Sonny Miller Interview
One of the greatest filmmakers and photographers in the history of surfing, Sonny was also an innovator in early skateboarding and snowboarding photography. He grew up skateboarding and riding waves along the beaches of North County San Diego in the early 70s. He rode his skateboard with style much like surfing.
His career took off at Surfer Magazine as a photographer in the mid 80’s, but quickly moved from stills to filmmaking, which was his passion early on. Sonny had the nickname “Cap’n Fun” and from all those who knew him he was a true friend always optimistic and wide for adventure.
He sat down with Larry and Lance Smith for this interview just months before he passed.
“Lance Smith and I were able to spend the day at home with Sonny and his Mom a week before they both went on to their journey in their next lives. Sonny was the best caregiver to his Mom that anyone could ever be, it was her first day on hospice.
We paged through albums of his skateboard slide collection and talked story and drank smoothies. He showed us films of huge waves at Cortez Banks. Later we looked over his entire collection of skateboards, surfboards and water cinema cameras, including the 70mm Red Cams he used while filming for IMAX. Sonny was truly Mr. Energy and Cap’n Fun to all, what a pleasure to be around. We miss him, but he will be remembered forever. RIP Sonny Miller.”- Larry Balma
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in California, born in Northern California. At a pretty young age my mom divorced and we moved to Mexico for 2 years. I lived in Guadalajara as a young kid, learned Spanish fluently. We moved back to Southern California in the LA area all the way up until about junior high. I went to Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica right around the whole Dogtown scene and we skateboarded, surfed, and rode bicycles, and converted our Schwinn’s to BMX bikes.
In that 6th grade class we had a super 8-filmmaking class and me and my buddy made a surf, skate, and BMX movie for our project. We all stared in it. We built a fire and jumped through flames with our bikes. We surfed mostly at Bay Street; we never really filmed at POP because POP was such a heavy underground spot. We were kooks so we just surfed at Bay Street. We skateboarded mostly on the streets, there wasn’t really any bowls or banks. Gosh I wish I still had that super 8, I still can’t even remember the kid’s name, but that was a period of time.
Then my Mom got really sick with hepatitis and we had to move to my Grandparents place in Illinois, so right at this sprouting point of action sports I got transplanted to Illinois, which was pretty much depressing for a kid, wearing Hawaiian shirts, skateboarding, and talking about surfing and your in Illinois, nobody can relate. We were there for a couple of years and then we moved back to Encinitas in about 1974 or 1975, rented an apartment at Moonlight. One of the first people I met was Mark Adam at Encinitas Surfboards.
What would you call your hometown?
Encinitas and Cardiff, I went to San Dieguito High School, which was a melting pot for incredible things. It had everything happening, there was a lot of freedom given at that school. It gave kids a chance to be who they were or develop who they were going to be. We had ceramics, surf PE, and at milk break there was a skate bank on the tennis court everyone would go skateboarding. Surfing was the sport of kings but skateboarding came in and was the wild fire. The nucleus was really coming out of our area then, Encinitas. Cadillac wheels, Carlsbad Skate Park, all the notorious pools, Greg Weaver, the Cadillac kid, went to my High School. He was two years older then me, you just looked up to this guy, he had the cover of Skateboarder magazine, he was Hobie, and had a Maharaja Skateboard model. There were other people, the Logan’s, and the freestyle scene. Ellen Berryman was my age she went to my High School. Then there was all the other guys, that graduated, the pool riders, going to the Carlsbad skate park, that skate park revolutionized skateboarding because it made it viable to not have to be in these hidden places.
When did you get your first set of Tracker Trucks?
I think it was like close to the beginning of skateboarding I ended up with Tracker Haftracks with Road Riders or OJ’s, to put a date on it. Those times in your lives, 2 years, 4 years or 6 years goes by but through the course of it I had Trackers and eventually I was on the team and getting free trucks. Tracker was my first ever sponsor to get free product. I don’t think as a kid you think that’s a possibility, whereas today skateboarding every kid wants to be sponsored now for whatever they do, snow, skate, surf, BMX, you know everyone asks are your sponsored, everyone wants a sticker on their board. I don’t think that we understood that even existed in those days. It was like if you had a connection and you got some free product, it seemed like you were royalty.
Did you get your trucks from Lance Smith or…?
I think through Lance, I remember coming to the factory and seeing Dave Dominy, I knew his brother Dan. I remember you Larry, the master tinker, and I loved the flames on your motorcycle. I think it was all taking place in the Sorrento Valley office. Lance and Keith with his Pantera. You know you kind of became part of the family, Tracker was integrated as family and there was a revolution going on. Skateboarding was just blowing up; probably today if I grew up my whole avenue would have been surfing. Back then surfing was our staple and skateboarding was like our new drug, it had such a skyrocketing of development going on with the equipment, and with the skate parks. You would be skateboarding with your own peers and you felt this was skateboarding, and then you would go to one of the skateboard contests and you would go, “wow”! I remember the advent of Allen Gelfand coming around, we saw the photos of the no handed airs, and all of a sudden there he was popping Ollies, “oh my God”, and you realized that the sport was so much more than just this underground nucleus of the people, your peers that you skateboarded with. You saw this whole thing in another light, I remember going to Upland Skate Park for the first time. There was nothing to prepare us to go to a skate park like that. In our upbringing it was big. The way it was named Pipeline that was valid because it was like going to the North Shore, and just the channel you could call it one of the easier bowls. I remember this big skate ditch, going down it was super long, it was the longest skate ditch built for skateboarding and then it rounded the bend and went into this bowl that had like 18’ walls. Nothing prepared you to come around that ditch and drop in and want to go to the top of that bowl, you were like, “are you kidding me”! You wanted to almost jump off your board, you know. The Pipe itself was very intimidating. The skateboarders were of such a high caliber that were used to that park that we went there to observe more then to participate.
Why did you think that the Tracker Truck was so important in the history of skateboarding?
There were other trucks that we’re not as strong, and skateboarding was getting more extreme, Tracker Trucks were built sturdy, and dependable; your life depends on it. I remember Bennett trucks had plastic base plates that would break, and would let loose. Tracker Trucks you could get a set of trucks and probably not need another set ever because they were that strong and you were not going to have anything break. When you talk about what everybody was starting to do, especially airs the last thing you would ever want would be a mechanical failure. With Tracker there was no question that wouldn’t be a problem.
Do you remember tricks that were invented on Tracker?
I don’t think that our generation had as much to do with trick inventions as the later ‘80s group. The ‘70s brought frontside and backside airs, grinds, rock and rolls, hand plants, inverts, but the spins didn’t evolve in our generation. We weren’t going to learn that stuff, but we tried. We learned to do rock and rolls, we did airs, I think that seeking air was why people skateboarded. It wasn’t just to ride on the ground; it was to leave the ground and drop back in successfully. That in a way seemed hard.
First it was can you hit the tile, then can you grind, can you do an air. But we didn’t have McTwists, and 540’s they just didn’t exist. Style was more of what you were judged on in the early days. Then style kind of went out the window with trickery, the tricks were technical, fakey 360 airs and Caballaerials and all the named tricks. We witnessed them at the Big O Skate Park when they had their first pro event, they hadn’t even opened the skate park yet, and they had an event in the Capsule bowl. First we saw George Orton doing huge airs across the channel it was like his park. Eddie Elguera was doing hand plants, I think and that’s when everybody said how is this even possible it’s like a gymnast move.
Our era of skateboarding came from speed, power, and flow that was the upbringing of our skateboarding days. You were more measured on how good you could skate a real backyard pool, not a bowl of a skate park. We tried to avoid the drain, all the hazards, the gutter and the light. Backyard pools were the measuring stick of the evolution of skateboarding, for sure. Banks and ditches we rode all that stuff. Pools lead to the opportunity to leave the ground functionally. To do and air on a bank was like a bunny hop. Some of that old skateboarding stuff, when the guys were barefoot holding their toes jumping, like the gorilla grip, I tried but I thought that was the dumbest thing ever, why would you want to ride barefoot for one.
The thing about skateboarding that if one person did it everybody had to notch their belt. I even think there was a point in time in competitive skateboarding where there became a curriculum where you had to make sure you did your variety of tricks, frontside air, backside air, a variation of a grind, a roll in a rock and roll and then it started to elevate where you had to do a hand plant there was a required curriculum that everyone had to go after. I competed for a long time but finally it was too whoa… I started to do photography at the same time.
The person who inspired me to do photography was Warren Bolster. He was a guy you could look up to. He wasn’t an athlete but he was so aggressive with his photography and he did it with surfing and with skateboarding. He did them both at the same time and he was the king of the castle in action sports for a period of time. I knew him for a long time. He bailed and went to Hawaii and became a surf photographer, not under the best of times. Sadly there has been too many casualties of people that if they would of just stayed true to their sports they wouldn’t of diverted to darker paths, and not being here now which is a bit of a bummer. That’s human nature…
With all the guys you skated with on the Tracker Team who stands out as the best riders in your mind?
Obviously every great legendary skater came up on Trackers, Hosoi, Hawk those are the obvious ones. I don’t know all the names. For me on the skate/surf pathway I took off to surfing. My photography expanded in surfing, with a choice, do you want to go to Detroit to a sweaty skate event or do you want to go to Australia for a month, well I think I’m going to choose Australia, bikinis and warm water or sweaty men and more sweaty men.
But impressionable skaters you can’t really go past a more impressionable person than Tony Hawk, because he just sort of took it to a new level. Tony kept it clean. One of the biggest problems with skateboarding going to the dark side a little bit. Everybody wanted to be tattooed with black leather jackets and that was a huge nucleolus of skateboarding. Tony exemplified that clean positive image, Mike McGill was another of that nature. There were certain guys that were nice upholding citizens and there were other avenues of guys that just went the other way, but it was badass because skateboarding wanted to be punk rock too. That was one thing that the skaters were tuned in on way ahead of surfers is music. The turning point of only listening to Led Zeppelin turned to Devo and Sex pistols and 999. When all that edge music came in, skateboarding had the closest relationship to it. Surfers were still listening to Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Ted Nugent.
Do you have a favorite Tracker Ad?
I’d be blank on that. Because I came late into the scene of the skate park and the whole Encinitas movement, Gregg Weaver was someone you looked up to and I went to my first backyard pool with Gregg Weaver, you’re like the Weev, Going to a backyard pool with him was like living in a movie or living in a magazine.
I skated a lot with Jeff Tatum who was a Gnarly underground guy that I don’t think ever-completed High School, but when it came to style, Jeff was a guy that had amazing style. He rode a longboard and he was a legend of the bowl. There are stories where he would spend the night at Kona Bowl and skate in the night. I got to know him pretty good we became buddies and we would all skate together.
Probably the greatest opportunities we had, as skateboarders were the pipes at San Onofre nuclear power plant. Jeff was a military dependent so he had a military ID that could get us on base. We pretty much relegated ourselves to go there on our own and we’d go to the Camp Pendleton San O’ check in and say,” Were going to the beach to go surfing.” We didn’t even have surf boards, eventually we brought surfboards. The guards would say, “Okay pull over sign in”, you just had to have your car insurance. We’d sign in and head to the surf beach which was a right but instead we’d be driving inland and then go on this dirt road and we’d end up parking below the embankment of the massive fields full of pipes. We’d park the car down there, climb up through the bushes go in and skate those pipes. We got busted by the MP’s almost every time and every time they would threaten us with the brig, and they were going to call our parents, I wasn’t even 18 so I wasn’t that worried. We realized in the end that it was the pipe company employees that were finking on us to the MP’s. As soon as they heard us they would call the MP’s. It’s a military base so they are on you fast. We figured out that on holidays nobody works at the plant, and the MP’s have way better things to do then to see if kids are skateboarding in the pipes. Every holiday we would go out there and skate the pipes, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Presidents Day, we didn’t get to go a lot but we knew every major holiday we could skate the pipes without a hassle. That was like surfing and skateboarding combined for us, snowboarding didn’t exist. We took a lot of photos and super 8’s none of it’s of great quality. We were the fortunate few, there might of only been 50, and that’s an exaggeration, that rode those pipes total in the history of them. The Dogtown guys never really made it there. I think Alva made it there once. That was like our spot.
We started off just skating the pipes and then we said hey we could jump the pipes. There was one we called training wheels it was the pipe that was butt wedged against the other pipe that you physically couldn’t blow it, it was like a curb drop to get to the other pipe. But something about physically transitioning to another transition it was something we couldn’t get our minds over it, but then boom… we made it. I think I was the first guy to make it across pipe to pipe, but that was like a curb drop. We progressed in the end to where there were eight to nine foot gaps that we were flying between the pipes. There’s even some footage where I think I did thirteen pipes down and thirteen pipes back, twenty six transfers in one long stretch. That to me, hang my hat, is the pinnacle of where skateboarding was for me. I couldn’t imagine repeating that anywhere in the world.
What year was this?
That was probably 1979 it was our first trip there and we skated there until there was only 4 physical pipes left in the yard. Before that there were 6 rows of over a hundred long. There was a field full of pipes. You would have the bug every time you’d drive by and you could just see them out there.
Those were the ones you were skating, the ones you could see from the freeway.
Yeah, just straight across the road from the power plant. That was pure perfection and I’m glad I was a part of that.
You became a quite famous photographer and filmmaker in your day.
My Mom got me a Super 8 camera in fifth grade. It wasn’t something that I thought I could make a career out of. But doing what I did with it, getting the water cameras and shooting in the water which is difficult I evolved into being a magazine photographer, I evolved into doing documentary films, even resurrecting my old movies, and working for all the big companies, Quicksilver, Billabong, Ripcurl, Volcom, every company. I’ve shot scenes for their surf videos, surf films, and then my talent got noticed by real productions and then the next thing you know I’m working on legitimate Hollywood movies. Shooting with 35 mm cameras, having major famous people and actors look at me for wisdom of what I know which kind of blows you away. The movie “In God’s hands”, by Zoland King, that was the first movie that I went from the behind the scenes cameraman to the main water photographer.
Well thanks a lot is there anything else you want to say in closing?
It’s been quite a road of us just learning to grind and never stop grinding. That bug of skateboarding would definitely make me who I am and give me a broader outlook. The early days was only surfing and skateboarding it really created a revolution and from skateboarding it spun off other revolutions. You can credit snowboarding where it wouldn’t it be possible if these wasn’t something like skateboarding to put a parallel to it. Surfing to snowboarding that was like Mike Doyle riding a mono ski, finally a skater mentality helped evolve snowboarding. Tom Sims, that would be a guy who crossed that ultimate surf, skate, snow, and that led him to that, because he was a skate aficionado. He was a surfer.
We were surfers first, and we were attracted to skateboarding to push our edge and the rest just followed.