In 2022, Tony Hawk is a household name, skateboarding is an olympic sport and it’s possible to master digital laser flips in any number of video games on TV. It wasn’t always like this, though. Early skate screen media consisted mostly of skeptical documentaries or whimsical California dreaming-style chronicles. Things changed when, in 1983, Stacy Peralta – who managed the ragtag team of skaters that Tony Hawk was a member of – effectively invented the modern skate video. Thanks to its performative nature, skateboarding would soon form a symbiotic relationship with the technology that showcased it.
The VHS invasion
Peralta claims he hoped a few hundred copies of his first video might find their way into the new VHS players that were taking the US by storm. “From the get go, videos were more lucrative than they thought they were going to be: It's this sort of famous thing that Stacy [Peralta] says that the first Bones Brigade video, they thought they were just gonna write the costs off as a marketing cost, but actually they made a load of money on it.” Author, professor and skateboarder Iain Borden told Engadget. The success of The Bone Brigade Video Show, and the titles that followed, exposed skateboarding to many more new eyes along with an all new revenue stream for the struggling “sport”.
In the ‘80s Peralta and his Bones Brigade team dominated on-screen skateboarding, typically on vert ramps, including several movie cameos. But Peralta’s polished style and squeaky-clean team wasn’t for everyone. Right at the end of the ‘80s, H-Street – a more grassroots skateboarding outfit – released Shackle Me Not and Hokus Pokus with a focus on street skating. Not everyone had access to a ramp, but everyone lived on a street, meaning this new style was much more accessible with the videos almost serving as a how-to manual.
According to Borden, H-Street put cameras in skaters’ hands to film each other and the change of pace and dynamic in videos shifted away from Peralta’s more conventional approach. This new format – skaters shooting skaters – complete with slams, skits, music and pissed-off security guards would become the template for the next decade. Not least thanks to another new technology that was about to land.
In 1995, Sony released a camera that would define how the skate video looks (and sounds) right to this day. At around $3,000; the DCR-VX1000, was the first digital camcorder in Sony’s consumer lineup. The relatively affordable price, coupled with its small form-factor and new, digital tapes – MiniDV – made it the perfect camera for gonzo filmmakers seeking professional results. The fact that footage could be easily transferred to a PC with a nascent technology called i.Link (which you might know as “FireWire”) meant anyone with a computer could now make videos entirely at home.
The VX1000 only really solidified its legendary status among skaters once it was coupled with the Century Optics fish-eye lens. “The fisheye was amazing. The audio was incredible. The colors look great. It had a handle built into it so you can follow somebody while riding a skateboard,” videographer Chris Ray told Engadget. “There hasn't been another impactful camera in skateboarding like that. I don't think there ever will be.”
Ray says he still uses audio from the VX1000 on his modern productions. “I pull a library of VX audio and I add those to the snaps, the lands, the grinds, things like that into my skate films because nobody has made a camera that has audio that's even close to as good.” Ray clearly isn’t the only one to think so, as this $300 modern replica VX1000 mic just for skateboarding attests.
To complement the sound, the colors the VX1000 put out would also become something of a hallmark of a good skate video. The bright, punchy hues the camera produced were the perfect match for the blue Californian sky contrasted against the beige and asphalt found in strip mall parking lots and other urban, skate-friendly locations. Before long, footage shot with anything else felt passé. “People were still making skateboard videos on other cameras,” Ray said, “but this was, like, the one you were taking a lot more seriously.”
Ask any skater what the golden era of skate videos is and you’ll get a different answer, but objectively the year 2000 ushered in a period of where some of the most impactful, high budget skateboarding movies ever were made, and most of them were shot with the trusty VX1000.
Menikmati, from shoe company éS and Modus Operandi by Transworld set the tone. Both came out in 2000 and heavily showcased the VX1000’s distinctive look and sound. Both are also very high profile releases in the skate scene, which only serves to fully solidify the camera’s status as the de facto tool of choice. Not to mention a badge of cool in its own right. “I mean, it's on skateboards. I've got skateboards on my wall with the camera on it. People make keychains, there's tattoos.” Ray said. “It's still iconic to this day.’
Redefining the standard
Of course, there’s a problem looming over the horizon. A 16:9, High-Definition problem to be precise.
For all the VX’s strengths, the whole TV industry was undergoing its biggest change in standards, perhaps ever. Widescreen TVs had been steadily replacing 4:3 CRTs and the new “HD” resolutions were making SD content look horribly outdated. Not everyone was a fan of the new aspect ratio, either. “I couldn't get myself to fully go HD because it was a lot harder. You're talking about a 16:9 image. You don't want to cut the wheels off and you don't want to cut their head off when you're filming skateboarding.” Ray said.
Worse, in 1999 Sony did release a follow-up to the much-loved camera, the VX2000, but it was a flop with skateboarders. Not only was the new aspect ratio harder to work with, the VX2000 had an inferior mic and, crucially, wasn’t compatible with the Century Optics fisheye (or specifically the “Mk1” of that lens that everyone wanted). Skateboard filmers needed to find a new sweetheart.
“It's funny because the Panasonic HVX200 came out. That was really hated by a lot of skateboarders. But now, today, the HVX200 is the preferred camera of HD by skateboarders.” Ray said. In fact, filmers weren’t pleased about having to give up their precious VX1000 at all. “I was working on a Transworld film, and we talked about how there's this transition between VX1000 and going HD. And skateboarding was not happy about it.” Ray added. (Years later a petition was also started to campaign for Century Optics to re-issue the Mk1 lens, which it ultimately did - albeit a limited run of 300).
Around the same time, a little gaming franchise known as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skateboarder was taking the gaming world by storm. The popularity of the PlayStation 2, and its ability to play DVDs, was the perfect way for a whole new generation to discover skateboarding. (Not to mention one of the goals was to “unlock” various bonus skate videos.)
Tony Hawk might have been luring in new blood, but in 2007, the hotly anticipated (in skate circles) film, Fully Flared, was about to signal another big change in skate video history. Renowned skate Director, Ty Evans, was still using the VX1000 but this would be its last outing in one of his productions, Ray said. Evans championed the VX from the start with Modus Operandi, but Fully Flared (which Ray also worked on) represented the passing of the camera baton. The send off was marked with explosions and effects never seen before in a skate movie.
For the ‘gram
There was another important event in 2007: The launch of the first ever iPhone. Within a few years, almost everyone had an HD camera in their pocket. Likewise, a whole other product category would come along to change how we record things – the action cam. Between the smartphone and the GoPro, suddenly everyone was a skate videographer. Or as we call them today, a “creator.”
Unlike many sports, professional skateboarding is mostly financed through individual sponsorship deals. Some skateboarders do compete for prize money, but brand deals are typically the primary source of income. This means that being on video is directly related to your standing among potential sponsors. Thanks to slow-mo on the iPhone and the popularity of GoPros, being in a skate video wasn’t reserved for the stars any longer, in fact, you’d have a hard time being noticed by sponsors at this point if you weren’t making yourself seen in videos.
The rise of the internet was transformative for most industries, but skateboarding is nothing if not adaptive. YouTube was first, but before long Instagram became the spiritual home for all things skate video. Now you can attract fans directly, see your stats in real time and record your best tricks without having to lug about a large camcorder or hit the editing suite. And thus, the 30+ minute skate video was swiftly usurped by short, often single-take clips or even individual tricks.
No longer did you have to wait months or even years between doses of on-screen skateboarding, now it was on demand, bite sized and in never-ending supply. But with this convenience and supply came a dramatic shift in focus.
The social media age hasn’t just changed how the media is made and consumed, it’s changing who gets to be seen and sponsored. “What I'm seeing now is kids are inspired by other kids, kids that are their age. I'm not seeing the like, 35 year old pros inspiring. The 15 year old kid, his favorite skater is this guy that's not even pro, that I've never heard of,” Ray said.
Like with other industries that fell foul to the internet, the age of big budgets and splashy releases might be gone, but other opportunities have filled their place. Two of the most followed skaters on Instagram right now are Nyjah Huston and Leticia Bufoni. Both are accomplished, exciting skateboarders who have cultivated their own personal brand and style over recent years. Bufoni, in particular, has played a hugely important role in making skateboarding more accessible to young women.
“I think the rise of female skaters has absolutely been aided by the fact that people can access and see people like them skating,” Borden said. But with new technology comes new pressures, especially for creators. “They have to produce something every day, every week. And we you know, I mean, the pressure to do that must be extraordinary.” Borden added.
The shift to Instagram also echoes how vert skating in the late ‘80s lost favor to the new and exciting urban skating that emerged in the early ‘90s. Just how street took place in spots that were accessible to the viewer, Instagram places videos from your skater friends neatly in between clips (or “parts”) from the pros, blurring the lines between you and “them” even further.
For many years, what tricks were cool, who was cool at doing them and what that coolness looked like was heavily influenced by what was in the skate videos of the time. Today, that has reversed and now we get to see skaters from different backgrounds and influences taking their favored pastime to new places.
This movement from the media fringes to social media platforms could have killed the “classic” skate video off, and some might argue it mostly has. In reality, it’s given directors and videographers more license to address broader issues in skateboarding culture. Skategoat (2021) for example follows Venice-native Leandre Sanders through his teenage years where the only thing stopping him following his siblings into gang culture is skateboarding and his journey to turning pro nearly a decade later. There’s no VX1000 audio samples or crunchy color or fisheye shots, just a sincere look at someone’s life being saved by their passion for skateboarding. Likewise, Netflix’s Stay On Board, follows trans-man Leo Baker as he navigates developing a career skateboarding with his own very public journey of self-discovery.
Of course, the more traditional video does live on, it just no longer holds the monopoly on what skateboarding should look like. Love for the past obviously lives on, meaning you can, of course, find VX1000s modded to bring them up to modern standards but the industry has realized there’s more to be gained from current tech than that of the past.
More than almost any other marginal entertainment genre, the skate video has repeatedly proven it's happy to reinvent itself. “I think technology has been nothing but helpful. I think that we have to embrace it,” Ray said. “There's more people out there filming, there's more people out there being noticed. There's more people skateboarding and there's more people buying skateboards. I think it's a win for everybody.”