Every kid has a crazy dream – whether it’s to be an astronaut, a professional basketball player or a brain surgeon. Levi Turner always dreamed of making films.
Now the official video director for Pro Era and Joey Bada$$, his first experiences behind the camera were for local Indianapolis skate crews. Levi reflects, “I wanted to be a professional skateboarding filmer, for like Thrasher. When you’re young, you never worry about standards or pressure to make a career. You just did it because you loved it.”
When you’re young, you never worry about standards or pressure to make a career. You just did it because you loved it.
Levi’s success is a direct product of the Information Age. Although he completed a Digital Video Production class in early middle school, most of his skills are self-taught from YouTube tutorials.
The other half of Levi’s not-so-secret sauce? The will to take huge leaps of faith. He advises, “Use the Internet to reach out to people on social media, whether you think they’ll see it or not. I’d shoot concerts at the Emerson Theater and then put them on Twitter right away. Logic retweeted my photos one time and I was like, ‘that’s a win!’ and then I just kept going!”
The Indy-bred filmmaker continues to pursue his passion, simply because he loves it. The opportunity to create for his hip-hop heroes is a plus.
On a sunny Saturday morning, I joined Levi Turner for a vintage shopping spree at Naptown Thrift. In his very first interview, Levi shares his early skate culture inspirations, experiences filming for Futuristic and Joey Bada$$ and dreams of creating Runaway-style music videos and narratives.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
A Video Career Inspired by Skate Culture
When was the first time that you picked up a camera?
In the 6th grade, I took a Digital Video Production class. We started making little videos on VHS cameras. It was just fun!
When I went home, my mom had a digital camera with a video function. If she didn’t have that, I might not have searched for a camera. But since she did, I could make something outside of the class. My brothers were skateboarders so I’d film them doing kickflips. I filmed my brother’s first double kickflip! Really big moments for us as kids.
As they progressed in skating, I got more into making skate videos, adding music and edits. I started using nicer cameras and fish eye lenses. We’d go to Carmel Park and spend our entire day there. Eventually we had this big community of skaters and I was the filmer.
Like Mid90s by Jonah Hill.
Just like that! We were reckless kids. Go out, skate, get kicked out, get the cops called on us. I would film it all. We’d put out these montages on a YouTube channel called filmsforfood.
Was the purpose to get people to watch it or was it just for documentation?
We put the videos on YouTube for our homies, not for the rest of the world. It was just like, “Yo, did you see the new video? Hey John, that ender trick was crazy!”
When did the music come along?
One day in early high school, I ran into this kid named Brenden at Keystone Mall. I didn’t really know him that well but I knew he made music. He had seen my skating videos and asked me to make a music video sometime. I listened to hip-hop, because I’d use it in my skate videos, but I didn’t really know anything about music videos. I still said I was down to do it.
The thought of making a music video wasn’t daunting? You’d never done it before.
No, not at all. I wanted to be a professional skateboarding filmer, for like Thrasher. When you’re young, you never worry about standards or pressure to make a career. You just did it because you loved it. That was the first music video I ever made. It was bad. [Laughs.]
Are you sure it was bad?! Maybe just by your current standards.
Yeah, it was for sure bad. [Laughs.] I shot it on my skateboarding camera. I had a VX2000 – it’s like a mini-DV camera. It’s not on the Internet anymore. [Laughs.]
One day I was hanging out with Brendon and we stumbled upon Pat App’s Facebook. He freestyled on the Otis beat and snapped! I messaged him like, “we need to make a video!” The three of us linked up and over time I became connected with Pat’s journey.
I eventually stopped using my skateboarding camera and I got my first digital camera – a Canon T3i. My friend Alvin and I were obsessed with filmmaking – we’d even build our own gear. At one point, I couldn’t afford a camera slider so we rolled the camera on a tripod using roller-blading wheels attached to two PVC tubes.
Y’all were engineering!
Yeah! Just DIY to the max. The first time I ever felt like I stepped into the next level of making videos is when I made the video to Pat App’s Beautiful Minds. I got a Canon 5D Mark III and used the camera slider in my backyard. That was the first time I felt like I made something professional! Now, at this point, it’s levels to it.
That sense of pride hits different.
Yeah! I was really hyped about that. I was still doing it for my love of filming. I wasn’t making money or anything.
At this point, were you still planning to create skateboard videos for Thrasher or were you completely focused on music?
I was doing both. My skate homies were kinda hating on me… not in a hateful way, but just like, “oh, you’re a rapper now.” [Laughs.] I’d come back every once in awhile and we’d make a skateboard video, but then I’d dip out because I really started loving this music stuff. Eventually I was just focused on music full time. I’ll love skateboarding forever, though. It opened a new lane of creativity for me.
Were you recording videos for artists other than Pat App?
I wanted to turn my videos into a career. I was doing wedding videos, really anything that I could get my hands on. Eventually, I met an artist named Lauren Sanderson. Creating with her and Muriel Knudson had a huge influence on my mentality. When I met them, I started thinking more about business and expanding.
My mom also became a flight attendant so I had the privilege of free flights. I was ready to go anywhere and do anything! I used it to my advantage to try and make connections.
While in Los Angeles, a director named Jakob Owens tweeted that he was looking for someone to help him shoot a K Camp music video. Since day one, I was inspired by Jakob and his channel Buff Nerds. So, I responded to the tweet and he said I could come. I assisted him on set and made a BTS video of the music video shoot. He didn’t ask me to do that, I just did it. I gave him the video and photos the next day by noon and that was it.
Did that shoot change your perspective at all? Knowing you were there with a director that you’d looked up to for years?
For sure. I’ve always been overly passionate, just kicking my foot through doors as much as I could. That was my first time being on a set and it was so inspiring.
A couple weeks passed and I got a random DM from an artist named Futuristic. He said, “I’m going on Vans Warped Tour and I’m looking for a videographer. Jakob told me about you.” I was freaking out – I really felt like I made it! I later found out that Jakob just thought I was a cool guy and I was fresh in his mind. That’s really all it took.
Does skating still hold a special place in your heart, especially since it inspired your start?
Yeah, of course. Skateboarding formed my outlook on life. Stairs, rails and ledges were obstacles, but we started to see them as a playground.
It sounds like the resourcefulness that you picked up while skating became really special to your craft. Especially considering you’re almost fully self-taught!
Definitely. It helped me form an independent mentality. I took the video class in 6th grade and another in high school, but that’s it. My high school video class just gave me peers to learn from.
How did you learn so much from searching on YouTube?
When I’d get a camera, I’d search for its best settings.
As I was using different editing systems, I’d look up how-tos and tutorials. First, I’d watch videos that showed every single feature in an editing system. Then, I’d look up how to do specific effects or transitions. Once I picked up on things, I also started to learn new effects just from experimenting.
The first editing system I ever used was Windows Movie Maker. Every editing system was like a new book.
When did you feel comfortable graduating to the next camera or editing system?
It’s definitely not about the equipment. It’s about what you do with it. At one point, I realized that if I wanted my videos to hit a certain way I needed to use upgraded equipment. I could film something in here on an iPhone or I could film it on a Red Camera and it’s going to look like a movie.
With editing systems, I won’t step into a new space until I’ve mastered the one I’m currently in. In my high school video class, we used Final Cut Pro 7. I loved it! Eventually, I went to Premiere Pro because I knew it was one of the best. I use Premiere Pro now, but I know I want to get better at After Effects. In the future, I’ll want to dive into Cinema 4 and do 3D Animation. When I get into those systems, I’ll do the same thing I always did – learn from YouTube.
Tour Life with Futuristic and Pro Era’s Joey Bada$$
How did you prepare for Vans Warped Tour?
I prepared myself as much as possible by watching other tour videos and recaps. I experienced so much within two months. Just meeting so many people, learning so much and traveling. It was amazing.
A kid from Indiana who’s waiting tables and recording videos with friends quickly transformed into a tour videographer. That’s a big jump! What was that like?
It was insane, but I’d always meditated on that. I was really into spirituality and the law of attraction. I would close my eyes and just picture being on a tour bus – and then it came to fruition. It let me know that I could do anything.
I would close my eyes and just picture being on a tour bus – and then it came to fruition. It let me know that I could do anything.
What’s one misconception about tour life?
Depending on who you are and who you’re with, it’s not all about drugs. [Laughs.] My grandparents were wondering that! But, I was with really good people.
As the videographer, I’m there to do a serious job. You wake up in a new city, do a show, come back on the bus and edit the photos and videos the same day. You don’t get much sleep and it’s a lot of work.
The best part about tour is the opportunity to see things that you could only see by driving. Not just the shows, but the moments in-between. Waking up early before everyone else and sitting at the front of the bus with the driver to see the open road. Every gas station around the United States is totally different! I’d be in a gas station in the middle of Wyoming and a guy pulls up on his lawn mower. [Laughs.] You just see people in their rawest form. That’s the coolest thing that you could experience from tour.
You just see people in their rawest form. That’s the coolest thing that you could experience from tour.
When did you connect with the Pro Era crew?
After Vans Warped Tour, I took a spontaneous trip to New York and met an artist named Kid Super. I knew he was looking for someone to document his life, so I commented on one of his posts that I was in New York and wanted to create something for him. He replied and told me to come to his store the next day. They were having a pop-up concert and I went and talked to him like, “Yo, you need someone to film you. I want to be that guy.”
He later asked me to document his fashion show for New York Fashion Week. He had a week to create a women’s fashion line from scratch and he’d never made women’s clothing before. That’s the week that really changed my life.
I documented it all for free and slept on the hardwood floor in his studio. At the end of the craziest week ever, Joey Bada$$ and all of Pro Era came to the studio. These are my favorite hip-hop artists right in front of my eyes! I’m introducing myself to all of them and every time I’d introduce myself, I’d offer them something. I’m even offering to make a video on their photographer.
So, I flew back home and Pro Era had a hurricane relief drive in Brooklyn. Their photographer texted me like, “Yo, are you in New York?” I said yeah, even though I was in Indiana. I hopped on a plane and went to shoot it. I met everyone, it was super cool, but that was the end of it.
7 months later, I got a text message from this guy named Niles that said, “Joey is gearing up for his Amerikkkana Tour this summer. We were wondering if you wanted to be the videographer and photographer on tour.”
That was a huge leap for me. Not just as a career, but as an individual. I’m going on tour with my favorite hip-hop artist. Ever since then, I’ve been a part of Joey’s movement.
It seems like every major moment has come from you taking a chance on yourself!
Exactly! I was looking for any and every sign to take a step forward and just go for it.
I was looking for any and every sign to take a step forward and just go for it.
So, at this point, are you still that kid at the skatepark that liked making videos for the hell of it?
Yeah, I am! I’ve needed to put some personal projects aside because there are things that really need to get done. I love it all, but I just have to manage my workflow more.
How was touring with Joey Bada$$ different from your experience with Futuristic?
All tours were amazing. Warped Tour is always going to be one of the craziest things for me because it was my first time touring. But, that tour with Joey was the most fun. We were just having fun, not following rules.
[Laughs.] Stealing bottles!
[Laughs] Stealing bottles! We were just living!
The shows were amazing, the fans were amazing and so were the artists that I’ve always looked up to. I filmed so many legendary moments. At one show, I filmed all of Joey’s set from beginning to end. As he ends his show, he walks up stairs to the green room and Chuck Strangers is playing a beat. Joey opens the door, hears the beat and just starts freestyling fresh off stage for like 20 minutes. It’s a fire freestyle. I have all that documented! Stuff like that is the coolest thing ever.
That’s super cool! Your growth as a videographer is evident – I can now tell that you’re thinking less about plain videos and more about mini-films for YouTube. How did that shift happen?
You step up to the plate when time is due. When Joey first asked me to move to New York and be his video guy off tour, that pushed me to level up. You step into a new zone to meet these standards.
What kind of standards?
Joey Bada$$ standards! If Kanye West said he wanted me to make a music video for him, I better not come with the shit that I’m making now. I have to step up to that quality. If you really care, you’ll push yourself.
If Kanye West said he wanted me to make a music video for him, I better not come with the shit that I’m making now. I have to step up to that quality. If you really care, you’ll push yourself.
Dreams of Feature-Length Music Videos and Narratives
A lot of people know about your work with Pro Era, but I’m interested to hear about your personal projects.
This upcoming Beastcoast tour, I want to make a full-length documentary. A piece that people can hold onto forever. I love documenting life because when I grew up, my parents always did that for me. I want to take all these moments from my life, keeping the home-video aesthetic, and put it together with music and narration that would inspire other people to create.
I also want to write a photo book that’s also an autobiography. Something that I can look back on when I’m mad old. I’m really fascinated by these things because I think it’s important to document our life’s work.
I’m really fascinated by these things because I think it’s important to document our life’s work.
You hinted earlier at wanting to be a true filmmaker. Is that where you see yourself creating documentaries?
Yes, as I’m learning more about creating bigger productions and working with teams I’d like to explore it with Joey’s upcoming music videos. Something like Kanye West’s Runaway. It might happen this year, it might happen next year or whenever, but it’s something I want to step into.
Who do you look up to now that you’re working with your favorite creatives?
I still look up to Jakob Owens because he levels up so much. He inspires me to create more streams of income as a filmmaker. I look up to the people I work with.
In the Internet age, there are so many people who are doing dope things. I look up to Russ because I think that his business mentality is amazing. I also look up to Ram Das as a spiritual guy.
What do your parents think of what you’re doing now?
They think it’s dope! They understand now, and they just want me to be healthy, be smart and save money.
They probably have to have so much faith in you now. Imagine telling your kid to get a job or a car… and then you end up where you are now.
I live in New York now. I don’t need a car! [Laughs.]
Advice for Other Creatives and Filmmakers
Is there any advice that you’d leave with people who want to become filmmakers or work with their idols in a creative capacity?
You have to have the intention to be legendary. Do what you want and let your personality show. Just create, learn from those around you and take leaps of faith.
7 years after I graduated high school, I just finished my first two big budget music videos. I’m finally able to use an Arri Alexa and a giant camera crane with a crew. It’s a process and it won’t happen in a year or even two years, but you want that process because you’ll learn everything you need to.
Also, use the Internet to reach out to people, whether you think they’ll see it or not. I’d shoot concerts at the Emerson Theater and then put them on Twitter right away. Logic retweeted my photos one time and I was like, “that’s a win!” and then I just kept going!
I represent being passionate about something that you love and just living for that. Nothing else.
All photos and video footage in this article are credited to Levi Turner and gathered from his public Instagram. Follow Levi to keep up with his adventures on Beast Coast’s Escape From New York Tour.