Over the last decade or so, there has been this constant flow of amazing new public and private skateparks popping up all around the world, and progressively that number has grown faster and faster with each year. It’s definitely a great thing for BMX riders out there that want more options to ride. Unfortunately there’s been a little bit of a disconnect in finding places to ride and getting an accurate idea of just what the park offers. There’s nothing worse than driving hours to ride a place that ends up being terrible or, worse yet, doesn’t allow bikes for some ridiculous reason that doesn’t make any sense or that it has been closed down entirely. Then there’s that problem thinking there’s nothing near you worth checking out, all to find out there’s been an amazing park just waiting for you to stumble across it that wasn’t all that far of a drive away.
We’ve seen a handful of websites and apps pop up over the years that pinpoint skateparks and definitely helped finding new places to check out, but that’s about all it offered. That’s what inspired Justen Soule to take his amazing talents behind the lens and blend it with that need for accurate information and high quality footage showing you just what there is to ride out there. That combination is what lead to Session Atlas! A new combination of video, photos and modern technology to give you a very detailed, accurate look at the best parks to ride around Canada! With the Youtube channel, website and App dropping in about two weeks, we figured it was time to catch up with Justen to find out just what Session Atlas is all about! Here’s what he said!
Alright, Justen! Let’s kick this off from the beginning. Around two years ago you started working on a new project called Session Atlas. What was it that got the idea running through your head?
This one has definitely been a few years in the making, I had been tinkering around with the concept for some time trying to figure out the best way to make it work. Logistically Canada is such a massive place to cover, so finding a way to make the pieces fall into place was crucial. The initial concept dawned on me a few back during a Red Bull project that involved Kriss Kyle travelling over to Canada and touring through some parks in the region. There’s a strange thing happening with park construction where small towns seem to be building better outdoor parks than the larger cities. So during that project I made it a point to take Kriss on a tour through some of the lesser known, yet incredible parks. When the video was released people were more blown away by some of the unknown parks, commenting and messaging, curious to know where they were located. I realized at that point that I should be capturing these parks and creating a way to help people find them. Since then the project went through a couple different variations. At first it was just going to be done through social media, then there was a YouTube channel, then a website and app, then it finally grew from covering just the province of Ontario into all of Canada.
Can you tell us what exactly Session Atlas is? I feel like there’s a lot more to this than what the trailers you released might expose.
The key element with Session Atlas is how a park is shown. Using drones, I’ve gone to every quality park in Canada, filming those setups to create a set of videos and photos that more accurately show a park’s layout and the park’s features. Sometimes a different park could have the perfect setup for a new trick, or maybe someone is just looking for something new to session, the goal is to help people find these places using visually accurate videos and photos. That media is captured via flying the drone through a park literally in the lines that people use. It gives a sense of spatial setup that a traditional photo never could. I’ve joked that it’s almost like virtually pro-walking a park without actually being there. Session Atlas lists the every single park with a feature drone video, photos, as well as list of other nearby parks. The site is purpose built to list and locate parks so that the user can plan a day trip around riding with friends.
I know there have been a handful of websites and apps dedicated to pinning skateparks and even some street spots over the years. What’s the biggest differences between Session Atlas and those other apps that have come along?
My issue with the existing skatepark lists and apps is purely the content. Most of the photo and video examples are poor quality, and are difficult to judge. Their intentions are noble to list the parks in a way that people can find and use, but there’s a definite gap in video and photo quality that can be improved upon. For example, it’s really difficult to tell how good a park is by looking at a Google satellite map, or couple cell phone photos shot from the side of the park. We all know those skatepark lists that use nothing but fisheye shots, which is a huge problem when you’re trying to judge the parks size and scale. As a professional videographer and drone operator I feel that it is an area that I can really lend my expertise towards and create something better.
The drone’s aerial perspective is an incredibly powerful tool. You can move the camera independent of the skatepark’s layout, completely untethered by gravity while flying over bowls, up stairs, and any direction to give a better sense of the park’s lines. I have actually found new lines and transfers at parks while watching back through the footage when editing, it’s incredibly helpful. So that’s Session Atlas in a nutshell: Each park has a featured aerial video flying through the park’s layout along with a photo gallery and description of the park, the park’s location, and a list of other nearby parks. The user can find a park that they like, then plan a day trip around that.
Do you plan on doing any bike parks or even indoor parks at any point?
All of the above. The vast majority of the list is concrete, but there are some wood, pre-fabricate setups and dirt parks. Basically if it’s fun enough to ride it’s on the list, so the construction of the park wasn’t necessarily the defining factor. Chilliwack, BC, or Richmond Green, Ontario are great examples of fun prefabricated parks. I have also been adding indoor parks as I work through the list, the idea being that you can use the list year round, as much of Canada is covered in snow and ice for a good portion of the year. Fortunately there are quite a few indoor parks popping up across Canada in the last 5 years so there’s plenty of options.
So Session Atlas is featuring skateparks only, or will you list street spots or dirt jumps?
Session Atlas only lists public outdoor and indoor parks. The last thing I want to do is blow up street spots and cause great locations to become a bust, so instead the focus is on skate and bike parks. Besides, that’s a huge part of the fun that is street, you have to hunt and work for the street spots. Session Atlas is a comprehensive list of skateparks, bike parks and indoor parks.
For the past two years you have been bouncing around Canada visiting all of these parks, right? Did you have any help with documenting these places or were you just crushing a lot of miles to get this done?
I have personally travelled to and shot every park in the list. Haha, it’s kind of insane to look back on, when I started this I never could have guessed that I’d cover all of Canada. That being said there are some absolutely incredible parks out there, and I’m hoping that this will help people find them.
Any idea how many miles you clocked throughout the past two years to get everything to the point where it was ready to launch?
That’s a tough one. I tried to tie in some of the parks with work projects as I travelled to shoot TV shows, but I did also make several trips to the West Coast and East Coast specifically to log parks for the list. It’s a very large area to cover, so it usually involved flying out to other provinces and staying for a week or two at a time to cover as many parks as possible.
So Session Atlas will be primarily focused on Canadian parks. Do you see there being a way for others outside of Canada to use it?
That’s the funny thing about Canada. Most of the major cities and population centres are located within a couple hours of the U.S. border, so this Canadian list could be used by Americans just as easily, especially for those living in the Northern States. Growing up we used to drive across the border to ride Indoor parks during the winter, the trip is an easy one to do. I also plan to start adding parks in the U.S. this year after the launch on a state by state basis.
There will be a Youtube channel with videos showing each of the parks launching soon. Is there a website and app to go along with Session Atlas? Can you tell us a little bit about what people will be able to find for info with each of the parks?
Yes, there is the YouTube channel, Website and mobile website versions. There is an app in the works as well that will mirror what the website does, however there has been a few logistical hurdles getting that into the Apple store. Which is funny because the Android play store was totally flexible and had no issues with the project, Apple always tends to be a little more difficult.
When is the official launch date of everything?
The Website, Mobile site, YouTube channel are all launching March 20th, 2018. The plan was to get everything live right as the snow melts, spring sets in and everyone is thinking about being outdoors. After the initial launch I hope to have the app ready shortly after that. In reality though the app and the website do exactly the same thing, so the experience will remain unchanged, the app simply makes it easier to access.
What kind of criteria did you have for each of the places you went to? I didn’t see much for pre-fab parks in the trailer video, so I would imagine some parks didn’t make the cut?
It was really just a question of the park being good, or fun enough to ride. If it’s worth making a special road trip, 2-3 hour drive to reach and ride, it’s on the list. The other varying factor was location and proximity to other parks. The are a few smaller plaza sized, skate-spot style parks that are on the list simply because they are within an hour or so of 15 other parks. Those smaller parks weren’t all that great on their own, but add the fact that you can ride a few of them and it can be a fun session. And the reverse is true, there are some incredibly large and fun parks located in small towns that are an hour drive from anything else. If the park is fun it’s on the list!
Are there still more parks in Canada you haven’t made it to that you want to get on the list?
Oh definitely, it’s kind of a never ending list. I’m at the stage that I’ve covered all of Canada’s major and well known parks, so now it’s just a case of adding some of the more remote options. For instance there’s one single park in Newfoundland. For those that aren’t as familiar with Canadian geography, Newfoundland is a remote island province located on the far eastern edge of Canada in the Atlantic. It’s a massively far trip for a single skatepark, but it will be done and it will be added to the list. As I add those more remote parks new ones are constantly being built, so there will always be more parks to shoot and add to the list.
Session Atlas is focused on Canada at the moment. Do you have any plans on expanding to other countries like the U.S, U.K, Australia or anything like that? Are you looking for contributors in the future to help you tackle more parks?
Growing this to cover as much as possible is the goal. I’m currently speaking with a couple contributors to begin capturing and listing Australian and U.S. based parks. The catch has been that we need to provide a lot of paperwork, including government licensing to use drones in order to get the filming/insurance permits and Apple requires for the apple store’s listing. So unfortunately we can’t use footage shot by just anyone with a drone, they have to be insured and licensed under their government’s regulations. If we just through the right hoops it can and will happen.
Based off the footage, it looks like you were putting your full arsenal of filming gear to use. What cameras and drones did you use while out collecting the footage?
Haha, I am a slave to the gear, and I take as much as possible while traveling… Probably too much. I used a mixture of DJI Inspire 1 and Inspire 2 drones, along with a DSLR to shoot the photo content. There were a few parks located immediately next to airports that I couldn’t legally use the drone, so for those I used an Osmo gimbal, or a Ronin Gimbal with an A7RII. There were times that I duct taped the Osmo to a stick and skated around to get a higher perspective. I got some funny looks from people driving by, but it worked, haha.
Out of all the parks you visited, which one would you say is your favorite? Any reason why?
That’s also a really tough one, there are so many incredibly good parks out there now that at least 10 popup as the possible best. I’d say in Ontario, as a more local park, my favourite would be Port Colborne which is located on a shipping canal and is shaped like a large cargo freighter. Hips for days in that thing, it’s too fun. But overall some of the legendary West Cost British Columbia parks are strong contenders as well.
I know you have been battling with your wrist for the past few years and it’s basically a robot at this point. Did you get the chance to ride many of these places you visited? Any that you didn’t get to ride that you really want to get back to?
Yeah, I’m thinking at this point that cutting that hand off and getting a sweet pirate hook could be a good option soon, that or just having the doctors install a zipper so I can do the tune up surgeries myself… The fun of a fused wrist. Whenever possible I took my bike with me and rode the parks. It’s really the best way to get a sense of how good a park is, with bumpy transitions and weird sticky ledges/rails being a possibility. There were times that it was pouring rain all day, or I was shooting a TV show somewhere that I couldn’t take the bike, but I rode as many of the parks as possible. At my last count I rode 178 of them.
Beyond Session Atlas, have you been working on any new projects that are BMX related? I feel like it has been a little while since we’ve seen a video produced by you?
The work in Television takes up a lot of the time in the warmer summer months, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a nice change of pace to work on large scale projects with harsh deadlines. It keeps you focused and your skill set razor sharp. Whenever I’ve had spare time over the last two years the rest has been focused entirely on Session Atlas. Travelling and shooting the parks was time consuming, and then the editing of the videos and photos, with hundreds to sort through took almost a year.
Alright, so let’s wrap this up! How can people keep up with Session Atlas and all the updates that will be coming as soon as it launches on the 20th?
The best way to stay up to date would be to follow the Instagram or YouTube channels which I’ve been keeping up to date with regular posts. The social channels are a great way to see new parks daily. Those would be @SessionAtlas or Session Atlas on YouTube.
You can also find Session Atlas on Facebook!
So there it is! Session Atlas is due to launch on March 20th and from there on you should be getting plenty of updates from around the world giving you a look at some of the most amazing parks there are to ride from Skateparks to Bike Parks!