Rodney Mullen: Skateboarding's Einstein Rides Into the Fourth Dimension

Icon discusses 'Liminal,' his first video in over a decade, working with George Harrison's son and what TED Talks can learn from skating

Watch Rodney Mullen's 'Liminal,' his first video in over a decade, scored by George Harrison's son Dhani Harrison.

Rodney Mullen hadn't put out a new video in over a decade, since Almost: Round Three dropped in 2004. It appeared the godfather of skateboarding – responsible for nearly the entire vernacular in skateboarding language – had all but vanished from the sport. Truth be told, he could no longer skate. After years of asymmetrical skating, with his left foot forward and right foot back, the Bones Brigade legend suffered an injury-related fusion of his femur and hipbone, rendering him "painfully crippled and unable to contribute," says Mullen.

Feeling isolated and impotent, Mullen turned his attention to less physically demanding passions – modified Linux and open-source computing. He discovered a viable connection between computer hackers and skateboarders – that both communities thrive on high-risk innovation, while freely sharing their findings for the betterment of the community. Mullen soon came in contact with like-minded innovator Krisztina "Z" Holly – creator of the first TEDx. In 2012, Holly convinced Mullen to speak at TEDx on creativity and innovation.

Mullen quickly became a sought-after lecturer, sharing deeper concepts at TED Talks, Apple, PopTech and the like, presenting dissertations on risk mitigation and resilience. His revelatory expositions on how outside industries could learn from the culture and habits of skateboarders became a sustainable success. "In the skateboarding community, in order to do that which has never been done before, you have to go into the unknown at your own peril," explains Mullen. 

But while Mullen's mind thrived in his second act as a tech talker, his soul suffered, and he became relentless in trying to find a way to get back on his board. He took recovery into his own hands, employing a myriad of brutal, self-myofascial release methods – pounding the butt of a screwdriver into his flesh and torqueing his body over fire hydrants. "I didn't know if I would ever be able to film again," says Mullen. But one particular evening, while cranking his body inside the wheel well of his car, his femur bone broke free from its eight-year constraint.

With renewed mobility, Mullen set out to test himself – specifically, his concept of an improved "stanceless" form, erasing the asymmetrical posture that had led to his injury. He connected with musician Dhani Harrison (George Harrison's son) and filmmaker Steven Sebring. The latter had created something very special – a geodesic dome lined with 100 still-frame cameras that shoot in sequence, a scenario designed to capture what Sebring's calls "fourth dimension." It was the perfect platform in which Mullen could rediscover his craft and present something new. The result is Liminal, an exquisite and masterful display featuring Mullen flowing through a series of tricks that you simply have to watch to fully appreciate.

Rolling Stone recently visited Mullen at his home in Redondo Beach to preview Liminal and its presentation of the fourth dimension, discuss his intentions with TED Talks and hear of his brotherly bond with musician and fellow skater Ben Harper and their recent trip to the White House.

Liminal is a technical and technological departure from your previous body of work. What does this film represent to you?
It is different from the rest, not the usual traipsing around looking for spots. This film represents whatever I could do in 14 days, within the confines of this small dark place – this little stealth igloo. It's kind of cool because of my background, you know? That's what I did – I grew up skating in a garage. But the quality of this film, what it stands for, and for where I am – it's like a fusion of eras, combining the oldest of freestyle with the newest of what I have to offer now. Even the old stuff looks so modern and decontextualized by the look of the film, and the fact that it's all in this little black dome. That's something special to me. 

You suffered and overcame a career-ending condition where your femur bone had fused into your hip. Can you describe your injury and what you did to recover?
I was doing a halfcab kickflip underflip, going at a good speed and I landed badly, ending up in the splits and tearing something in my hip. The scar tissue that developed as a result locked it down – I was cinched in. The bone would pull into my hip and grind, bone on bone, until eventually, calcification occurred, welding them together. I couldn't walk for any distance and skating seemed to be over. 

After much deliberation, with doctors doubtful of my recovery, I engaged in medieval ways to break apart the bone fusion – hammering the end of screwdrivers into my flesh, climbing into the wheel well of my car to apply leverage while pulling on the car's frame. After thousands of hours, over years of doing this, I began breaking those dried-gum-like strands of fascia. I would often become overwhelmed, screaming violently in pain, panic-stricken that I was doing more damage than good and I would never be able to skate again. Until one night, hanging from my car, I heard a thump. And when I got up, I realized that I had broken the calcification and my hip joint was mobile again. That was the beginning of what was to come.

That's incredible. How does recovering from an injury like that translate to this film and your future in skateboarding?
It was all very personal. Breaking through that barrier, well, that's the meaning of Liminal, and what the film represents. This film gives me a sense of closure and re-emergence. I'm getting stronger. I've worked so hard and paid such a high price. Now I can take some of that stanceless stuff, the way I get behind the trucks on both sides, and get into some things that have never been done before, like switch 360 flip to switch manual switch 360 flip out. But on the other side of the coin, I'll be 50 in August and I don't know how much more my body will take. I walk like a broken puppet [laughs]. 

Can you describe the mechanics involved in shooting Liminal and the concept of the fourth dimension?
This was shot using pure digital photography with zero special effects – that's Steven Sebring's patented technology. The dome is basically a halo of 100 cameras with laser-type accuracy. So technically, it's not a video. It's a series of single frames from each camera that are sewn together at 1/30 of a second apart. When they go off, you hear the shutters fall around you for 3 1/3 seconds. Because they are separate cameras, you can drag the shutters so that they stay open for a while. That means, as many as 1/3 of the cameras are open at one time. You hear them open, and then you hear them fall, which is super cool sounding – like dominos falling around you. When you do that, it captures super ghostly images – the result of multiple cameras catching multiple different angles with ever so slightly different timing of the movement. Steven calls this "fourth dimension." So that's how we explain some of the techniques in this video. 

Dhani Harrison scored the soundtrack for Liminal. What's your relationship with the son of a Beatle and what was your process in scoring the music for Liminal?
I met Dhani through Ben Harper. Ben had told me about him, because Dhani – who also skates like a ball of fire flying around – had the idea for this film with Steven Sebring. At the time he told me the idea, my body was a wreck and I was afraid I would never be back to skating. And Dhani just said, "Look man, this is for you and it will be there when you're ready." 

And man, when we finally got to it, Dhani was so great to work with. He definitely put all his might into it, to get the feel of the film. And I wanted it to be an expression of what he saw, because that's a different thing, right? So I asked him to map it according to what he saw and the spirit of it. And he got it. He's a gifted guy.

While you were injured, you began lecturing at TED Talks, TEDx, PopTech and a number of other Silicone Valley conferences. What is it that you hoped to accomplish with this?
If I could make other people, who wouldn't otherwise take a second look at skateboarding, look with respect and with a deeper level of understanding and make analogies – that gives me something everlasting, because I'll never be able to repay what skateboarding has given to me. When I spoke at PopTech, there was a Yale Law Professor who felt that my presentation could inspire lawyers to take more risks and invest themselves more in their research, and not just in billable hours. Another medical researcher and scientist said that more than 90 percent of the medical researchers we have aren't that good, because they don't teach something that skateboarders naturally have – a genuine high-risk tolerance, where you understand risk mitigation. The whole idea is that you are going to take damage. But how can you continue that process until you have developed a paradigm where you can finally accomplish that thing that you're after? Now that is something that everyone can learn from.

Ben Harper seems to be a positive person in your life. You have a tight brotherly bond with Ben, who is also incredibly talented on a skateboard. How did this come about?
I love Ben Harper. He's different. He has a certain nobility of soul and spirit. And he has the kind of genius that clearly shows in his music and in his songwriting. But I think those are just expressions of a genius that's deeper and more amorphous, that can map itself onto skating as well – Ben can skate like no one I've ever seen. His laser flips and nollie outward heel flips – I'm telling you as a seasoned pro, that very few, if any, do them exactly the way that he does them. I can't do lasers the way Ben does. And I was one of the first to do them. 

We met through Tony Hawk, and Ben became life-changing to me, as a friend. Genuinely, people say brother, which is what they should be doing. But Ben is that brother that I never had, that I could confide in because we shared so many similarities, like being on the road. The skate world and music world – the life, the characters in it and the nature of it – have so many commonalities. We've done so much together. He even invited me to go to the White House with him.

You're telling me that you were Ben Harper's plus-one to visit the White House? Did you get to meet President Obama?
Yeah, I was Ben's plus-one! Just the two of us, stealing napkins from the White House [laughs] – 'cause that's all you can take from the White House. I didn't meet the President, but I did meet the presidential dog!