Bill Strobeck has been instrumental in capturing some of the most influential skateboarding of the past decade. More importantly, his input helped define the aesthetic of an era that remains memorable and relevant today. Some of his more notable clips, such as those from Jason Dill’s Photosynthesis part, will live on as classics in a genre that seems to be going in a more polished direction. These days, we can still count on Mr. Strobeck’s eye to produce some of the gritty, underground art that motivates and enhances this culture we call skating.
Interview & Intro by Dustin Umberger
Dustin: Skateboard videos have evolved considerably since the early ‘90s from low-budget buddy cam productions to today’s big-budget films. At what point did you pick up a camera and decide to start filming? What were some of your earliest goals?
Bill: Yes, for sure. Skateboard videos today have evolved a lot compared to how it was in the 90’s. Just like how it was a way different thing in the ‘90s than it was in the ‘80s. Just keeps changing. Anyways, I was 15 when I first started filming. My grandmother purchased a generic camcorder for me. It was an 8mm mall camera that today was as good as the video on a digital point and shoot. The settings were like a moon for night shot, a running man for sports shot, and so on. I was more than happy with it. I really didn’t have any goals, and was really just having fun at that time. It was kind of a new hobby. Then, I got a shitty lens and started filming my friends.
Dustin: Throughout the ‘90s, skate videos had a very accessible appeal to them. Most of the spots were local, and the level of skating was easier to relate to as well. Today’s videos are often shot overseas on a big budget with expensive gear, and the editing techniques have progressed to professional level. Do you feel that there is a larger divide between the average skater and the ones starring in, and creating today’s videos?
Bill: Well, skateboarding got really huge in 2004, and every kid in school started X-gaming. So I think the spots started dwindling due to the overpopulation of skaters. People I know were getting tons of cash. It was cool man. And because the spots were harder to skate, everyone started going to other places to film. Shit was fun. The trips Dill and I went on were nuts, like the best.
As far as the average kid at Autumn skate shop or someone in Mind Field, I for sure think there is a difference. For example Jake Johnson, he was that kid and now he’s in Japan and shit. But he definitely had no idea at all how big Mind Field was going to be. Or how hard he had to work. Maybe by the end he did. But he was just a random kid from small-town Pennsylvania that watched videos everyday, and then got involved. It was weird for him at first. It took him a bit to break the ice. It’s happened like that for a few people I’ve filmed—unknown small-town kids shot into the lion’s cage.
Dustin: The Sony VX1000 with the Mark 1 lens remain a standard in filming skateboarding despite the fact that both products have been discontinued for years. Why do so many people still prefer to use that now-vintage camera?
Bill: I think that the colors on the VX1000 have looked the best, even though it’s going to start to look budget with hi def and shit now. Hi def seems very professional and Hollywoodish to me. But it’s getting pushed, and kids follow what they see ’cause they think it’s right. That’s normal though. I always suggest trying your own thing, something different from (normal) expectations. That’s what gets me psyched—when someone puts out a video or photo that is shot from an off angle. It seems like people are doing the same stuff—you know—following what everyone else is doing. It’s not being personally creative. It’s easier to mimic something than to be daring and come up with an original idea.
I get a lot of my inspiration from movies. But in skating, I always liked Sturt and Wolfe’s hi8. Sturt’s stuff in the H-Street days is still my favorite. It just looked sick. If you see in his shadows and stuff, he was using reflectors. Good shit. Also the sound on hi8 was amazing and had a raw feel. Wolfe had that time in Philly before me that was real budget. There was no money in skating at that time. And it showed in his footage. So it seems like hi def is getting pushed by the big guns now. And it’s not necessarily the direction that I’m interested in, but will for sure be the norm.
Dustin: Your clips have a very gritty and street feel to them. The colors, lighting, and overall feeling you capture seems to harken back to the classic era of city skating. When you film, what are some of the elements you look for besides the skater and tricks?
Bill: Well, Philly and New York have an edge to them in general. They’ve got just a city-based feel anyway. So if you film here, you’re going to get that vibe. It has to do a lot with the editing. If it’s black and white, the song, and the subject. You know, when everything fits. I’ll go up to a homeless person and just start talking to him just to see what he’ll say. They trip me out. I have so much homeless footage, and in those clips didn’t you find Blaze and John the Baptist interesting?
Dustin: How much time do you spend exploring for spots?
Bill: I honestly never look for spots anymore. The people I film come to me and say they have found a spot. I may run into something and shoot a text. But I’m hustling around New York most of the time and usually hanging with people that know not one thing about the skateboard language or culture. Like if you show them a video it all looks the same to them cause they don’t get it. In NYC, you’re surrounded by so many different people that do a lot of other things. I’d say that they influence me the most. And movies, older ones in general, have a big influence on me. I’d go crazy now if all I had to talk about is what little Tommy did at Love Park everyday. I definitely moved on from that style of life. I guess living here you find so many other things that you are interested in. Why do you think there aren’t a lot of pros here? Dill and I have fun shooting the shit about skating sometimes.
Dustin: As you suggested in the Anthony Pappalardo’s Epicly Later’d, filming on the East Coast (NYC in particular) requires a unique approach and mindset. You seem to emphasize the trick and the spot equally, which I think adds another dimension to skate videos. When you work with skaters, do you find yourself making suggestions for their spot / trick selection much of the time? Which skaters tend to have a vision of what they want to accomplish with their footage?
Bill: It depends on the person. With the people I film, it seems like they know what they want. So usually it’s all the skateboarder. I’d say I’ve had a good crew of kids to video. Pappalardo has shown me a spot and asked, “Have I got the ‘I’ve lost it’s’ or what?” And I’ll be truthful. He is the most natural and realistic person I’ve filmed in skateboarding. He has an eye for trick selection and spots without overdoing it. It’s natural, like an art form. Gonz is badass too. You never know what he’s going to come up with. He’s real sporadic. Shit seems to just happen when you skate with him. Not even just tricks, just randomness. Dill has always had a vision of what he wanted. His Photosynthesis part remains my favorite part I’ve worked on aesthetically, and was very new and fresh at that time. For his Mosaic part, he wanted all lines. And he did it. Kalis and Stevie, Love Park days, words can’t explain that. Nothing will happen like that again, at least nothing I’ll be around.
Dustin: You’ve contributed footage to many videos as a filmer for various projects and companies. Do you have aspirations of releasing more independent titles similar to the Static series? What are your feelings towards the editing and production side of making videos?
Bill: Nothing like where I get a bunch of random kids together and film a full-length, especially these days. The money is dwindling and people are getting fired. It leaves someone like me with no work or backing to do my own thing. I’m honestly not as involved these days. I still have a foot in the door. But you just don’t see what shoes I’m wearing. But yeah, something is in the works. And you’ll hear about it down the line. I’ll get it out some way or another.
As for editing, I enjoy it on my terms only. I have no deadline, and it gives me time to make it exactly the way I want it. It’s more like a hobby I guess. That’s something I’m envious of—how Greg (Hunt) and Ty (Evans) can pump these full-lengths out. You have no idea how much dedication that takes. I also like editing or photographing non-skate stuff. I love working with women, which is something that is miles and miles away from skateboarding. Skateboarding is a testosterone festival.
Dustin: Do you skate much these days?
Bill: Shiiiit, seriously I’ll skate sometimes but basically my board is a dolly to move furniture and a transportation tool. It can be an accessory sometimes as well.
Dustin: How do you feel about the identity of “filmers?” It seems that in many ways skaters take advantage of them as if they are expendable commodities. When really, the filmer works just as hard to get the clip properly. I’ve also encountered some filmers who seem to think that their position gives them a certain sense of authority despite the fact that many don’t even skate themselves. Can you speak a bit about the culture of skate filmers, if that term is even valid?
Bill: Yes, that term is valid. Morford and Ty and Hunt make it happen by making sure there is something to skate. They will get as extended as possible. Home Depot trips and all types of shit. It’s pretty crazy. But half the spots in videos these days wouldn’t have been in there if it wasn’t for them, so…
But yeah, the people that film skateboarding work very hard and it can get frustrating when you’re following six dudes around and they complain about everything. That’s when I just stop caring and join them. I don’t even care. I have been doing this for 11 years now. I’ve had people who skate come up to me and say, “You can’t say anything, you’re a filmer.” I’ve heard that a bunch of times as I’m sure others have. And it usually comes from a frustrated skateboarder. Who knows, maybe down the line you the “skater,” will eventually get washed up and become me, the “filmer.”
You know, people that film and photograph have composition and an eye for what looks good. Why not take a suggestion? It doesn’t mean you have to do it. Jake Johnson’s part had a lot of my suggestions in it. And aesthetically, we worked on it together. It was a lot of him, but with a splash of my idealisms. Also, it’s funny. This kid Brengar—who films out here—has a sick eye. He knows what spots are good. He gives Jake suggestions too. He’s gonna take my job. I want him to, too.
Dustin: Finally, what are some projects that you’re currently working on?
Bill: Videowise, there is something in the works. Actually, a few things, like, a “last video before I go away” type deal. Some of the footage I have is priceless. So I’m looking for backing as of this sentence. Oh, and my personal website that I just launched; check it.