Interview: Mike McKinlay

Photo: Judah Oakes

Growing up, I knew Mike McKinlay as the skater that all of my friends looked up to. Mike and his brother Sam ran a local skate shop and had sections in videos next to Ryan Smith. Outside of the things we knew him for, Mike also had a passion for nature and documentary filmmaking which eventually became his chosen occupation.

Travis Collier has long been one of Canada’s most respected flatlanders. Before the recent wave of flatland and street intermingling, Travis was, for a long tome, one of the few world class flatlanders riding a normal looking bike and mixing the two. He has a unique and fluid style, and is well rounded within and outside of bmx.

Mike and Travis collaborated on a three part series of short films a couple of years ago that was both thoughtful and visually impressive. It was a unique circumstance where Mike had just enough distance from bmx to bring a fresh perspective, but enough exposure and appreciation to engage the subject and do it justice. Travis was able to tell a relatable story with subtlety and insight, and his riding is always a treat to watch.

SPOTS, the second film in the series, has been chosen to air on the Knowledge Network as part of a series called Take Me Home. The series that touches on what “home” means to different musicians, artists, and other celebrities that live in BC and will air regularly in prime time.

Take us through your background in filmmaking and in skateboarding.

I’ve been skateboarding for about 27 years now and filmmaking for about 15. Skateboarding has been a pretty huge part of my life and I wouldn’t really know where to begin on that one. My brother and I grew up skating together, brought up in the woods and skated a cement bowl that our dad built us. From there, we’ve basically just been a part of the skate scene ever since. Film making and skateboarding have actually rarely crossed paths for me. I never wanted to make skateboard videos and I was always more into making films that told stories. I actually originally started making films that were documentary driven, mostly based about the natural world. I’d wanted to make nature films since I was pretty young and when I finally got a taste of it at one point, it just felt right. From there, I was opened up into the documentary world and commercial world years later and since then I’ve worked for hundreds of different production companies working as a freelance cinematographer on feature docs, mini series, etc. You name it.

Can you give us an example of something you’ve worked on that Embassy readers may not have seen?

A film that people may not know about is a movie called Carts of Darkness. I worked on that with a filmmaker named Murray Siple, and it was produced by the National Film Board of Canada. It might actually relate quite well to this article because in many ways it’s a story about trying to understand the lives of people that are perhaps misunderstood or maybe not accepted in some circles. We followed the lives of homeless people and their experiences racing down hills in shopping carts. It was a heavy hearted glimpse into the lives of a handful of men who share different types of addictions (be it alcohol, etc.) yet still find freedom in racing down hills. Something we can all relate to, and it’s a touching piece in that it allows the audience to connect with the homeless in no other way I’ve ever seen.

What is your connection to BMX?

When I was around 12 or 13, I rode for a skate shop called Island Snow in Kelowna. They used to hook us up with doing demos for different events around the city. The events always had a bmx element, so I started growing up around a lot of bmxers, doing demos with them and just becoming almost a part of the bmx scene through it. Another huge part of that was that my brother used to bmx (and skate) a lot so I grew up skating around him and his friends. We were buddies with guys like Dom Mach and Simon Barry so I just grew up around it. It was part of my scene and bmx and skateboarding have always been connected heavily in my eyes.

There was a lot more crossover back then, was there not? I remember hearing that Jeff Ferner was a pretty good flatlander.

Yeah, I guess there was actually a lot of crossover back then. More so than compared to now for sure. Yes, Jeff Ferner was definitely from both worlds. He grew up around Dom and Simon actually and used to ride TONS. I believe he stopped riding bmx at one point just to skate, but then years later started to flatland again on the side for a while. I give him much props for choosing the two hardest sports in the world to be good at – BMX and skateboarding. He totally ruled at both.

How did this project come about?

Growing up around the bmx scene I’d always admired it as a sport and an art form more than any other sport actually. Specifically flatland bmx. It was something that stood out to me the most on an aesthetic level and it captivated me. The insane amount of dedication that it took to accomplish the tricks and the style that came along with it. I was always captivated by its difficulty, elusiveness, and isolation. I wanted to know more about it and I wanted to be a part of it somehow – showcase it for what it was in my eyes and try to tell it’s story in some way. I was quite surprised by the lack of production value that was happening in the bmx scene a few years back. It seemed like the videos coming out of bmx flatland were more orientated around just “documenting the trick”, rather then showcasing it in a more visual, powerful manner. When I met Travis Collier one day we instantly hit it off and wanted to work on something together that could portray something more than just the rattling off of tricks. The collaboration between the both of us was serendipitous and I’m very happy that we met and went forth with the series. I’d been sort of looking for somebody to work with on something like this and it was a perfect fit.

What type of reception did the series get within bmx? Did it reach a wider audience?

I feel like the reception was really good actually within the bmx scene. Again, I don’t think a lot of people had seen anything like it in the bmx world when we made the first one, so perhaps it was a refreshing change? Not sure. From the vibe that I get around the bike scene, I feel like bmxers are really proud of what they do, so maybe having their story told in a slightly different context that they could relate to was something that they could connect with and want to spread around.

I think it reached a wider audience as well. I get emails about the videos quite often still and it’s cool to hear from people who don’t ride at all saying how cool it was to get a glimpse into a world that they never knew. It’s frustrating for me to see the misunderstood look that people have on their face (who don’t bmx) when they watch the sport of flatland. They don’t appreciate it for how much goes into it, and Travis and I wanted to tell these little stories in the most interesting way that we could conjure up – both on a visual and narrative level. We barely scratched the surface of truly what it’s ALL about, but I hope that at least the videos can be watched by normal everyday people and they can appreciate it for its intricacies, creativity, and overall blood sweat and tears that go into riding.

Is there something that ties the three sections together, or a theme throughout?

Each short film is really quite different but they definitely share a lot of the same themes. The idea was to find three different approaches that could give the audience a glimpse into the world of flatland bmx – in as subtle way as possible. Themes such as isolation, geography, and the overall thought process that goes along with spending hours on end riding. These were definite themes. Travis is a well-rounded rider (beyond just flatland) and that was also a theme that we wanted to get across – that it’s just about riding your bike and pushing yourself creatively in any given environment. One of the themes that we DIDN’T want to get caught up in and that we were constantly aware of while shooting was this contrived false sense of ‘dedication’, sense of over confidence, and self promotion that goes along with perhaps some of the more commercial flatland videos being made right now. We never wanted them to be promotional videos, rather stories that gave the every day audience a glimpse into a sport that is often overlooked and rarely talked about. Finding ways of showing bmx in a less literal context perhaps.


TRAVIS COLLIER ‘RIDING AT NIGHT’ from Mike McKinlay on Vimeo.

The first section had the least amount of riding in it and was, I think, the most visually stunning. Knowing that this series is different than what most people are used to in bmx, was this an intentional lead in?

Not really actually. The riding was a secondary element to the entire series as a whole. We never wanted the videos to be about tricks for any of the three part series. Each video was veered towards capturing the feeling of being out there, and the thoughts that run through your head while riding your bike. Riding at Night was a glimpse into the world of the solo rider. The act of riding at night was an ideal circumstance for showcasing a sense of isolation and almost the romantic notion of being lost in your own mind, and perhaps even a sense of abandonment in some ways or escaping daily life.

How did you go about incorporating the natural city light into the piece?

It’s just about being very aware of what ‘city light’ there is in each shot, frame by frame. I was using obvious city backgrounds as practical light, but often mixing it with tungsten Fresnel artificial light sources to side light Travis minimally in order to keep it natural looking but make him pop. It’s easy to loose your subject when shooting at night so I tried my best to silhouette him wherever possible. Also using car headlights whenever possible – both from my car as well as waiting for timed out lighting from other cars driving around the city. A difficult part of the scenario was just finding the correct custom settings within my old HPX Panasonic camera to hold my blacks well and not get too drowned in them. Again though, just being aware of the natural city lighting and using it to frame both Travis and the city wherever possible. And at the same time using dark negative space in my favor wherever possible.


TRAVIS COLLIER ‘SPOTS’ from Mike McKinlay on Vimeo.

Where did the theme of “camaraderie” come from?

Much like Riding at Night, SPOTS followed some of the same themes of ‘the solo rider’ but at the same time we wanted to touch on perhaps some opposite ideas in many ways – which is a sense of ‘place’. A place to meet with other bmxers and share creative thoughts and ideas in an unexpected and under utilized location. The idea of taking an empty parking lot and utilizing it in ways that normal everyday people would never dream of. I think in a lot of ways SPOTS naturally developed itself into a piece that most people could relate to from a lot of different levels. Society, nature, etc.


ROOT from Mike McKinlay on Vimeo.

Would you say that aesthetics and music in this section were much darker than the other two? What drove the visual/audio themes in this section?

For ROOT, changing the aesthetic was, for me, more about experimenting with harder sounds, visuals. I wanted to play with more tension and try to showcase this tension through means of the visual and sound relationships. Supporting a visual tension with the help of drone music and creating a feeling of almost PULLING the viewer into Travis’ world with the use of nature imagery, vastness, rage, etc . We wanted to finish the series by attempting to tell the audience a bit more about Travis himself, in a subtle yet powerful manner. Travis is a special case in BMX because he clearly has a style that comes out of different aspects of ALL BMX. He rides a bike on flat that you could ride on street and that’s a distinct sign of a bmxer who is open to more then just flatland. We walked the fine line of ‘commercial’ in this piece, but I think it still tells a story of a well rounded rider who is inspired by many aspects within the bmx world. This was an important message that we wanted to convey for all of the videos and I think they each give people a good idea of what goes on in the workings of the minds of both Travis Collier and other riders like him.

I want to thank Travis for his collaboration, time, and openness to telling his story. I’m very proud of the work that we did on these.