Ever since I can remember, I have always walked to a slightly different beat than most. In school, I was placed in special ed classes because I didn’t know how to read or write. I had incredibly slow comprehension and mechanical skills, and an inability to think critically. From 1st grade all the way to my senior year of high school, I lived in these special ed classrooms. Or, as we more crassly called it in high school, “The Dummy Hall.” These are all issues that, on some levels, I still struggle with today and that have had a tendency to hinder me in ways within my professional career behind the motion camera. Basically, under certain circumstances, my brain is very slow.
In school, I was never into team sports. They didn’t interest me and here is a prime example why: I was in third grade the last time I “played” football (for some context, I am 34 years old next month yet I look like I am 22). I got the football and scored a touchdown. However, blissfully unaware, I ran into the end zone for the opposing team, scoring them a touchdown. Growing up with a single mom, I didn’t know how football worked and nobody told me I had to run in the opposite direction. I was yelled at by the kids on my team and immediately told I couldn’t play anymore. I had friends, but at times I was also a little bit a loner. Around 2nd or 3rd grade is when I started riding dirtbikes and got heavily into BMX. But I was a small kid compared to my peers. Anytime I tried explaining to them that I raced dirtbikes, they thought I was a liar. “You are way too small and way too wimpy to ride a motorcycle” they’d tell me. I’d unknowingly strike a Jim Halpert look-to-camera type of expression, shrug, and say, “Okay.” I never argued it.
As the years moved forward, I would slowly realize I wasn’t much like my peers. My peers were into football, baseball, basketball, and all wearing the same style of clothes. Me? I was into BMX, motocross, specific years of history (1930s and 1950s), drawing, sketching, punk rock music, and wearing the brightest colored Dickies I could find. In middle school, I was notoriously known for being the kid in the bright red, orange, yellow, blue, or green Dickies pants complimented by brightly colored belts and shirts. Basically, I spent most of middle school walking around like a fucking multi-colored neon highlighter that dropped some acid and was on a deep psychedelic trip for roughly three years. I was proud of this, though. It was, for me, that punk rock attitude of being comfortable with oneself because I knew I didn’t look like the rest of them. I was an individual and I didn’t want to conform.
The irony to this is that I didn’t even necessarily fit into what motocross racers looked like. By the time I was racing big bikes (125 novice and 125 intermediate) I had moved through my so-called punk rock stage, and I was deep into my emo phase. Circa 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, skinny jeans for dudes didn’t exist. At all. Seriously. So, I would have to go to the local thrift store and buy girl pants to achieve the “emo” look I was after. Laugh you should, but back then, anybody that was in this emo phase of their life was doing the same thing. I went from neon bright red Dickies to girl pants, Vans slip ons, messy hair, and pea coats. You know, because girls break your heart and I was a sensitive kid that liked to write short stories, poetry, and pretend my friends and I had a Blink 182 cover band (you should’ve heard us shred in the car while the songs played through the car speakers). Anyway, I digress. Dressing like the idiot I was back then and showing up to the dirt bike track in said girl pants, pea coats and, if it was cold, a scarf (HAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHA), further emphasized I was walking to the beat of my own drum. But I knew how to ride my dirt bike and I knew how to ride it damn well. While I was no Dennis Rodman, I knew I was out of the box amongst my dirt bike peers yet handled my business on the track with confidence.
Most of you will be relieved to know that companies have since started making skinny jeans for guys and I no longer wear girl pants. I also do not wear pea coats or scarves anymore. But men’s skinny jeans and the Vans slip ons are forever a staple for me, along with some sort of beanie or “artistic” five panel hat as Wesley Williams calls it. Anyhow, what I’ve come to realize as I now hit my mid-30s is that even today within my chosen career path, I am still walking to a slightly different beat then most. And, I am still ridiculed by some of my peers for being who I am today and creating the style of work that I create. What I’m about to say is not meant to sound or be braggadocios whatsoever. It’s simply my perception on the world of moto videos: if you look at my body of work, a majority of it is not anywhere in the vein of what we see on Instagram or the few remaining motocross websites around in 2020. It’s seems the majority of work is simply a matter of consumption. No matter how it looks, we don’t care, we just have the feed the belly of the beast and get “content” out there. That is, for the most part, the typical standard set in motocross media and video creation. If you don’t have your video up before everybody else, you’re last. Even if it’s under exposed and out of focus, you’re still a winner if it’s up before the other competitors get their video posted. Ahh, yes, the classic Ricky Bobby logic. Or, one of my favorites: here is $1,000 for pre-production, production, and post-production. This is suppose to cover you, your crew, and expenses. Now, go make a TV commercial for us and we want it to look like the $500,000 Nike ad, or $1.1 million dollar Apple spot but for $1,000. Oh, and you have one hour to shoot it because the rider doesn’t want to do it to begin with.
The reality is, nobody within moto is creating a piece of film like we did with No Runners ft Trevor Stewart. They are not thinking outside of moto and submitting their film to a film festival. They aren’t subscribed to American Cinematographer and reading every word on every page from ASC level DPs. Very few understand the 180 rule (no, I am not talking about 180 degree shutter), very few understand or care why lens choice matters or what that focus breathing looks like when you rack or what it means to move or not move the camera, color theory, measuring light by foot candles. I’ve said this before, but a lot of what I make is more so in the cinematic style and, for whatever the reason, my filmmaking peers in this niche market of moto typically look at me as their punching bag.
I’m the “artsy” guy trying to make pieces more unique and less about slow motion, rap music, and terribly white balanced images. I’m the guy that has interest in wanting to move my filmmaking career outside of motocross and become a high-level Director of Photography making real movies. This industry, it can and will shun you for having desires outside of these walls. And it can and will shun you for thinking outside of the box. Minus vurbmoto, every media outlet has either told me to my face, via e-mail, or told others that what I do is too much (meaning too over the top) and people don’t want to see it. I have literally been told that I SHOULD CARE LESS. My thoughts have always been that almost everybody else is doing exactly the same thing. So much so that if you put 10 different Instagram “bangers” in front of me and asked, “Hey, who shot this?” I would have no idea because they all look identical. So, why do I need to be number 11 out of 10? So that I am liked and not made fun of? We need to be encouraging the next generation of moto filmmakers to be thinking differently with their creative approach. As the line in No Runners goes, “I don’t want to be one of many, I want to be one of one.” Thankfully, Wes, Chase, and Brent birthed vurbmoto, which has been a place to foster the belief in unique motocross films and supporting the artist and their individualistic perceptions of our sport. Unequivocally, vurbmoto is responsible for so much of my growth behind the camera.
I want to specify that the last paragraph is not written in anger. In fact, I realize that a lot of people behind the camera within moto are more than content doing what they are doing. And, honestly, I am jealous of that. I wish I had that in me to simply be content. For me, it’s always about what’s next and how I can be better. I don’t watch anything moto related unless it’s directly sent to me, so I am fairly out of the loop on who is who and what is what to begin with. Instead, I study and base my ability off real, high level cinematographers. It keeps me grounded and aware of how I little I know and how far I have to go. I used to think about my goals and ambitions, but I never necessarily acted on it to its fullest extent. I was scared and never felt like I could amount to any of my ideas and dreams, which are, as mentioned, making movies.
However, over the last few years I’ve realized that I need to have these dreams and goals and I need to start going after them and to continue walking to the beat of my own drum. Even if I fail, who gives a shit? I should never be satisfied, I should stay hungry, and set the highest standards and goals for myself behind the motion camera; and let’s see how far I can get. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I have written out goals for myself. The highest goal? It’s not one I speak of openly because it’s a bit of an eye roll. But, one day, I want to have the initials, A.S.C. after my last name (American Society of Cinematographers) Kyle Cowling, ASC. That right there is my highest goal. Will I ever achieve this objective of being selected a part of an incredibly exclusive group of cinematographers such as Roger Deakins, ASC, Lawrence Sher, ASC, Lance Accord, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC, and others? The old version of me would say no, don’t waste your time. But, nowadays, I am working on the concept of, “Why not me?” Yes, I have years and years of work ahead of myself, successes, failures, and a shit ton of learning to endure before that goal ever meets a potential reality. But, why not go for gold?
This installment of Frame of Mind, I hope, shares a bit of my progression of how I’ve always been a tad bit off the main line throughout life. I have no intentions of stopping that. It’s ironic that, in 2020, we are constantly told to be kind, tolerant, and inclusive of everybody who is different than you, yet we appear to be doing the exact opposite. At least, from my view, that’s how it looks. And sometimes I feel like the individual was more respected and honored for staying true to himself pre-social media then they are today. To quote the late John F. Kennedy: “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as [Robert] Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role.”
During production of No Runners, Trevor Stewart told me, “Man, you’re a pretty polarizing figure in this moto video world. People either really love you, or they really hate you.” That makes me laugh and think about that quote from JFK. And, as I write this installment of FoM, I am preparing for a pre-production meeting on an upcoming scripted narrative sci-fi drama, continuing to hurl myself into the deep end in order to learn, grow, and do shit that is uncomfortable and scary for me, yet exactly where I need to be and want to be.
We look at a guy like Jason Lawrence and, while we regard him as a massive talent, we also criticize him for his extra-curricular actives, being a waste of talent, and what could have been. We, instead, look at these training camps like Bakers Factory where he churns out the Ryan Dungeys, Ryan Villopotos, James Stewarts, Cooper Webbs, etc. and was assume that is the standard. That’s how it needs to be. Cookie cutter everything, a one size fits all image and attitude. We are so quick to criticize any athlete that leaves Baker’s to be on his own. Adam Cianciarulo, Jason Anderson; they leave Aldon’s and we say, “Oh, he’s not made for this sport. He doesn’t have the heart or determination or the work ethic.” Okay, maybe it’s not that extreme, but you get the point. I don’t know either one of these guys but let me tell you from what I do see: I see individuals that have a personality, a sense of humor, and an understanding of balance in life. Especially a guy like Anderson, he’s walking to the beat of his own drum. The sport needs that. Badly. I’d like to think the sport also needs characters like myself in it to create things like No Runners that are maybe confusing and stupid to some yet regarded by others to be refreshing and much-needed in an otherwise cookie cutter, predictable world of moto video making.
If and or when I ever do make a full time transition into real deal filmmaking, become a part of the union, and chase after that ASC dream I have set before me, I will proudly look back on my time within the dirtbike world and be forever thankful for all of the opportunities it gave me, as well as being thankful for the distain some have for my work. It has provided me a way to fall in love with a career, earn a living, and chase after the wildest dreams in my mind. For as much of an outcast as I feel in this industry, this industry is forever a part of who I am. I hope that one day, if I ever do reach that ASC level, or win an Oscar for Best Cinematography, the sport can look at me and be proud of what it created and say, “He marched to his own drum, but he came from us and damn that’s cool.”
And, I will forever march to the beat of my own drum. Granted, it’s a slow drum, because, you know… My brain is uhhhh, slow.
KC’s recommend film to watch:
–Lost In Translation
-Directed By: Sofia Coppola
-Cinematography: Lance Acord, ASC
-Genre: Comedy, Drama