Photo by Kelton Woodburn
If most skateboarding videos are like action-packed summer blockbusters, Brett Novak’s are more like the arthouse films playing at indie cinema down the street. The LA-based filmmaker takes a pensive, thoughtful approach to presenting the sport and the results are jaw-droppingly beautiful. While skate videos have historically focused on capturing the tricks—press the record button, 360 flip down a set of stairs until you land it, move on to the the next trick—Novak’s pull back and encompass the elements around the skater, creating a more personal, cinematic experience. The settings he chooses are unique as well, eschewing typical urban landscapes like New York and Philly for desolate hidden gems like abandoned amusement parks in the Mojave Desert or the back alleys of India. It presents skateboarding in a way even your mom would appreciate. Novak is truly rewriting the rules of skate videos.
These are the most beautiful skate videos I’ve ever seen.
[Laughs] Well thank you very much.
How did that become your style?
I definitely wouldn’t say I’ve been trying to create a certain look. It just became what felt natural to me. The more often you try to contrive a style, the more it becomes just that—contrived. I’ve been skateboarding and filming skateboarding since I was 14 years old. I was never the cool kid in the regards to the shooting of it. The style I would shoot back then represented what I wanted to do. It just kind of felt right and I didn’t care if it wasn’t popular with the other skate kids I was around. I would just do it. Once that mentality mixed with my future career or working in film and TV, I think it was just the marriage of: my brain already looks at it like this and now I actually know what the fuck I’m doing. I used to work in a production company, about four years ago, I quit, and just use my free time to shoot these things I hadn’t done in a while. Fuck it, I’ve got time.
You seem to choose technical skaters over skaters who go for the big tricks. A lot of the tricks are just a guy making use out of a box and a piece of wood or something, rather than grinding a 50-foot rail or a giant halfpipe. Why that side of skateboarding?
I think it just comes out of my own interests. When I first started skateboarding, that was the type of skateboarding I was into. I grew up as this kid in the middle of the midwest, just outside of Chicago, with suburban street skater kids around me and for some reason, I developed this obsession with freestyle skateboarding which was a style that pretty much died 20 years ago. The thing with skateboarding was, there was freestyle back in the 80s and then street skaters wanted to get away from it because it became mundane, everyone was doing the same shit. It got boring, basically. So street skateboarding grew out of that, taking it out of flat ground competitions and taking it to the streets and having a whole new playground in front of you. I think what’s happening now is the same process. You’ve had a good, solid 20 years of this brand new thing that’s now standardized—the same thing you were trying to get away from. Street skating is cool, I dig it, but I do get bored with it. So they went from flatground competitions and now all of a sudden, they’re doing stairs and handrails and it’s all gnarly, and then 20 years later, I’m now like, “Do we have any trees do anything on?” [Laughs]
One thing your videos do well is capture the isolation of skateboarding. Is that intentional?
You mean as far as the social isolation?
Well, I mean, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but in your videos, usually there is literally no one else in the entire video.
[Laughs] I’m really stoked that you pointed that out. I don’t think anyone else has ever noticed the quite literal fact that there’s almost nobody ever in the background. My background is in visual effects, that was my career for years, so obviously when I go film these videos in whatever city, there are people walking around. Almost every single one of my videos, I’ve painted people out of the background. I don’t like distractions in my videos.
I don’t want these videos to take themselves too fucking seriously. As a skateboarder, I know the idea of being a 16-year-old and getting out of your retail job and finding a parking garage covered in snow and skating by yourself at two in the morning. So even if I’m filming these dudes in whatever country, it’s the same feeling. It’s not to meant to present them like they're God-like. It’s meant to be like, “No, no, this is how they see themselves.” It’s almost like you’re not watching them, but with them, in their heads.
Your music choices are interesting too. Skateboarding has historically been so closely tied in to aggressive punk and hardcore and then later some hip-hop too. But the songs you use are more… how would you describe them?
I definitely contrast my work for sure, it’s definitely a different route than most people take.
What do you look for in a song?
It’s usually just whatever I stumble across that feels right. If I was describing it, I definitely have a thing for cinematic music. I like music that tells a story. In my videos, most of the time, I don’t tell any type of real stories. It’s more of like an art gallery piece. It’s one that doesn’t piss off the normal person. I don’t wanna say it’s safe, but I don’t like to alienate anybody in that regard.
What kind of skate videos did you grow up watching?
My most played-out VHS tapes were Black Label’s Blackout, Yeah Right!—Ty Evans directed that one, the Girl videos. Those were probably the most played ones.
What’s your favorite video you’ve shot?
That’s tough. I kind of have a thing for every one that I’ve done and it’s more about the experience I had making them. That’s a genuinely tough question. India, making-wise, that was my favorite one as far as the process of making it. That was a fucking life-changing experience.
You film in a lot of exotic locations—does someone pay you to do those or do you just do them on your own?
Ninety percent are just me on my own, creatively pulled off somehow. I mean, I’ve had some branded pieces. The one in the waterpark was paid for by Mercedes, but that’s extremely non-intrusive.
What’s the best advice you’d give to an aspiring filmmaker?
Oh man, wow. For me, the most important thing I was told by someone was never forgetting that what we do as filmmakers—and this goes for any artist—as much as we like to pretend otherwise, it all comes down to making connections with people. We are a social species, we literally depend on our coexistence with each other. At the end of the day, it’s about people.
What about an aspiring skateboarder?
Stop giving a shit about being sponsored. It’s like the same thing as filmmaking. If you only are in this business to achieve some award, then you’re never gonna get that award anyway because you don’t care enough. If all you care about is skateboarding, you’ll totally be able to make something out of it.
Dan Ozzi is not crying because these videos are so beautiful but because he is too heavy and out of shape to 360 flip anymore. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi