Meet the skate industry’s under-the-radar heroes

Why videographers for the likes of Palace and Supreme are becoming increasingly influential.
Skate videographers hero image

Austin Bristow doesn’t know exactly how much time he’s spent making skate videos, but estimates it would add up to a continuous year. (Considering he’s only 25, that’s a lot.) 

He started skating in his early teens and was filming not long after that. His big break came at 16, when he was put forward to shoot across the UK with Nike. When he later dropped out of college – his mum wasn’t happy – he started making short films for Adidas, Palace, Vans and Converse showcasing the abilities and general aura of his many skater friends.

Skateboarding has been increasing in popularity for several decades now but, in the past handful of years, it has moved from a much-loved but self-contained sect to a more mainstream cultural hegemony. Retail streetwear is heavy with the nuances of skateboarding and, as has been well documented, skateboarding has infiltrated the world of high fashion. Brands like Louis Vuitton have collaborated with pro-skater Lucien Clark on a skate shoe and Saint Laurent released its own £2,170 gold leaf deck. (For more influential skate/fashion collaborations, see here.) 

Skate videographers such as Austin are among the most important yet overlooked group of people curating the raw aesthetic of skateboarding.  They play a vital role in its transcendent evolution. And although they started out as a subculture within a subculture, they are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve for playing a vital role in its evolution. 

The role of the skate videographer is partly practical: after all, skaters need to showcase their tricks to acquire and maintain sponsorship. But skate videography is also a thriving creative field within a thriving creative field – one with a distinct aesthetic register and one that has been gradually defined by various maverick filmmakers along the way. Today, in our extremely online culture with the line between life and marketing more blurry than ever, skateboarding is increasingly becoming centered around style and that nebulous accumulation of traits we like to call ‘being an influencer’. 

Skate filmmakers know how useful they are in this regard. Some, like Austin, go from filming their mates after school to becoming crucial artistic players in multi-million pound branding exercises in an extremely short space of time. 

Equipped with his Panasonic HPX170 (one of two mainstay skate cameras alongside Sony’s VX1000), Austin has filmed all over the world, from Hawaii to Berlin, and each time he lands there’s a network of skaters waiting for him, ready to show him the best spots. 

But maybe not in the way most people would imagine. Skate videography trips aren’t very glamorous, at least not in the conventional sense. ‘When I think of all the places in the world where I’ve been,’ says Austin, ‘people ask if I’ve done any sightseeing. But I’ll get taken to this amazing city and I’ll end up just sitting for hours at grimey spots filming all day.’ 

Spots are important to Austin, and largely invisible to most people outside of skateboarding. One rainy central London day recently, where someone might see a dilapidated bike rail, Austin sees untrammeled potential for bump-to-bars and ollies. Almost anything can be skatable, he explains, and with the tip of his umbrella, he demonstrates how manhole covers can be lifted, propped up and manipulated into ramps. He’s quite literally seeing a different London from the rest of us. 

‘You know how taxi drivers have the knowledge?’ Austin asks. ‘Well, skate filmers have the knowledge too, because we know the streets so well.’

‘You see this chunk here,’ he says, later that night, pointing to a bruise in the ledge beneath a department store window. ‘You’d think this would grind because it’s marble but sometimes it doesn’t. So that chip is from the truck breaking the ledge, the average person wouldn’t know that though.’ 

Whereas street skateboarders have a more-or-less narrow performative remit (wear the clothes, land the trick, don’t get hurt), their respective videographers have a lot more to think about. Shots or ‘lines’ – meaning one unbroken take – are sometimes planned meticulously, taking into account the backdrop with all its minute inconsistencies. Cruel luck and perfectionism often mean that videos take a surprisingly long time to film. 

‘Sometimes it can take days to get a few seconds and that involves coming back multiple times,’ Austin says, recalling how he managed to film the skateboarder, Tom Snape, pull off the correct series of tricks down Regent Street alongside an oncoming London bus. Likewise, Da Silva’s backside noseblunt that caps off Austin’s Visa Versa Love (watched over 200,000 times on YouTube) was only landed after hundreds of successive tries. But better to check out his work for yourself.

There's a commanding sense of ambient recklessness to Austin’s work. Most of his videos are years in the making, many featuring tricks nobody’s done before. The pro-skaters he films like Heitor Da Silva, Kle Wilson and Rory Milanes, all attempt treacherous bouts of athleticism - vaulting multiple sets of stairs, pulling off perilous ledge grinds and cruising along seawalls between thirty-foot drops. However, there’s always a deliberate sense of uninhibited spontaneity and offhand fun. 

Videographers like Austin have to constantly mitigate unforeseen interruptions from onlookers to injury, cyclists, motorists, tourists and preventative urban design. Sometimes Austin will return to a spot only to find it blocked by hostile architecture, fitted with sloping surfaces, spikes and bumps. In 2010, Camden Council installed its infamous ‘skate stopping’ ‘Camden Benches’ now adopted throughout London. ‘They’re designed so you can’t skate it. But people find ways,’ says Austin gleefully. 

There’s also the problem of drunks. For Austin, who likes to film at night in iconic, busy places like Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, this is a regular concern. ‘Drunk people are the worst to put up with. When we’re filming round here, everyone has something to say… They either want to try and have a go which can take you out of the moment, especially for the skater who’s really focused… or someone starts pissing on the spot. That happens a lot.’

In some ways, the skateboarder is a strange kind of petty outlaw and videographers will try to communicate this in their films. Likewise the brands who commission the videos – they want to reflect that same sense of careless freedom. 

‘You know how taxi drivers have the knowledge?’ Austin asks. ‘Well, skate filmers have the knowledge too, because we know the streets so well.’

The skate film, which dates back to the late 1960s but really found its feet in the 1980s, is a distinct genre. Often they are non-linear; somewhere between a showreel and a lucid dream. They’re also almost always twinned with a soundtrack. Even Skaterdater (1965), the world’s first skateboard movie, came with its own twangy surf guitar from Mike Curb & The Sidewalk Sounds. Fashion is another through-line; skate videos are mostly funded to sell clothes, although their DIY look and punky, unpredictable aesthetic are a buffer stopping them from ever feeling plainly consumeristic. 

As VHS became DVDs which in turn gave way to social media, the skate film began to change alongside evolving technology. Dan Magee, the British skate film maverick who gave Austin his big break with Nike, recalls editing ‘deck to deck’ with tapes back in the late 1980s. Then, with the advent of digital, he’d spend hours pouring over magazines trying to work out what lenses the Americans were using based on the vague outline of the filmmaker’s shadow. ‘That’s what pushed our company (Blueprint Skateboards) to the forefront in the UK,’ he says excitedly, ‘because we were matching the American’s production quality.’ 

Back then the field was pretty sparse and being perceived as a US company was vital when it came to cultivating credibility. The other UK skate company was Death Box, who, according to Dan, only became popular after it moved to California. Now the defining UK skate brand is Palace, which, according to its filing history, had a turnover of roughly £27m in 2021. Even so, Palace pales in comparison to US counterparts. 

With the advent of social media, the prescribed length of skate videos changed too. ‘It used to be always a 35 minute video, which showcased the skateboarders acting as a team… and it was the influence of that team that would sell the brand,’ Dan continues. ‘Now it’s more like one clip on Instagram, or one five minute edit to get peoples’ attention… It's also very crew based; skaters don’t have to ride for the same sponsors, you can get someone to fund your trip and each person can ride for a different company.’ 

There have been some notable skate video auteurs over the years. The legendary director Spike Jonze made his debut shooting a skate film called Video Days in 1991, featuring Mark Gonzales, accompanied by War’s ‘Low Rider’, Black Flag and Huskar Du. Later, Ty Evans had a lasting impact with videos like Feedback (1999) and Modus Operandi (2000). 

Today, the defining filmmaker is New York’s William Stobeck who works with Supreme. Last year the New York Times hailed his work for ‘turning skate videos into art’. To watch one of William’s films is to spend almost more time viewing the space around the tricks than the tricks themselves. 

‘He looks at skate films in a more observational way, he’s not just looking at the tricks,’ says Dan. ‘He’s on the streets filming the stuff in the background… his whole thing is very inclusive, not just with skateboarders but also the general public.’ 

He’s also prompted sea-changes in technology. One of Strobeck’s defining videos, Supreme Cherry (2017), was filmed on a Panasonic HVX 200, a camera which, according to Dan, skate videographers had initially hated but suddenly started adopting. 

The main through-line to the skate-videographer’s work, however, is expressing a love for the laid-back, quasi-anarchistic joy of skateboarding itself. Skate videos must never look like they’re taking themselves too seriously. Austin is eager to tell me that he’d still be filming skaters even if they never earned him another penny. ‘If you take it too seriously,’ he explains, ‘it starts to feel like a job. And you don’t want it to feel like a job because if you started skateboarding in the first place then you’re just doing it for fun.’

After a few hours of walking around central London, ending up in Chinatown, Austin continues on to his next appointments. There’s a lot of waiting around in the skate world. Waiting for rain, for spots to open up, for your mates to text back. Austin rarely knows his schedule until about an hour beforehand. It seems like he enjoys this. Fundamentally, to really capture something, you have to be there and live it, and that’s what Austin does. ‘Ended up skating till 4am,’ he messages the next morning.

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