Brett Nichols 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.