The evolution of skate videos, from VHS to TikTok
This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
When it comes to skateboarding, the only thing more important than skating is making sure you have footage of yourself doing it. You can tell people you nailed this or skipped that, but without real proof of those particular alleged achievements people will take you as seriously as Boris Johnson’s apology.
Skating owes much of its enduring popularity precisely to these videos. It’s been that way for half a century, with the very first skateboarding video dating back to 1965. Titled Skater, a dialogue-free coming-of-age short, shot in sunny California, focused on a group of downhill skaters known as the Imperial Skate Board Club as they hoped to impress local girls with their prowess .
The film won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival and proved to have a long shelf life, having been the subject of both academic study and extreme sports fandom. Skater is still of cultural interest, even as it presents us with a view of skate videos unlike anything aficionados like me and my friends sit and enjoy together today.
As skateboarding became more and more popular among young people around the world, Hollywood took notice and featured skateboarding in cult movies like Back to the future and Shine the cube. It was, as skate historians might remind you, a time when the sport was still largely confined to pools, bowls and ramps. California’s surf-inspired skate scene of the 1970s was immortalized for young skaters in the 2001 documentary Dogtown and the Z-Boys, directed by skate supremo Stacy Peralta.
That’s not to say that skateboarding was the prerogative of ex-surfers diving into the pool. In the mid-1980s, people like Rodney Mullen and Mark Gonzales were laying the groundwork for what we now call street skating. They just didn’t drag cameramen with them for the ride.
In 1988, the movie Don’t chain me came out of. This hour-long video was released by H-Street – a skate team based in San Diego, Calif., founded by professional skateboarders Tony Mag and Mike Ternasky in 1986 – and arguably marked the birth of the video by modern skateboarding. Its combination of gritty footage and a punk soundtrack set the tone for the avalanche of skate videos that would follow in its wake.
These versions included the legendary Video days, the 1991 classic released by skateboard brand Blind. Directed by future Hollywood darling, Spike Jonze, and featuring the skating skills of Jason Lee among others, Video days was dynamic, action oriented and in your face. Other 1990s heavy hitters include Plan B Questionable (1992), Girl Skateboards Mouse (1996) and Toy Machine’s welcome to Hell (also 1996).
What made this explosion of skate videos possible was Sony’s VX1000 camcorder, the first device to use MiniDV tapes, which were much smaller than previous tapes. The relative affordability, portability, and ease of use of the camcorder made it a staple in the skate scene and led to a standardization of skate video aesthetics. One of the defining visual characteristics of this aesthetic is the fish-eye lens, which appeared all over skate videos of the 1990s and 2000s and still features in strips released today.
Another technological advancement, the Internet, has allowed skaters to immerse themselves in the history of their hobby. File-sharing services like Limewire have given people the ability to fill their hard drives with all kinds of skate footage. The ability to easily and freely consume these videos has allowed people like me and my friends to develop a serious interest in skate culture.
Then YouTube came along in the second half of the early 2000s and killed off the skate DVD, which had already replaced the skate VHS. Magazines like Mocker and Transmonde – which was trying to boost sales by bundling DVDs with their latest issues – needed to find new ways to stay relevant in a context where audiences didn’t need to spend money on content.
Mocker managed to slip into the digital age of skateboarding fairly quickly, joining YouTube in 2006 and amassing nearly three million subscribers along the way. They’re also about to celebrate the release of their 500th issue, a testament to their hard work and their fans’ eagerness to preserve their culture, even for a price.
If YouTube shortened skateboarders’ attention spans, then Instagram decimated them, ushering in the era of the one-minute video. As a result, 10 or 20 minute videos were considered excessive, and while this led to a proliferation of free content, something was also lost. Inviting friends over, grabbing a pizza, and settling down on the couch to watch a 15-minute video always felt a bit lacking in old-world magic.
Things got even shorter when TikTok launched in 2016. Super short videos hosted on the platform opened up the skate scene to more people than ever, with female, queer and non-binary skaters finally finding their home in line.
For skateboarders themselves, the rise of social media has opened up new avenues of self-promotion. It was now easier than ever to try to catch the attention of pro skate teams. Rather than having to mail physical proofs of his abilities, you can simply upload them for the whole world in minutes. It gave the skaters a sense of independence, putting (some) of the power in their hands. Along with their line of finely honed tricks, skaters have increasingly learned how to better draw eyes to their videos, understanding that big brands are impressed with viewers, subscribers, and subscribers.
Not everyone ditched traditional video formats, and by the mid-2010s things were getting longer again. Brands like Palace and Bronze 56K have extended the length of their releases, giving skaters everywhere something to sink their teeth into on the couch in the evening.
If the modern skate movie has a superstar director, it might just be William Strobeck, the American cinematographer best known for his work with Supreme. The 2014 movie Cherry marked a return to the old-school full-length video format, and it did it again in 2018 with the instant classic Blessed. Both movies marked a new generation of skateboarders who didn’t know they were looking for a long-form video to change their lives.