Livin' on the Edge - Literally.
Tied in with 5/8 rope, bits of aluminum and steel cable holding five cameramen in place on sheets of ice/soggy snow, we're shooting the Performance Design Factory Team (PDFT) as they become the first terrain swoopers in the world flying inside the Grand Canyon. The Factory Team are the most experienced and talented athletes in the skydiving world, having won world event competitions as a team and as individual athletes.
Our task was to shoot in places no camera has ever accessed, and this project was a techno-marvel at every twist and turn in the several miles of dirt road (and sometimes virtually no road) it took to arrive at shooting locations. Unable to physically scout the area, Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems were used in conjunction with specific areas that were discovered, chosen, and mapped out using Google Earth Plus by the Factory Team members. None of the five jumpers had ever been in this remote area far from the beaten path of tourists. Satellite phones were used for general and emergency communications, as there is no cellular coverage (or power of any kind) on the site. Base camp was established at the Cameron Trading Post on the Navajo (Dine) reservation in north central Arizona with a 2.5 hour drive to each shoot location. The nearest airport is Tuba City, AZ to the north, and further to the south in Flagstaff, AZ. The video aircraft based themselves out of the Tuba City airport.
The shoot is in a remote area, miles from the nearest power outlet or electronics store, temperatures are hovering just below freezing at noon, and zero/single digits in the early morning and late afternoon. We needed cameras that would be capable of moving 120mph and manage fast exposure changes from bright sunlit sky and clouds to the dark recesses of the Grand Canyon, that could manage the cold and wind. No stunt nor camera setup could be rehearsed, as helicopter time is exceedingly expensive for this no/low-budget project.
The stunts the skydivers performed were dangerous enough on level and familiar ground. Flying wings of nylon and string at speeds approaching 100 mph while skimming the rocky soil for distances of up to 150 feet, then at ground level, executing a nearly upside down barrel roll only a couple of feet from the edge of the Grand Canyon would be considered an extreme act of athleticism. Place cameramen with shoulder cams directly beneath them that need to avoid the canopy pilots, and the canopy pilots need to avoid the cameramen; even the slightest strike could easily kill the canopy pilot and toss the tethered camera operator over the edge.
Due to the budget, location, availability of crew, and the speed that setups had to happen, we chose to use HDV camcorders on this shoot. The Factory Team was already prepped up for the HDV format, as they currently all fly Sony HVR-A1U camcorders on their camera helmets. Each member of the team flies a camcorder to shoot POV, while team photographer JC Colclasure flies over, under, and around the team to capture an overall perspective from the air. All aerial camcorders are fitted with Raynox HD wide angle lenses, while the helmets are fitted with CamEye and Brent's Sights camera indicators and sight rings.
Four Sony HVR Z1U, three HVR V1U, and eight HVR A1U camcorders were used on the shoot, plus two Canon XLH1 camcorders used for long shots using a variety of lens lengths. The lighter camcorders were critical, as they needed to be quickly rappelled into the canyon strapped to our backs, quickly set up on canyon ledges when positioned by helicopter, and able to be flown on lightweight jibs over the canyon.
Dave Major aka "Clem", a Hollywood stunt coordinator and stuntman managed the harnessing and safety tie-downs; Jack Guthrie, a DZO (Drop Zone Operator) and safety officer oversaw all safety aspects of the shoot, managing the cameramen on the rim of the canyon and the cameramen flying in the Cessna 185 aircraft and helicopter. Each on the shoot was required to wear a harness at all times, and be secured from at least one point for each shoot position. Cameramen Matt Wimmer, Joey Allred, Dave Major, Jack Guthrie, and boom operator Benjamin Bressler are all accomplished skydivers, some with great BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumping skill, which was of great benefit when consistently 2000 feet from the ground. The Performance Designs Factory Team all wear Skysystems or Wes Rich camera helmets, Bonehead ShuVue (foot camera mount), and belly cams to capture a variety of air-to-air angles. Shannon Pilcher, Ian Bobo, Jonathan Tagle, Jay Moledzki, and JC Colclasure are all not only world record canopy pilots; they're all very accomplished aerial camera operators, and have flown for a wide variety of television broadcasts as aerial camera persons.
We used lightweight tripods with Bogen 516 and 526 heads were used on a variety of sticks, but at all times, the kit was kept exceptionally light. The tripods were used for the long ground-to-air shots, as the lenses were fully extended, and needed to be kept tight on high speed objects, virtually invisible to the naked eye. Upon reaching a preset altitude of approximately 3000' AGL (Above Ground Level) the pilots would pop skydiver smoke, allowing them to be more easily seen and tracked. We also used the Gorillapod camera grippers/mounts, wrapped around rocks, scrub, and lighting poles to capture unique angles without being seen on in the frame of other camcorders. Audio Technica wireless and microphones were used mounted to KTek Graphite boom poles. We chose the wireless system as both receiver and transmitter were battery operated, and the KTek Graphite pole was chosen for past performance in exceptionally cold environments such as the Sundance Film Festival and various snowboarding competitions. Aluminum boom poles become loose, and are exceptionally cold to hang on to for any length of time.
Gear planning easily became the greatest apparent hurdle. Being as remote as we were, batteries were critical for lighting, sound equipment, camcorders, wireless systems, radios, and satellite phones. For this reason, we choose to carrry four LitePanels and lightweight stands, we planned on weighting the stands with stones slung in canvas bags. Water could not be carried to the cliff ledges for reasons of weight and safety. Stones were also chosen to weight down the jib assembly used over the edge of the cliff. RedRock Micro MicroFocus' with 18" whips were used for tripod mounts on both dolly and tripod setups, adding in speed of focus during pans. We also needed to be assured of on-site monitoring, and Adobe/Serious Magic DV Rack HD served the purpose quite well. Cameras above or on the rim in sunlit areas were fitted with 4X4 polarizing filters for shooting against the sky, into the sun, and for intensifying colors against the sunlit canyon walls, causing the parachutes to brightly stand out.
Other challenges were picking up great field audio. Everything in the canyon echoes and rolls, and distances ranging from over a mile to mere feet made levels a challenge to control without using automatic level controlling. We didn't want to allow auto control, as the noise of the helicopter constantly triggered auto-level controls boosting noise as the heli flew farther and closer to our microphones. We used Audio Technica 4073 mics for rim-edge placement, hanging microphones off the rim into the middle of the canyon to capture the crack of opening parachutes and the sound of rushing cloth during wingsuit jumps and canopy deployments. We also wanted to capture the very distinctive sound of swooping canopies at high speed, both at near and far distances. For the near distances (less than five feet), we used Audio Technica 4053 hyper cardiods to block as much helicopter noise as possible.
Camera operators are staged at three points in the canyon. Covering the landing area, in-canyon flight and terrain stunts required helicopter placement, as the bottom of the canyon and mid-points in the canyon could not be rappelled or fast roped, and while we could have BASE jumped into the bottom of the canyon, extraction still required heli time. At many points, the cameraman had to free-step from the helicopter to small rock areas, due to the helicopter not being able to set down in small spaces. This added to the importance of highly portable camera kits. The overall scale of the canyon is not to be underestimated. For this project, we all underestimated the scope of distance, and even though we had our longest lenses in place, shooting 2000 feet even on a rock-mounted and weighted tripod could become an exercise in hunt and peck to locate the skydivers when they were 5000 feet in the air moving at exceptionally high speed. There were occasions where we were separated by as much as 8,000 feet between the exit point and landing areas.
We set each camera to capture a specific range of action, given the speed at which we had to capture the moving canopy pilots. The canopy pilots gave very accurate space limits within which they'd be flying, but no aerial stunt or precision flight could be predicted to specific marks due to winds. However, once near the ground, the canopy pilots flew their wings within millimeters of mark points. Cameras set to capture at full extension, super wide, tracking, and fixed closeups were designated prior to the jump/stunt. This makes for a wide selection of camera angles for the multicam edit, offering anywhere between 6 and 14 camera angles per stunt. VASST infinitiCAM in Sony Vegas 7 software was used for cutting dailies to get a glimpse of what we had in the can each night. Ultimately, we brought home more than 100 hours of footage between all of the camcorders on the shoot, in four locations over 6 days. Logging was managed with the Sony Media Manager for Vegas, allowing us to mark all dailies, access similar scenes, search by logged keywords, and create stunt folders. On site storage for dailies was captured to Western Digital "MyBook" 500GB external drives, connected to a laptop via 1394 connection. Only key scenes were captured for immediate review at various angles, to save time on the ground.
Mornings started before sunlight, and the shoots ran straight into night, squeezing the last moments out of the golden hour, to create as many romance shots as possible. During one late afternoon stunt, the winds at 4000' AGL were significantly different than winds measured at ground level, and winds generated by the cooler air in the canyon. The canopy pilots were significantly blown off course by rogue winds, causing them to not only miss their pre-assigned marks, but put them at risk of not being able to generate enough drive to fly over and subsequently into, the Grand Canyon area. This added risk cost us a few camera angles since only two of the canopy pilots entered into the sight picture and frame boundaries. These sorts of challenges are common when working with unpredictable high speed sports, and camera operators need to be prepared to improvise if anything is to be captured at all.
At the end of this segment of a much larger project, everyone was exhausted from the long hikes carrying gear, shooting in very cold conditions, and the long hours. As skydivers often say, "we had fun and no one died." That sums up the project quite nicely; we had a great time under adverse conditions, captured some incredible footage (have *you* ever seen a parachute fly upside down at ground level?), and put to bed the second segment of one of the most exciting chapters in this forthcoming feature-length project. For me personally, the greatest part of the entire experience is hanging out with my heroes in the skydiving world, learning new canopy techniques, and the opportunity to join my videocraft with my passion for skydiving. From my viewpoint as a videographer that skydives, , these two weeks have been similar to hanging out with Spielberg, Cameron, Coppola, or other great director. Except these guys fly.
The great achievement wasn't just that we succeeded in capturing a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but that we pulled it off using small format gear, easily carried and packed from point to point in short periods of time, trying to pace the flights and lighting .Thanks to the light weight and maneuverability of the small-format camcorders, livin' on the edge may be dangerous, but missing the shot was never a worry.
All photos in this article shot by Justin Carmody, Performance Designs photographer using Canon 5D and a bag of lenses. Screen captures from Sony Vegas 7.
Additional video camera assistance and aircraft piloting from David Major, Michelle Knutsen, Jack Guthrie, Debbie Zimmerman, Mannie Frances, and Ryan Crissman.
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