Director Jacob Rosenberg Discusses His Early Work and the Impact of Skate Videos

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Portrait by Brett Simon

Video content is the driver of modern skateboarding, but for being so integral, it’s a relatively young medium that’s still evolving. During the 1980s, Stacy Peralta saw the potential and power of video, creating a string of influential full-lengths for Powell Peralta—the company he co-owned with George Powell—starting with The Bones Brigade Video Show in 1984. But it wasn’t until the early-’90s with the advent of 411 Video Magazine in 1993 and brands releasing video projects en masse that a sea change of how skateboarding media was consumed began. 

Filmmaker Jacob Rosenberg spent his teenage years behind the lens, documenting the burgeoning scene around him in Palo Alto, California, filming at skate camps, in the streets, and documenting the next wave of skateboarders who would shape modern skateboarding and change its trajectory forever. 

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Self Portrait by Jacob Rosenberg (1989)

Rosenberg’s passion caught the attention of Mike Ternasky in 1988, who was working with H-Street, a company whose profile was rising in skateboarding and ushering in a new approach and look. Ternasky would later found Plan B skateboards in 1991, a “superteam” whose video output set a new standard in skateboarding, birthing the format of the modern skateboarding video still emulated today. Unfortunately, Ternasky passed away in a car accident in 1994, altering the trajectory of Plan B and for Rosenberg, suddenly leaving him without a friend and mentor. 

Rosenberg’s knack for not only capturing tricks but the mood and moments around them became a key part of skateboarding videography’s vocabulary, but as he told me, none of that was premeditated. For Rosenberg, he was a kid given the keys to the kingdom, and energy and enthusiasm was his response.

Armed with Ternasky’s vision, Rosenberg took on the task of creating Plan B’s third full-length Second Hand Smoke (1994) at 21-years-old. His work producing skateboarding videos and thirst for the medium propelled Rosenberg’s career, resulting in commercial work as well as a return to skateboarding in 2012, directing Waiting For Lightning, a documentary focused on the career of professional skateboarder Danny Way whom Rosenberg had known since he was a teen from his work with H-Street and Plan B. 

In many ways, Jacob Rosenberg was the first person or more accurately, “kid/fan” to be taken behind the curtain and allowed to curate how skateboarding was seen. Pretty fucking epic for a teenager in the early-90s… right?

Rosenberg and I caught up to discuss the nuanced art of creating skateboarding videos and the larger lessons learned along the way.

A Conversation with Jacob Rosenberg

ONE37pm: Growing up in the ‘80s was an interesting time because people were shifting away from making home movies on film with the accessibility to video cameras. Simultaneously, you have all these sci-fi blockbusters and big movies that really inspired a lot of kids. I feel like a lot of filmmakers and directors now cut their teeth filming their own movies or skits on VHS. What was your experience like?

Jacob Rosenberg: My dad had a still camera around all the time. He had a cool crocheted camera strap for his Nikon, and every vacation, he would bring it. He also had a really high-quality Nikon Super Eight camera. So every trip we took, we’d come back and do a slideshow and then run the Super Eight film. That was ingrained in me at an early age. We’d revisit them as a family and sort of laugh and reminisce but then later, it went further. We’d do little skits and film stories. My dad was a chemistry teacher and did the yearbook at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California, and filmed a heist movie on a family ski trip. All these skis were getting stolen. We did a thing where there's the guy and he has the hat on and the goggles and he's looking one way and looking the other way, then he walks off frame and he steals the skis and then they find the car in the parking lot with all these skis loaded in and they capture him and arrest him. My sister and I were posed in the front seat of the car “driving” as the adults pushed the car from behind. We watched that back a ton.

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Jacob Rosenberg

I'm 48, I'm born in 73. I saw Star Wars in the movie theater in 1977 when it came out, and I probably saw it seven times in the movie theater in six months. I have audio tapes of me as a four-year-old saying Anthony Daniels plays see C-3PO you know, Mark Hamill plays Luke Skywalker, and my dad would say, ‘Jacob, what is the force?’ and I would say, ‘It's a powerful thing that binds us together.’ Movies were an essential part of our lives. My dad philosophically fell in love with the idea of the force and this mythical spiritual thing. I started making stop-motion Lego movies when I was really young too. By the time I get into skateboarding, the cameras were available at exactly the age I was at to be smart enough to understand them. Like if I was 10, it wouldn't be the same. Right? But I wasn't, I was 13 and a teenager is just going to engage those things differently—be more curious. So for me, it was really this insane moment of time where all of a sudden the technology was there, everything was there. Then I end up at skate camp in 1988 and there is a crew with a really sophisticated ¾” Video Camera system documenting the skating for a new video. It was right in front of me.

It was really this insane moment of time where all of a sudden the technology was there, everything was there.

- Jacob Rosenberg

As skate videos start to come out in the ‘80s, they seem to mimic the surf videos before them, but what really differentiates them and makes them unique is how someone such as Stacy Peralta was able to create “characters” out of the skaters and tell stories just as much as capture tricks.

I remember watching the Future Primitive—probably as the first skateboard video I ever saw—and feeling the lifestyle of it… watching these individuals skate, the guys I had hanging on my wall. It’s why skateboarding is the best—these are fucking ordinary guys. Skateboarding is a blue-collar sport, some of them are from privilege but in general, it’s made up of normal people. But also, that normal guy can suddenly have a full-color picture on the page of a magazine. What other sport or industry is like that? If you're not in the fucking championship team or star player, you aren’t getting a Sports Illustrated article. These skaters went from people I saw in magazines and hung on my wall to actual personalities you saw on video. It felt very personal, like the person that made it (Stacy/Stecyk) is inside of the culture and that in turn, lets you inside. 

And then Stacy also explored having an actual narrative when they did The Search For Animal Chin which was a story with skateboarding in it and acting… 

Oh, it was corny. We knew it was corny. We knew it was bad. But it also didn’t matter. Think about it, Rodney Mullen was a big name but he wasn’t in the video because he didn’t fit the story. However campy and corny Animal Chin was, there's that moment in the end with the dialogue and talking about what it's all about and you get goosebumps because as bad as it is, that's what skateboarding is.

I'll share with you something that hasn't been too talked about, is that you know, Mike Ternasky and Tony Magnusson went to the premiere of Animal Chin together in Los Angeles. They already had the seeds of H-Street in their heads and spent the entire car ride back to San Diego talking about the video. Mike’s mind is just fucking blown. He wanted to make the next Animal Chin. I think that’s how skateboarding can take leaps—when you see it in a new presentation.

Hearing you say that makes me think of how Mike (Ternasky) was able to find this interesting balance with H-Street where he showed raw skateboarding but also the personalities of the skaters and the random hijinx you encounter on the streets. You could see the progression from video to video, especially to Plan B’s Questionable (1992), which was a massive leap for skateboarding videos and the industry in general.

Questionable really solidified the theatrical nature of skate films, delivering that jaw dropping moment at the end of every skater’s part. You are sucked into it with the personality of the skater, then you are rooting for them throughout the part. You then get rewarded at the end, with the heaviest tricks.

You also had Blind Video Days (1991) the year before, which you also worked on.

I've always said the Blind video hits you in the heart and Questionable just punches you in the face and you're just overwhelmed. Questionable was—I don’t want to say refined—but Mike nailed it. It took what he did with Shackle Me Not, Hocus Pocus, and A Soldier’s Story and dialed it in even more. I am in no way an author of Video Days, I went to LA, I filmed, those guys—I got a paycheck and ended up with some footage that was used and became beloved. Mark (Gonzales) in the Hatikvah shirt or the clip of Mark and Guy dancing in the parking lot that came out later—that’s my footage. I had no intent when I captured candid footage other than making sure I kept the camera on my idols.

I believe Video Days is one of Mark's first real personal pieces of art and he had a collaborator in that in Spike Jonze but a lot of that footage is just Mark and Jason Lee going out and filming each other. Like Mike and Tony, the Blind guys were chasing something that they felt strongly about. 

Sure but as much as you were there documenting what was happening, you also know how and what to capture and learn to make visual choices later, I assume.

There’s some truth in that—Shackle Me Not and Hocus Pocus, there’s all that footage talking to pedestrians, talking to the Eight Street Twins. I wanted to capture that. I learned by watching Mike because if he saw something crazy happening, he’d know to shove a camera in that person’s face. So when I was out filming with Mike Carroll or Rick Howard and something happened, I’m going to get that because no one else could see it. I could be relentless, asking someone to say something on camera—pushing it on (Sean) Sheffey and then he randomly says, ‘You know, Pinky Tuscadero.’ That only happens because I'm like, ‘What's up, Sean?’ and then it happens.

I had so much admiration for Mike and his work ethic that I was just a kid out there trying to please him. I was doing what I thought he wanted me to do and then it became such muscle memory that it was vernacular.

I'd love to have you explain more about that refinement of creating Questionable and the subsequent video and then you making Second Hand Smoke after Mike passed. 

Sure, when you think about Questionable and Virtual Reality, Mike was introducing this new format—the demo section, the slam section, the friends section, the extended parts during the credits, the montages… that all didn’t exist before those videos in that way. Questionable is really a reflection of Mike's taste and vision. He cut that video himself. I helped with some things and we added footage I had shot but it was his vision. I recently went back to look at Virtual to prepare for an interview, trying to figure out what I filmed and what Mike filmed. I realized I had filmed and edited a lot more than I remembered. Part of that was due to Big Brother Magazine and Type A Snowboards starting—Mike had less time.

After the Virtual premiere, we had a conversation where he told me he wanted me to do all the videos. He had been showing me how to do this in a very specific way—grooming me to take over. What I'm saying is reinforced by Second Hand Smoke, right? Because I cut all those parts by myself—it was me doing what I know. Let’s just say making Virtual Reality was like taking a gnarly exam and passing that prepared me to make Second Hand Smoke on my own after Mike passed away.

It’s kind of funny but there was so much anticipation for Virtual Reality because Questionable was a masterpiece and changed skateboarding. It was almost like how you waited for Empire Strikes Back as a kid.

100%. In an interesting way and not to oversell a parallel, George Lucas got Irvin Kirshner to direct Empire Strikes Back. At a certain point, you level up and want to oversee things to give yourself a breath from the grind of it. Mike was engaged to get married during Virtual, he had a lot going on with the business. He knew if what I was editing was working or not, so he supervised me, which put a lot of pressure on me, but he let me have authorship, which for a 19 year old kid is priceless.

OK, so on that track, did any of your thoughts about music supervision come from your love of movies?

Not at all actually. Not the New H-Street Video (1990) was the breakthrough in music in skate videos to me. The William Tell Overture to AC/DC… when Mike was doing that with Tony (Magnusson), what used to be this narrow funnel blew wide open. I can use Mozart or Beethoven and AC/DC and fucking Led Zeppelin? That video and A Soldier’s Story made Questionable.

Skating was getting more technical so the slow-mo and long lens filming came in and Mike realized that if he put classic music behind it, it felt totally different. Why the fuck wouldn’t we use “It’s a Wonderful World” for Rodney (Mullen) because there’s no fear—you know it’s gonna fucking work. Mike understood that that juxtaposition created a new conversation.

The other thing was that I started this relationship with Epitaph records, just calling them and asking them what we could use. They’d send over NOFX or The Offspring and we had permission to use their songs. Rick Howard loved that first Green Day record, so we had that. Mike would just buy every CD people liked to have it ready. Then with Hieroglyphics, I’m from The Bay Area and those tapes were so sacred so when we got into Questionable, I called the label to forge the relationship and I became friends with Domino and that opened up other relationships and we didn’t just get permission to use songs that people know, we were getting B-sides. 

In working with Mike on those Plan B videos and eventually creating the third yourself, what did you learn about editing specifically that informed how you’d work?

I remember I started Rick's (Howard) part, four or five times until I found the right rhythm of how it opened with the beginning notes of “Give It to Me Baby”. You need the right tricks to carry the song. It’s the same with Jeremy Wray’s part in Second Hand Smoke. It starts with that insanely long line at Carlsbad but then ends with a hammer and that gives you permission to go right into “White Room.” It starts a bigger conversation. That entire part and the editing are based on the rhythm and dynamics of the song. If we go back to Questionable, I think Mike realized he had stars on Plan B so choosing footage that showed their personalities framed them as stars. Think about the opening shot of Rick (Howard) in Questionable —it’s super evocative. He looks ominous… like a stud. It’s moody. It’s cool. 

If you go back to A Soldier’s Story and think about Sean Sheffey’s part, it’s the template for Questionable. The way he showed the spots before the tricks, the dramatic music… it created tension. Now you have this all-star team and you think about how to start the video and they did that with a sarcastic remark from (Steve) Rocco about the brand. It’s so goofy and all over the place but then you’re hit with Pat Duffy’s part. Mike had refined his language and now he had this new, incredible footage. There’s the shot of the kinked handrail, timed to this bass slide during the song that preempts him fucking up the rail. It’s a call back to what he established in A Soldier’s Story.

I think why Virtual Reality sings is because we had those tools in our pockets and didn’t need to figure anything out. We had the fucking recipe.

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