First and foremost, you have many a title: cinematographer, entrepreneur, alleged baby-eater and skater, you are what some may call, a jack-of-all-trades. What the people want to know is: who is the real Adam Johnson?
Well, if you ask my real close friends, the ones I’ve been around 15 plus years, they will all tell you I’m an asshole. You ask my mom and she will tell you I am the nicest kid in the world. Ask a random skater from the late ’90s and they will tell you I’m an alcoholic. Ask a new school grom and they probably won’t be able to tell you who I am because they don’t own “KFC3.” If you ask me though, I would tell you I am just a real-ass dude who tells it how it is…
What made you pick up your first camera?
I broke my elbow when my friend checked me hockey-style into the grass. Landed on it wrong and I dislocated and fractured it. The only way to get people to pick me up that summer to go session was to film.
When it comes to time to sit down and visualize a concept for your newest video project, do you have some sort of process that you go through? With that being said, where do you draw inspiration for your films?
The first four videos were all about sessions with friends and having fun, there was no conceptualization. “KFC1” rolled around and we started touring out on the west coast, and I moved down to college; this video really started getting me to think about editing artistically. This is right around the time that you started seeing these artsy style skate videos pop out. For “KFC2” I was touring the country alone in my Civic and I would just put on the “Dark Side of the Moon” and drive, listen to it four or five times in a row thinking of some crazy shit. One day me, Brandon Mateer, and Adrian Taylor took a few hours to shoot what I had going on in my head. Everything was first take and it turned out pretty funny. Thanksgiving night I sat down and wrote and recorded the monologue to justify the images over the course of six hours or so. Back then there was a lot of imagery in our videos, hidden things that only we knew about, or lyrics that sync up to certain parts that poke fun at people. I made “KFC3” from a hospital bed, “KFC4” was a tour video with up-and-commers and Mike Johnson, and Schrijn sold me his footage for that part right at the end. “Ego” sucked because we wanted to have everyone acting all cocky kind of doing their own thing — obviously it didn’t pan out — and we ended up shooting it all in hotel rooms, or I had to sub in for people. Turned into too much face time and didn’t work out like I planned, but I am too stubborn to abandon a production plan. Same thing could be said for “Member’s Only,” where I was literally story boarding it while in jail, and sending the papers and film instructions to the makeup people and Jeromy Morris. I had to edit that video one hour at a time, getting out on work release breaks from jail while I was attending my final year of college. “Icons” fell apart from the second tour on; some people just weren’t down because there wasn’t any money involved. The only thing keeping me from quitting was the promise I made to Don that if he worked with me we were going to make sure he turned pro. Finally, this is a lot to talk about, but with “On Top” Alex convinced me that the best thing is to just let the best rollerbladers in the world’s skating talk for itself. It turned into one of my favorite videos, and the only pre-production planning was where we were going to tour.
Inspirationally, I draw a lot of things from the artists around me: graffiti from Eric Johnson can be seen in “Icons,” the makeup design inspired me from halloween through Jose, the filters we used to use came from Jeromy Morris and Jeremy Rockwell and their constant pushing for a more artistic vision. In the early goings I was definitely influenced by Beau, Drew, Dave, and Joe obviously.
Did you get into filming/production/fashion because of skating? Basically, do you think you would own a clothing company if it weren’t a “rollerblading” clothing company? Do you think you would make films if there wasn’t rollerblading in them?
Nope, if it weren’t for skating I wouldn’t be doing this. I would probably own a McDonalds. The reason Alex and I own Vibralux is because I started Straight Jacket Distribution after “KFC2” and took the profits to buy in as half partner. When Dave left he had taught me enough to fumble my way into overseas production. Alex and I had to re-up the money for Vibralux, and all along the way we have hit snags and had to learn the hard way.
What is the hardest part about making a video?
Getting everyone on the same page about where you are going, getting equal effort from all parties, and ending with something that satisfies both parties. For them, they put their lives and bodies on the line and want to be represented in a way that makes them look tight and brings them joy. For me, there is the eight months of filming everyone (not everyone films at the same time usually) and the money invested. I need to protect my investment, so sometimes it gets hard when the budget starts getting blown.
When filming a section, what do you try to do differently each time? What is your favorite type of video to make?
Work with the skater to convey what they want. Alex is very particular about how his tricks turn out and what spots we skate. Same with Don, the Chrises, all of them. They want me to not mess up the filming, and we both want them to lace the trick well. Filming a section for me gets more and more expensive with each video. Obviously, I can’t go and film parts with these guys in Detroit, San Diego, Minneapolis, and Kansas City anymore, they are all destroyed. That means more plane tickets, hotels, rentals cars, etc. I really like tour videos and they are my favorite to make because they are exciting, but really costly, and in this economy we have to budget to survive.
What are your favorite video sections of all time, and favorite video sections that you’ve made?
Dustin Latimer — “Elements”
Brian Shima — “Uncloned”
Dominic Sagona/ Abdiel Colberg — “Concentration”
Vinnie Minton — “Elements”
Jeff Belzeski — “Smell the Glove”
Aaron Feinberg — “Words”
Jon Elliott — “Brain Fear Gone”
Jeromy Morris — “Espionage”
Frankie Morales — “FOR 2”
ALL of “Coup de Tat”
Can’t put any of my riders’ sections down because there would be too many. Those are the sections I idolized growing up. Favorite section I’ve made would be Vibralux from “KFC3” or Broskow “KFC1.”
What has cutting out the middleman and owning your own distribution firm done for you?
Enabled me to have a larger budget to shoot videos. We went from paying for them with my McDonalds/Real TV money to paying with profits.
Has the recession affected your business at all? What changes (if any) have you had to make to cope?
I don’t think it is necessarily the recession as much as it is kids feeling they are somehow entitled to things for free. I can’t explain how a video like “On Top” can only sell half of what “KFC3” did. Ways to cope: stop spending money making DVDs.
What does the term “skater-owned” mean to you?
Skater-owned means to me that the people running/ owning the company have been able to do tricks, can name 35 professional rollerbladers from the 90’s, know why Mike Budnick wasn’t cool, understand the struggle, and are here to hustle for their people. That is skater-owned. I would love it if Coca-Cola sponsored my next video though.
When it comes to picking a team, what are some of the things that you look for in a rider?
I look for people I like being around, period. I really can’t deal with bitch shit; we can be friends and I can sponsor you and those will be different things. It is a business and I run it like one. People question who we sponsor sometimes, and they need to understand that everyone who rides for us has a purpose and a place, but if you start flaking on me it won’t end well. Alex and I usually talk about Vibralux (I accidentally added a flow rider in Taiwan and he wasn’t too excited I didn’t ask him). I am really just into people who understand the situation of rollerblading as a job and are looking to push our ‘sport’ and not to make a quick $.
What input do the riders have on future products/advertisement concepts?
The lines of communication are always open. The Vibralux riders basically say what they want for their signature jeans and Morris makes them. With wheels we ask for colors, ideas, concepts, and then we bounce the graphics back to them for approval. Advertising-wise we come up with ideas and keep them rolling around until we settle on something funny.
How do you handle payment of your riders? (Monthly checks? Paid for video sections? Shared profits?)
The only thing that our riders get paid for is their pro product. Some companies do monthly paychecks, but then it isn’t fair if rider ‘A’ is getting paid the same as rider ‘B’ if they aren’t pulling the same weight. So what I chose to do is pay them for their persona; it is very tangible to know how many units someone moves and to pay them accordingly. This way rider ‘A’ and ‘B’ only have to worry about their own image and how they represent the company if they want to get paid. As far as paying for video parts, I started that trend and think it is important with an independent video for there to be compensation, but if it is a team video then you are just making sure you are doing your part to represent your company, yourself, and your pro products (skates, wheels, bearings, jeans, etc.), and if you aren’t pro the only way to get there is paying your dues and showing off in videos.
In your opinion, what does rollerblading as an industry lack? What are some things we can improve on?
As an industry I think there are several things that we lack, biggest of all is the ability to meet deadlines for product releases which messes everything up and we are ALL guilty of that. It doesn’t mean we aren’t doing our part, but sometimes we don’t get taken as seriously because our numbers aren’t the same volume as Levi’s, so we aren’t a high priority. We can improve on our image, just YouTube search rollerblading, and pretend you have never seen skating before, and tell me what you would think.
It seems many companies are satisfied simply reprinting a logo on a new color or new style of t-shirt; Vibralux is straying away from this trend not only by not just reprinting logos. The overall quality of materials and artwork used seems to be better than your opponents and you seem to have a wider array of products. What has allowed this to happen?
We are smart and don’t want to go out of business. There are 35 t-shirt companies and then there is Vibralux (in America) and Ucon (in Europe). The funny thing to me is the shops now are putting out higher quality garments then a lot of the other ‘clothing companies’ in rollerblading. AMall seriously shits on a lot of those t-shirt companies.
Let’s wrap this up with you spilling your guts about your other venture, Street Artist.
With this there is nothing to say other then our riders are Don Bambrick, Mike Johnson, Billy O’Neill, Sean Kelso, Colin Kelso, Rachard Johnson, Jacob Juul, Dan Ives, Brian Freeman, Edwin Wieringh, and Demitius Watson. You will be surprised by the things that will come out in the next few months as the year closes out; we got some pretty cool things planned for the kids and Don’s first pro wheels come out next week with NEW CORE DESIGN.
Thanks for your time and I just want to thank everyone who has helped to get me in a position where I can help out my close friends and try to make a difference in skating. Thanks for the skates Jon. You can follow site updates, product info, and reckless freedom of speech on my Twitter (it is your fault I got on Twitter ONEblademag.) User name: straightjackit. Also, check out the sites http://youhatetoloveit.com/ http://starurethane.com/ http://vimeo.com/kansas
Interview © 2009 Ben Karris
Photos © 2009 Adam Johnson & Co.