CHARLES LANCEPLAINE’S newest film, Ordos, shows skateboarders ripping up the streets and parks of an almost vacant Chinese city, putting into perspective the massive urban developments the government has built in the name of progress. He has been shooting on the skateboarding scene in China for the last few years, starting with his documentary of Shanghai’s rapidly changing skate culture in Shanghai 5. I caught up with Lanceplaine in Shanghai via Skype.
EW: How long have you been in Shanghai?
CL: It’s been five years now. Shanghai’s the most international city in mainland China. A big mix of cultures. Best city for a foreigner. Other cities like Beijing are very crowded, very polluted. Shanghai has a smaller downtown. Getting around is very convenient.
For a filmmaker, it’s great. Very visually interesting. They love neon here.
How has the skate scene evolved?
It started in the late ’80s when the Bones Brigade came to China. Then, Gleaming the Cube really got kids hooked. And it grew from there. Five years ago, brands started doing big events, and more and more kids started riding. It’s good to see brands putting money into events.
Because of the one-child policy here, kids only start riding after they graduate. It puts so much pressure on the kids here. Most of the really good skaters are high school dropouts. The ones getting paid. That’s starting to change slowly. In 20 more years, there are going to be a lot of skaters.
How has your filmmaking evolved?
I bought my first camera three years ago to make a documentary about skating. I didn’t know anything about editing or angles. I just went out with friends and filmed them. I had a job like Office Space. It was really horrible. I started making videos to get away from it on the weekends.
Did filming turn you into a skater, or did skating turn you into a filmmaker?
Skating turned me into a filmmaker.
It really clicked for me in 2008 before the Olympics. I had the wrong visa and the Chinese government really started cracking down. They went to our offices and started checking people. I got arrested for two days, interrogated. When I got back to the office, they said either I can stay in Shanghai and not have a job, or they can send me to Indonesia for three months.
So I went to Indonesia. I took my board. That’s when I really wished I had a camera to document all these beautiful places. When I got back to China, I got the camera. I started filming, and a year later, I released Shanghai 5.
How did the film do?
The first day it was released it became a Vimeo Staff Pick. Thank you Vimeo. If not for them, maybe I’d still be at an office job.
How much of your skate videos is about “place”?
I grew up watching skate videos. Everyone watches for the tricks, but I think there’s always a story going on behind that. That’s why I don’t like to use fish-eye lenses. I always try to set up the shot so you can see what’s going on behind it. There’s always such a story going on behind the shot.
There’s obviously a travel element, especially in Ordos — did you intend this to be a travel film?
None of us had been there before. We had no info, except it was a ghost town. No idea what to expect — not even sure we could stay in the city.
When we saw the place, it’s just so empty. You just get the travel feel. It’s so surreal. I wanted to make a mix of skating and empty streets. Just spent days cruising around the city and if we saw something, we’d stop. We didn’t really plan it.
Did you ever feel weird skating on all that pristine architecture, or was it just too awesome to care?
A little bit of both. At first we wondered if we were going to get in trouble. Just before we got there a reporter had been kicked out. She must have been digging a little too far into the wrong thing. One of the guys broke a tile right at the beginning, but we put it back together and no one seemed to notice.
All over China there is beautiful architecture, but they don’t take care of it well, so it doesn’t seem to matter if we skate on it.
What’s your next skate travel video location?
Might be another ghost town. I found another one and I would love to see it. It’s a very interesting feeling being in these places. It gets kind of creepy after a while, especially in China where the cities are very populated.
Do you think Ordos will become a skate destination?
It’s weird to see the reaction online. Kids are like, “Let’s move there. It’s a skate paradise!” But there’s nothing to do there. There are no restaurants or anything. There’s one night club. We tried to go but no one was there.
And it’s really cold in winter. We got there the first day of September and there was already icy rain. People don’t really move to Inner Mongolia — they’re sent there.
I see a lot of travel films about skateboarders going places they’ve never been before. What is it about skateboarding that seems to lend itself to travel film?
There’s an unspoken rule of skateboarding: You can’t go into a spot and do the same trick as someone else. You’re always on the hunt for something new.
You can skateboard anywhere. And anyplace you go, there’s already a skate culture. When you travel to a place and meet skateboarders, you always have a friend. Someone will show you around.
What kind of difficulties do you experience traveling to different parts of China, filming skate videos?
It’s super laid back here. Police are really chill. When you’re a journalist or have a journalist visa, you get a hard time, but if you’re filming skateboarding, they just watch. Sometimes you get some security guards that are afraid of losing their jobs.
In summertime, Shanghai is a really humid city. Cameras overheat. Usually I open the battery and card covers, but it never cools down. I’m using a Canon T2i, and it’s always blinking, but I just keep rolling and rolling and it never shuts down.
What precautions do you take when it comes to filming in the crowded urban environment?
In China, you have to yell at people. There’s a lot of crowd control. Chinese people don’t pay attention. We always have to go at the right time of the day.
There’s always a lot of construction workers. They’ll sit down next to you and try to look through your viewfinder. You’ll look up and have, like, five guys standing around you.