Jacob Harris interview12.11.2015
We caught up with filmmaker Jacob Harris to discuss his latest project, Vase, Isle Skateboards‘ first full-length video, which premieres in London tomorrow evening and around the UK next week. Click here for premiere details.
Portrait and interview: Henry Kingsford
How do you feel about the video at this point (a couple of days before the premiere)?
Just nervous to be quite frank. Of course there are faults and of these I’m very aware. I’m not as bothered about its reception as I thought I might be (though of course I hope it’s received well for Nick (Jensen), Chris (Jones) and (Paul) Shier and everybody), just because what people do and don’t like kind of mystifies me so I can’t take it too personally. If it’s been successful in transmitting the feeling it’s supposed to, then I don’t mind so much if people dislike it or not, ha.
I much prefer to just work right up to the premiere because then you have no time to dwell on things, you’re just exhausted and have to go with what you have. The final thing was sent to production a couple of weeks ago so I’ve had plenty of time to sit and wish I could have done things differently. But it’s fine; you’re never going to feel great about your own project. The boys smashed it so I’m proud of them.
Eleventh Hour was initially intended to be a 10-minute Grey promo, and Vase was meant to be a short Isle promo too. How do these shorter-term projects evolve into full-length videos? What control do you have over this (I know you swore you wouldn’t make another full-length after Eleventh Hour) and what are some of the implications for your life?
You just get excited by what you have after a few months and know that it’s so worth it at the end of the process to go the whole distance and make something full-length. You get excited when the skaters want to put more in and you want to provide that opportunity too.
As far as life implications go, Josh Stewart’s Instagram account is called something like mystaticlife. This I can relate to, and these projects are on nowhere near the scale of his, with a tenth the sacrifice. But yeah you do feel like your life is on pause for a bit while you’re involved in one of these projects. I’m worried I always sound so negative talking about this side of things, but I actually do have a lot of love for it all, it can just be buried beneath frustration sometimes.
How has this project worked for you financially? Isle is a relatively small, independent, skater-owned company and I’m guessing you haven’t been charging a day rate every time you go out filming.
I got some money but I guess I’m in some level of debt now. To put the time in to make a video where you really spend the time that it takes, individually with each person, to make it what you want it to be, a board company is simply not going to have the money to fund that. It doesn’t matter though; Isle is a company run by people that are in it for good reasons and when you’re working in that atmosphere you naturally want to put your time and money in. It sometimes feels more like a group project than a company. Isle is a really tight group of people, like a social club or an AA meeting for neurotics. They’re a lot of my best friends and I’m really proud to be able to make something with them. I wouldn’t put so much of myself into any other skateboard project. Everybody involved is uniquely invested and I think that’s quite a rare thing. I do hope it can thrive in its way.
What other work have you been doing to subsidise making the video?
A bunch of stuff, from music videos to editing to animation. Coming from a background of having no working schedule or boss, I actually find that kind of work really gratifying in a very conventional sort of way, whilst simultaneously buying into the freedom/individualism myth that skateboard culture loves to champion.
The impression I get from chatting to you is that you don’t want to end up working in skateboarding. Do you ever feel getting embroiled (perhaps unintentionally) in these longer-term projects is holding you back from breaking into other fields?
Breaking is maybe the wrong word but yeah, I’m desperate to have the time do other stuff because it’s just a lot more fun to have a larger pool to work from. Skateboarding is great and fun but if you’ve spent a decade creating images and investing yourself in that, it’s insanely limiting and that’s a frustration. If you’re trying to create visuals all the time you can’t help but be filled with ideas, ideas that skateboarding just won’t always be the best platform for.
Documenting skateboarding – well, skateboarders – can be really frustrating at times. Brian Gaberman (US photographer) quit after years shooting skating to become a fine art photographer. Not long after, he returned to shooting skating, realising how much he loved it after a hiatus. Is there an element of this to you your return to making a second full-length?
I get that and think I’ll probably miss the fun of messing around on the streets with my mates but ultimately, no. Skateboard culture definitely has some unique things that should be treasured, but is quite generally and increasingly a regressive and closed-minded thing when you position it within culture at large. I don’t mean to sound preachy because I don’t feel judgmental about it or believe I’m bringing anything particularly different to it, but I just don’t really identify with much of the culture. Impetus for a second-full length was just momentum and friendship etc.
Do you feel like you are still influenced by new skate videos and clips, or is it more a case of you having found your style and approach and sticking to that?
I think that I am. I don’t watch too much stuff, but when I see something I like it’ll definitely have an impact and I’ll think, “Damn, I wish I could make something like that, that feels interesting”, or maybe less consciously things will find their way in. I’m definitely not unimpressionable. When it comes down to it, though, I think the old, formative, influences are definitely the most powerful.
I wanted to ask about the differences working on a full-length with a team (Isle) vs. picking your own line-up for an independent full-length (Eleventh Hour), but I released there is a big crossover in skaters between both videos. Nevertheless, you were able to include people like Luka Pinto, Dom Henry and Dan Clarke in Eleventh Hour. Which format do you prefer and why? Did you miss the opportunity to showcase up-and-coming riders and/or unsponsored friends with Vase?
I always wanted friends to have clips in Vase but it didn’t work out for whatever reason. Otherwise I’d say the main difference is that you have a duty to film with certain people so if they’re reluctant at any point, it can be difficult. When it’s your own production you can just offer people your time and if they’re not coming through for whatever reason, there’s no stress, they just won’t be in the video so much. With a company video these people have to have a good amount of footage, so it can become tense.
Were there any creative restrictions you felt working with a brand that already had a strong visual identity?
Not at all. I never had anything that I wanted to personally express so it was more just a case of, “How should we turn this company into a video?” In this case restrictions were definitely liberating in the way that they can be.
How important are skate videos (and therefore filmmakers) in establishing or maybe cementing brands’ identities?
I’m not too sure nowadays but in the past it was definitely the case that a company was its video. Certainly video is still the main way in which people digest skateboard culture, so it must be pretty important. If you look at all the companies that have broken through in the last few years it’s always been because of an aesthetic established in video, even if they have a strong graphical output in other areas. Video is an invitation into a world; being visual, textural and aural, it’s such an important and engrossing space in which to express a company. It’s the easiest way to make an impression on somebody.
Can you talk a little about your creative partnership with Nick Jensen and his input on Vase?
Working with Nick was great. We’d be on the same page a lot with imagery, coincidentally I think. He’s not always the best communicator because his brain attacks things from six different angles at once, but if you pick up the fragments of what he says and decode it, you always have something quite strong and precise. We’d mess around in his studio a lot with objects and my Bolex and just see what we could make. We very quickly developed a language to work in, what we knew was visually effective and made sense for Isle. I really wish there had been somebody to document the process of getting a lot of these shots. We’d never really consider the practical sides of certain things and at times it would be total Chuckle Brothers. We’d be out in the middle of a busy part of London with massive balloons on the windiest day scrambling around trying to make them behave for two seconds – always total farce. Nick’s solutions to everything involve string, always. (Tom) Knox was always the best person to sanely coordinate things.
Freedom to choose music without worrying about securing rights was the main reason The Grey Video became Eleventh Hour, so obviously this is an important aspect for you. Can you tell us anything about the music in Vase?
I’m not sure I know how to talk about the music in Vase, but I like it a lot. Hopefully it’s interesting. I would say that rather than finding obscure music that people might not have heard, I became a lot more interested in appropriating artists of a certain cultural standing, as long as it makes sense. I don’t mean like slapping on a Madonna song or Drake or something to be obnoxious, but maybe just artists that already carry a certain amount of baggage. I also became quite into chopping mood quickly using music, to make it feel maybe like a dream. Maybe this is jarring, but you forget to question the logic of it after a few seconds. That could be a pretty pompous and overly analytical way to speak about it though, and it might not have that effect at all, ha.
After the London premiere, you will be accompanying the team on a premiere tour across the UK with demos and signings, which is something that rarely happens these days. How do you feel about this and will you be bringing your camera?
I think it’s going to be more relaxed than strictly demos and signings. It should be fun! I doubt many people are that excited to see the boys nurse a hangover in an indoor skatepark, but it’s nice to hang out with people and then go watch the video. I think it should be really warm. I will not be bringing my camera, ha. Thank god for Instagram.
Speaking of your camera, you struggled a bit throughout Eleventh Hour with technical issues. These are old cameras. How did you guard against this, this time around? I’ve heard no stories of broken cameras for the past couple of years…
No real mishaps to be honest. I’ve been through a few cameras during this project and done a bit of DIY fixing that didn’t work out so well, but it’s been pretty uneventful otherwise. I didn’t necessarily guard against it though. I’m very slack in this respect. Failsafe option is usually don’t film.
How will Vase be released?
We’re going to release a double-sided DVD – one side will be PAL for Europe and the other NTSC for the States and Japan etc. I didn’t know these things existed but it’s an elegant solution to the video standards problem, I think. I just hope that people pay attention and use the right side! PAL will look better over here and the other way round elsewhere. It’ll be nicely packaged, though.
I often get requests from your sponsors to have you in the magazine. Will you be skating more after the release and have you found anyone you’re happy to let film you?
I’ve been skating quite a bit recently and enjoying it loads. I actually don’t mind filming with (Mark) Jackson. I think it’s because he’s so business and just a good laugh to hang out with. That said I can rarely actually do anything in that situation. I get stage fright.
Aside from skating, what are your plans after the release?
A few fiction-based things. I want to work as much as possible and shoot as much stuff as I can. Also there are rumours of a Casper (Brooker) part that I’m up for making. I’ve become pretty close with Casper recently and I’ve been enjoying skating with him and watching him skate, so that could be fun. No commitments have been made yet though so we’ll see.