From Maui to Mount Everest, athlete-producers bring extreme sports home
For some people, climbing rock walls, reaching Himalayan summits or surfing Hawaii isn't enough. A few folks bring cameras with them and let the world in on the action.
And thanks in part to modern, lightweight digital equipment, capturing the world's wildest activities - in its most inhospitable locations - is getting more and more common.
Around the globe, athlete-producers are risking safety and voiding warranties to bring vicarious thrills to the couch-bound majority. Along the way, they've found what works and how to protect their equipment in ways the product developers may have never dreamed.
"All my life, I've loved film and television production, and was never able to get into it as a profession," said Paul Cleveland, a Hawaii-based producer and inventor of a motorized off-road skateboard, who shoots surfers and other maniacs. "The digital era has made it possible for me. We're just going to leave a trail of skateboards and T-shirts behind us."
Where most people worry about frostbite, the folks who shoot skiers and snowboarders fight to keep equipment working. And many cameras, both brand-new and near-classic, are proving remarkably rugged.
Josh "Bones" Murphy shoots telemark skiing, the free-heeled fusion of the downhill and cross-country sports. And, bucking today's trends (telemarkers typically defy fads), he shoots with 16mm film, most often with an Arriflex SB. Film, he says, better handles the extreme differences in light, the very dark darks of the shadows and the extremely white, hot light off the snow.
"The snow itself isn't really the issue," said Michael Brown, a Colorado-based adventure cinematographer and the first person to shoot high-definition footage atop Mount Everest (in 2001) . "It's just that sometimes in certain conditions you can't see people's faces because they shadow so deeply. You don't want to have them right in the direct sunlight, because that gets washed out. And if you backlight them, their faces become black and you can't see anything.
"You're constantly trying to frame your shot so that you can still get a nice image where you can actually see what you're looking at," he said. "I try to shoot a lot of wider scenic shots and just let the contrast be as it is, and when I get closer to people's faces, I'll just let the background blow out a little bit. But I'll frame it so that it doesn't matter that much."
Brown has shot extensively on both film and digital formats. One advantage of film, he said, is that operators are more likely to take the time to get a shot right. And, the multiple aperture settings of film cameras are inherently more versatile.
For Murphy, a benefit of film is its capacity for creating slow-motion images.
"One of the things that we love to do is have somebody just flying past in a wider-angle shot, and then a very tight close slo-mo where you see the snow getting pushed up in a wave and cover the camera, or fly past and you see the dust storm left behind."
High-end Betacams could do that too, Murphy said. But in a cold, wet place, he has less faith in the multiple electronic features of digital cameras.
"All it's doing is turning the film," he said of the motor on the Arriflex. "Everything else is manual on the camera - all your exposure, all your focus. There's no electricity that flows to any part other than the motor. And on the motor of this camera you can swap out a variable-speed motor. You can just dial in your film rate."
His trusted Arriflex has survived plenty of mishaps. Sealing film cartridges with hockey tape helps.
"You can set the camera, just on a tripod with nothing covering it, and have someone ski past it and completely cover it, and then you stop and you wipe down the camera and you squeegee off the lens, and you're good to go," he said. "If it was water, it would be something else. But because it's snow, and the camera's metal, it's not melting that quickly."
A former competitive skier himself, Murphy has wiped out more than once with the Arri in a backpack, and he's broken a few lenses. But the camera itself, which Murphy has owned for three years, survives.
"The Arri SB is just a workhorse of a camera. You can basically drop the thing and pick it up and keep shooting. It's very, very durable," he said.
For extreme cinematography pioneer John "Sandy" Santucci and his John Sandy Productions, which has shot radical snow sports for more than a decade, the introduction of lightweight DV cameras made a world of difference.
When he began shooting the World Extreme Skiing Championships in 1992, a setup required upwards of 75 pounds of gear: a Betacam with a big lens, six or seven batteries and a sackful of tapes to last a day.
Today, a camera operator can have a day's worth of tape in one pocket, a day's worth of power in the other, as well as a DV camera in a small backpack.
His company still keeps a wide selection of both Betacams and DVs.
"On lift-served mountains, it's not that big of a deal to have a Betacam," he said. "There's no doubt about it, you get a much better shot with the Betacam. But in some of the situations we're in, a mini-DV package was getting the job done. In a lot of cases we were getting much better shots, because the camera operators could essentially go into the exact places where the athletes were competing, to the point where they could give a high-five as they went by."
(click thumbnail)Premier Productions' work includes "Power Trip," an extreme kiteboarding movie. Their equipment ranges from mini-DV packages to the Canon XL-1.
Cleveland, a longtime Maui contractor and lawnmower repairman, has adapted his passion for boarding sports (surf, skate and snow) into a major venture, now producing his second season of half-hour shows. His footage ranges from the classic surfer-in-a-tube to bizarre activities such as downhill skateboarding and dirtboarding. Maui, he said, has numerous long, grassy valleys that function like halfpipes for long, long runs by extreme athletes.
His equipment is all digital: He started with Sony single-chip TRV-9s and uses Sony VX-1000s and PD-150s, Canon XL-100s and now the three-chip Sony TRV-900, which he encases in an Amphibico housing for shooting in the ocean.
For helmet-cam dirtboarder's-eye-view shots, he uses the single-chip Sharp VLWD 250 Palmcorder. Under some conditions, the Palmcorder performs almost as well as the larger cameras.
"It's super-tiny, lightweight and, under the right lighting, fabulous," he said. "It's not a big old bulky helmet-cam-type deal."
A digital image stabilizer helps make those killer shots, he said.
"You can tell the difference between a TRV-900 and this, but not by very much," he said. "If I'm lucky enough to get the shot, and the lighting's all right, it moves so fast anyway nobody can tell the difference."
And it costs only about $400.
"If you pile, which you're going to do - you're going to crash - it's not that giant a loss."
Cleveland's original VX-1000 is still going, at least most of the time, although the audio has died. But he continues to be impressed by its durability, especially considering the mud and dirt he's exposed it to.
"When it comes to product-testing, I've put it pretty much on the line," he said.
In the ocean, a few of Cleveland's cameras have drowned when they were used without protective housing and got sprayed with saltwater. But he's refined his tactics.
A helmet-cam in a waterproof pack on the back of a cameraman riding a Waverunner personal watercraft will get a great shot.
"That right there is an incredible way to capture footage, because you can actually ride right through the tube," he said.
But it's tricky to ride one way and face another, so Cleveland found a boat - a Gemini Thundercat - with a 12-foot inflatable Catamaran-type hull.
"We've taken this thing in 20-foot waves," he said. "It does 50, 60 miles per hour and it pulls G's when it turns. One guy's driving and the other guy is filming and you're able to take off on the wave."
The Amphibico keeps the camera dry and lets it function properly.
"We take huge, huge beatings," he said. "We get rag-dolled. You take a 10-foot wave on the head - it just explodes like a bomb. You just have to pull the [camera] in as hard as you can and tuck your head so you don't hit the bottom and roll. Sometimes, you're under there for maybe 15 or 20 seconds, rolling around, just getting ripped apart, trying to protect and hold camera and not drown. It gets pretty hectic.
"When you watch that stuff, you see the wave coming, and then all of sudden, pow!" he continued. "You can hear the noise and everything, and the camera's rolling around, and bubbles are blowing everywhere, and then all of a sudden the thing pops up to the surface. You can hear the guy going, 'Oh my God, I just got worked.' The cameras, they take a beating. The Amphibico thing's fantastic."
OFF THE WALL
Big-wall rock climbers don't have soft saltwater to fall into. They have to make sure that their equipment - not to mention their bodies - are harnessed safely.
"For the most part, I'm hanging off ropes a couple of hundred feet up," said Paul Dusatko, who films climbers under the name Integrity 7 Productions.
Generally, Dusatko hangs in a harness from so-called "fixed" ropes, while the climbers nearby do the work of installing protective gear in the rock and bringing rope up as they go. He climbs the rope with a jumar (a one-way device that ascends the rope when the climber cranks on it). His camera, usually a Canon XL-1, rides up in a separate harness and is clipped to his body for added security. "It's pretty bombproof," he said.
Cameras have no fear of heights. And Dusatko's XL-1 has boldly survived the hauling and occasional banging.
"I've really been lucky," he said. "I think it's only lightly tapped the wall a few times."
For audio, Dusatko experimented with wireless mics, but he considered the bulky pack involved an eyesore. So he uses shotgun mics.
Some higher-end productions use a pole of sorts to press a cameraman away from the wall for different angle, but Dusatko hasn't gone there yet.
Extreme cinematography is unforgiving, with variables beyond the producer's control.
"You can get the world's best athletes to the world's most exotic locales, and have wonderful snow one day, and then have a storm roll in and sit there for a month, waiting for one day of light," said Murphy, the ski shooter. "And then you get up there, and it just so happens the night before there was a little bit of a wind event, and everything is so windpacked that, number one, you almost kill yourself in an avalanche or, number two, it's not skiable."
Especially on steep, exposed terrain, the film crew as well as the skiers have to take care, he said.
"There was a time when we had a shot all set up and we were kicking out a flat spot in the snow to set up a tripod which triggered an enormous avalanche that ripped about three feet from where we were setting up, and took out trees in a whole valley. And it was damn scary."
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