Going to Extremes to Get the Shot

[Newport Beach Film Fest] You think action-sports athletes push the limit? Check out the people filming them

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Freedom Riders is about a small group of mountain bikers who—after having carved rough, unsustainable and illegal trails in the country’s national forestland—created an unprecedented relationship with federal authorities to build what are now regarded as some of the best “freeride” trails in the country.

“Mountain biking, specifically downhilling, has found a friend in the Bridger-Teton Forest Service, who have willingly provided legal, downhill-specific mountain biking near and around power-line corridors,” explains Chris Kitchen, the documentary’s director and producer. “It is the first easement on Forest Service land of its kind in the U.S., in the most unlikely of places.”

"Black Winter" follows snowboarders from above, where it got just as daring
Rider: Mark Landvik / Photo by: Colin Adair
"Black Winter" follows snowboarders from above, where it got just as daring
Camera operaters had to be as agile as the athletes in 
Davo Weiss" "Boardheads"
Rider: Stevo Weiss / Photo by: Davo Weiss
Camera operaters had to be as agile as the athletes in Davo Weiss" "Boardheads"

To film those places, his team had to walk and bike with 100 pounds of camera gear strapped to them before reaching giant Douglas fir trees, which they scaled so that ropes holding cameras could be tied together and knotted to shoot down from above. “We set up a dozen cable cams, which took a day each to prep and another half-day to shoot,” Kitchen says.

The end result of all that effort?

“Maybe a minute of footage” in the finished film, Kitchen says.

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The title Black Winter, which showcases the annual progression of individual members of a select group of professional snowboarders, plays off the troubled economic times we are living through.

It proved prophetic.

Black Winter was one of the most difficult movies in recent memory for us to raise off the ground and get into production,” explains director Travis Robb. “What I really love about the film is that there is a positive feeling about it that kind of says, ‘No matter what, indie snowboard films are here to stay!’”

Robb wondered if he was here to stay while hanging out of that sideways helicopter. “I had the pilot bank the helicopter as hard as possible so that I could shoot hand-held looking straight down on the action,” he recalls. “I was quickly looking in and out of the camera, trying to time the shot to the riders dropping in, all this while pulling some minor G [forces] in the helicopter.”

He became extremely airsick. Instantly.

What was his daring deed worth?

“From that day’s helicopter shoot,” Robb says, “I think just under a minute total of footage was used in the film.”

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Hunter Weeks and his two camera crews shot 210 hours’ worth of film.

Ride the Divide clocks in at 80 minutes.

It was an expansive topic: Tour Divide is the world’s longest mountain-bike race, spanning more than 2,700 miles from Banff, Alberta, Canada, to Antelope Well, which is on the Mexican border with New Mexico.

Racers pack little gear and ride unsupported for 18 to 30 days to complete the race. Ride the Divide follows three of them: Mary Metcalf-Collier, the first female to race that distance; Mike Dion, a family man who just turned 40 (and was executive producer of the film); and Matthew Lee, who was the favorite to win the race despite it being his first Tour Divide.

What Weeks said he did not want was “bike porn”—that is, crazy angles and camera moves to overglorify mountain biking. He wanted the sport and its athletes to speak for themselves. “We wanted viewers to feel like they were experiencing what these racers went through,” says Weeks.

That is why his camera crews had to live outdoors along the route for weeks, getting very little sleep. “Consistently, this was the most difficult part of the shoot,” he says. “We encountered grizzly bears, 24-hour days and nagging mosquitoes.”

He and his crew hiked through the snowy passes that the racers had to cross. Usually, they traveled in the comfort of two Jeeps bouncing on old mining roads. Even then, they had to overcome several flat tires and impassible areas.

But Weeks says they had to ignore their own woes and be “on all the time” to catch their subjects, who, after all, were not following a shooting schedule. They were trying to win or at least finish a grueling race.

“I remember one morning sleeping in the Jeep, waiting for a racer to arrive in Pie Town, New Mexico,” Weeks recalls. “On a whim, I woke up at 4:45 in the morning and had a hunch we’d have a beautiful sunrise in this desert town. So I set up the tripod in this dirt road and let the time lapse roll. It was a beautiful beginning to a scene. It was this type of ‘always on’ mentality that let us really find the moments.”

Cancer to Capricorn: Path of the Modern Gypsy screens at Regency Lido Theatre, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach. April 24, 8 p.m.

Lost Prophets—Search for the Collective screens at Edwards Island Cinemas, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 644-0760; www.regmovies.com. April 28, 2:45 p.m.

Camp Chuck screens at Regency Lido South Coast Village Theatre, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 557-5701; www.regencysouthcoastvillage.com. April 26, 5:45 p.m.

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