Behind the Lenz: Shinpei Ueno Interview by Josh Stewart
When a movement’s popularity falls off a cliff, it only tends to strengthen the community most dedicated to it. As CDs, MP3s and eventually streaming swore to bury vinyl, crate diggers crept into the foggy night and kept the records spinning. Similarly, as HD cameras and streaming became the go-to formats for big-brand skate content, VX-1000 wielders worldwide built an underground community of purists who thumbed their noses at the death of the DVD and kept their beloved format relevant far beyond its years. It was through that network that I first discovered the incredible world of the Japanese skate video. Sitting in my tiny Brooklyn bedroom soaking in titles like Night Prowler, Overground Broadcasting and Lenz was mindblowing. While flying under most Western skate radars, these videos had a major influence on the VX underground. Although many of your favorite videomakers infused the Japanese style into their vids, Japan’s scene rarely got the credit for its influence or the attention for the obvious brilliance. Fast forward to the present and Lenz III explodes on the scene. The Western skate world wakes up to Japanese street skating as if it formed overnight, despite the fact that visionaries like Takahiro Morita and Shinpei Ueno have been doing the work for decades. So, to finally see Shinpei on a platform like Thrasher feels a little bit like justice has finally prevailed. But I guess, since this is so long overdue, I should shut up and let the man speak.
The Lenz videos have been a really respected series for nearly 15 years, but in the West, it has mostly only been skaters who pay attention to underground skateboarding who knew about them. How does it feel to see the whole world be amazed by Lenz and the Tightbooth crew after the parts came out on Thrasher?
I think it was difficult for people to get to know about us when we were only visible from physical DVDs. I’m so happy that through the power of the Internet there’s an environment where everyone can see our work now. Seeing skaters all around the world excited to see Lenz III made me feel like I’m finally standing on the starting line.
Science-fiction-worthy spots, fast feet and an ender to remember, Rinku Konishi's part is as good as any place to kick it off
Rinku Konishi frontside 5-0s then listens to the title of a Toy Machine video Photo: ISEKI
The nightlife in Japan is unbeatable. Rinku Konishi, backside nosegrind pop in Photo: ISEKI
Well, you’ve earned the excitement. For those who might just be getting to know your work, can you explain for us what Tightbooth is? As of 2022, it's now a board brand but it has a long history and I always wanted to hear more about how it started.
It all started in 2005 with a few friends. Like most skate kids we pooled money to buy video cameras and had fun making skate videos. We started selling clothing as a way to fund making skate videos. All we wanted to do was make skate videos for a living. From around 2009 we went beyond just being a crew and started properly producing videos, starting the Lenz series. We didn’t make any money back then, but the only thing that kept us going was wanting to make the best skate videos. Since then the brand grew little by little, and I thought that Tightbooth should properly support the riders—as Japanese brands rarely pay their riders. One of my dreams is to have Japanese skateboarders make a living as pro skaters for a Japanese brand.
High-impact hits blended with the repertoire of a ledge lord, Rio Morishige's a mystery you just gotta watch
That’s an honorable goal. The first two videos were incredible, but obviously huge undertakings. What made you decide to start working on a third Lenz? Had you always planned to make three videos for the series?
No, it wasn’t intended to be a series, and I hadn’t planned on continuing to a third one. It was when I saw new talent from the upcoming teenagers that I knew I had to make another one.
Rio Morishige with the classic "hardest trick in the book," kickflip back noseblunt Photo ISEKI
Heat from the local scene is always a great inspiration. I know it's notoriously difficult to skate and film at street spots in Japan. Security and even pedestrians are so unfriendly to skateboarding. So, it's really impressive that the Tightbooth dudes are skating at such a high level in Lenz III. How did you guys get to skate so many dope spots long enough to film such technical and gnarly clips?
Sometimes we’d be shooting from morning until midnight just to get one two-second-long clip. That should give you an idea of how hard it is to film a full-length in Japan.
It’s really hard to skate in Japan, especially in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Just for entering a building site you get spotted on CCTV and security comes running in seconds. We try all kinds of ways to make things easier, like shooting early in the morning or late at night to avoid security, but you can still get caught by police and fined. A 16-year-old skater was recently fined two million yen (around 15K USD) for grinding the entrance to a building, just for leaving a scratch. A video of me skating was recently uploaded to YouTube to highlight skaters as being a nuisance, and there were all kinds of comments about skaters being trash and wishing I’d be hit by a car and killed. That just makes me think that Japanese people are crazy. Japanese people probably hate skateboarding more than anywhere else in the world.
Laurence Keefe tries his luck Photo: MARIMO
After a daytime kick out, Ayahiro returns to claim his clip. NBS with some bonus curb on the landing
That’s pretty awful. Now that the Lenz videos have a history and respect, has that made it more difficult to make this third edition of the series? Does it add a lot of pressure knowing that now people have high expectations?
Honestly, I didn’t feel that much pressure from everyone’s expectations. But once the premiere was locked in, I started feeling the pressure to get it done in time.
Ayahiro Uratsuka's battles a big-ass boardslide among other epic moves. Get your rewatch in now
Ayahiro Uratsuka, high-flyin' back 5-0 Photo: ISEKI
How about the crew? Was there one skater who really started raising the bar while filming the video that started to get the other skaters hyped to push things further?
Ryuhei and Rio were getting everyone hyped. In the middle of production, Ayahiro saw Ryuhei and Rio’s rough edits and got bummed out because he thought his part was too dull and ended up reshooting everything. In the end, his part came out so well.
Agreed. How long did you guys work on the video from start to finish? And with a project this big, was it tough to keep some of the skaters patient to wait for the video to be finished?
This one took nine years, mostly because of a new generation of skaters coming up in Japan during production. We kept adding more and more young guns that we wanted to include.
Taihou Tokura and some Milton shit, backside wallride Photo: ISEKI
Meet your heroes Photo: MASA
I know exactly what that’s like. I said at the premiere here that we both were averaging about seven years per video. Japanese skate video classics like Lenz and Overground Broadcasting have been very inspiring to other underground skate video makers for a long time, but they are still very unknown to most skaters. When did you guys first start to notice the influence of certain Japanese filming/editing styles in US and European skate videos? Does it feel like a compliment or is it a little annoying?
The Magenta guys are influenced by FESN and Tightbooth’s style of shooting and editing. We are friends and have spoken about it directly so there are no bad feelings there, but I do want everyone to know that this style is originally Japanese.
That’s a great point. How about for younger skaters and filmers who are just now finding out about the Japanese street-skating scene and video style, could you suggest a few videos that you consider some of the best examples of Japanese skate video history?
If you check the FESN and Tightbooth videos you’ll be fine.
SOTY on the session Photo: MASA
Awesome. Filming with a VX-1000 nowadays is more frustrating than ever. One of my VXs won't work if it's too humid outside, another of them won't work if the temperature is under 40 degrees; my eye pieces short out if I flip them all the way up—it's just insane. You guys have stayed dedicated to the VX-1000 through all of the Lenz videos so far, but how much of a struggle has it been? Will you continue filming on VX?
We’ve probably used 30 VX-1000s and seven MK1 ultra-fisheye lenses. For the VX-1000s, we can only buy used ones, so some of them seemed to be broken on arrival. There’s not really a good software to capture the video from the tapes perfectly either, so the sound is often out of sync which we had to fix manually clip by clip. Our main filmer Naoya Morohashi—who is usually a mild-mannered type—was caught screaming a few times when a VX stopped working.
What videos get you guys inspired? Are there any videos you still watch to get hyped to go out skating?
Takahiro Morita’s masterpiece FESN video series. He paved the way for my own videos.
Is there anyone you think is doing a really good job of making HD look good?
Recently, thanks to SNS and YouTube, the overall level of everyone’s filming and editing is getting much better.
Kotora Mitani's clips broke the 'Gram when they hit. This dude's gonna be a star
All of the motion graphics and 3D modeling/animation work in this video is on a new level for skate films. I had a really hard time determining what was real and what was CGI. Maybe it's better that way not knowing, but how much work did it take to create those transition scenes in the TV studio shots? It's really incredible work.
The idea was to create a fictitious research facility called the “VX Laboratory” where Lenz III is being made. The VX-1000 was made using 3D modeling and full CGI. I’ve been making videos with the VX-1000 for 19 years now, so I wanted to make an opening dedicated to the camera. In this VX Laboratory, we created a room for each part that showed the concept of the part and the personality of each rider. I came up with rough ideas and discussed with the motion-graphics team how they could be realized. For example, for Kotora Mitani—his name in Japanese means little tiger—there is a Japanese-style tatami room with a tiger walking around. Due to budget constraints, we couldn’t show the complete body of the tiger in full CGI, so we ended up only using the silhouette.
Makes sense why Kotora hits like a caged animal
You may think you know Japanese Super Rat, but this is his finest display to date
Who says there's a rat problem in New York? This technicolor no-comply wallie from Kento Yoshioka is alright with us Photo: Giordano
For Japanese Super Rat’s part, the soundtrack was made by GEZAN, so we had a bright-red room covered in cables with some monitors stacked up. On the monitors, there is footage of GEZAN performing, and we had the mice wander around them. It’s a tough process from concept to the final product. The rendering is the hardest. The CGI for each part made a maximum of 15 seconds, but one frame takes up to one-and-a-half minutes to render, so you need a full day’s work for each chapter. After confirming the preview, you need an additional day to make corrections as well. While reviewing the previews I was calculating how many more renderings I could do, and having cold sweats, as I was on a tight schedule.
Kazuma Inada cops a crail at 10 o'clock Photo: CHANGSU
Well, the planning paid off. Can you at least tell me, did any of those DV tapes even exist? Or was it all CGI?
They are GCI, but created by scanning 600 real tapes.
Are the title cards a nod to the titles in Overground Broadcasting?
I’m “Morita’s children,” by which I mean a very serious fan, so there are homages to him everywhere.
Casey Foley backside nosegrinds with his lighting team Photo: Masa
I think longtime fans really appreciate those references. Most of the music in the video seems to be made just for skate-video editing. Do you have producers make the music specifically for the video, and do they choreograph the music to fit the skater's style?
Some of the songs were made for the parts, and some were existing songs, but mostly they are original tracks. I had many meetings with the artists to make the tracks with the concept of the skater and part.
The artists you were meeting with, were they Tightbooth friends and crew—even the hip-hop tracks with lyrics?
Every single artist is a friend. They did an amazing job.
A big stack and beautiful hardflip, no way to overlook Kyonosuke Yamashita Photo: ISEKI
Yes, they did. Japan has made a lot of splashes in global skateboarding, especially over the last five-to-six years, but it seems like it still hasn't been given its own seat at the table in the Western skate industry. Do you feel like that's starting to change?
I feel it’s starting to change little by little, but it doesn’t feel that way yet. Thanks to Thrasher, having Lenz III be seen by skaters all over the world is a really big deal, and I really hope this means we become more well-known. I want to do my best to get support from skaters all over the world.
As you've been premiering the video around the world, how does it feel to see the audience reacting to all of you guys' hard work on the screen?
I’m really happy. I hope it draws more attention to Japanese skateboarding.
Scenes from Tokyo and Osaka Photo: DEIB
The New York premiere was a really special night. Everyone was blown away. Now that you're three videos and 14 years into the series, do you still feel that fire to keep creating more?
We’re a skateboard company. We’ll keep on making skateboard videos.
Majestic as the man himself Photo: Giordano
If Ryuhei Kitazume isn't on your radar after his performance this year, then you're out of touch and need another serving. You're welcome
That’s great to hear. I hate it when I finish a video and people immediately ask me, "So, what's next?" I always wanna say, "I just worked on this for five years. What's next is you're gonna go home and watch the video over and over!” So I'm not going to ask you that. But I personally think the answer to "What's next?" is that the skate world is going to really wake up to what you guys have going on in Japan—at Tightbooth, Evisen and elsewhere, and I think you guys are going to inspire a lot of new video makers and skaters to do some amazing work of their own. Is there anything else we need to look out for on the horizon, aside from the Lenz III DVD finally dropping in skateshops around the world?
I think every brand should be putting out masterpieces focusing on style, skill, spots, soundtrack, motion graphics and all kinds of small details, not just simple promotional videos.
Well said. Thanks for your time, Shinpei and thanks for bringing us another truly inspiring piece of work!
Not exaggerating, this is one of the best nollie heels of all time. Hats off to Ryuhei Kitazume. Also, thank you, Shinpei Ueno, for your years in the field documenting the movement. Stoked to see the world caught up. You can now watch the full-length in its entirety. Here's to LENZ IV Photo: ISEKI
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