Behind the French Fred – Fred Mortagne Interview
“Back then the main motivation for me to make videos was to help the locals find sponsors.”
Fred Mortagne’s altruistic beginnings led him on to film such skateboarding video classics as Menikmati, Bon Appétit and Sorry just to name a few. You gotta start somewhere and French Fred was lucky enough to start in Lyon’s famous Hôtel de Ville plaza. We spoke with Fred about his humble beginnings filming JB, moving to America to film for éS, Flip’s Sorry, heading back to Europe to work with Cliché, Leica, his favourite filmers, Element advocacy and everything in between.
Interview by Will Harmon
When was the first time you pointed a camera at a skateboarder? Was it a video camera or a film camera?
For sure it was a video camera. I think it was in 1992. I think the first time we did that… Well my parents were working for French TV and we could rent a camera, like a VHS camcorder. It was really big, but we could get it for the weekend. And that’s the first time I filmed… At Hôtel de Ville of course! It was right after it was built. Everyone just skated the skatepark before that. But once the plaza was open it marked the switch to skating HDV everyday.
And the city didn’t mind you guys skating there right away?
It was no problem, even though it was just built. And after a couple years some ledges were already broken, but then they just fixed them.
That’s amazing! So what skate videos did you grow up watching and in turn influenced you?
I was going to ABS skate shop to watch all the videos. They would give me access to the back office where I could watch all the new vids. They understood that I was super addicted to watching videos so they gave me special treatment so I could watch them. So I was hooked on watching videos and I made sure not to miss any of them. And at an early stage I was very sensitive to how the videos were filmed and edited. The way the music went with the skating was the main thing, but when everything was put together really well that’s when I really enjoyed it. That’s what made me want to do videos myself.
When your first videos came out (Fireworks, etc.) they were way ahead of their time. Were many people in the industry aware of what was going on? (Obviously this was years before the Hellaclips/Internet days). I actually saw Fireworks when I was a kid visiting in SF. Do you think a lot of people saw it?
Yeah I think JB brought it over there. But I think at first I really just made videos on a local scale. I mean back then the main motivation for me to make videos was to help the locals find sponsors. One day we met this guy, I can’t remember his name, but he was American and I think he worked for Transworld. I told him that there were a lot of good skaters here (in Lyon). Then I asked him: ‘What do I need to do to get them sponsored and make it happen?’ He told me to make videos and send them over. So this was the early motivation and at the same time 411 Video Magazine was beginning and someone explained to me what 411 was and how it was really long and with every type of skater in the video. So after a few issues they were making a ‘world report’ section and travelling to contests. So JB and Jeremie would go to the contests and I expected to see them in the 411, but they wouldn’t show them. They just showed the top pros. I was really disappointed and I thought they must have a place in those videos so we decided to film ourselves and send in the footage to 411VM.
The first videos I sent to 411VM they said were ‘really cool, but the quality of filming is not there’. But we kept in touch and it was good extra motivation and they told me that ‘it was really good and the skaters were really good so keep on going!’
So back then I believe 411VM was with Giant Distribution, which also housed New Deal. Is that how they first saw JB (Gillet)?
Yeah exactly. JB also met the New Deal guys at a skate camp in Bourges. So he basically had two ways of getting introduced to New Deal. Steve Douglas told me from the first Lyon video I sent him ‘wow! They are really good!’. Then I sent him Fireworks and that was it, they wanted JB on New Deal.
When did you realise you’d be able to do this for a living/what triggered your move to the States?
Well when I started to film I knew I was never going to be good enough in skating to do anything with skating. So when I started to make videos I realised I was one of the first ones to really do it in Europe and I thought: ‘I’m in the right spot right now. For the first time in my life I’m doing something that no one else is doing. So let’s do it 100%.’ And I was super-passionate about it and about skating so I fully went for it. For like five years I was just filming, but I was not making any money. I had support from my parents and the skate shop would help me make the videos. So I was just doing it and going to all the contests and trying to film with a lot of different people. And at that same time 411VM sent me a camera…
Oh really? Ok…
Yeah so I think that was the first time I was really paid to film. That was really cool. And then I finally met people from Etnies in Europe and I was introduced to Pierre Andre. From there he told me he wanted to make a video with the European team. It would be all the Soletech Euro guys because he wanted to push the European team. So we started to make a video but it never really happened. It was cancelled and all the footage went to 411VM. So then at the same time as that Pierre told me he wanted to make an éS video. So that’s kind of how it started.
So was it Pierre who approached you to do éS’ Menikmati? How was it decided that you would do that?
Well I knew they want to do it. And they wanted Mike Manzoori to do it, but at the time Mike was stuck in the UK with passport/visa problems for the US. So they were just waiting on this situation to be resolved so that Mike could do the video, but then I knew it was dragging in time like crazy. So at that same time I was sending them what I was filming and I did a trip with Etnies and then I told them: “Well if you are really stuck with the éS video then maybe I can do it you know?” I proposed that idea, but they were like: ‘No, we want to do it with Mike. His visa situation should be fixed soon and blah blah blah…’ I think they were not super-confident because I’d never made such a big video for a big company before. So that’s why I kept sending them stuff I had filmed and finally Don Brown called me back after like six months and he said: ‘Well Mike is still stuck in the UK with his visa problem and we are thinking about you making the Menikmati video.’ It was crazy! I was really happy.
So can you tell me a little bit about what it was like working on that project?
When I first went to the US it was kind of tricky because they wanted me to make the éS video and at the same time to make the Emerica video. I told them that we couldn’t make two videos like that in six months or something like that. So we talked about it and finally we decided to only focus on Menikmati. For me I knew it was such a great chance to work on such a big project so I was really giving it my best. And despite the pressure that was around making that video I was feeling pretty confident as I was super-focused, we had the best skaters and I was trying my best at filming. We were just trying to gather all the best ingredients. But for the most part I didn’t feel much pressure on my end, but of course there were stressful moments… For a long time Eric Koston didn’t have much stuff. But towards the end, in the last six months, we had to focus on him.
After Menikmati a lot of skateboarders have attributed to you the first to do the moving long lens/dolly shot. Is this something you always did or did the idea just come to you one day?
Yeah I came up with the idea when making Menikmati.
Yeah people call it the French Fred angle…
Yeah the Frangle! It was funny because I tried it many times on sessions with McCrank and Koston. It looked cool, but I knew I had to do it on really good tricks. So I decided to try it when Koston nollie heelflip noseslide down the Wilshire rail. We had been there before many, many times to try and do that trick and the day he did it I decided to film like this… He (Koston) was looking at me like I was a crazy person! Then he did it and he asked me if I missed it, but I told him to not worry and that I’d gotten it. Those shots worked really well.
But then before I had finished Menikmati, Transworld’s Modus Operandi came out. And in that Ty Evans had been doing the same thing and it came out before… I was like: “Ahhhh!” I was so bummed.
Modus came out before Menikmati? Gosh my memory is bad…
Yeah it did, a little bit before. I was like: ‘No way! He also did that!’. I don’t know how he got the idea or if we had the idea the same time who knows.
Yes But I think you still got the credit for it.
Yes I still got the credit. (Laughs) They never call it a ‘Ty angle’.
So what was the next step? Were you happy how people received it? Were people really hyped?
Oh yeah. When I saw Pierre Andre crying at the premiere I knew I’d done alright. But before that I was really nervous at the premiere. Everyone was super quiet, but I was expecting people to be screaming and whatnot at every trick and going mental. But it was not like this, so during the premiere I thought people didn’t like it. But it turns out that they were just in awe of the whole thing. It was overwhelming with all the tricks and so finally at the end of the premiere people were cheering.
But the response was really cool. And then I knew I had done this one important project that would propel my career.
And then after this you went straight to filming Sorry? Did the Flip guys approach you?
Well after Menikmati I was supposed to keep on working for Soletech, but then I had been filming a lot with Arto and Geoff Rowley was always coming with us at that time so I got to know Geoff pretty well. They had already started filming the Flip video with Dan Sturt, but then the project was just stuck and it was falling apart – so then they asked me to finish it. They said it was just supposed to be two or three months because I was supposed to be working for Soletech. But since I was filming Arto and Penny there was a link and it was ok. But then it took a year and a half to finish Sorry…
They never take just three months do they?
It was just a tactical thing for the Flip guys to tell me. “It’s gonna be very fast, don’t worry.” So then we made the Flip video, but then after that I never again worked for Soletech, because I was fed-up with America. I had had enough and I was missing Europe. I made the decision to go back to France without any real plan. But then luckily, at the same time, Cliché got rid of their filmer and they asked me to work for them. So it timed perfectly.
Arguably Bon Appétit is the video that really put Cliché on the map internationally… Can you tell us what it was like working with Cliché on it?
It was great to be home in Lyon and working with good skaters on a project that would go international. Plus it would help the brand. And they (Cliché) are from Lyon, it’s owned by Jeremie, who I’ve known a super-long time, so it made a lot of sense. It made more sense for me to do that rather than being in America. I really enjoyed working with Cliché. And generally I was very involved with making the videos, but a lot of the credit was given to me when some credit should have come to Jeremie. He had a lot of great ideas and he’s always super involved. For Bon Appétit we spent a lot of time talking about the concept and the ideas and all that stuff yeah.
Why are you no longer collaborating with Cliché? Do you think you’ll be filming for them or with any of the riders again in the future?
Well there was some trouble. There were some bad stories that happened at some point a few years ago. So we parted ways… In a bad way at first. It kind of sucked because we had been working together for such a long time. We had shared some very important stuff together. So that kind of sucked, but it was a build up of different reasons. And for a couple of years we didn’t talk to each other you know; it was that bad. But now it’s cool… We went beyond that stuff.
Has anyone of the many iconic people you’ve been shooting with been your most favourite? Or are there particular skaters you really enjoy working with?
For sure I like to work with Lucas (Puig) just because of everything and the result of how it looks in the videos. More recently I’ve been working a lot with Javier (Mendizabal) and it’s been really cool because we are on the same wavelength about life in general and we are really good friends. It’s really important to have a strong relationship that goes beyond the work we are doing together. Javier’s been my favourite lately for sure. And of course Arto (Saari) and Geoff Rowley, we still have a close relationship. I like to work with guys who know what they want and they have the personal motivation to do things. You don’t have to push them or take them by the hand. Filming with Geoff Rowley I really like it. He’s so passionate and motivated; he comes up with so many ideas of spots and he’s researching spots and he knows what he wants. It’s great to work with people like this who know what they want and they go for it 100%.
What are some of your personal favourite skate videos that have been released?
When I was a kid the videos that really moved me as a skateboarder were the Plan B videos and the H-Street videos. It was like taking drugs watching those videos – they would give you so much motivation. The first time you’d watch them and then after you’d go out and skate and be like: ‘rahhhh!’ with crazy power. And that’s one thing I’ve been keeping in my mind and trying to do when I make my videos. I want to hype people up to make them go out and skate you know. I want to bring them some extra motivation.
And I’m still into watching stuff. I like a lot of different projects from people. I’m into Greg Hunt’s stuff. I’ve always been a fan of Thomas Campbell’s work too. So now I’m really happy that he’s asked me to do some stuff with him. I really relate to what he does and we have a really good relationship together – it’s really complimentary.
Yes I really enjoyed watching Cuatro Sueños Pequeños. It was something that skateboarding needed I thought – a good change.
Yes it’s important to come up with new projects and different concepts. Even if they are not a success, you cannot think like this, you just have to do it if you think it’s good. And with a project like this, you know not all skaters are going to relate to this, they aren’t going to like it, but that’s not a reason to not do it. Such a project like this needs to exist, whatever the economics are around it. You know fuck it; you have to do it. Even if only 1000 skaters are going to like it…
Yes it’s a good thing. And now you’ve recently teamed up with Element and became one of their advocates. Can you tell us how this happened and what it involves?
Yeah, on top of their super strong team right now, Element are gathering a strong crew of talented advocates, to develop the visual communication of the brand. I am joining photographers Brian Gaberman and Jake Darwen who are already killing it hard… Ray Barbee who doesn’t need any introduction… and Thomas Campbell, who was involved in the process of making me join Element. Thomas and I are very close now, since I worked on his film Cuatro Sueños Pequeños. I helped him on a new independent film he is making. He will also published my first major photography book to come out next year. But the idea is also to work together for Element, on developing ideas for major video projects… So yeah, it’s pretty exciting, and a bunch has already happened. I was just in California in August and I shot pictures with the team and it was so damn productive.
Nice. Does filming and shooting photos of skateboarding feel the same or do you approach each one differently?
Yeah, they are surely different, and I do both because they are different, but at the same time they are complimentary. You cannot show the same thing with either one. Do you know what I mean?
But also I like to try and combine them together when it’s possible. Like when I made Hybridation, I wanted to make a video shot in a photographic way. It’s difficult to do the reverse of that, but I like to try and find different ways to combine them together. I’ve known for a long time that I’ll never be able to choose one or the other. I have to do both. And I’m always wondering based on my experience how come there’s ‘photographers’ and ‘filmers’ some of them were doing both sometimes…
I think more in the nineties there were… It seems hard to do both now. Not as many people do it.
Yeah, there’s more and more people do it but still not that much I feel, but there is more filmers doing photography than the other way around. It’s probably easier to start from video because video involves so many things from the editing and music and lots of different things. You are already working with images so it’s kinda easier to go to photography.
Yeah Guillaume Perimony is someone who comes to mind…
He’s starting to do both a lot now…
Ah ok, yeah. Yeah for me its sort of like natural to do both – it should be like that for everyone.
Yeah! (Laughs) And so composition and framing seem to be some of your strongest traits. Do you see this as lacking a bit with a lot of filmers and photographers out there in search of the most radical shot of a trick?
Yeah, no it’s not everyone who is thinking about this or trying to do something about it. For me, as I was already sensitive to how the videos were filmed before I was even into filming myself, it was natural that the filming was really important… Like for example the first New Deal videos the filming was really shitty…
But it was totally good videos, totally important videos like H-Street and Plan B videos where the filming was so professional you know and I was like ‘whoa!’ For me those were the really strong videos, and everything with these early videos I was watching I understood the importance of all the elements, the music, the filming, the skating… There’s not one thing that has to be more important almost you know? I think that one of the biggest mistakes I see in some of the videos I watch is the music. Sometimes you have everything else really good but the music is the wrong choice, according to me, and I’m like ‘ah it kills it all’ you know? It has the best filming and everything, but the full package is not pleasant to watch. Nowadays most people are really paying attention to composition and filming and everything, which is a good thing, and also the audience now is sensitive to that. People in the past weren’t able to tell if it was good or bad, they didn’t even care. Then after I started filming, I was re-watching some videos I watched when I was a kid and I realised that the filming was completely crappy you know?
Yeah I think when you get older you see it… When you’re a kid you’re just concerned about what tricks you see but when you’re older you want the full package. You want the nice filming, good music and the good tricks!
Yeah and probably the kids nowadays don’t really care either, but there’s this whole generation now that’s grown up, like two decades or even more with all theses videos and the progression of skating… So people are sensitive now, and sometimes if you make a bad video you will get critics… You’re gonna get shit for bad filming. It’s good that people are sensitive to it so you can move forward and propose to them more artistry, because there will be people open to that.
Yeah, that’s true. So do you find it hard to keep your work fresh? What’s your biggest muse? What inspires you these days?
Yeah I always try to keep it fresh. With videos I always try to come up with different things, and with photography I kind of keep it the same style to build up something stronger… But for video I would be bored to do the same style over and over again. And then there are so many videos and so many projects and so when you work for a company you want to do something outstanding – so you try to come up with new ideas and stuff, so it’s important to know what’s going on, to watch what other people are doing. And I also find it interesting to experience things outside of skateboarding to refresh your mind – so you don’t get stuck into a format of just skateboarding. Like when I was doing stuff in music it was refreshing, because I would bring some of my techniques from skateboarding to my music work and then I could take some fresh stuff from my music work back into skateboarding…
Yeah that’s interesting…
Yeah and inspiration can come from anywhere, so you just have to stay open minded and be open to any sources of inspiration, and just be ready to accept them. Even like the bad, sometimes if I go to an exhibition, like contemporary art, it’s really not easy for me to understand and even if I hate an exhibition it can give me some ideas… So you have to stay open at any time, because even in a negative situation you can get something positive from it.
And so this is kinda a weird question, but do you have any specific rules of things you do not like to film?
Ah when you started your question I was going to say ”for me, there’s no rules.”
Yeah, I know that some filmers and photographers won’t film competitions or even some of the VX guys won’t film guys with coloured wheels, I was just wondering if you had anything like that?
Nah, I don’t have like rules for myself, it’s just a feeling you know… I’m not interested in filming contests so I just don’t do it anymore, or there’s some other things I’m not going to do, but its not because I have rules … Yeah maybe there’s some projects or some skaters that I don’t want to work with, because I don’t feel like they’re going to be the right person for the project – it’s not a style that fits what I’m looking for… So no, I always say that ‘there’s no rules’ because if you have too many rules it limits you.
Because I want to explore, go there and do this and do that, and do lots of different things. But of course in the end there’s something that links them together, but yeah no, “fuck the rules!”
So looking at your photography associations with great classic photographers like Cartier-Bresson come up. What are your influences outside of skateboarding?
Yeah it can be anything; it can be from movies, photography books or even concerts. Music can be a big source of inspiration because a lot of projects, the ideas for them were sparked by music. And I like to edit to music. I would be sad if I couldn’t do it anymore. So the music can be a very good source of inspiration. Especially when I’m going to concerts: I like to go to concerts, you’re in a special mood, and sometimes kind of in a trance and being out of time, and out of reality. But yes, it can come from anywhere. I just try to stay curious in general.
And so, where do you see your work leading you in the future? What’s your dream project? Would it involve skating?
Yeah I’m still really happy to…. I’ve fully come back into skating, I was doing music and a little bit of other stuff on the side, but I’m still really happy to be working on skateboarding and I still have a lot of things to explore. I feel good when I’m skating and with skateboarders and travelling the world… I’m definitely going to keep experimenting and exploring. And also I would like to use my photography outside of skateboarding. I know I can do something with it, that it would fit other things… It’s not clear yet, I’m still trying to work it out but I would like to transpose my photography to some other things, not just shoot skateboarding. But yeah, skateboarding is still very important for sure. It’s still going to take most of my time, definitely.
Are you working on anything pretty cool at the moment, what do you have coming up in the near future?
Yeah one cool thing that’s happening is I’m getting this advocate deal for Leica.
That’s cool what does that involve? How did you hook that up?
It’s not really clear how its going to take shape or what’s going to happen but we’re going to do projects and stuff. And it happened through the Red Bull illume competition – the same people who were kind of doing the contest were consulting for Leica.
And were you shooting on a Leica for most of those photos?
Yeah. I’ve been doing it with a monochrome camera. I’ve had it for like two, or two and a half years so I’ve been shooting a lot with it.
I’ve been getting lots of good stuff and I’ve been saving stuff for them. It’ll get out there, so it’s really exciting to work with them and they’re sensitive to my work and skateboarding and it’s good because it’s going to reach more people other than skateboarding. So it’s good if non-skateboarding people can enjoy those pictures
Yeah and they can see skateboarding in a better way than on TV…
Yeah exactly, and it’s a really good combo because they can experience it and enjoy it, even if they never cared about skating. But yeah I’m really surprised how people are so touched by these pictures and they want to have them in their apartments. Plus they’ve never been skateboarding and I’m like ‘whoa that’s cool’ you know.
So I’m really happy about it. There’s one thing I’ve been trying to do with my work in general: I’ve been trying to make sure skateboarders like it and it’s fully legit within skateboarding, but that it’s also accessible to non-skateboarders. I’m always trying to keep that combo.
Yeah it’s a hard thing to do, but I think you’ve pulled it off so far…
Yeah so of course it works better with simple tricks! (Laughs)
I’ve never tried too much on the hand for hammers you know…
Yeah you did that before though.
Yeah, but I’m still trying to get some though… But also because I’m working on my book, my photography book, that Thomas Campbell is going to publish. So it’s really cool, and he was always telling me ‘ah yeah now you have five kickflips on flat ground’. (Laughs)
You know what, when you did those old Cliché commercials, we always thought it was some of the coolest stuff because it’s “yeah this guys doing a non-comply” but that’s what you do when you’re skating, and then you have a switch tre flip in there too… But it was really cool because it showed how people skate, but then in a really artistic way.
Yeah, I wanted to do that because then it’s not such a disconnect from that part of skating. No-complys are super cool, people like to do them and it can be good looking and it can be stylish so why not show it in a commercial? It’s part of actual skating you know. And if you only show really hard tricks then people can’t relate…
Yeah it gives it more personality; it gave those Cliché guys have more personality by you putting those clips together.
It pretty much came from a feeling… It was not something super conscious, it was just like ‘ah I like this, I like how all those things look and lets try to do some different kinds of commercials’ and yeah it was like a mix of different things. It was not something super conscious; it was a mix of experience and knowledge of skating and the fashion of skating and stuff like that. And it was risky in a way but at Cliché they were like ‘that’s super cool’ from the beginning and they were super into it. It was kind of a personal thing and you know maybe it’s not going to work for a company, but we took the risk and I think it worked
Yeah it did. So are there other filmers’ or photographers’ work that you’re particularly into?
Yeah you said Greg Hunt earlier but is there anyone else?
Well very early on I noticed the work of Russell Houghton. From the beginning I was like ‘ah there’s something good about this, something special’ already. And actually I was in touch with him because he was filming Joey Brezinski for his commercial for Cliché. It was specific stuff we were filming, so I to explain to him what I was looking for and stuff and the idea, and he came up with lots of ideas and stuff so that was cool. And I was like ‘ah’ he understood. And it was the same thing with Niki… Niki Waltl for the JB commercial he was really creative and he went beyond what I was asking. From my first introduction to Niki’s work I thought he was super good.
And he won videographer of the year, yeah!
Definitely, yeah. Yeah definitely those two guys, one from Europe one from America, Niki and Russell, and they’re progressing really fast, like much faster than I would have in the past you know. They’re the scary ones for me.
They’re going so fast and am like ‘fuck,’ I wasn’t that good at their age.
They’re putting pressure on me. (Laughs)
I think you’ll be just fine Fred. Thanks for the chat.