July 23rd, 2021

Manhattan is known for skyscrapers, but All the Streets Are Silent is a New York story told at ground level. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of cultural recovery and rebirth in the city, with skateboarders and musicians moving in the same circles. In All the Streets Are Silent, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is being released by Greenwich Entertainment, filmmaker Jeremy Elkin documents the early history of New York street skating and its ties to hip-hop, presenting archival footage alongside brand-new interviews shot on RED cinema cameras.

Jeremy Elkin. Photo by @mike_skigen.

Elkin grew up in Montréal, where he was introduced to the local skate scene at an early age by his brother. Because his mother’s side of the family was from The Bronx, he knew all about New York skating. He also knew thousands of videotapes existed with valuable historical footage. Elkin didn’t become truly inspired until the fall of 2017, when he managed to put his hands on a used RED RAVEN. “It changed things,” he says. “I had been making videos every day for 14 years or so, and the Sony DCR-VX1000 was the camera that all the skaters used. But the RED allowed me to see what the picture could look like on a larger scale, really quickly.”

Elkin’s early films were underground skating videos, before developing his career with work for Vanity Fair (a 2015 video about Caitlyn Jenner’s magazine cover shoot logged more than 15 million views). In 2017 he founded Elkin Editions, which has created visuals for brands including Helmut Lang and Vans and a documentary on artist JR’s 2019 installation at the Brooklyn Museum. Through it all, he was a skater at heart, and he never forgot that New York was the epicenter of street skating. 

To tell that story, Elkin knew he needed access to vintage footage shot by Eli Gesner, an artist and filmmaker who always had a camera at his side. Gesner’s archive was disorganized: crates of MiniDV, Hi-8, Super 8 and Super 16mm media. They worked out a deal: Elkin would digitize and catalog Gesner’s footage in exchange for the chance to use it in a movie. “Whether it’s Method Man in the studio or the first footage of Busta Rhymes, [Gesner] just happened to be right there,” Elkin says. “Even the skaters—maybe they’re not famous, but to a lot of us that energy and that crew was the birth of New York street skating, and he captured that.”

Elkin secured about 6,000 tapes contributed by Gesner as well as by Gunars Elmuts, Jacob Rosenberg, R.B. Umali and Yuki Watanabe. They document the history of Mars, the nightclub managed by Watanabe that promoted both skate culture and hip-hop, the influential Stretch and Bobbito Show on Columbia University’s radio station, and the original Supreme storefront on Lafayette, where New York street style developed into a commercial as well as cultural force.

Just as important are contemporary interviews with subjects including celebrities like Rosario Dawson, Kool Keith, and Fab 5 Freddy looking back at the era. Getting these on camera meant being ready to head out on a moment’s notice to meet in Harlem, Washington Square, or the East Village.

Shooting Rodney Smith, SHUT founder. Photo by @brendanburdzinski.

Elkin’s kit included a Litepanels Astra 1x1 LED fixture for interior lighting, a boom mic and lavalier, and Zeiss prime lenses. Sometimes a friend helped out with an extra RED camera. Two years later, Elkin switched out his RAVEN for a used RED SCARLET-W and kept shooting in the same mode. “It was a very basic kit, just a bunch of Pelican cases and a boom, but if my assistant and I can’t jump on a train with all the gear, we can’t make the film,” Elkin says.

Sometimes Elkin was a one-man crew, asking questions, continually checking focus, and using bits of kit like a hastily positioned reflector for added fill. Even in run-and-gun mode, he framed for the best composition, making the interviews look like portraiture. But the interview, not the set-up, is most important. “If the subject gives me 40 minutes of their time and I want a 35-minute interview, that’s a five-minute set-up,” he says. Interviews were recorded in REDCODE RAW at 9:1 or 10:1 compression—a compromise between reasonable storage requirements and excellent image quality for 2K output.

RED’s workflow proved itself worthy in post, too. Colorist Sam Gursky matched looks across footage. “I was able to try out a wide variety of looks and unify all the footage,” Gursky says. “That was huge from a quality standpoint as well as from a workflow standpoint. I appreciated it both as a creative and as a technician.”

Inspiration came from the artists and skaters who reinvented hip-hop and redefined street-skating culture — not to mention Elkin’s own history as the littlest member of Montréal’s street crew.

Elkin admits that sometimes the RED cameras kept him going. “I love making films, but I also love holding industrial camera equipment — and it doesn’t get much better than holding a SCARLET,” he says. “It’s a good feeling, the way all the components talk to each other and work together. Your camera doesn’t feel like a cheap plastic build. Even though we had no budget, no investor, no distribution, it was definitely a motivator to keep pushing forward.”

Watch Jeremy Elkin’s All the Streets Are Silent on iTunes.

Shooting Beatrice Domond @beatricedomond. Photo by David Koh.