The Curious Case of Kyle Cowling


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“…that’s how poor I was. I was sweating that I wouldn’t be able to afford Burger King.”

 

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Here’s an interview I’ve wanted to do for a while now: Kyle Cowling. This dude did a lot for a couple of high school kids living in bumfuck Indiana, paralyzed by daydreams of dirt bikes and movie making. My buddy Zach and I would geek out over Kyle’s videos every time he put something out on Vurbmoto, before we’d be jettisoned out of the house to make GoPro videos of ourselves riding the local spots, later pretending to be buried in the editing room like all of those guys.

Kyle’s somebody I’ve always admired for his unique style, one very much rooted in the rules of art and traditional filmmaking. He thinks in terms of composition, focus, and tone when creating his pieces, elements not frequently studied in the world of motocross. It was a style some fell in love with, and some felt the need to berate him over, which I find hard to understand. Motocross has certainly never been an epicenter for artistic praise, but come on. It’s like those people who crusade the YouTube comment section musing, “Mute this crap! Where’s the punk rock?” Where the hell are you at, pal? 1994 came and went, you’ve got barbecue sauce on your Monster hoodie that needs to be washed out.

Whatever, I’m getting all worked up over nothing. Kyle’s sick and is one of the best filmmakers motocross has had the pleasure of calling its own. Read or listen below and let me know what you think. Thanks!

Discussion includes: Hired and fired in the nine-to-five rigamarole, working the beat as a photographer for Transworld Motocross, navigating the mental stresses of creative fulfillment vs. not starving to death, exploring narrative filmmaking and its effect on the future of Spectrum, and being Tarah Gieger’s #1 fan…

 

Listen directly on these platforms:

anchor.fm / Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher

 

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World of Echo: You told me a little bit about your background before we spoke, and the only thing I can think Starbucks, Disney, and Target have in common is that they have nothing to do with motocross. Talk about that path a little, I’m curious.

Kyle Cowling: I grew up riding and racing dirt bikes my whole life, and I had the whole dream of going pro and racing supercross, the same dream every kid with a dirt bike has. I never did any of the big amateur nationals like Ponca or Loretta’s, though.

I’m going to be thirty-two in a week or so, meaning the time that I was really racing in the mid-nineties, the amateur scene was pretty big. You didn’t necessarily need to be traveling all over the country to race some of the best, because the scene was healthy enough in California that you could always find competition here, so I’d just race locally. A lot of GFI races, CMC, Cal-Trans, on and on. By 2005 I was racing 125 Intermediate, and at the time… can I cuss?

Yeah, go for it!

[laughs] Ok! At the time I was a pretty shitty intermediate rider. I was in a weird limbo where I couldn’t race 125 Novice without sandbagging, but being in the intermediate class was just too much for me. I was terrible. I had one really good race in the intermediate class at Perris back in the day where I got third, and I wanted to figure out how to keep that speed and go faster, but I just ended up crashing a bunch. I had just finished up high school, and the summer of 2005 was the last time I raced. I was done, I was over it. I knew if I kept racing I could potentially make it pro, but I knew I wasn’t going to be anything more than a gate-filler, so I just quit cold turkey. I haven’t raced since August 2005.

I ended up working for a limousine company owned by my friend in southern California answering phones and taking reservations at BEST-VIP Transportation. Shortly after that I got a job at Disneyland in October or November, but the thing about Disney was that I had basically grown up there. My friends and I would have season passes and just hang out there all of the time, we just loved going there. I got hired in to the Indiana Jones Adventure attraction and was cross trained on the Jungle Cruise, so I was the guy driving the boat and telling jokes on the Jungle Cruise, too. I spent a year and a half there as an eighteen or nineteen year old kid, and I joke that I was good at my job but I was a total dick to the guests… but some people were just so rude. I didn’t have the patience for it at all, getting paid eight bucks an hour to have families come up and say they’re going to kill you because their little kid can’t go on the ride. Multiple death threats, people kicking me, just the dumbest stuff. My line was that I was rude to the people who were rude to me, and I wasn’t afraid to dish it out.

I eventually quit, much to the excitement of my management team, and from there I went to Starbucks. I was fully checked out of motocross by this point, I was over that completely. I only lasted two weeks there, because I was fired for sleeping-in on the day I was tasked to open the store. I was fired for that, and when I signed my termination paperwork the manager included a clause that stated I have a lifetime ban from applying to work at any Starbucks in the world, so I wear that as a badge of honor!

From there I worked in an art store stocking shelves of acrylic paint before I got a job at Target in 2007, where I was a cashier. Throughout all of this I was into photography, because just before I got out of high school I had taken a photography class and fell in love with it. That was always my back-up plan outside of racing and real life, was that I was going to be a photographer for Transworld Motocross as a photojournalist.

When I began working at the art store and Target, I’d save up some money if an opportunity like that ever presented itself. Through my years of racing, I had gotten to know Ross Maeda, who owns Enzo suspension. He would do my suspension on 80’s all the way through big bikes, and Ross’ little brother is Donn, the editor-in-chief of Transworld. I met Donn when I was in high school and I’d tell him, “If you ever need someone to take out the trash or whatever, I’ll work for free!”

Anything to get an “in.”

He’d tell me he didn’t have anything, so I’d shoot races from the fences and send my photos to Donn or Garth Milan (who was the photo editor at the time for Transworld). I was always just hoping for something, and just before the Hangtown National in 2007, Donn finally approached me and offered a press pass to shoot the event. He told me, “We’ll get you credentials to shoot on the track, and if you shoot anything we like we’ll put it in the magazine and get you paid, but we can’t cover your travel.”

I had saved up enough money from those jobs to book a flight from southern California to northern California and travelled with a friend of mine to shoot the race. They ended up buying ten photos that got printed in the magazine! Some were little insets inside of stories, but others were half-page prints! I even had a photo of RC in the Scan section of that issue. This was 2007 mind you, so there wasn’t really anything in the way of social media yet, which meant being a published photographer was still a pretty big deal. I think I made $1,000 off of those photos and ended up going to Washougal later that year too, where I shot a photo of James Stewart being carted off the track after he blew his knee out. Transworld ran that as a full-page spread for their story on the nationals. I just kept pressing Donn to give me a chance on staff, and in December Garth and bunch of other people left Transworld to start a creative agency (The Medium Creative Group, MCG) and that’s when my door opened: January 1st, 2008.

Do you look at the years you spent in customer service as lost time, or were those experiences necessary to your career as a photographer? Meaning you might not have taken the opportunity to shoot for Transworld as serious if you got it right out of the gate.

Most definitely. I wouldn’t trade my path for anything, and those years working nine to five’s and dealing with crappy managers making no money, that was important to me later on. At the time it just sucked, but it made me persistent. It’s funny though, because that first job I got at Disney was the job I thought I was going to stay at for the rest of my life. Like I said earlier, Disney was very important to my friends and I growing up, we would hang there non-stop: ride rides, walk the park, look at girls, figure out how to talk to girls… we were very fortunate to have those passes. By the time I got hired there I thought that was the end-game, so by the time I got to Target I had become increasingly persistent with my passion for photography, because working there was miserable. I’m glad I had the experience I did because it’s made me appreciate the opportunities that I’ve gotten since leaving those jobs. That’s how you grow. If I would’ve gotten a job at Transworld right out of high school, I would’ve shit the bed. I’ve shit the bed a bunch of times anyway within the industry! I’ve been hired and fired, let go… I was even fired from Transworld.

Were you fired because of your obsession with Tarah Gieger? [laughs]

Oh man… I forgot about that! No… that was made out to be way more than it actually was. Donn is the type of person that, once he finds something about you, he’ll put all of his eggs into that basket and give you a hard time. He definitely went above and beyond a few times to bust my ass about the Gieger thing. He went as far as to buy me a bright pink / purple set of Answer gear with her last name on the back and my number. I think he was trying to embarrass me, but I actually wore that shit! I was pumped. I wore that gear for a while and there were a few times where people would be impressed by that “chick” out there, only to find out it was a dude in women’s gear the whole time.

Didn’t you get a life-sized poster as well?

I did! Donn got me a life-sized poster of her… it was weird. Whenever Donn would have a photo shoot with her, he’d send me a picture. Nothing creepy, just like a, “Hey, look who I’m here with!” type deal. I had never even met Tarah either, and I didn’t meet her until X Games 2008 when she won the women’s Super X event. I remember I met her there and I got a photo with her. She was super cool, but I’m pretty sure she was actually creeped out by me. I think I said, “Look, whatever Donn’s told you, it’s not true.”

Those photos you took of RC and James for Transworld were recently published in the second issue of Document. You wrote up an interesting story in there about how your co-workers at the art store weren’t impressed with your photos.

When I worked at the art store, every Sunday morning before we would open we’d have a staff meeting, and part of that staff meeting was for everyone to show off what type of work they might’ve been working on. I never had anything to show, because while I really enjoy art, I don’t paint, I don’t design… all I had was photography. I never had anything to show until I got that Carmichael photo published. I remember bringing the magazine in and being stoked. I thought it was pretty cool to be published and get a couple bucks for my photos, and they were all wildly uninterested. They didn’t say anything and it was super awkward and uncomfortable. They were a little pretentious to me thinking their shit didn’t stink, but here we all were, working at the same store making eight bucks an hour.

 

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Spread published in Jordan Hoover’s “Document” Magazine.

 

I found that story interesting because your work throughout the years has always had this artistic side to it. I feel like the moto world would think you’re pretentious. Not to say you actually are, but you’ve always brought a sense of artistry into your work that I don’t think some motoheads gel with.

I totally agree with that. I’ve been very aware that my style is pretty divisive, people either love it or they fucking hate it. They’ll say, “This is the stupidest shit I’ve seen. Why is he doing this?” And I’ve had that, but I get it. I guess with my background I just come from an artistic frame of mind, which is kind of silly to say because I don’t look at myself as some artsy dude by any means, I just do what I think looks cool and feels right. I’ve seen other people try to make stuff in a similar fashion, and it doesn’t come across as sincere or genuine. I try as hard as I can to have my stuff come across as sincere and genuine. I might not seem that way on social media sometimes, but it’s more frustration than anything. I’m in a weird place within the world of motocross filmmaking.

Motocross itself is a pretty niche market, and the work you make within that market is itself, niche. There’s an isolated group of people who will appreciate that work.

Even when I was in the process of getting hired by Transworld, I wanted to frame my interviews for articles a little differently. I was aware that I wanted to ask what other journalists weren’t asking. There’s an opportunity to ask unique questions and share unique stories, and I wanted to come in and offer a different perspective. I tried doing that at Transworld, but it was tough because you’re dealing with advertisers and people spending money on your magazine that pay the bills, so they want a specific type of interview and a specific set of questions. Any time you stray from that path you risk losing that money. Even some of the photos I took, I’d have to fight to get them in the magazine because it could be construed as too “out of box” for the advertisers. I dealt with that for a long, long time. That’s where the Spectrum series ended up coming from, from not wanting to deal with those rules, and people telling me what to do / how to do it.

You told me earlier that in 2012 you started to come into your own as a videographer, and I think a project that really encapsulates that time is the Chris Alldredge video, “Surrender.” I remember Wes [Williams] defending your work on that one in the comments, even.

I had been sitting on that idea for a while, I don’t necessarily know where that idea came from, but I knew that I wanted to do it. I think [it cultivated] in 2011, when I was working for RG3 Suspension in the media department. I was shooting photos, videos, running social media and Facebook pages, etc. I would go out on the weekends and ride though, and I had a spell where I was taking my riding more seriously and training with Sean Hamblin. I spent a good part of 2011 at the track with Hamblin working on my technique, because for me it was always about being as efficient as possible, not focused on pure speed. There were days where we’d just hang out though, because I’m a bit of a mental head case. We’d just sit and talk about my mental state, and during those times I’d see Chris Alldredge ride a lot and I was really captivated by his riding style, because he was really smooth and effortless on the bike. His style was very appealing to me and I began to think to myself, “Damn, it’d be cool to do a video with him!”

 

 

I was doing stuff for Vurb on the side during this time as well, before Wes brought me on as a staff member, so I eventually met Chris through Vurb. I pitched him on this idea and somehow he was super down for it. We spent about three months making that video, just on and off shooting. At one point I had a hard drive crash and I lost a days worth of footage, so that didn’t help. It was a such a process making that video. I was three months into it and I remember being at Ryan Walter’s house (where all of the Vurb crew did their editing for Road to Loretta’s), and Aran Eversman walked by and saw my screen with Chris’ footage and he said, “Oh man… when is that Chris Alldredge biopic gonna come out!?”

Everyone started laughing and I’m like “What’re you talking about?

He goes, “You’re making a Lifetime movie over there, is this thing ever going to come out?”

“Yeah man! It’s gonna come out, it’s just taking some time!”

I remember when he said that, it was funny but at the same time I was a little self-conscious about it because apparently I took a long time with this stuff, but there was a lot going on. When it finally did come out I was very happy with it, but the comment section was not pretty. It was bad. There were some nasty comments, but I thought it was cool! It was pretty out of the box for moto, and we need more of that stuff! That’s what I wanted to see, you know? So that’s what I made. I still like that video to this day, it’s one of my personal favorites. I was super naive and just did whatever I thought looked cool, and sometimes I feel like I need to go back to that sense of carelessness and let go of the rules a little bit. Stop stressing about where the light goes, etc.

The on-screen text in the video too, his name and the title, that was his handwriting. I had Chris write his autograph on pen and paper and I gave that to Clint [Wilkinson] and had him turn that into a .png file. It’s a little thing that no one knows, but I was super psyched on that. It’s the little things that can be so neat. But yeah, that video got a lot of hate.

 

“…my success at the time was based off of what other people thought of my work. Obviously, you shouldn’t base your success like that, but that’s how I thought. Every time my videos underperformed I thought I was done.”

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How do you process those comments today, as opposed to back then?

Well, now I just don’t look at comments. [laughs] I listen to a lot of Joe Rogan’s podcast, and he talks a lot about not paying attention to what other people do, and to not read those types of comments. I think that’s a good viewpoint to have, so I don’t really look at it anymore. At the time though, I was looking at those comments as, “Oh shit, these people don’t like what I’m doing. I might lose my job.” Because my success at the time was based off of what other people thought of my work. Obviously, you shouldn’t base your success like that, but that’s how I thought and it was nice when Wes and those guys would come in and defend my work. Every time my videos underperformed I thought I was done, but now I don’t bother with that.

When we spoke earlier you said you had an interest in speaking on the mental side of content creation. I thought an interesting stepping stone to that would be to talk about leaving MCG and starting your own company, Phantasos Media. How did you handle that transition from a mental standpoint?

My dream when I got into the motocross industry was to work at Transworld, but that dream included working with Garth Milan, someone who I looked up to. Even to this day, I don’t think there’s anyone in the moto world who can touch Garth behind the lens, period. Unfortunately, the only reason I got that opportunity with Transworld was because Garth and all of his crew left. Once I got out of Transworld and picked up a video camera the dream became to work for Garth at MCG. It wasn’t until October 2013 that I was hired as a full-time employee there with an office and a salary, before that I was just an independent contractor for them.

When I was doing that [contract stuff] I was not surviving, at all. I remember we went to go shoot at Mammoth Mountain and I was pretty pumped because I was going to make a good chunk of change, but I had negative money in my bank account. It was a four and a half hour trip and the whole drive there all I could think was, “Man… I hope they buy lunch, because if not I won’t have enough money to eat.” It was going to be really embarrassing to say that I couldn’t afford to eat with those guys. We ended up stopping at a Burger King and they covered me, but… that’s how poor I was. I was sweating that I wouldn’t be able to afford Burger King.

I did a couple of contract projects with those guys for Shoei and Seven MX before I got hired on full-time. I owe a lot to Cliff Talley, who was in the motocross industry for a long time as a filmmaker. He would bring me on jobs with MCG all of the time as a second camera operator or a production assistant and I would bust my ass to try to impress those guys. He helped me get that job and we were on a lot of shoots working for great companies like Seven and RedBull.

Unfortunately it got to a point where I wasn’t happy with the work I was doing. The job turned into something I thought it wasn’t going to be, which I don’t even know what I thought it was going to be in the first place [laughs]. It just got to a point where I wasn’t happy and the work was suffering. I would get pretty insecure when we’d hire out other video crews for bigger jobs, gigs for companies like American Suzuki and The National Guard. Both of those jobs we hired out different crews, and I was on site for those jobs, but I wasn’t the main guy.

 

“I could understand …that I didn’t have the experience of working on higher end productions with big budgets, but it still got to me, and I let it get to me so bad that I became incredibly insecure and began to question my own skillset.”

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I could understand where they were coming from though, from a business standpoint, I didn’t have that experience of working on higher end productions with big budgets so they weren’t sure how I would operate in those situations. It still got to me though, and I let it get to me so bad that I became incredibly insecure and began to question my own skillset. “Do I even know what I’m doing with a video camera? If I did, they wouldn’t be hiring out these other crews. What’s the point of me being on salary for these guys? These other crews are way better than me.” I would shut down and become pretty distant during those times, and I got in a rut that oddly enough paid me great money. I realized at that point that just because you’re getting great paychecks, it doesn’t mean you’ll be happy.

One day, one of Garth’s business partners and I sat down in a Starbucks and we talked for about an hour about where my head space was at, and unfortunately I just couldn’t communicate where I was at up there because part of me felt stupid for even feeling how I felt. We ended up getting to a point where I was pitching this guy the Spectrum series, and he didn’t like it. It was dismissed pretty quickly and I was told to come up with some other ideas they could use within the agency. I didn’t have anything else to offer though, so he started to get up and say that we needed to head back to the office to finish up some client work. I didn’t want to go back to the office yet and instead pitched him the idea that I’d go back to being a contractor for them again. I’d get hired per project and have the time to do these things that I really wanted to do. He wasn’t too keen on that and told me if that was the case, they’d just hire somebody else full-time. He asked me again to go back to the office, and I swear when I blinked my whole life flashed before my eyes.

“I’m not going back to the office.”

I got in my car after I told him that and had a few minutes to myself where I just cried. It was a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. I was so depressed at that place, so fucking depressed. I’d have days where I’d lock myself in the bathroom and cry, that’s where I was at. I was miserable and insecure with myself as a filmmaker. It was no way to live… There were days where I wouldn’t go into the office because I said I was sick, just to avoid doing the work.

One of the first people I called (after speaking with Cliff and my wife), was my current business partner Nick [Thiel]. We had been discussing this day for a few months and planning on doing something, and he was there for me when I quit, ready to do Phantasos and Spectrum. I had enough money saved up from working at MCG to survive, and Nick invested his money into all of the gear needed to shoot the first season of Spectrum. We assembled the cast and spent the next thirty days traveling across the country shooting it, with no idea what it was going to turn into and when it finally came out… it worked. This idea that I’ve had for two and a half years, it worked! All of the websites were wrong, all of the people who told me “no” were wrong, and this was working. Now here we are, three years later.

 

 

The hail mary! You just had to go for it.

Exactly. If it didn’t work, I was done, that was it. I was going to wash my hands of everything and move on with my life. It was the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and we needed a grand slam to win the world series. That’s where I was at, and we hit that grand slam with the first and second season of Spectrum. It was satisfying to have it happen the way it did, after so many people had told me it wouldn’t work and that they thought nobody would be interested in that type of content.

Turns out, people want that content!

We definitely created a monster, though. I shoot, direct, edit, and color all of our episodes, while simultaneously managing our composers and graphics people. It’s a lot of work.

I think that’s the only way to get that fulfillment though, by doing all of that work yourself and playing all of those roles.

Nick handles budgeting, accounting, the business, and legal side of it all and that really takes a good load off of my back, but I still worry a lot about the creative process. I’m trying to get better at it, but I have a tendency to get in my own way and second guess myself.

 

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Kyle and Jimmy Decotis deliberate during Season 2 of Spectrum. Photo: Dagsom.

 

How critical has it been having a support group to help you through your departure from MCG and the last few seasons of Spectrum? Does it help you get out of your own head a bit?

My wife and I, we actually just got married back in October, but we dated for twelve years prior to that so she’s been through it all with me. We’re total opposites, she’s incredibly book smart; went to Long Beach State University and graduated with a degree in biochemistry. In contrast, I didn’t go to college and had no interest in the educational system. We’re a good balance though, we’ve had our ups and downs where we fight and make up, but she’s always been by my side. When I quit MCG, she was super supportive of the whole thing and let me do what I needed to do.

She’s been with me throughout Spectrum’s run as well, and what you have to understand about Spectrum is that, that’s a world that I lived in every second I wasn’t doing client work. It took a lot out of me, the first season especially, with some of the backlash we caught from companies involved and outsiders looking in. I’ve run her through the gamut, but she’s held strong and been insanely supportive.

In the film world you’re an independent contractor, and when work slows down you don’t know when that next paycheck is coming. Those times can get pretty scary and oftentimes it feels like the end of your career, but she always reassures me whenever it gets bleak.

Every year you go through this!” She’ll say.

“Whenever you think it’s the end, something will come through.”

And she’s right.

When you’re in the valley looking for those peaks though, it’s hard not to look around and think this is where you might die. It’s been so nice to have her by my side and put up with my shit. I’m pretty tough on myself, and she keeps me together.

I don’t really have a ton of friends either, but I have a tight group of people I keep close by. I always joke with my business part Nick that he’s not only a business partner, but a full-time therapist. I’ll call him in a good mood, or I might say the world is crashing down around us, either way he always picks up! He utilizes his business mentality to calm me down. I get too personal at times and Nick’s there to remind me it’s just business.

Jake Weimer is another guy who I’ve become really close with, him and his wife Nicole. We’ve done a number of projects together, including an episode of Spectrum in 2016. We got really close after that. We have similar personalities where we’re pretty reserved, so we have that in common. Their group of friends and our group of friends have become super tight over the years, and it’s created a really close group where I can lean on them and depend on them. I can call up Jake to go out for a drink and just talk about stuff I need to get off my chest, and having a tight knit group of people I can do that with is detrimental. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know… I’d lose my mind! I don’t need a lot of friends, I just need a few good humans who will give a shit and have your back, no matter what. Between my wife, Nick, Jake, and Nicole, I’m very fortunate.

 

 

I should know this, but are you still in the third season of Spectrum right now?

I’m still in it, yeah. I didn’t want to do a third season, actually. I had no desire. I couldn’t do eight more of these episodes because I didn’t have it in me. The only way I could do it is if I switched it up and did other things outside of motocross, because in all seriousness I would like to move on from that world.

You’ve been talking about that for a while, doing more traditional filmmaking. Narrative stuff.

Exactly. I wanted to do a couple of moto related episodes, but add in stuff like the police episode, the baseball episode, the punk rock episode… the punk rock episode I actually started shooting the day after I left MCG. That turned into a four-year project, just because of scheduling and other things coming up. That’s something that I’ve learned in this business, this stuff takes way longer than you want because everyone’s lives have to align for it to work. Some of the subjects are pretty difficult and people need time to be able to talk about them, and you have to sit on your hands and be ready for that person when they are.

As far as Spectrum though, the third season was going fine until we released the police episode, which didn’t really get any traction on social media. We rely heavily on social media to get people to watch our stuff, and that episode wasn’t doing anything for us. It was after that episode that we actually got approached to get Spectrum on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Voodoo, etc. But the catch is the distribution agency is only interested in action sports content, meaning we’d have to ditch the police, punk, and baseball episodes, starting all over again.

 

“…I’m doing what I said I didn’t want to do, but I’m in the right head space now to do it and do it right.”

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This is actually what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep those non-action sports episodes available on Vimeo OnDemand, but we’re going to re-release the third season and make them all moto-related to get on these bigger platforms, and if they do well, the distributor will pick up seasons one and two as well, which is the goal. Vimeo only reaches so many people, and I feel like that platform isn’t as strong as it once was. That’s where we’re at now, and I’m doing what I said I didn’t want to do, but I’m in the right head space now to do it and do it right. Hopefully it’ll allow me to branch out and get me doing new stuff.

Speaking of new stuff, I actually haven’t told anybody this, but back in August I landed a Director of Photography gig on my first feature-length film.

 

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Nice!

Nobody really knows it yet, but I’ve always wanted to shoot a feature-length film, and I convinced these directors to hire me, and it worked out! [laughs] I’ll have my first narrative film under my belt, it should come out in the spring.

Did that project have a big influence on you coming into 2019 with plans to re-shoot Spectrum? How did you get there and what kind of effect did it have on your head space?

For a long time I’ve wanted to get into the narrative side of filmmaking, like you said, but it just never happened. I was always so caught up in the motocross world and my client work that I couldn’t get out of it. With Spectrum’s original third season including narrative driven episodes outside of moto, I needed to get experience outside of my wheelhouse. I needed to figure out the narrative world.

In January of 2018 I was on productionhub.com to see if I could find anything, and there was a posting for a Director of Photography position, a feature-length comedy shot in Los Angeles. After I read the story synopsis and details about the shoot, I kept on searching for other projects to apply for, but I kept coming back to this one with the same thought:

“If this is what you want to do, you’re not going to get it by not reaching out, so man up and see what happens!”

I sent an email explaining my background along with some examples of what I do, including my effort get some narrative work under my belt. We ended up going back and forth for awhile over email until I met the directors for lunch in April. We spoke about where I was at in my career and what my creative passions were, and we hit it off. I was super open to those guys, because I understood where I was coming at them from. I have no narrative experience whatsoever… I’ve never even done a feature film! So, to come in and ask to be the DP for a feature-length project was a bit of a stretch.

While I was doing some work for Honda at the Las Vegas SX in May, I got an email saying that I had gotten the job, and production was set to start August 18th!

It was a relief because over the last year or so I’ve been in a creative rut, going through the motions, and not really pushing myself as a filmmaker. For me, this project was a way to reset and do something super scary that I needed to push myself to complete, and it was scary – it was super fucking scary. I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve never worked with directors, gaffers, audio guys, a crew where you have to slate every shot. I’ve never done any of that.

 

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Movie magic. Photo (here and above left): Danny Galvez

 

The motocross industry has done a lot for me and my career, and I don’t want it to be misconstrued as me being ungrateful, but there is only so much you can do in that industry. When you want to get into narrative stuff or more high-end work, the moto world isn’t going give you that. You’ll get a lot of experience behind the camera and develop a solid base for “run-and-gun” shooting techniques, but that’s it. When you come to work with directors, lighting crew, sound guys, actors, etc. you’re not going to bring the tools you bring to shoot a motocross video, so I was really starting from scratch and coming at this project with an open mind. It was something I needed to do to prove to myself that I was capable of doing something outside of two-wheeled sports, and more importantly, to make sure it was something I actually wanted to do. I’ve said for years that I’ve wanted to shoot films and narrative work, but I haven’t done it, so I better make sure that’s what I want to do! It was refreshing though, the amount of stuff I learned in shooting our one-hundred page script. We shot it in sixteen days to boot, which was not small task. I learned more about traditional filmmaking in those sixteen days, than I have in the past nine years working in the moto industry.

Taking all of what I learned and applying it to the re-launch of Spectrum’s third season has been fulfilling, because I feel like I can create an even better production, improving on all of the previous episodes’ visual and story elements. It’s given me confidence to go into the third season without second guessing myself. I know what time of day we’ll need to shoot certain things, I know what questions I’ll have to ask, and I can become more effective in how I work behind the camera. Having that feature under my belt has been huge for me. It’s given me hope for the future because that’s the direction I hope to take Phantasos, and now that I’ve proved I can do what I’ve always said I wanted to, I have the confidence to revisit old series and tackle new projects. There’s no second guessing myself anymore, the only thing left to ponder is what our next goals are, and go kick some ass.

. . .

The current iteration of Spectrum’s third season is available on Vimeo OnDemand. Be on the lookout for more to come on Kyle’s Instagram: @kylecowling!

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