Reel Talk: Brett Nichols

If you ask Brett Nichols a question, you often get a minor dissertation back. It becomes quite clear that he’s put the utmost thought into every decision he’s made that day, and probably every one he expects to make over the next six months too. That obsessively contemplative personality is very apparent in his video Pathways, where a vast and deliberate collection of spots, skaters, and imagery never strays from its theme. Read on to dive into his extensive thought process behind this exciting video.—Alex Aho

Chris Jatoft, drop in. Photo / Nichols
Chris Jatoft, drop in. PHOTO / Nichols

Interview by Alex Aho

There’s a specific theme to this video. How would you describe it?
I feel like there’s a story to tell. I’ve been collecting skateboard videos my entire life. I’ve always had a huge focus on trying to find independent and international videos. I think my collection right now is up to about 1,500 videos or so. One of the scenes that has influenced and inspired me the most has been the Japanese skateboarding scene. I had a friend that ran a skate shop in Japan living in San Francisco, Hidehiko Fujiwara, and he would bring me videos back from his trips.
And then, February 11, 2011, I saw Minuit, Yoan Taillandier’s video, and it made something click. I’m like, “I can actually do this where I live. There are a lot of spots that look like this, and if I just filmed at those spots, then I could make something look like a Japanese video.” I started that day. I tried to take my own approach, really focusing in on modern architecture, just because that’s what always interested me the most in Japanese skateboarding videos—that the scenery looked so different than where I lived, and in some ways, dreamlike. I tried to focus in on a video where we’re skating all spots that are modern in their surroundings—sculptures and all those sorts of things.

What are some videos that influenced you?
Outside of Japan, definitely always saw some interest in all the Magenta videos, all the Antiz videos, Skylarking and Forays by Daniel Kircher—you could tell he was looking to capture as much interesting imagery within the city as he could, and really show what his surroundings look like, while only capturing the best elements of his surroundings.
For Japanese videos, Journey by Skate Atom with Deshi’s part. That was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time. That video really shows how that guy seeks out the most awkward transition spots he can possibly find. Everything that the Far East Skate Network has done, Dialogue Between Insiders and Lenz I and II by Tightbooth. Skate Archives, This Continued, and Snap to Life by BP Trading. I’d say BP Trading might be one of the bigger ones just because they were always focused in on finding random transition spots. It wasn’t always about skating in the city center. You could tell watching Skate Archives that they were going out to rural areas looking for awkward sculptures and playground structures and all this kind of weird architecture. In Japan, their concrete playground structures basically look like skate parks.

Trevor Murphy, roll-in grind. PHOTO / Nichols
Trevor Murphy, roll-in grind in an old concrete playground. PHOTO / Nichols
Built by Robert Winston for the California Garden Show in 1952. Here are original photos of the spot.
Built by Robert Winston for the California Garden Show in 1952. Here are original photos of the spot.

As you’re talking about these guys finding awkward street spots, would you say you found a parallel by doing that? In the Bay Area, there aren’t quite as many concrete waves and light structures and things like that, but do you think that when we watch Japanese videos, we think, “Man, these guys have spots every ten feet,” but are they doing the same thing you were? Digging?
That’s a great question. I haven’t been to Japan, so I don’t know. But I have a number of Japanese videos where they are not really skating spots like that, and then there are videos where it’s end-to-end filled with spot porn. I think some of those guys have to dig pretty far to find the stuff they’re skating. I had to take the same approach in some ways. Certainly, there are spots like this in downtown San Francisco, downtown Oakland, but a lot of spots I found were a two-hour drive into the middle of nowhere, and there was just one crazy looking sculpture out there. The way I was finding some of this stuff was looking at modern architecture blogs, looking at websites dedicated to sculptures, doing a Google search with certain keywords—I’d rather not share which keywords so as not to blow up my spots—and add city names to the end. I would spend hours and hours looking online for stuff.

The internet is where you found a lot of the spots then?
I spend tens of hours a month looking for spots on my bike, which is how I found most of them, but I would say I found some of the best spots on the internet. One thing I’ll point out in particular, and I brought it up earlier, is about Japanese concrete playgrounds. They have all these concrete playground structures that are really unique. They look similar to skate park obstacles, and I wanted to find stuff like that because those spots always sparked me. If you search for them online, eventually stuff starts popping up.
One thing about those types of structures is a lot of them were really unsafe. There’s one, for instance, in the East Bay, around where I live, that’s basically a concrete playground city built into the side of a mountain that has 10-12 foot drops out of nowhere with no guardrail. Since they were built probably in the early 70s, a lot of these places have been torn down, so you really have to go out there and search for them. And by searching for them, I mean you have to scour the internet for them. And they pop up. They’re just really tucked away.
The real dilemma with skating those spots is that you have to wake up really early in the morning and try to get there around 7:30-8:00 a.m. before kids show up.

So, are you Googling “Empty playgrounds that parents might not be at” and picking up some NSA followers?
[Laughs] I’ve already considered that. That is a potential side effect. But it’s been a fun process to try to convince my friends that they need to wake up at 7:00 in the morning to skate some odd concrete slide, or whatever.

Would you say when you were searching for spots that it was pretty much you and it wasn’t really the skaters in it?
That’s something I forgot to touch on. Another great thing I had going for me in searching for spots was that a lot of skaters knew what I was trying to do, because I was filming with so many different people that I would randomly get photos of spots texted to me, and I’d be like, “Oh, my god. That’s amazing!” Actually, there was one day where two people texted me a picture of the same sculpture. But I don’t think people were scouring for me. I think it was more that they were walking around in their day-to-day surroundings and they would find something that they thought would fit. I definitely tapped into the help of friends.

Jake Chavarria, boneless. PHOTO / Nichols
Jake Chavarria, boneless. PHOTO / Nichols

How long did this video take?
Five years. February 2011 to right now, and I’m pretty much done right now. It took five whole years.

So what happened?
The real dilemma came in many forms. First would be security. When we’re skating some nice modern architecture, there’s often someone there who doesn’t want you to skate it. So that took a lot of persistence. I’d say some tricks took us about 20 trips to make it happen before getting kicked out.
A lot of it is just how much I work. I think when I first started the video, I was working six days a week. And over the last four years, I’ve been working at a startup, so I’m working sometimes 12-15 hour days. I had to edit the video in piecemeal. Some days I’m editing 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes at a time. When I was lucky, I would get to edit for an hour at a time. So the entire video was pieced together slowly over two years because I had to find the time to squeeze it in.
And also, you can only hit so many of these spots in one day because they’re spread so far out. Some people were just in on the idea right away, some people—it’s a little tough to ask someone, “Hey, do you want to drive an hour away to go check out this one thing?” and then you’re immediately kicked out.

I think one thing worth noting as far as time goes, you get pretty intricate with your editing here. There’s a lot of Super 8; there are a lot of quick cuts.
Sure, and I can even speak on that. Going along with following what the Japanese are doing—people like Shinpei Ueno and Takahiro Morita from the Far East Skate Network—those guys are really focused on creating unique imagery that lends to the idea of dreamy otherworldliness—to have spots that don’t really look like something that’s in your regular surroundings, and then to have imagery to go with that.
A lot of the way that I found that was also searching for interesting urban art—mostly moving art—there’s a hinge, or wind moves the sculpture—and shoot that in a time lapse. I spent a lot of time going to science and art and architecture museums that have interesting experiments that might have some moving parts and shooting those.

Chris Jatoft, fakie thruster. PHOTO / Nichols
Chris Jatoft, fakie thruster. PHOTO / Nichols

So a lot of these things that you’re filming aren’t even necessarily things you find at spots, but just things you thought were relevant to the theme as a whole?
Yeah, just trying to create an otherworldly feeling. And I’ll say maybe about 60-percent to 70-percent of the video is all VX. The rest is shot on a Super 8. I think that the look of Super 8 lends to that dreamy feeling. And there were definitely a number of influences there. I would say when I saw—and this was a lot later in the process of making the video—I saw Cuatro Sueños Pequeños by Thomas Campbell, which was actually about dreaming! I’d already shot quite a bit of Super 8 at that point, but it definitely sparked me to move further in that direction.
Another influence was Josh Stewart. Static might be my favorite video series. I’d say Static III mostly, because he really captured a very defined look and feel, and he really stuck to his guns.

A lot of building porn in that one.
Exactly. It’s one thing to make a film that’s filled with good spots and good skating, but to make something that really tries to follow a theme, it’s a real challenge, because you have to get people that are on board with understanding that even though that spot is really good, and if you were to do that trick it would be really good, it doesn’t exactly fit the theme that I’m going for. I’d say Static III was one of the first videos I saw that was really tied into a theme.

On that note, being that there is a specific theme for this video that got people rallied around to find these kinds of spots, I wouldn’t say anybody in this video is only skating the kinds of spots that are in this video, so how were you able to separate the way people skate on an everyday basis compared to this?
I had a lot of people that wanted to work on other projects at the same time, and I knew what I was doing was really niche and not always easy. I helped people film for their own projects at the same time as a way to give back for their participation. Chris Jatoft has a really good video part that’s coming out around the same time as Pathways. I helped him edit that as well. So look out for that.
I understood that I was trying to convince people to do things they often didn’t want to do, and I definitely brought people to spots where all I got were puzzled looks and, “What the hell are you thinking?” It definitely took the right types of skaters.

Alex O'Donahoe, nose manual. PHOTO / Nichols
Alex O’Donahoe, nose manual. PHOTO / Nichols

On that theme, in the four or five years it took to make this video, Magenta started doing those styles of videos, and even Japanese videos got a little bit more American presence during that time, so did you run into a lot of NBDs that became ABDs or any other competition?
When I sought out to make this video, I was hoping to have all original, untouched spots. And it’s pretty difficult to do that when some of your spots are in downtown San Francisco [laughs]. Minuit put my head in a certain place, but a lot of people have sort of moved in the same direction, which is great; skating is more interesting, and I think Yoan and Japanese videos are responsible for a lot of that.
And skateboarding moves so fast now that there’s just no avoiding it. To me, I’m making this for myself. I’m making the “Japanese” video that I always wanted to see, focused in on modern architecture, sculptures, all those things.

Is this your first video?
Yeah. I’ve been skating since 1993 and filming since probably ’97 or so. I always filmed for fun. I would ask a friend to film me and then I would film him. I would usually just give the skater the footage and that was it. I had a part in a video released by Studio411 in 2007 called Calligraphy as well as some other stuff here and there. It was always a creative outlet. After a number of knee injuries, it got to the point where it wasn’t a very functional creative outlet for me and I needed to do something different. I wanted to get behind the camera and actually put a film together.

That’s an interesting point you brought up about how you film for fun. A lot of people equate filming with sponsorship, or the jocky aspect of skating, where that’s not the case for you at all. Not just you, but this whole wave of indie videos, where you see 30-35 year old dudes filming like they did when they were 16 just because they’re excited to do a project.
Well, I’m 30 years old now [laughs]. I think I gave up on the skateboarding superstar dream when I was about 16 years old. I was in one of those 16 Below videos Sole Technology released in the early 2000s, I blew out my knee, and then I thought, “Oh, things can happen in life that prevent you from being an athlete.” I realized that it was not for me at a good age. I always wanted to go to school and I always had interests outside of skating.
I’ve always loved skateboarding and I’ve always loved it from a creative perspective, and as much as I love going out and skating for fun and going to skateparks, I’m not building something creative. And that’s why all those years after, I was always wanting to do video parts, just because I felt like I was creating something for myself that I could look back on and enjoy, since I’m now at a point where doing that doesn’t work as well as it used to. To be frank, I have to warm up to flatground ollie now. I still occasionally go out and get a trick. I’ve got footage in Pathways and I’m working on a new project that I’ve already filmed tricks for, but it makes more sense for me to be the one behind the camera.

Chris Jatoft, powerslide. PHOTO / Nichols
Chris Jatoft, powerslide. PHOTO / Nichols

What’s this new video you’re working on? Is it a similar themed project?
[Laughs] I’ve got three other projects in the works right now! I went to Berlin for ten days, and we—myself, Harry Hafner, Bobby Groves, and a bunch of locals—got more footage in ten days than I usually do in two months.
After that, I’m doing another video called Broadway. Again, I talked earlier about how different my video is to my actual surroundings. I’m trying to do a video that matches my surroundings of crusty, classic, and older architecture. I’ve lived in the East Bay for about the last eight years, and I’ve always told people how great it is on this side of the water. Everyone wants to see San Francisco. But the entire video is filmed outside of San Francisco, but in the Bay Area, so Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Rosa, Vallejo, all these other cities out here.
On top of that, I’m trying to do another project that’s like Pathways—another video exploring modern architecture. I’ve already got significant headway on all three.

No more five-year projects?
I’m hoping to put them out quicker. I think in the first project there was a lot of trial and error. There were also a few technical issues in there that I encountered, so it took me a lot longer than I expected. Now I have a better idea of what I’m trying to do and I think I can do the projects faster. I’m still going to be meticulous. I definitely want them to have a certain look and feel, and however long it takes to achieve that look and feel, that’s what I’ll do. I don’t want to put anything out until I feel like it’s something that makes me happy.

Follow Brett on IG: @brettenichols

Follow Alex on IG: @boogerparty

Chris Jatoft, boneless. PHOTO / Nichols
Chris Jatoft, boneless. PHOTO / Nichols

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