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Skate Video Director Colin Read Schools Us on Lo-Fi Filmmaking

I talked to Colin about his brand of lo-fi filmmaking, his cult favorite skate film 'Tengu: God of Mischief,' and what it means to be "greedy about life."

Photo by Allen Ying

After a broken pelvis left him unable to skate when he was 18 years old, Colin Read began filming on a friend’s handi-cam and editing footage on whatever programs he could download from Limewire. Ten years later, Colin has emerged as a voice that feels both nostalgic and new in underground skate videos. Shot from the rooftops of New York City to the streets of Tokyo through a distorted fisheye lens with mesmerizing editing, Colin's films make you ask yourself, Why haven't I skated today?


I first became aware of Colin’s work through the “New York Clip” video series he created for SLAP magazine. Watching the clips made the art of skate videos exciting for me again—especially the rooftop section, which revealed a slew of untapped skating spots in New York City. I was hooked.

To find out more about his technique, I met Colin in his Brooklyn apartment a few weeks ago. Like a shrine to Colin’s passions, the apartment’s walls were filled with decks and the floor was covered with video gear straight from the shelves of a Best Buy circa 1999. I talked to Colin about his brand of lo-fi filmmaking, his cult favorite skate film Tengu: God of Mischief, and what it means to be "greedy about life."

VICE: Why’d you choose to shoot on the Sony VX1000, the classic skate video camera from the late 90s and the early 2000s?
At the time it came out, it was exactly what people were looking for. The balance is right. The colors are great and crisp. It has the classic golden look. The sound is amazing—the pops are loud and the power slides sound great. You can get so close to people. It also creates a rush of speed. People blaze past, but you can still see. It came at a time when people were perfecting the art of skate videos. Because of that, it just has a history in skateboarding for people of my generation.

Why shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio?
That is an important question that people forget to ask themselves when they’re thinking about switching formats. Skateboarding is vertical. Human beings, we stand vertical. The thing about 16:9 is that the frame is so wide, there is too much dead space. You need a separate camera. Also, it so wide, the fisheye can’t be distorted. You can’t get as close. And since you’re not as close, the skateboarder is filling even less of the screen, so there’s even more dead space. With the VX, the skater can fit as much of the screen as you want. With 4:3, there’s also a sense of speed. It doesn’t go on for so long. The background zooms past and you feel the speed. With 16:9, the background just slopes away and it robs the footage of a sense of speed and the improvisational feel of skateboarding.


Why not shoot in HD?               
HD is so clear and you can see everything. It forces you to be farther away from the skater. You can see so much, you can predict what the skater is going to do. But, with the VX, you can choose how you want to show the reveal. You can put a lot more thought into when you want objects to appear, when you want people to realize what’s happening. It stays surprising, and I think that’s the most important thing. If its not surprising, why even watch it?

That’s one thing that I love about your movie: You see every obstacle in a new way. How did you get the films opening shot of the front side flip onto the roof bank from a subway train? Did you have a friend on the train calling and saying, "Go!"
No, I was calling him. [Laughs] We’re pretty low budget. I was filming with one hand and my other hand was on my phone. I would count down over the phone to a friend who was with Conner and that friend would count down with me.The first time we did it, Conner did a front 180 into the bank off the roof. The 180 took like four tries. And that meant I had to ride the train all the way into the city, transfer all the way back and then do it over and over again. It took like a long time, but it was worth it. That night when we got home, Conner calls me, he’s like “Hey, I want to try and front side flip it.” So we were back to square one. The second time Conner just put on headphones, which were connected to his phone. So I said, “Alright, ready man?” And then he went and did it on his first try, which was a big relief.


I hear that you can only skate on the roofs in the winter because of the tar.
The roofs get so mushy in the summer. They get so soft and your wheels just sink. Even if you walk around in the summer, you leave footprints in the tar up there. It has to be winter or close to winter to be able to roll fast and do tricks. That’s the reason this film took so long. We could only film it in a few months every year. It was three winters before we could finish. The first time we got a roof clip, it was by accident. We didn’t realize that was such a sick spot. And there are these spots everywhere that have just never been seen. Its like a whole new world of spots that is untouched.

How did you find those spots?
We’d walk around Brooklyn and try and see if the doors unlocked. We’d try to buzz and get in or climb up the fire escape. We had no criminal intent. We were technically breaking the law, but we weren’t hurting anything. I’m sure that we annoyed some people for a short amount of time, but I think that’s the price you have to pay for art.

Let’s talk about the subway track gap—it blew up. The photo was everywhere.
Allen Ying’s an incredible photographer. He really captured how insane Koki is. We took the artistic approach. Media today has become diluted by the ever-present camera. Every person in America has a camera and a microphone on him or her at all times. That means everything’s on film. That takes away a lot of the magic. You’ll see something as soon as it happens, but you wont see the amazing photograph that was taken of it and comes out in a book months later.


Do you think the proliferation of recording devices creates a wall of white noise?
Good work speaks for itself. Even if you don’t have a big outlet, you’ll get noticed. And if you keep making solid work, it’ll grow to be something that will be seen in a larger venue. But there is a lot of “white noise.” That term is pretty apt.

Do you see that in skateboarding, too?
Skateboarding is at a point where there’s so many people doing it. It’s one of the biggest sports in the world, which I think is pretty sad, because I don’t see it as a sport at all. I think it’s more of an artistic expression. But today, huge corporations are invested in it and big skate companies put ads in the big magazines and pay writers to take trips to China to film clips for their video. And then there’s the street league, which is featured on ESPN and has hosts wearing Nascar-type outfits covered in logos. It’s completely foreign to me.

Let’s talk about the editing of Tengu.
There’s two to 300 sequences in the project. For me, a video isn’t anything without the music and the flow between sections. It’s a pet peeve of mine when a video just has a hard cut and starts another section. It’s interesting to watch how editors deal with the problem of moving from one part to the next in a logical way. With Tengu, I tried to go further than I’ve gone before and perfect the flow. It’s all about finding a way to move seamlessly from one part to the next. As I went along through the trends of footage, I figured out the parts and how I wanted to tie them together. Some of them just came together after the fact.

Which ones?
The roof section to Conner’s part. Conner didn’t mean to fall off the roof like that. That was scary—but nobody died. Anyway, we knew we wanted to get from the roof to the street. Originally, he was going to do an actual trick where he rolled off a roof onto the ground. But in the end, we decided against that. We ended up watching that clip and thinking about how cool it’d be to do an animation of him falling, catching the board, and then dropping. We went to the museum and he did the drop-in and I filmed it from underneath. Then I gave those clips to Evan Borja, who is an incredible animator and skater. He did the hand drawn animation.

In Tengu, you lift a quote from Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru about what it means to live. The film is about a bureaucrat finally deciding to live once he finds out his life is over. Are you running from becoming that bureaucrat?
No, I’m the dude at the swing silently freezing to death and dying of cancer. [Laughs] I used that quote from Ikiru because it talks about how you never know the true value of life until you’re face to face with death. My friend Justin Clady almost died during the filming of this video. He was bombing a hill and a guy was jamming in reverse up a one-way street and hit him and dragged him 50 feet. The guy tried to do a hit and run but they got him. Claydy was in a coma for a while. He was messed up and we were scared for a long time. It was Clady’s accident that was an eye-opener and made me not want to waste any time ever. His whole part was filmed before he was hurt. Except for the last trick—the skitch on the taxi—that was filmed after he was better. Where it says, “You have to be greedy about living."

Tengu: God of Mischief is available to purchase at Mandible Claw.

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