It’s likely that most of you are aware of Thomas Campbell in some capacity. You might know his skate photography; his photo of Adrian Lopez jumping from one circular roof to another in Hong Kong comes to mind. You might know his artwork, which stands out on the walls of skateshops and in renowned art galleries all over the world. Maybe you know his surf films; even if you don’t surf, Sprout might strike a cord with you. So, this is all to say that Thomas Campbell is a gifted and hardworking artist, who has left and continues to leave a lasting mark on skateboard culture. Shot entirely on 16mm film, with a helping hand from “French” Fred Mortagne, Cuatro Suenoes Pequenos (Four Small Dreams) is Thomas’ latest contribution in in skateboard documentation. The film follows Javier Mendizabal to bed with a beautiful brunette, and then into his dreams, where he runs into Madars Apse. The pair skated through forests, across volcanoes, down narrow Spanish streets, around busy plazas, and into the ocean. It’s a drastic and welcome change of pace from about any other skateboard video you’ve ever seen. We spoke to Thomas from his home in Bonny Doon, California, to hear about the process involved in this film, who and what excite him about skateboarding right now, and a whole lot more. —Jeff Thorburn
[Jeff Thorburn] I know in surfing you like to work with a particular group of people. Are you the same when it comes to skateboarding? Is there a certain sect of people you aim to collaborate with and document? [Thomas Campbell] You know, you just want to work with the sort of people you identify with. I don’t think I would want to work with some flaired-out ledge master, you know? That’s not my thing. I think today in skateboarding, with the advent of all the parks, it’s created such an amazing openness to whatever is available. It seems like there’s not a lot of barriers. That’s sort of the reason I wasn’t as into skateboarding near the end of my stint as a photographer. It was just so divided. And that’s not how I ever saw it or see it. I used to work with Tim Brauch, Ron Whaley, and Israel Forbes. Those three were like prototypes of what skateboarding is today. They just skated. Wherever we went it was like, “Backyard pool, rad! Mini ramp or vert ramp, rad! Look at that rail, awesome!” It was just like, “Let’s skate! What’s there to skate?” That is the best. There are tons of other people like that I’ve worked with, but those guys are my close friends and it was awesome.
Bolex tech device. Campbell photo
The first I heard tell of a new skate film project from you was in an interview with Mark Whiteley on the Slap Magazine website, in February of 2010. What was the idea then, and how did it change over time, to what it is now, four years later? It was actually Rick McCrank and I who were first really talking about making a movie. It was going to involve other people, but then Rick was hurt for a long time, so then that idea sort of morphed and I turned it into a different one. I’m actually working on another skateboarding video right now; it’s called Ye Olde Destruction. At the same time though, I was talking to Javier Mendizabal about working together, and then he mentioned we could probably do something right away with Quiksilver helping to cover the costs. So we were sitting there at the table in my house and pretty much came up with the idea right then. We just had the idea to make it a dream sequence, and I really saw it all right away. I’ve always really loved the subtlety of European cinema, and I think there’s also a lot of subtlety in my work. I always identified with European directors like Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, and Federico Fellini. So the whole idea just sort of clicked, that we’d make it in Europe, give it that feeling of some films from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m a really big fan of how Europeans document skateboarding in still photos as well, especially some of the ‘90s work of Benjamin Deberdt, Eric Anthony, and Fred Mortagne. It’s very environmental, like they are just documenting their life. It’s interesting in the long run because I was kind of Benjamin’s mentor, and we’ve been friends forever. I think he kind of just explored and maybe took small aspects of what I was doing and really magnified them into his whole own thing, which was far beyond what I’d thought of. So it was fun to come back into this project, and almost reinterpret European identity through multiple generations, through the European cinema, and thinking about the context of how Europeans document skateboarding. It’s kind of layered. I think in a sense it’s interesting, because we’ve shown it in Europe and it was super well received. I think the Europeans really understand the subtleness of it. I’ve actually been really hesitant to show it in the States, because I think the mentality of skateboarders here is different; it’s more about hammers, and selling things. It’s made me slightly hesitant to want to share it a lot here. I think people can appreciate it though.
Javier Mendizabal, Stand-up Frontside Grind. Campbell photos
It’s just not what North Americans are typically given in terms of media. I think a lot of people will really appreciate the subtlety and dream aspect, because we are so beaten over the head with quick cuts in skate videos, where we go from a handrail clip in China to a ditch in Arizona in a matter of seconds. The dream aspect of your film really helped to connect the narrative, and was a nice change from the usual time lapse of a city or the sun going down, those old worn out transitional tricks. I’m amazed to hear the idea came to you so quickly. Yeah the idea for the dream, the crux of the whole thing, really came out in like 15 minutes between Javi and I. He had all these ideas of places we should go, and that all pretty much happened in the end. Javi’s just a really awesome, cool human. He has a great vibe about him. He made our trips so great, with such a cool crew. I always just want to configure really great environments with good people in all my trips. And also try to go for longer than normal periods, so you have relaxing days, and not always trying to pull blood from a rock. And I think that comes across.
I think having that more relaxing schedule really helps and shows. Most skate videos, if they put off any sort of emotion, tend to be either overly dramatic or extremely lighthearted. Cuatro Suenos Pequenos was very even-keeled, with some humor, some excitement, and some drama. How do you balance that mix of emotion? I really spent a lot of time conceptualizing the project, figuring out the tone, and then trying to figure out a flow within what happens. On top of that, I spent time trying to figure out how to create a dream aspect, without CGI, in a really traditional way. There are not that many elements of dreaming, but I think the music really helped create it. One thing that I’ve always been excited about is trying to work from a simple place, and make the most of simple ideas. I think in this day in age people have a lot of possibilities and capabilities in their hands, with video cameras, editing, and graphics. The whole film is shot in 16mm film, which gives it another depth and dimension, to feel the visceral qualities of the scenes and places. I just like to start from a place that’s simple, and then expand out.
A very involved documentation process can actually hinder what you are trying to document. Yeah, that’s exactly it.
Madars Apse, Switch Ollie. Gaberman photo
With this rise of more affordable tools to document things, including skateboarding, do you think there’s a relative rise in quality work being put out? I think that playing field is completely different now. What’s happening today, some people are trying to do interesting things, like I actually really liked Jamie Thomas’s Fallen Road Less Traveled video. I’ve always been more into what the actual life is like. What our lives are like as skateboarders and what we experience is almost never really captured. If people that weren’t skateboarders could actually know what our lives are like they wouldn’t believe it. We have crazy lives, but it’s rare that people actually capture it. That Fallen film made an attempt at that and I think it was successful on some levels.
I was sort of expecting that video to go more into the lifestyle, but within the context of where it’s coming from, it really is very subdued from a typical Jamie Thomas project. It’s pretty crazy, because Jamie is really the reason for the quick cut, and then he’s actually rebelling against himself. Which I think is pretty cool. I agree, there’s more that can be done, but at least it was touching certain areas, and you got a feeling of some of the life experiences they had. It was refreshing. Skateboarding is just fucking awesome, and I think right now is the best ever. How gnarly was Collin Provost’s part in the Emerica Made video? That is exactly the best skating ever to me. It just gets you so psyched. It was so creative, and just pushed every little thing to the next level. No barriers; those guys will do whatever. Skateboarding is amazing where it is now. I was watching Slash’s part in the Deathwish video, and he’s just pushing it out there. It’s interesting because I wasn’t really a big fan of that Baker style of skateboarding, because for so long it was just rails and stairs. To me, that never has been that fascinating. I can appreciate it, but it’s not my thing. So that’s what I was expecting in that video, but it really blew my mind, especially his part. He’s just pushing out into this other stratosphere of his capabilities. I get really excited about it.
A lot of people just seem to have full adaptability to any situation or spot. Yeah, it’s so cool. I’m really psyched about a lot of people now, like Evan Smith. People that are just like, “Let’s go!”
Javi and Madars getting tubed. Rubio photo
In addition to the look of film that I know appeals to you, do you think there is a benefit in limiting how much you can document, due to how much film you might have, and the cost involved? As in, do you think it can be beneficial for everyone when the skater feels more pressure, because you are burning through film, which is not limitless and does have a notable cost associated with it? With digital, you can really go on filming and shooting as long as the skater wants. I think it’s actually a double-edged sword. I think that when you are filming with people on film, they immediately, at least the people I’ve been filming with, they just immediately decide not to do something that’ll take all day. So then you end up, in some respects, not getting the most critical skating, because that’s just their mentality, that we can’t afford this. Like, it’s more or less $350 for every three minutes of footage. Maybe even a little bit more. So it’s quite expensive.
Maybe due to that cost and limitation, you end up with a more relatable skateboarding for people to watch. Yeah, and I hope that that’s true, that people can relate to it. Skateboarding is so out in the stratosphere now that most normal humans can’t really relate to it. When you see something completely nuts, you maybe don’t even want to go skate afterwards.
That’s why I think people will appreciate this. It’s a high level of skateboarding, but it’s a level that can be understood, and makes you feel like you could get involved and have a good time at some of these sessions. That’s cool to hear.
Thomas and Fred getting the best angle. Gaberman photo
Because you also work outside of skateboarding, doing your artwork as well as working on surf projects, does that give you a much more fresh perspective when it comes to skateboarding? How would you suggest people try finding new interests to widen their perspective and influences? Well, I’m 44 now, and I start skateboarding when I was 5, in 1974. Probably got more into it and focused from ’75 to ’78. There was a big boom in skateboarding then. I lived in Dana Point, between San Diego and Los Angeles, and every kid on my street, everyone, every boy and every girl, was riding a skateboard. It was a crazy boom. There was a quarterpipe at the top of the street, a ditch going into a full-pipe at the bottom of the street. It was a big hill you could bomb, so it was super on, crazy time. And then skateboarding kind of died. But I always lived at the top of the hill, and when I was 9, I started working at a fishing place, like cleaning the boats when they came in. So I’d bomb the hill the mile and a quarter down the hill to work in the harbour. So I was always skating, never stopped, and then when I got in high school in ’84 I really started skateboarding even more, when backyard ramps were coming back again. Really, my whole life from 13 to 28 was all about skateboarding. Those 15 years, I was making skate ‘zines, at 17 I started writing for Transworld, and then was working for Transworld, Big Brother, was the photo editor at Skateboarder for awhile. It was just a big movement all the way through. I grew up by the beach, so when I was ten I started surfing, and I would surf, more in my later teens. But skateboarding was always my number one thing. Also, being a skateboarder in that time period, there was no money in anything. But there was this creativity in the culture. I was really influenced by Tod Swank. He used to make really rad fan ‘zines, and he’d send them to me. He took pictures, was a rad skateboarder, and drew rad pictures. Neil Blender and Lance Mountain did all those same things too. I saw those guys having fun, and that’s what my friends and I wanted to do. It didn’t matter if we sucked at drawing, we would just try. I just kept trying. As a skateboarder, I knew that the only way you get anywhere or learn anything is through perseverance. So that diversity came from that time, seeing those guys. I just always though about it like I’ll just adapt and try to be creative. It’s not rocket science; it’s just putting some thought into something and trying. Maybe you’ll actually fail; but in failing you’ll learn, and then you’ll try again, and hopefully you don’t fail forever.
Stars of the film, Javi and Madars. Campbell photo
The landscape being different now, do you think their still are people coming up like that, with such diverse interests, and openness to trying new things? I think so. Some people continue on that path, and some don’t. I have friends I grew up with that are still making art and playing music, and then some of them are business people. But I think there still are those kids. I see them even in my area. This little kid that lives up the street from me, he’s like 15 and he can paint so rad. I couldn’t even paint as well as him until I was in my late twenties. He can put together an art show. I’ve been to one of his. He’s got a ramp and is always skating too. I was out yesterday and he called my wife like, “Can Thomas come over? I got our ramp resurfaced.” He’s just so psyched. It is a different landscape though, and there’s so much information now. It might be more confusing. When I was maturing, in my teens, we didn’t have much information. We also didn’t have a lot of things to entertain us. So we entertained ourselves. We got the magazines, we traded fan ‘zines, and that was it. There was no money, so no one gave a shit about it. You didn’t make a painting and think you could sell it, because you couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to buy it. I didn’t know anyone besides skateboarders in the ‘80s, so we just traded and gave stuff to each other. So it’s different now, but there are still a lot of amazing creative people.
Maybe they just don’t get to the forefront of skateboarding so much now, because the top guys today are so much more athletic. You have to be single-minded now, a skateboard athlete, to be at the top now. I think that’s pretty spot-on. It seems like these days when people start getting towards the backside of their careers, like Jason Adams or Jerry Hsu, they nurture their creativity more as they have more time. Which is cool. Things are just so gnarly now.
So the next project coming up from you will be Ye Olde Destruction? Yeah, I hope that’s going to be done next year. I went on one trip for it already, with Evan Smith, Collin Provost, Aaron Suski, Keegan Sauder, Nick Garcia, Ray Barbee, and Taylor Bingaman. I think that was everyone.
So a lot more people involved this time? Yeah, it’s just about this car, and people driving around and skating.
Keeping it simple. Exactly. Thanks again for your interest. Making a movie like this, it’s on a certain wavelength, and I’m sure some people think it’s nothing. It just doesn’t register with them. I get really excited when people get it.
Javi, Stalefish. Gaberman photo