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Cassette and The Sfumato Effect In Wakeskating (Part 1)

“Sfumato is a term originally coined by Leonardo DaVinci. A literal translation from Italian is 'dark smoke.' Leonardo used it to describe a painting technique in which translucent veils of color are overlaid and intermixed to create atmospheric perspective, depth, volume and form. If you have ever played with layers in photoshop or any other graphics program, particularly utilizing varying percentages of transparency, you have played with digital sfumato and probably have some idea of its potential for visual power and elegance...”

Cassette wakeskates founder, Thomas Horrell, used the aforementioned definition to announce the thematic concept behind the upcoming team film,Sfumato,. On September 13, 2003, The Cassette team held their second and final premiere for the film. Today, this marks the 20th anniversary of the film's release. Through Sfumato, the Cassette team created the blueprint from which future wakeskaters would continue to progress the sport, as all of the stylistic principles held closely by many of today's riders were on display in that film. From a media stand point, wakeskating had never been presented to the masses in this fashion. It's the level of riding, the individual yet complementary styles of each rider, the variety of terrain, the heli angles, and the editing style, all set to one of the most memorable soundtracks, period. Further, Cassette was responsible for the only pure wakeskate content available. Any other wakeskate footage was sandwiched in a wakeboard film, and even then, those parts were minimal. For any committed wakeskater, this video was immediately a must have to add to their collection. Finally, this film would directly influence an entire generation of riders, while later generations would unknowingly travel the same path that was trailblazed by the Cassette team. Now, 20 years later, we revisit the team and film responsible for that influence.

So, why the name Sfumato? A long time ago I posed this question to Thomas. He said, “Sfumato just made sense as a title for a film. After reading a little bit about just worked.” That statement resonated in many ways. From a media stand point, the film used super 8, 16mm and mini DV. All forms of media were seamlessly applied to add a greater visual depth and cohesion to the film. From a riding standpoint, the level of wakeskating from Linear to Sfumato was evolved and dynamic, while still using stylistic elements from years past. In that way, the name Sfumato is perfect to abstractly describe the new form wakeskating had taken.

“I was studying art in college and at one point I explained to Thomas what linear perspective was in painting. And I guess he saw something bigger, or connected it to wakeskating. With the next video he was like, 'what's a technique beyond linear perspective?' And I said well, when it transfers to oil paintings its not just about perspective achieved by three dimensions, it's the realistic nature of blending the oils to where you achieve better shadows and gradations of color. He obviously saw some sort of artistic connection to what was evolving out of wakeskating, but at the same time I think he also liked the words.” -Eric “Zero” Wallman, creator of the Cassette Analog zines

The Climate of the Era
The summer of 2003 was a pivotal mark for wakeskate progression, with two key developments impacting everything to follow. First, Cassette's distributor, Liquid Force, would experience a temporary shut down, voiding the original contract. This partnership was well known and dated back to 2001. The Liquid Force shut down created an opportunity for Thomas to take Cassette back, create Linear Distribution by April of 03, and run the brand in house. If you were a wakeskater who knew what was up, this was a huge development for wakeskating being seen as a stand alone board sport vs as an off shoot of wakeboarding. Having Thomas take the brand back also felt hugely symbolic. Wakeskating seemed to hold so much potential, and any serious rider knew and felt that. So it felt really important to have the most significant brand in wakeskating also become a stand alone entity.

Secondly, ever since the team released 2001's Linear Perspective, they had been filming for their follow up film and aimed for a July 2003 release. Sfumato would become the platform from which the Cassette team would solidify themselves as the indisputable leaders in the industry, from product innovations, media productions and the team that was curated. However, business is business, and it's seemingly impossible to have a perfectly clean cut from a separation of that magnitude. With all that had happened, it really felt like the team had something motivating them, and it was bigger than any of us really knew. This especially felt apparent after listening to the song choice used in the Sfumato teaser, which served to build anticipation and excitement for the film.

Sfumato teaser, released June 23, 2003. Music: You get yours by Britt Daniel and Bright Eyes.

Another impact from the fallout was the team's loss of Tim Kovacich by June 2003. Kovacich, one of the original Cassette riders and wakeskating's original grom, originally filmed for Sfumato and appears in the teaser and all related cover art. However, Kovacich chose to become the marquee pro at Liquid Force's newly developed team. This seemed to create the perfect opportunity for Cassette's newest and youngest rider, Danny Hampson, to step into the limelight once occupied by Kovacich. (Wake nerd fact: Tim had the opener in Linear, while the same honor was earned by Hampson for Sfumato.)

Sfu Posters
Sfumato art, with and without paint drip over Tim.

The Riders
Hampson joined the team in the fall of 2002, and the scale of his talent was well kept, if not totally mysterious. Fans had a varying sense of what was to come, depending on the wake content they had access to consume at any given time. Hampson had a small amount of footage in the Snap Wakeskate Instructional, and he also won the wakeskate division at the Detroit tour stop in June 2003. Hampson also earned a cover shot on Alliance Wakeboard mag, but it was a silhoutted image that only added to the mystery of who was Danny Hampson. Couple that with an article about the DVS wake team's trip to Miami, which doubled as a Sfumato film trip AND Hampson's first time filming for Sfumato. There was a mislabeled photo within the article with someone doing a wake to wake stalefish on a 4 trac. The photo was labeled Josh Johnson, but it was actually Hampson. The question remained: WHO IS THIS KID???

The unknowns of his true potential were answered once we saw his section. Dan brought flow and consistency with kickflips onto docks, over docks, and linked back to back. Hampson also brought an ambidextrious style, allowing for seamless transitions between switch and regular tricks. His skate influence was undeniable, and the way he flicked his tricks inspired his peers, who were also the most seasoned pros. This was a rare level of influence to exert for a rider of any age, let alone an unknown, soon-to-be 15 year old. Hampson filmed an attempt at kickflipping Metro West as one of his closing clips. In short time, this became the future of wakeskating for those who possessed a similar consistency, coupled with a creative eye for terrain. (The make can be found in the credits of Byerly's documentary, Retrospect.)

This is Danny Hampson. Photo by Letchworth.

“The whole experience of filming for Sfumato was unforgettable. We were a group of close friends that felt like we were really changing something. Maybe wakeskating isn't the biggest deal in the world, but to us at that time we felt like we were really onto something big. Every week we were doing new tricks and feeding off each other and working as hard as we could to make the video something that would blow minds. I was around to watch Thomas edit some of it, and watching it come together gave me butterflies. The first premiere of the video was actually out in Portland, Oregon, at the tour stop that went on back then, and I was unfortunately not there. I remember watching it for the first time though and literally being in awe. The premiere we had for the video at Expo that year was for the alternate soundtrack, and lots of people still were seeing it for the first time. Even with the ridiculous music, everyone there was in awe. It was a wild night on lots of levels.

It may sound conceited coming from me because I was a part of the film, but I honestly don't think wakeskating would be anywhere without Sfumato. It ignited the spark and showed the possibilities. From the introduction of the winch to all the new tricks and different ways of riding, it opened the door. The video was also special because it was done totally in house. Sfumato will stand the test of time and is a true testament to the genius of Thomas Horrell. That whole time in my life was something very special to me and the dynamic we had together is something that I will never forget. It's crazy to think that the first day I filmed for Sfumato was 21 years ago.” – Dan Hampson

Dan Cover
Danny's very first cover shot. Photo by Letchworth

Full length, original version of Sfumato. Alternate soundtrack is on the DVD only, so find one!

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