Vladimir Film Festival

Brett Nich­ols interview

20 / 9 / 2022 / Interview

Aymer­ic Nocus talks with Brett Nich­ols about his two latest projects.

Hi Brett, amaz­ing to see you part of the line-up this year at Vladi­mir. I remem­ber skat­ing with you in San Fran­cisco over ten years ago but where are you from ori­gin­ally and what are you doing these days? May you tell us about your earli­est memor­ies of skate­board­ing, perhaps?

That ses­sion we had in SF was an excit­ing time. That was with­in months of start­ing the first Path­ways. Crazy to make the Pil­grim­age to Vladi­mir all these years later for my new pro­jects, and our paths cross again (at least digit­ally for this inter­view!). I grew up in Irvine, just below Los Angeles. I had that Heath Kirchart school — UCI — not far from home. I was lucky enough to have also the Hunt­ing­ton Beach skate­park as a kid from the mid 1990s onward, see­ing my her­oes. Not the worst place to be a skate­boarder. Earli­est memory of skate­board­ing is get­ting a cheap plastic banana board when I was 4 or 5, so maybe 1989 or 1990. My mom skated a little when she was young and thought I’d enjoy it too. I’d say I didn’t really become a “skate­boarder” until ‘93 at the age of 8 when I saw an older neigh­bor out doing tricks. These days, I’m liv­ing in Oak­land, Cali­for­nia in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, where I’ve resided since the mid 2000s when I came here to go to school. Now I’m just work­ing a 9 – 5 behind a desk, skat­ing when I can, and mak­ing videos.

Brett Nich­ols doing a lay­back back­side 180 nose­grab at a metro sta­tion in Han­over. It was for “SPÄTI” (2015), a video doc­u­ment­ing a 10 day meander through Ber­lin and Han­over. Photo Bobby Groves

When did doc­u­ment­ing skat­ing and video in par­tic­u­lar first catch your eye, and how were you led to take up on such duties your­self even­tu­ally? May you please tell us about your rela­tion­ship with the cam­era in gen­er­al, on which side of the lens did you start? And then at a later stage, what is it that promp­ted you to under­take pro­jects as ambi­tious as Path­ways? For the unfa­mil­i­ar, how deep does your body of work really goes, so far?

I didn’t have an oppor­tun­ity to watch a real skate video until I had already been on board for a few years. I finally got to see Tri­logy in ‘96 or ‘97 and it was life alter­ing. I didn’t even under­stand what a line was, and see­ing Lav­ar link so many tricks togeth­er was mind blow­ing. By 97’ at the age of 12 I bor­rowed my mom’s VHS‑C cam­era, and I star­ted film­ing and being filmed by my friends. And I’ve basic­ally done the same thing, non-stop since then. Over the years, I def­in­itely spent more time being the skater than the filmer. I went through the whole spon­sor game, but real­ized it wasn’t really what I wanted by the time I was 17. My peak was turn­ing am for Media Skate­boards! Not really a super­star. At that time, around 2002, I had my first video part in a series dis­trib­uted by Sole Tech­no­lo­gies called “16 Below” and I was in the second one (not to be con­fused with Six­teen, the kid team under Invis­ible Skate­boards). It was a tike video with one too many hand­rail lipslides and I too was guilty. Then I had my first knee injury in 2003. I was out for a year and a half and it was def­in­itely the first time I star­ted focus­ing on film­ing, just out of neces­sity to be around skate­board­ing. I’ve con­trib­uted foot­age to plenty of videos over the years, some you may have seen, but my focus was always pro­gress­ing my own skat­ing. Just a pas­sion while going to school, grow­ing up, and becom­ing an adult. Over the years I had a few parts; a Mag Minute in 2010, an inde­pend­ent video called “Cal­li­graphy 2” (2007) we pro­duced with 411. Def­in­itely the first pro­ject I com­mit­ted a lot of time for on both sides of the cam­era, but just a skater and filmer. Nev­er edit­ing. For that video we were part of an early wave of pump­ing out weekly web con­tent on the 411 site. There were some oth­er parts, and clips here and there; a few clips in Digit­al Video Magazine and I some­how made it into the last issue of 411! Noth­ing ground­break­ing, always on the fringes, but pro­jects I was proud of, and a way to remain ful­filled. The first Path­ways was def­in­itely star­ted out of neces­sity. Knee injur­ies over the years have been a theme of life and in 2011 I was on my 3rd one. After about 6 months I decided to make my own video, for the first time work­ing on one end to end.

Path­ways was my ini­tial exper­i­ence edit­ing and it was a learn­ing pro­cess. It was the start of the scales tip­ping from being skater to filmer. The real­ity is my body is slow­ing down from injury and I want to stay around skateboarding.

Scotty McDade, 50 – 50 trans­fer to shape on left. Photo: Tadashi Yamaoda

May you tell us about the video(s!) you are show­ing at Vladi­mir this year? What has the respect­ive pro­cess for each been like, and what can we expect both in terms of edit­or­i­al dir­ec­tion, themes and style? I know you watch and col­lect a lot of skate videos; what are some of your most per­cept­ible influ­ences and/or favor­ite ref­er­ences? What do you appre­ci­ate when watch­ing a skate video besides the actu­al phys­ic­al per­form­ance — are the skater and the spot an more or less equal point of focus?

I will be shar­ing 2 full length videos, Path­ways 2 and Broad­way. The themes are archi­tec­tur­al oppos­ites to one anoth­er, and the names of the videos are infra­struc­ture ant­onyms them­selves. Path­ways 2 con­tin­ues the theme of funky mod­ern archi­tec­ture spots, paired with sur­real imagery. Broad­way, on the oth­er hand, is a focus on older archi­tec­ture, and with­in a spe­cif­ic geo­graph­ic bound­ary. The design style of the spot, and it’s sur­round­ings define these 2 very diver­gent videos, and while it can cre­ate chal­lenges, the out­come is fun to build and shape. Path­ways as a concept has it’s roots in my obses­sion with the skate video. I’ve been col­lect­ing as long as I’ve had my own money to spend (col­lec­tion is at 1275 at last count! And it has cer­tainly grown since then). I always had an interest in inde­pend­ent videos as you get to see a loc­a­tion, in an era, with a set group of people. They’re scene time cap­sules and it’s fun to watch regions evolve over the years. By the time I star­ted the first Path­ways I was sev­er­al years deep into a fas­cin­a­tion with the unique skate videos of Japan. FESN’s “On the Broad” (2007), Strush Wheels “Col­lect­ive Impro­vi­sion” (2008), Yuki­hisa Nakamura’s “Skate Archives” (2007), and many oth­ers. I loved the quirky low impact spots, and espe­cially the hyper mod­ern archi­tec­tur­al aes­thet­ic. I still try to get my hands on as many Japan­ese videos as possible.

The skate video collection

Then I watched Yoan Tailliander’s “Minu­it” on Feb­ru­ary 11th, 2011 and noticed he was bor­row­ing some of that Japan­ese video aes­thet­ic. I made a decision in an instant I wanted to bor­row dif­fer­ent parts of the aes­thet­ic; spe­cific­ally the mod­ern archi­tec­ture, sculp­tures, and con­crete play­grounds. I recog­nized I had ele­ments that fit the same descrip­tion in my area, and if I focused in on them I could stitch togeth­er a sur­real world of spots in the sense that it doesn’t really resemble my sur­round­ings. To emphas­ize this, the b roll mixed in is sur­real in nature; sci­ence demon­stra­tions, robot­ics, and ran­dom odd moments I could cap­ture all accen­tu­ated with shots of archi­tec­ture, sculp­tures and pat­terns with a mod­ern aes­thet­ic. Path­ways was released in 2016, and the sequel star­ted imme­di­ately. Path­ways 2 is a con­tinu­ation of that same aes­thet­ic, but more focused if anything.

My meth­ods to find­ing these spots developed, my tastes in archi­tec­ture evolved, and I put a high premi­um on cap­tur­ing so many loc­a­tions that were a bit more out of the way, had a few more vari­ables to con­sider, but pro­duced an out­come I’m very happy with.

In addi­tion, I really went next level cap­tur­ing my b roll, track­ing down every kin­et­ic sculp­ture I could find, and going to robot­ics events. For both videos I man­aged an ever grow­ing spread­sheet of ideas, and often would spend whole days shoot­ing super 8, rather than skat­ing. Broad­way, on the oth­er hand, focuses on the older archi­tec­ture of the North and East Bay of the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, with par­tic­u­lar emphas­is on Oak­land, Berke­ley, Rich­mond, and Vallejo. Over time the video expan­ded around the Bay, and bey­ond into small towns and even rur­al areas of North­ern Cali­for­nia. I’ve always felt areas right out­side of San Fran­cisco were under-doc­u­mented, while hav­ing aes­thet­ic­ally pleas­ing spots remin­is­cent to what you might see in San Fran­cisco. Res­id­en­tial spots, indus­tri­al areas, neo­clas­sic city and uni­ver­sity build­ings, and New Deal-era WPA pub­lic parks from the ‘30s and ‘40s. I made an act­ive decision to not film in San Francisco.

Ryan Far­ley tail­drops into a tun­nel that con­nects 2 irrig­a­tion pools in Oakland’s Moun­tain View Cemetery. Estab­lished in 1863, and filled with mauso­leums of all styles: goth­ic cathed­ral to Egyp­tian pyr­am­id. There’s some stuffy upper-crust fam­il­ies bur­ied there I could men­tion, but I’d rather sug­gest you vis­it to pay your respects to Mac Dre. Photo Ted Maider

For Broad­way, I actu­ally drew influ­ence from a very par­tic­u­lar set of inde­pend­ent videos. Wes Van Heest’s “In Crust We Trust” (2013) was a New Jer­sey based video that that The Quar­ter­snacks Blog (remem­ber blogs?!) her­al­ded for actu­ally being filmed in New Jer­sey. Their point being that even when you make a ‘New Jer­sey video’ you’ll end up with a large chunk of NYC foot­age just due to prox­im­ity of a skate Mecca. I mean, why not! New York City is one of the best places in the world to skate. I star­ted to con­sider the value of doing the same. While San Fran­cisco is one of the best skate cit­ies in the world, I wanted to share what I knew exis­ted on the peri­phery. Lit­er­al end­less gems. The funny thing was that over the course of mak­ing an 8 year video, I saw a lot more cov­er­age spill­ing out­side of SF in the Bay Area, and this was mainly in Oak­land, my home base. Not to say the ety­mo­logy of my concept was moot, I was still tapped into an under-doc­u­mented region, but no doubt I noticed an increase in cov­er­age. This is where some oth­er influ­ences come in; Kev­in Delgrasso’s “Grains” (2017) reaches into the remote parts of the Mid­w­est, find­ing unique spots in rur­al areas. It def­in­itely pushed me to look into more remote areas to see if the same could be found, and early suc­cesses were had. Then meet­ing Matt Ander­sen — part of the trio behind “Rust Belt Trap” (2019) — really lit a spark to cen­ter Broadway’s rur­al skate­board­ing around camp­ing. Matt and friends made a video heav­ily focused on the cel­lar door spots of rur­al Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jer­sey, often skated on camp­ing trips. They men­tioned pat­terns in spot find­ing in these small towns which made me exam­ine some pat­terns I’d noticed in small town North­ern Cali­for­nia. There are an abund­ance of set­tle­ments around the foot­hills of the Sierra Nevada moun­tains, par­tic­u­larly in Gold Coun­try (the focal point of mid-1800s gold min­ing) that had a cer­tain lay­out amen­able to skate­board­ing; tall curbs with elev­ated side­walks, and some­times banks in place of those curbs. The towns ten­ded to have pop­u­la­tions in the 1000 – 5000 range, with some semb­lance of a “down­town” (I mean that loosely) and a few blocks in a grid. Over a hand­ful of camp­ing trips we scoured through these towns and gathered some of my favor­ite foot­age, all while reneg­ade camp­ing wherever we could find a place to set up tents. To tie togeth­er the Broad­way concept I attemp­ted to cap­ture what I’ll call ‘real life hap­pen­ing’ in my area; ran­dom moments of cul­ture, street per­form­ance, build­ing demoli­tions, fire­fight­ers, and oth­er things that caught my eye. Again tied togeth­er with shots of the archi­tec­ture and scenery to give fur­ther con­text to the surroundings.

Ulti­mately, the exper­i­ence of film­ing for these 2 videos was a game of polar oppos­ites. Broad­way has a nev­er-end­ing trove of spots to choose from, and I could eas­ily film for weeks without devi­at­ing too far from home if I wanted. Path­ways 2 was more tar­geted, with loc­a­tions spread out, and ulti­mately harder to film for a mil­lion reasons.

Chris Jatoft, drop-in, drop to brick bank. Photo: Bobby Groves

In regards to what I like in a skate video, I’m a fan of any­thing with a theme, concept, or focused aes­thet­ic to what they’re mak­ing. Josh Stewart’s Stat­ic series is an obvi­ous call-out and in a sense the fore­fath­er of the style a lot of filmers and edit­ors like myself try to emu­late. Who him­self bor­rowed from Dan Wolfe and the East­ern Expos­ure series, a def­in­ite inspir­a­tion. A few oth­ers off the top of my head; “This Time Tomor­row” (2010) by Chris Mul­hern, “Quat­tro Sueños Pequeños” (2014) by Thomas Camp­bell and Fred Mortagne, “Scrum Tilly Lush” (2009) a pan-European video by Phil­lip Evans, “Neigh­bors” (2006) a Nor­d­ic video by Geir Allan Hove, and “Sky­lark­ing” (2010) by Dan Kirch­er out of New Zea­l­and. If we want to go fur­ther back I’ll men­tion Ali­en Workshop’s “Pho­to­syn­thes­is” (2000) by Joe Castrucci, Cliche’s “Europa” (1999) by Fred Mortagne, Phys­ics Wheels’ “Dream Real­ity” (1997) by Jon Miner, and all of Dan Magee’s work with Blue­print. I could make this a very long list! And as to your ques­tion on the import­ance of spot vs. skater I’d say I enjoy a pro­ject more when the skat­ing is simple, but the obstacle is unique. I find enjoy­ment in the most tech­nic­al or gnarli­est up-to-date skaters, but it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of enjoy­ment. More a ‘wow’ factor than what I get from a video with cre­at­ive (and often) low impact spots. Traffic skateboard’s “Via” (2006) makes me want to skate and explore with them just because of ter­rain. Add a cre­at­ive aes­thet­ic to it like Pon­tus Alv’s “In Search of the Mira­cu­lous” (2010) and it’s bor­der­line emo­tion­al! A good video can give you the feels.

You run an Ins­tagram page: @the_built.environment, a col­lec­tion of pic­tures of “archi­tec­ture, sculp­tures and mur­als from the per­spect­ive of a skate­boarder”; and your released works in them­selves pretty clearly estab­lish your interest in the unique man-made touches and gen­er­al diversity that are intrins­ic to urb­an land­scapes. How would you say your sens­it­iv­ity to such detail affects your work? Would you say you espe­cially are after cer­tain pat­terns, aes­thet­ics, what are you try­ing to explore and what would you say is your gen­er­al mes­sage there? Some­thing about aware­ness to the real­ity of your sur­round­ings and being cre­at­ive with them, maybe? Any com­ment­ary on the rela­tion­ship between skate­boarders and pub­lic space?

Truth­fully, there’s no real mes­sage in my desire to doc­u­ment cer­tain aes­thet­ics or design styles. I’ve just developed an interest in archi­tec­ture and sculp­ture, and cer­tain things just catch my eye. But it goes bey­ond that. Some­times the envir­on­ment is not object­ively pleas­ing, like my draw to the indus­tri­al landscape.

Ger­ardo Peniche, board­slide on a halfpipe dump­truck. Ger­ardo and I were on a con­stant hunt for these trucks for his part. Find­ing one that works for skate­board­ing is not easy. Photo Brett Nichols

The Bay Area has crum­bling and often out of use infra­struc­ture for heavy industry; ship­build­ing, foundries, and oth­er types of man­u­fac­tur­ing, all in decline since the 1970s. It lines the bay coast­line on all sides. There’s just some­thing excit­ing about explor­ing these areas. Curi­os­ity about the pur­pose of the large twist­ing pipes on the out­side of build­ings and why tracks are moun­ted to the ceil­ing peak­ing through foggy old win­dows. Then just the nos­tal­gic factor of the skaters explor­ing this stuff long before me, espe­cially Fred Gall. Sim­il­ar par­al­lels of his­tory and just plain skate nos­tal­gia can be drawn to all the dif­fer­ent spot arche­types of Broad­way: res­id­en­tial, uni­ver­sity build­ings, and so on. I’ll go through phases where I’m obsessed with a spe­cif­ic obstacle type, and will cycle through every one I know while always search­ing for more. Some Broad­way examples are res­id­en­tial bank to bank chan­nels with stairs in the middle, hydrants, gran­ite banks, met­al halfpipes, drained ponds, and the list goes on. Path­ways 2 examples include any con­crete play­ground spot, Jim Miller Mel­berg pre-cast con­crete play­ground sculp­tures, brick quarter­pipes, any street trans­ition that has doc­u­ment­a­tion in the 1980s, or play­ground pump tracks not made for skate­board­ing, and that list could con­tin­ue as well. Then there’s the obses­sion with design types, find­ing every spot that fits into a very spe­cif­ic style. For Broad­way examples would be Art Deco spots, or cap­tur­ing tricks at res­id­en­tial loc­a­tions that fit a spe­cif­ic design; Crafts­man, Story­book, or Queen Anne Cottage.

Path­ways 2 examples include actu­al Mod­ern­ist build­ings built between the 50s to the 80s util­iz­ing cer­tain mater­i­als; stone floors, brick angu­lar build­ings, or curvy cast concrete.

Devel­op­ing an interest for architecture’s sake, and sculp­ture for sculp­tures sake has led me to delving deep on top­ics that can circle back to skat­ing. Then, just hav­ing that back­ground makes the pro­cess of explor­ing these spot types all the more intriguing. For example, I was already a fan of the sculp­tures and land­scape archi­tec­ture of Isamu Nogu­chi. Once I learned more of his back­ground in design­ing the first sculp­tur­al con­crete play­grounds, it just made me want to find every spot of this type.

Wes Allard kick­flips at Dragon Park in Oak­land. A con­crete play­ground built in 1965, actu­ally repla­cing anoth­er con­crete dragon play sculp­ture that sat across the street for a few years pri­or, which was des­troyed for a train sta­tion. Photo: Daniel Beck

On the oth­er hand, this obses­sion with details can cre­ate prob­lems! Some­times I don’t like spots for really stu­pid reas­ons and debate myself if some­thing fits in my nar­row view, I’m sure to my det­ri­ment. For Broad­way I always pre­ferred side­walks to be weathered. Most are in my area, but I’ve writ­ten off spots that were repaved because it loses that luster and feel­ing I want the envir­on­ment to have. On the Path­ways side I can hardly define for people what “counts” and I just know it when I see it; if it’s very recent post-mod­ern archi­tec­ture I’ll start nit­pick­ing about details and if it’s actu­ally appeal­ing to me. Use of con­crete pavers (fake con­crete bricks) is an example, or nav­ig­at­ing around skate stop­pers com­mon in those designs. I don’t like them visu­ally. I’ll make excep­tions to all vari­ables but it’s a weird unex­plain­able formula.

A good skate spot is not always my favor­ite design, and my favor­ite design is often not skate­able. It’s a bal­ance. Then there’s the eye rolls I eli­cit from friends, wish­ing things to be skate­able! A whole oth­er topic.

How long have you been famil­i­ar with Vladi­mir for? How did you first hear about the event and how long has it been that you’ve been wish­ing to be a part? To an extent, would you say Vladi­mir helped as a more or less con­scious incent­ive get the video(s) done?

I learned about Vladi­mir some time dur­ing the pro­cess of mak­ing the first Path­ways, I’d guess in 2015. I maybe even learned of it from you, Aymer­ic! I think it was an art­icle for Live Skate­board Media. Nikola did actu­ally screen Path­ways in the 2016 lineup through your intro­duc­tion. I’ve def­in­itely wanted to go from the moment I heard of the fest­iv­al. To finally come and screen these films I’ve worked on for so many years is like a dream! No doubt reach­ing out to Nikola earli­er this year about a screen­ing really lit a fire under me. For once I had a hard dead­line and it really forced me to be inten­tion­al with edit­ing. I’m look­ing for­ward to meet­ing every­one, and liv­ing in skate nerd adult sum­mer camp for a few days. Thanks Aymer­ic for the inter­view and thank you to Nikola for con­tinu­ing this fest­iv­al year after year for skateboarding.

Josh Paz, alleyoop front bluntslide after mov­ing around wood chips for a half hour. Photo Derek Popple