of it is what you carry around in your head. If you’re happy in London it feels very much the same as being happy in Las Vegas, or at least to me. I feel the same goes for making a video. There’s a lot you can control, and if an aspect of a place doesn’t seem immediately complementary to an aesthetic then even better, it works in counterpoint or undercuts a vibe in a potentially interesting way if the viewer can feel some intentionality there.
Where do you source the music? Are the musicians friends of yours?
I’ve had some music made by friends but mostly not. My ex-girlfriend and I made the intro song. I’ve just updated it though to purge my soul, (laughing).
I had a quick view count on Thrasher’s YouTube and just on there, all 8 episodes are up in the range of over a million views easily. If you factor Thrasher’s own player in too then we must be talking multiples of millions in terms of views – what’s your take on that?
I think when it gets over a certain number it becomes too hard to understand so I’ve never really thought about it other than as a number. You saying that now though does make me feel quite good about it!
I don’t know if it should though because obviously the view count is largely due to the platform – and doing something popular doesn’t mean you’re doing something good, but it’s definitely more gratifying! The more gratifying thing is finding out somebody that you respect is into it, that’s really cool.
It must have really helped the skaters out too – in terms of their profile and their positions as regards their value to sponsors – have you seen your friends benefit from this aspect of it?
Yeah definitely, Tom supports a family with 2 daughters, Mike, Casper and Ky are on big projects and everybody is doing alright. This feels great because we all benefit together and it energises everyone and we’re all so close.
Your most recent release through Thrasher was the first Atlantic Drift Catfish clip, which takes you back to London and back to your best friend Tom Knox in his home terrain. Are we to assume that the Atlantic Drift model that preceded this has come to an end?
Ah no, basically Catfish is a way of just putting stuff out there when we want. Just another outlet and a bit of a different format…
You’re a really good skater yourself Jake and it’s no secret that filming is basically Kryptonite to personal skateboarding. Has filming so much had a negative effect on your own skateboarding?
I had knee problems for a bit but they seem to have gone mostly. Actually drinking has had the largest effect, if I don’t drink for a few days I can have so much fun skating, but it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to.
Who else is making skate video content at the moment that you like/enjoy? What is it about what they make that you like?
It’s such a cliché but I don’t watch that much stuff, but I like a lot of the stuff that’s generally well liked – I do like Strobeck’s stuff, I like Johnnie Wilson’s stuff and the Hockey videos. 917 things are great too. Backing Yardsale very hard too, those boys make me stoked. These things just have an energy to them and do something different without fawning to established formats, and make skateboarding look really good.
Is there anything else that you’d like to say?
To anybody that made it this far – well done but you really should have used your time way better.
Read our other Auteurs interviews: Colin Read, Jack Brooks, Ewan Bowman, Mike Manzoori