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.