Spike Jonze’s Favorite Cameras
Spike and Johnny Knoxville. Photo by Sean Cliver
For more than 30 years, Spike Jonze has been in the biz of making images. From his street-level skate photography to award-winning music videos from the genre's gilded era and his critically acclaimed feature films, Spike's first job has always been to pick up a camera and provide us with the best look his uncharacteristic vision can find.
And through those trades, Spike's come to love the tools associated with them: "Cameras are something that any of us can talk about for hours, whether it's a director or photographer, we love talking about cameras and I think that, in what I've done, cameras are always part of creating the feeling of what I'm doing."
And so, in honor of Spike's Epicly Later'd episode on VICELAND (also shot with cameras), we chatted with this icon of our current renaissance to get a baker's-dozen rundown of his favorite soul-stealing devices.
Watch Epicly Later'd on VICELAND Wednesdays at 10 PM.
My mom had a camera, an Olympus OM1, and I hope I still have that somewhere. When I moved to California to work as an editor at Freestylin' magazine, she let me take it with me. I started shooting photos when I got there, and everybody, all the photographers—Windy Osborn, O, Tod Swank, and the photographers who I knew—shot Nikon with 16mm fisheye lenses, which I couldn't afford. I bought this one from a mail-order company that was pretty nice, but it was a generic version called a Sigma.
That's what all the amazing skate and BMX photos were shot with. I was like, "Oh, that's how they did that." You could be down under a trick and see how much air they were getting and still see the ramp or the set of stairs, and you could see where they took off from or where they landed. But yeah, that was the lens that I really started getting into photography with… and with my mom's camera body.
Nikon FM2/Nikon F3
Windy always had two cameras: a Nikon FM2 and a Nikon F3 with a MD-12 motor drive that shot six frames a second. Eventually, as I got more into photography and was shooting more for the magazine, Wizard Publications' owner, Bob Osborn, gave me Windy's old set of cameras. They bought her a new set so I got the hand-me-downs—two bodies and a full set of lenses. It was the most insane Christmas gift/employee perk. It was crazy.
Windy had made these leather straps so that if the camera got knocked out of your hand, it would just hang from your wrist. They were very cool. They looked like they were made by a Topanga Canyon hippie in the 70s. I shot all of my skate and BMX photos with those cameras.
When I was 19, I started working at TransWorld for Grant [Brittain]. I had sent him a bunch of photos and became a contributing photographer. I got a bunch of covers at TransWorld and a bunch of Pro Spotlight interviews: Ray Barbee, Ed Templeton, Jason Lee, Jeremy Kline. And, obviously, loads of photos of Mark Gonzalez.
Getting those cameras definitely opened up so many possibilities. Suddenly I had a telephoto lens, I had an 80 to 200, I could get further away and find different frames and compositions, and I could take daylight flash photos with the FM2 and sync the flash with the shutter at 250th of a second. Oh, I had a motor drive; I could do sequences. I definitely learned a lot from having those cameras, but mostly I learned from being around other photographers I loved and asking them a lot of questions. Especially Grant, at that time, who was very generous as a teacher.
I wish I still had that camera—the Fisher-Price PXL-2000. Yeah, me and Lew, I think we went in on it together. We wanted a video camera but they were expensive so we got this toy video camera that they sold at Toys-R-Us for $100. It shot really crappy black-and-white and recorded it on an audio cassette tape.
That was our video camera, and we would shoot skating and riding and make dumb little short films. Somehow we put a fisheye lens on there that somebody had. I don't know what we actually did with it other than just fool around and try to make funny shit.
Even before that, I was really into video and had used VHS camcorders in high school, but I mean, we were always just making goofy skits. If anyone ever had a video camera, I would ask to use it or ask a lot of questions about it. I mean, it wasn't like I ever knew I was going to go into doing anything with video. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I liked cameras.
Panasonic Super-VHS/Sony Hi8
When [Steve] Rocco started World Industries, I shot their first ad with my Nikon motor drive. At the time, we wanted all the World ads to be sequences, as opposed to still photos, because skateboarding was becoming so much more technical, and with a sequence, you could really see how the trick worked.
The company was about a year old, and one day we were out skating and I asked Rocco if he was going to do a video. He said he wanted to, but he didn't have time and then asked if I wanted to do it. I was like, "Yeah, sure." And right there at the skate spot, he gave me the company credit card and told me to go buy a camera. I went and researched video cameras and bought a Panasonic consumer camcorder—I'm pretty sure it was a Super-VHS—and made my first skate video on it for World, Rubbish Heap. That was the real gateway into making video stuff.
Then when we did the Blind video [Video Days], we got a second camera—a Sony Hi8. I liked the Hi8 camera because it was so little. When we did the Blind video, we'd carry it around in a little bag that was the size of a shoebox. You would just throw it over your shoulder, cruise around the city, and pull it out when there was something to shoot. That was probably the first time in history that video cameras were that small and that cheap, and it allowed us to make skate videos that way.
I remember Mark and I would get in arguments about stupid shit, and one time we were driving down the street, got in an argument, and he threw the video camera out the car window. I was like, "What the fuck! What the fuck, Mark? You fucking dick!" I pulled over, got the camera, and turned it on, and it still worked. It was Rocco's camera, but I was still really pissed off because that's the camera we were trying to make the video with. I didn't want to film anymore that day, so I went home. I just left him there and took the camera.
Canon Scoopic/Arri SR 2
Mark Gonzales had gone to see Sonic Youth play, and as he was leaving, he saw the band getting into their bus. He said, "Hey, you guys. We made a skate video. You want a copy?" And they were like, "Sure." And he gave them Video Days.
Then one day I got a call from Kim Gordon on my answering machine asking if I wanted to shoot some skateboarding for a music video for their song "100%." I was thrilled. It was surreal to get a call from Kim Gordon. Kim Gordon was a real person calling me on a real phone. She introduced me to Tamra Davis, the director of the video, and I got to shoot all the skateboarding for their video and just hang out next to Tamra and learn from her.
That was the first time I shot motion-picture film. We shot 16mm film cameras—two of them. The camera we shot a lot of the skateboarding on, which was smaller, was a Canon Scoopic. I think it was made in the 60s or 70s as a consumer 16mm camera. Super simple to use, and it was really fun. We also used an Arri SR2, which was the workhorse 16mm music-video camera at the time. But I had never shot film before, so Tamra and her DP Mike Spiller basically gave me a crash course lesson in loading and shooting 16mm cameras. Every one of these things was like a new class in film school for me.
I ended up shooting all of my early music videos—like the Breeders video for "Cannonball" and the Beastie Boys "Sabotage" video—with those two cameras.
In the Beastie Boys video, we ended up breaking two cameras because we were just doing stuff ourselves. On the first day, I wanted to get an underwater shot, so I put the Canon Scoopic in a Ziploc bag, put the camera underwater at Mike D's pool, and Adam Horovitz tackled [Adam] Yauch into the water. I mean, it's a terrible underwater shot because it's all blurry and wavy from looking through the Ziploc bag, but I didn't care. I was like, "I got the shot!" But water got into the bag and fried the electronics. The assistant cameraman took the air blower, blew out all the water, sent it back the to camera house, and said, "Hey, this just stopped working; can you guys send us a new one?" And by the end of the day, we had a new one.
The next day, we had the bigger camera—the Arri SR2—bolted to the front of the hood, and we were jumping the car. The mag that holds the film flew off and unspooled down the street. So we trashed that one, too.
I always looked at cameras as a means to an end and not something to be precious about. I guess, looking back, it's the same way you treat a skateboard: I would love getting a new board and putting it together, but I would never be careful with it. You use it for what it's made for—same with a camera. I would bomb a hill with it, bolt it to the top of a car, and do whatever I needed to do with it to get a shot I was excited about.
As I got more into music videos, I started getting to use 35mm motion-picture cameras. And depending on the idea for the video, sometimes I would want to move the camera, and the best way to get the shot was with a Steadicam. I can't operate those, so you get a great Steadicam operator to help. The good ones are super strong but also have a nice touch of framing and composition.
We used Steadicam on that Pharcyde "Drop" video and the Weezer video "Undone—The Sweater Song." So yeah I got into it and that's when I started to use cranes, too. For the last shot in Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" video, we used this truck that had a crane on it that she and the Steadicam operator could both step onto as the truck pulled back and the giant crane boomed up. You can just get the most amazing, fluid shots—come right into a close-up and come out to a wide shot and go upstairs and go through hallways and things that you can't normally do without that equipment.
Sometimes you see something technical, a piece of equipment or a visual spec, and it would trigger ideas, but other times you would have a shot in mind, and you would have to come up with a way to do it.
In the 90s—in the music-video world—there was this real sort of snobbery toward video: You shoot things on film, but video is just for consumers. But because I started by doing skate videos with video cameras, I always loved it.
I had this one Sony MiniDV camera—the silver rectangular one—and I plugged a $150 consumer microphone into it and used that camera for loads of things. We did the FatBoy Slim "Praise You" video where we're dancing in front of the movie theater. By using that camera, nobody in the crowd thought anything about it. The cameramen just looked like tourists. I also used it for this Fatlip video, "What's Up Fatlip?" The idea of that video was I would just go to his house every day with my camera, and no crew, come up with what we were going to shoot, and drive around town and shoot it. And because it was on video, as we were making it, I started asking him a lot of questions and ended up making a spontaneous documentary, also called "What's Up Fatlip?"
I used that camera for the whole first season of Jackass too. It's so unassuming and unobtrusive and natural because that's the camera we would have had out, just fucking around, anyway.
The same summer that we were making the first season of Jackass, I was also making this documentary on Al Gore for his 2000 presidential election campaign, and I was using the same camera. With that camera, I would be a one-man crew. I've always floated back and forth between bigger productions with bigger cameras and bigger crews to no crew and just me and a camera depending on what the idea was.
This summer, I helped produce and design Frank Ocean's tour. The idea of the tour was to make huge festival shows intimate and handmade. We built this tiny little stage in the middle of the audience, and this giant screen that filled the main stage. Another cameraman and I would have a handful of different cameras laid out on the stage, and we'd make the live concert film that you saw on the screen. One of our rules was that there could be no prerecorded images on the screen, so if we wanted a graphic, we had to have it drawn on the stage and film it. Or if we wanted him to be silhouetted in front of an all-orange screen, I would zoom into a piece of orange tape on the stage and make it out of focus, so you couldn't see the texture.
We wanted to have an evolution of looks throughout the course of the thing, so we had four cameras each. We had a black-and-white security camera with an infrared light on it. We had the Sony VX-1000—the classic 90s skate video camera—we had this very weird digital camera called an Ikonoskop, which has a very specific, dense color look. And we also had the Alexa Miniwith anamorphic lenses that had a very cinematic look.
It's always about that feeling, and the camera is a means to that feeling. And for that tour, we wanted the music and visuals to feel like they were being handmade by people right in front of you.
I can't even think of all the things I've done on iPhone, but it's the camera in your pocket. I made a video for Kanye West on my iPhone a couple of years ago that I really loved. The song was called "Only You," and it was written from the point of view of his mom singing down to him. He had played me that song in the studio while he was working on it, and I'd always loved it. But he made a video for it that ended up being a little too slick for such an intimate song. He showed me the video they made on a Thursday, and we decided to make another video for it on that Saturday. I went over to his house with my iPhone, and we shot in the park behind his house. It was kind of a gray, rainy day, and we shot it in like 45 minutes. It has an incredible look, and it's just all off the iPhone. It was just a crew of me and my friend holding the boombox, playing the music back. It was so simple. It just felt right, and Kanye is down for anything if it feels right. It doesn't matter if it's big or small; as long as it feels right and you're getting that excitement, that buzz, then you're going in the right direction.