Not in the 25 years of skydiving formation competition has a team won both the 4-way and 8-way events in the same year; Arizona Airspeed dared the odds in 1999. The latest 52-minute Airspeed video, released by Solid Entertainment, produced and directed by Jonathan Griggs, is one of the best skydiving stories on the market. It's engrossing, touching and best of all, sheds a positive light on the sport. And at only $30, it sold out at Square One in its first week and is already being restocked.
The journey started for filmmaker Griggs back in February 1999, after he had written a movie script based loosely on the Airspeed story during the time the French were dominating the competition circuit. In order to promote the script, he contacted people within skydiving, which turned up a mutual friend of his and Airspeed's. Griggs traveled to Eloy, Arizona to talk to Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, one of Airspeed's members, about the project.
"I was blown away by how Airspeed operated, how committed they were to the sport and thought they had an amazing group dynamic. I hadn't seen that in life, let alone skydiving," says Grigg. "Their story for that year had to be told."
He returned to New York and began to research both the production logistics that would be involved as well as the markets. "I was turned down by everybody," Griggs grimly notes. But because time was short, he decided to go out-on-a-limb and started financing the project with his own credit cards.
One of the most important concepts of this documentary for Griggs was to design "a mainstream program that a whuffo could enjoy watching." He wanted the audience to have an emotional attachment to the characters. He wanted to portray skydivers, not as adrenaline junkies or crazies who get killed for their recklessness, but as solid, thoughtful individuals who have a passion for life--and skydiving. "If a whuffo can identify, then you have your hook. Then, they will stay and watch."
So taking a minimal-size documentary crew back to Eloy in June of '99, Griggs started filming the groundwork of the piece. For two weeks, he interviewed the 4-way Airspeed team, the people surrounding them and followed their daily training routine. He spent a lot of time around them, so they got used to his presence and to build up trust.
Originally, Griggs did not intend to follow the team to the Nationals, held that year in Sebastian, Florida. He thought the presentation of two competitions, the Nationals and the World meet, would be redundant, in addition to the fact that whether Airspeed won or lost at the Nationals would be irrelevant to the World meet and their standings there. For these reasons, he only took himself to film the event.
He was wrong on two accounts. First, Griggs shot some of his most amazing footage in Florida. No less than two world records took place at that year's Nationals and a hurricane to boot. Second, this Nationals' segment added a lot to the whole middle section of the story. These championships introduced both the 4-way and 8-way dynamics of the team, and no longer could Griggs keep them separated. They operated as a whole. The outcome of these Nationals also influenced the team's feelings very much at the World event.
So, the tape wraps out at Corowa, Australia at the World Skydiving Championships with Airspeed, also known as Team USA, representing the United States in both the 4-way and 8-way competitions. They are going after the gold in both, which would be a first-time achievement.
The results both at the Nationals and at the World meet may be well known to the inner skydiving world, but to newcomers and outsiders, it's unpredictable. Makes for one fascinating story.
The video is beautifully shot, despite the raw footage only being on Beta SP and mini-DV. They filmed using only natural light, and it hasn't even been color corrected. John Castello was Grigg's cameraperson in Arizona, Jack Scott in Australia, and Griggs himself tackled that duty in Florida without any prior experience whatsoever. Combined with several freefall videographers' work, the visuals are captivating.
The editing is especially notable. At no time is one full formation skydive played all the way through--this is a good thing. Instead, the story builds tension and compassion by cutting away to Airspeed's challengers and entourage. For non-skydivers, formation skydiving, though well explained in the video, can get monotonous to watch. Grigg's intentions of keeping us immersed in the feelings of the piece works very well.
While Griggs was shooting in Florida, he received no less than three written offers from the Discovery channel to come into his production efforts. Now, it was his time to turn them down, as he wanted to maintain creative control and tell the story his way.
As a result, we are rewarded with one fine masterpiece. Solid Entertainment, a distributor from California, is currently shopping Airspeed for the television market. Griggs also has a meeting with the BBC later this month.
Griggs seized the opportunity of a weather day here at the Nationals 2000 to premiere his work to rave reviews. For Griggs, the past 18-month journey was never about the money. To him, the compliments and watching people's faces makes the trip priceless. When someone comes up to him and tells him that they now have a video that they can show their folks that shows and proves why they love skydiving so much, to Griggs, that's the biggest compliment he's gotten.
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