Interview by Mark Noble
James Cox is flat-out one of the best filmers in the game – but don’t just take my word for it, he’s in possession of one of the few highly-coveted NORA Cups for Video Of The Year resting on a shelf at 4Down HQ to prove it, for his production work on the United video. Whether it’s his filming skills or production and editing techniques, James has it down – and has done so for a pretty long time; “I’ve been filming since I was about 17 years old, so over a decade ago now. I’ve been filming professionally since about 2008 after leaving my job as a Senior Creative at a graphic design agency to pursue a BMX videography career and never looked back. I started off freelance, and made videos for all sorts of different companies, but eventually I ended up on the United / 4Down payroll as their staff full-time filmer. On top of that, I now produce videos for Etnies Europe and undertake the odd personal project…” Whether it’s travelling worldwide for United, or 4Down, or for Etnies, James Cox has it well covered. We caught up with him between projects to figure out his FIRSTS.
First BMX bike you had:
Well, my first BMX was a Raleigh Burner, but my first decent one that I actually did tricks on was a chrome Haro Shredder. It was the deluxe one, which meant it was furnished with see-through grips and gyro cables, and it had metal pedals. I bought a Primo Steroid seat – that rock hard plastic one – a Peregrine stem that was styled like a bird’s head and some Xposure Groo-V bars and I was good to go! This was pretty much one of the only bikes I ever had that wasn’t an S&M. I went on to buy a black Dirt Bike the following year and never looked back.
First BMX Video you watched:
The first BMX video I ever watched was a VHS copy of A Tense Nervous Headache, which was made by Cheeky Monkey Productions and was incidentally their first video too. It made such a big impact on me, and really gave me an idea of what I should be trying to actually do on my bike. There obviously wasn’t access to the internet at that time, so as weird as it sounds, when I went riding around town I wouldn’t really know what I was supposed to be trying! Shortly after watching this I got my hands on S&M BMX Inferno, Dirty Deeds, Scum 1201, Standard Domination and Mad Matt. It’s crazy to think how heavily influenced I was by those videos, especially as far as music is concerned.
First BMX event / comp / show you went to:
As I grew up in Southsea, I went to all the King Of Concrete comps from about 1996 up until when I moved away. Sometimes I would choose to really stress myself out and enter B-group street, which always had like 150 riders in it. I don’t know why I bothered really, I used to get really sick with nerves beforehand and I never enjoyed riding in front of so many people. I don’t think I ever came in above 70th place… They did a smaller jam at Easter though which I actually managed to win one year, and for my efforts I received this absolutely disgusting frame, I remember it weighed as much as three frames and I’m pretty sure the top tube pierced both the head tube and the seat tube. Either way, it was a fucking stinker. I think it was called ‘The Creature.’ It was an absolute nightmare lugging it home, and even harder to sell. I literally couldn’t give it away so I donated it to my local bike shop instead. That was the last proper contest I ever entered.
First Video you watched and thought, ‘I’m doing this’:
I can’t really remember a specific video that made me want to make videos myself. At first it was more that I just wanted to document what my little crew and I were getting up to on our bikes. I used to take photographs before I started filming and something about the medium of video just seemed to appeal to me more. I remember how weird it was for all of us to first see footage of ourselves, it was a really strange feeling. None of us had ever seen ourselves riding on film before because nobody had ever had a video camera. It was like 1998 or something, so nobody had mobile phones with video on them or stills cameras that shot video or anything like that. Just that excitement that with all this footage I’d shot, I could put a Naked Raygun or Black Sabbath song over it and feel like I was making a proper video that me my friends and I could feature in was a really exciting thing at the time, and that was very motivating in itself.
Having said that, watching Stew Johnson, Dave Parrick, Mark Richards and Ells’s videos as I was growing up was something that definitely inspired me to keep at it and make better videos, and try and give people that feeling that I got when I watched a really good BMX video myself. I remember in particular that Bicycle Union’s Nails In The Coffin was a video that I really wanted to replicate the feel of – I just loved everything about it. I was really into the Union aesthetic in general, I still am. Nails In The Coffin was a real game-changer for me, and was ultimately one of the main inspirations for me to start making the RTRBTN videos.
First Pro BMXer you met:
Funnily enough, the first UK pro riders I met were Ian Morris, Dean Hearne, Boyley and The Fids! They had travelled down from Hastings to ride our jumps in Fareham. I remember everyone was freaking out, it was pretty amazing to have all these guys hand-delivered to our doorstep and watching them do their thing in person at the jumps we made… Unfortunately, soon after their visit, Dean had a magazine interview in Ride UK and one of their questions was along the lines of ‘What are the worst jumps you’ve ever visited?’ His answer was that it was our jumps, he’d actually hated them and he described the take offs to 50p pieces. We were gutted!
First camera you bought to shoot BMX:
The very first video camera I had was some Hi8 thing. I can’t even remember what make it was. Possibly a Sony? That was in the analogue double decker VHS editing days where no computer was required. I used that for years. After a couple of Hi8 Cameras I moved onto mini DV, so I was using the likes of the Canon XM1 and XM2, Sony VX1000, Panasonic DVX100 etc. I wish I’d have kept all my cameras, but I always had to sell them to get the next one I wanted. Nowadays I use two Panasonic HPX170s, which I love because of their similarity to the old DVX100s. I feel it keeps me connected to the video making I grew up on… I also own some crazy old 8mm cameras that I’ve been collecting up and a Sony TRV950 with a baby Century death lens that I use for BMX filming outside of work. I still take photos occasionally, and for that I have a small collection of Olympus Pen point-and-shoot half frame 35mm cameras.
First rider you photographed:
I used to film all my friends around Fareham, Southampton and Portsmouth, but I guess Farren Downes was probably the first person I filmed regularly and more seriously, as we grew up together in the same town. I learnt a lot whilst filming him, because he got really good really quick so I got to shoot him doing a lot of cool stuff. I guess filming Farren was the first time I felt pressure not to mess up whilst shooting scary stuff.
First trip you went on to photograph or film BMX:
Well when I was growing up, we always travelled around the country to ride different spots, trails and skatepark, and there would always be a camera there but I’d count those more as riding trips really as there was never really an agenda to get footage, nobody really cared either way. If there was anything to film we’d all just film each other. I suppose the first time I travelled with the sole purpose of getting footage, and with me as the one allocated filmer would have been when I started filming the RTRBTN videos in like 2001 or something like that, I can’t remember the exact year. We’d never really leave the country though, just go up North or something because we never had any cash.
First professional job for BMX photography or video:
My first professional shoot was for We The People for their Videorama series in 2007. I had to get a ferry to France and meet up with Luc Legrand in Brittany, then film him for a week for a short web edit. When I got to France and met up with him, I discovered he didn’t speak a lick of English, which made things a little tricky regarding communicating with him about exactly he wanted to do at each spot. We’d go drinking every night, and that guy can really drink. I’m pretty sure he was responsible for some of the worst hangovers I’d ever had at that point. It was weird getting absolutely hammered but not speaking a word – just being super drunk but sat there in silence, just doing hand signals and stuff to try to get across what you were thinking or whatever. The trip was amazing though, it was a really good time, and Luc was the perfect host. My favourite part of it was when after swigging this bottle of champagne, Luc gestured that he wanted to bump jump from a curb over this pretty high wire fence. I was almost 100% sure that there was no way this was going to end well, and I’ve still never seen anyone bump jump that high to this day, but being unable to articulate this in international sign language I just had to set up and let him get on with it. I used the resulting clip in the intro to the video, and it makes me laugh every time I see it… I’m lucky enough to still get to film Luc, as he rides for Etnies Europe, which is one of the brands I often film for. He’s a really cool guy and I love that I still get to shoot with him. Hopefully one day we can go back to that bump jump…
First mess up:
I can’t really remember the first time I made a massive blunder on the job. It was probably a double tap on the record button or something. I used to always have a habit of crashing when I was filming fisheye rolling along on my bike, like following someone down steps one handed whilst they went down handrails for example. It was like I’d get too excited and forget I was on a bike or something, just staring at the LCD screen of the camera. When I was a window cleaner I used to often just step backwards whilst I was at the top of the ladder to inspect the windows and fall all the way to the ground… I figure it must have been the same kind of brain malfunction in effect. I did it pretty bad on a job when I was filming Nathan on a Props Megatour shoot in Barcelona when he was just on United flow. He did a line ending with a tooth hanger down a pretty big set, and I just blew down the stairs behind him, camera goes all over the place and the clip was completely unusable. Thinking about it, that’s probably the first stand-out mistake I ever made on the job, I felt awful about it at the time.
When I first moved to shooting HD I made all sorts of errors, shooting in the wrong formats or shutter speeds, weird settings choices etc. Fortunately I’ve actually learnt to use my own equipment now… I still feel like I make loads of mistakes, but it’s more like little wobbles or mistimed zooms, stuff like that. Like other people might not think much of it, but it’ll really piss me off. I’ve tried to start to just let it go now as long as the rider is happy, rather than force them to put themselves on the line over and over again, I feel like it’s pretty disrespectful to do that as a filmer if it isn’t undeniably completely necessary. Like it’s easy to forget how these guys are doing dangerous shit for you, and you’ve got to weigh it up and ask if it’s really worth it to ask them get back up to the top again just so you can get that perfect shot. I try to combat it by setting up carefully, doing a few test runs, practising what I intend to do a couple of times and just communicating properly with the rider to try to make sure that we all ace it at the same time when it comes to actually shooting the clip. We all fuck up though, you’ve just got to get on with it I guess.
First video published / featured:
My first professionally duplicated video that people outside of my social group watched was one of my RTRBTN videos called The Secret. I had around 700 DVDs made if I remember correctly, and they were sold in the UK, Europe, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Before that, I had made a RTRBTN video called Time’s Up but that was on VHS and duplicated from home. I probably only made about 50 so I don’t really count it. That one was awful too… The Secret featured James Newrick, Farren Downes, Ricki Tribble, Cookie, Matt Williams, Mat Devine, Joe Bell, Mark Tanner and myself. Sometimes I see it on random DVD shelves at people’s houses when I’m away on trips, pretty weird… Since that one, I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in making ton of DVDs. I hope to get in a few more too, if I can.
To find out more about James Cox and his work, check out his website — JamesCoxVideo.com