Oct 29, 2006

too much writing, not enough riding

Not the sharpest screen grab. TJ and Ben, quite happy about something... (Update: TJ has informed me that he considers this picture immensely unflattering.)

An NPR interviewer was asking Todd Field, director of the new film Little Children, about cinematography. Part of Field's response was this line: "People don't go to the movies to watch camerawork or to listen to music. People go to the movies to watch themselves." For all I know, that may have been lifted directly from his Cinema Theory 101 textbook, but I immediately started thinking of how it would apply in bike video production.

The concept has at least two distinct facets, both directly applicable. The first is the matter of the viewer's attention: is it "better" for the viewer to notice and enjoy the production of the film/video, or should production strive for "invisibility"? For example, bike riding has its inherent rhythms, and syncing those rhythms up with a musical soundtrack isn't too challenging. When done perfectly, the effect can be immensely satisfying, on an almost primal level. However, I also notice myself anticipating the beat--a portion of my attention is inevitably wondering, "Is the next shot going to sync up?" One could argue that, in this case, the production is a distraction. Camera angles that are overly clever can distract in the same way. "Wow, what a great angle," I sometimes catch myself thinking (instead of "Wow, what great riding").

The most perfect example of "invisible production" that I know of is Steve Machuga's part in Transylvania by Ty Stuyvesant. When the part finishes, it's as if I'm waking up from a dream, every time--I realize that I was completely absorbed in the video. The music (Pink Floyd), the angles, the editing all stay hidden in the background, emphasizing the riding. I don't know how Ty did it, and although I consider it a significant accomplishment, I recall someone complaining that the video put him and his friends to sleep. Funny.

While I find this "invisible production" question interesting, and while the issue is critical for Hollywood filmmakers, I think I enjoy high-quality production of bike videos almost as much as high-quality riding. (However, production quality probably needs to be carefully matched to riding quality. See if you can sit through this very well produced trailer for an upcoming "bike video." I can't.) This actually brings me right to the second point, but it's a little bit complicated to flesh out. I appreciate it if you've read this far. You've a ways to go yet. The reason I love good production and good riding is not that I want to be amazed--I love these things because of the effort involved.

Bmx is different from mainstream sports because (among other things) there is no acknowledgment for your accomplishments--no audience, no endzone, no glory, and no opponent except yourself. And we kill ourselves for what? That a select sub-culture will understand why a "hard 180" is hard? This ridiculous dichotomy--the price paid and the reward earned--is the proof of our love. Or perhaps its proof of the "artness" of bmx. In addition to the scars, scabs, and premature arthritis, we dedicate our time and money, refining the skills of shooting photos and "filming" [with videotape]. Believe me, I notice, I get psyched, seeing a locally-produced video with properly exposed 3ccd footage and no heads chopped off. I love multiple angles, and I love catching sight of another filmer or photographer, or the flash of a camera, or hearing the whirr of a motor-drive. I love footage of riders shaping quickrete trannies, waxing ledges, and sweeping public parking lots. (Jason Enns's 411bmx bio is excellent, and I can't believe I don't own a copy; catch him sledge-hammering a pesky curb for wallride access, hauling a home-made picnic table from spot to spot, fashioning a 20-foot runway of sandbags and plywoood up to some monster wooden handrail in the middle of the countryside, and trimming the same rail with a battery-powered skill-saw.)

Perhaps the most powerful proof of effort is crashing. I don't intend to sound sadistic, but I have difficulty appreciating riders that never crash. If they're not crashing... how can they really be riding at their maximum ability? I want to see the trick that took Corey Martinez twenty attempts to pull. Then we would know what the man is capable of.

Effort... Well, I'm not very good on a bike, and I crash a lot. I suppose a great deal of riders crash a lot, but many pros seem able to go a whole Metro Jam with little more than a light bail. (That's a relevant distinction, too: crashing vs bailing.) This is where I return to my starting point--that we watch videos to see ourselves. Bmx is not easy for me. I have difficulty identifying with pros for whom riding is absolutely effortless.

Consider the facial expressions that people make after pulling a trick. If the rider maintains a cold, tough grimace, or turns and flips off the camera, the non-verbal message is "I'm not breaking my cool, 'cause that was easy." Alternatively, a rider pulls his trick and a huge smile breaks across his face: "That was hard. I can't believe I did it."

Oct 25, 2006

So now I care about SubRosa.

Since the site gets no traffic, this will be old news by the time you read it here: the SubRosa "teaser" is shockingly good. I've never thought that Ryan Sher had anything to contribute to bmx, but this is about the best thing I've ever seen. Smooth, well-framed shots, dramatic black-and-white, tastefully slow-moed, and a refreshing song choice. I expected Guns&Roses.


I didn't know there was a bmx filmer with such a steady hand.

Oct 24, 2006

4 pegs, straight cable, castillos

Sad news, learning that Caleb Ruecker is off Metal. Sadder still, finding out Caleb recently switched to two-piece bars. I think he was the very last pro holding on to four-piecers. With Caleb dies an important bmx legacy. Dave Young, Jeremy Davis, and Lou Rasjich produced three of the most memorable video parts of the late nineties, double-pegging rail after rail on both sides, wrecking themselves on what-were-they-thinking gaps, while sporting a tight-black-pants style that no other rider dared emulate. Except Caleb.

When Brian "B.C." Castillo left S&M, they continued producing his signature bar, calling it the "A.D." Clever punning. Volume, in a show of good humor, produced a slightly updated version called the Mad Dog Bar (Mad Dog being Chris Moeller's ancient nickname). In between S&M and Volume, Primo created the subtly ugly Moe's Bar for Castillo. Castillo switched to two-piece bars in 2001, and Volume stopped producing the four-piece soon after. Check out this old FreedomBMX interview with Castillo himself, where he comments on the various versions of his signature bar (and also takes credit for the least fashionable stem in bmx). EBCO, honoring the Portland, Oregon Castillo Bar connection, was making a four-piece as late as 2003. S&M returned to calling it the Castillo Bar before quietly handing production over to Sean McKinney's flatland-oriented Revenge Industries sometime in the last couple of years. Here's the Revenge Bar.

Here are the ./blueprint parts for Jeremy and Lou, both of which were posted on theComeUp in the past six months. Dave's part is nowhere to be found on the internet, and perhaps that's a good thing, but here he is on the cover of Ride in 1994. Parrick is supposedly working on a dvd re-release of Nowhere Fast. Until then, no one is throwing away their VCR. Here is a video from Caleb's Myspace. Some excellent riding and crashing in true Castillo Bar style.

And, if you didn't know, "Little" Jeff Landtiser successfully pulled Lou Rasjich's wrist-breaking roof gap for his excellent Building the Underground part. Maybe it was the uncut Slams.

Streetriding pros who ran Castillo Bars:
Brian Castillo
Jason Enns
Dave Friemuth
Dave Young
Jeremy Davis
Lou Rasjich
Matt Beringer
Troy McMurray
The Gonz
Ryan Worcester
Scooter (pegless, brakeless, excellent)
Nate Hanson
Sean McKinney

Please let me know if you can think of others.

the old SK8>BMX cliche.

There seems to be a maturation timeline for any given youth movement, and skating has a whole decade on bmx. Their creative figures are older, their participant base is far larger, their image is established and marketable, and the money at stake is huge. (As a side note, Dig has always been a powerful reference point for the progression of bmx culture, something I'm proud to be associated with and to show people, and I'm immensely pleased that it is finally taking root on the shelves of American bookstores. As a teenager, stumbling across a new issue once a year was a charge of adrenaline, and never failed to cement a little part of my otherwise nebulous bmx identity.)

I learned something new about myself when I saw, for the first time, maybe 1999, the Zero video Misled Youth. Jamie Thomas's part expressed something that I'd always felt but never articulated. Baba O'Reilly became my secret internal soundtrack, not that my feebles and manuals were worthy. I pedalled fast and pumped hard. Here it is on Googlevideo. Jaime's part starts at 11:20.

Some time later I stumbled on Tiltmode: Man Down, and had my internal soundtrack altered once again. This video is practically the opposite of anything done by Zero. No slo-mo, no metal, no angry/angsty punk. The video is instead upbeat, happy, and playful. Whereas I was used to seeing antics in Roadfools and in the credits of bike videos, these guys pulled off their silliness without affectation. Not sure if it's true, but that's what I thought then. The video is longer than it needs to be. I would always just watch the first fifteen minutes and then go ride. I'd be so fired up, I could hardly stand to wait any longer. Tiltmode.

I still love both, and I keep both the Who and Aha on my ipod now, but there's a lot of other stuff on there, too.

Oct 18, 2006

capped ledges

I don't recall how I first stumbled across it, but this is a great read on the skateproofing of San Fransisco and the impossibility of "public space." It's a long piece; I recommend printing it out and taking it with you on the train.

While I was tracking that link down, I happened upon this in somebody's blog. I'd love to session this with a bike, but it looks nice to sit on, too. I even think the defgrip guys would approve.

Oct 15, 2006

blog #1

I've been experiencing uncontrollable surges of creative energy. Sometimes there's a very specific craving that can be isolated and satisfied--writing, riding, drawing, photography, shooting video, editing video, playing with cardboard, arranging furniture. Last night I was almost overwhelmed by all these desires pulling at the same time. It occurred to me that the word "media" could apply to most of those different past-times, on some level anyway, and I wondered if that was significant. And I considered how these different creative pulls seem utterly complementary. I've known for some time that my relationship to bmx is changing. I can tell that the phase of tossing myself down handrails without health insurance is coming to a close. Something else is coming. While I do occasionally pine for the dedicated "crew" to which I once felt so connected, these days I find myself most content riding alone or with my brother, more and more.

I created this blog today as part of the continuing exploration of my bmx "identity," why I ride, and the changing role of riding in my life. I don't know how the blog is going to pan out, so I won't make predictions. Initially, I think it will be a documentary of the production of our video. While skateboarding has countless websites and discussion forums and blogs dedicated to video production and photography, bmx seems to have few if any. I know dustin from destroybmx tried to start a dedicated messageboard (called bikemedia.net), and it didn't pan out. I wonder if it was just under-promoted or before its time. In any case, it's gone now, and no one has stepped forward to fill the niche. It's a niche larger than can be filled by a single website, I think. I'm certainly not attempting to fill it with this blog, but I'd like to connect other bike riders interested in photo and video. Personally, video and photo are not so much professional interests; rather, they are aspects of the creativity, self-expression, and progression of my own bike riding.

We have ten years of footage, it seems, and it is (of course) almost all completely outdated. Even if someone did a trick that was cutting edge at the time, we've sat on the footage for so long that it no longer matters. Looking at this mound of tapes, and wondering what tiny portion will actually "count" is potentially discouraging, but there is stuff there. Last week I went through all the footage that I had captured on the computer and pieced together three solid minutes of video. Very solid, I felt. Tight. Would people watch this? I think so, if the right people knew about it.

The videos that I can watch over and over, the videos I love, are not necessarily those with the best “tricks.” The videos I love are those with the strongest “vibe,” I’ll call it. I don’t think I could identify with a video called Wide Awake Nightmare, or All Time Low, or Wasted Days, no matter how impressive the riding. For a counter-example, the bmx world didn’t bat an eye at the Jonah Lidberg’s part in Drop the Hammer, entirely self-filmed via tripod, one of the most powerful pieces of bmx media I know of. Curiously, every other clip I’ve seen of Jonah has affected me in the same way. Steven Hamilton consistently gives me chills. Ralph Sinisi’s props bio is probably my all-time favorite video part. I could go on, and I will, as a regular part of this blog. But in the meantime, the point I want to make is simply that certain videos have that quality I’m calling “vibe.” I look forward to exploring this, figuring out exactly what it is I’m picking up on.

I don't know if people are going to read this, and I can't tell if that's important to me. If anything I have said resonates with you, post a comment, or offer a contribution.

Stay positive.


Tony Piff