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

Hunter Weeks and his camera crew spent two weeks roughing it in the Colorado Rockies, encountering snow, grizzly bears and hungry mosquitoes.

Only 30 seconds of what Davo Weiss filmed in shark-infested waters off Cape Town, South Africa, made it into his film.

Travis Robb hung out of a flying helicopter, banked radically on its side, to shoot what was below. Airsick, it took all he could muster to keep from vomiting on his camera.

Mike Losness of San Clemente catches some air in "Cancer to Capricorn: The Path of the Modern Gypsy"
Chris Straley / REEF
Mike Losness of San Clemente catches some air in "Cancer to Capricorn: The Path of the Modern Gypsy"
"Camp Chuck" Director Marc Salomon and director of photography Justin Ostensen
Jennie Warren
"Camp Chuck" Director Marc Salomon and director of photography Justin Ostensen
Laguna Beach's Hans Hagen rides a giant barrel in Indonesia in "Lost Prophets—search for the collective"
Joey Melroy
Laguna Beach's Hans Hagen rides a giant barrel in Indonesia in "Lost Prophets—search for the collective"
"Lost Prophets" director Nathan Apffel in his work clothes
Jennie Warren
"Lost Prophets" director Nathan Apffel in his work clothes
"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"
Segments of "Freedom Riders" that appear to have been shot by helicopters were actually produced by cameras on ropes tied to trees
KGB Productions
Segments of "Freedom Riders" that appear to have been shot by helicopters were actually produced by cameras on ropes tied to trees
Director Hunter Weeks prepares to "find the moments" for "Ride the Divide"
Mike Dion
Director Hunter Weeks prepares to "find the moments" for "Ride the Divide"

Nathan Apffel didn’t lose his lunch, but he nearly lost consciousness in the waters off a remote island in Indonesia when a wayward surfboard fin hit him in the temple, causing blood to gush out. There wasn’t a hospital for miles, let alone Obamacare.

That was a picnic compared to the dengue fever Apffel suffered a couple of weeks later.

While watching well-made action-sports films—or any movie that includes such sequences—viewers are often amazed at the extreme athleticism filling the frames.

But what of the extremes it took to capture those extreme images?

The 2010 Newport Beach Film Festival, which opens Thursday, April 22 and continues through April 29—includes among its popular Action Sports category 22 feature-length films and several shorts.

It’s big business. For every indie production shot on a shoestring budget, there’s a better-funded project with a corporate imprimatur stamped onto it. Sponsors of action-sports films in this year’s lineup include Quiksilver, Element, Red Bull and Reef.

Among the entries is Cancer to Capricorn: The Path of the Modern Gypsy, director/cinematographer Russell Brownley’s visually stunning documentary on surfing excursions between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The film is sponsored by Reef, the surf-inspired sandal maker that has expanded into active sportswear.

Cancer to Capricorn follows members of the Reef surf team, including veteran pro Rob Machado of Newport Beach, to sunny locations from Mexico to Indonesia. Although it’s not mentioned onscreen, the surfers ride the waves while wearing the latest spring and summer lines of Reef boardshorts.

PJ Connell, the men’s marketing director for the Carlsbad-based clothing company, was involved in the film from the beginning, even helping Brownley pick out music in post-production. Print, broadcast and web-based advertising can only go so far in creating brand awareness in an action-sports-retail industry crowded with players, says Connell, adding that a sponsored surf film cannot come off like an infomercial.

“You can’t fake it,” Connell says. “At its core, Cancer to Capricorn is a surf film about traveling the world, living out of a bag, living the dream. It is meant to inspire.”

If the inspired grab a board, head for the surf and stop to get Reef boardshorts on the way, all the better.

Connell is currently heading up an unusual marketing campaign to get the film directly to readers, netizens and viewers this summer via surf magazines, websites and television shows. In addition to having the world premiere on American soil, the Newport Beach Film Festival will help Cancer to Capricorn gain recognition for its filmmaking and expose it to audiences who might not typically gravitate to surf films, he explains.

Companies know potential product buyers watch these films. And to keep them coming back, filmmakers are hell-bent on topping their predecessors—and themselves—when it comes to extreme sequences.

*     *     *

Lost Prophets—Search for the Collective is among the most beautifully shot, well-edited and fully realized movies in this year’s festival, let alone the Action Sports category. It follows eight surfers scattered all over the world, but several Orange Countians are involved in the project. And the waters off Newport Beach inspired the documentary’s director.

Nathan Apffel, who is credited as director and director of photography, grew up in Los Angeles, but he developed a love of the ocean while staying at his family’s beach house on Balboa Island and learning to surf.

His narrator is Laguna Beach’s Tom Morey, the inventor of the Boogie Board. Two surfers who appear onscreen are San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino and Hans Hagen, who was born and lives in Laguna Beach. Hagen is also one of the executive producers.

Apffel wanted to highlight individuals “far from the ‘normal’ idea of a professional surfer.”

“Surfing culture originated as an act of escape and joy, yet today, there has been a departure from these origins entering an age of hyper-progression and extreme commercialism,” he explains. “Among the unstoppable trend of surf globalization, there are still certain individuals who have chosen this age-old path of discovery with surfing being a spiritual reflection of themselves.”

He calls his eight surfers “prophets” to the industry. And to translate their passion to viewing audiences, Apfell had to go to where the surfers find it. That involved taking an old, 80-foot, wood-hulled fishing vessel called D’Bora through the outer islands of Indonesia—with his crew and expensive sound and camera gear aboard.

“Here, our crew scored some of the best surf to hit the island chain in the past decade,” says Apffel, still excited at the memory.

He’s less thrilled recalling the day he was shooting in the water when a set with 15- to 20-foot faces rolled in.

“I dove under, almost hitting the reef,” says Apffel, remembering it being only 5 feet down. “All of a sudden, something hit me really hard in the head, and I almost lost consciousness. When I surfaced, I realized it was Hans Hagen.”

Considering the gash Hagen’s board carved into Apffel’s head, it could have been disastrous were it not for the quick needlework of their surf guide.

Later into filming, the director was in Bali when he awoke one morning shaking in a cold sweat. That lasted for four days before he figured out he was suffering from dengue fever, which is a lot like malaria but relatively easy to treat.

Perhaps it was a fever-induced dream that caused Apffel to come up with the angle he wanted to shoot Hagen surfing off mainland Mexico. The viewer will likely believe it was shot from a helicopter, but the camera was actually perched high atop a cliff that hung over the wave break.

Lugging 50-plus pounds of equipment, it took Apfell three and a half hours to schlep up that cliff. “I only had my gear, swim trunks and a pair of sandals,” he recalls. “Needless to say, I wasn’t well-prepared.”

He now proudly boasts that trek produced “some of the coolest angles from the film.”

*     *     *

Two of Marc Salomon’s crew members rigged a camera to an ATV. One of them drove the vehicle at high speeds on a bumpy dirt track while the other operated the camera, which would swing violently back and forth or up and down. None of the resulting footage was used at length in Camp Chuck, a documentary that explores the dirt-track motorcycle sport freestyle motocross (FMX), whose riders do jumps and tricks in the middle of their races.

The ATV shots created by director of photography Justin Ostensen—who was born and raised in Laguna Beach, where he still lives—give viewers the point of view of riders.

More important to Salomon, who produced and directed despite not knowing much about FMX when he began, was projecting the riders’ “fear, courage and determination” without setting up any special shots.

“We essentially just let them loose and let our director of photography and operators loose, and then refined the evolving chaos as best we could,” Salomon explains.

He describes that chaos as “essentially six grown men simultaneously killing every ridable inch of the place, revving bikes so loud that you are in what can only be described as an acoustic blackout, stirring up clouds of dirt that face-whip you like Indiana Jones.”

Salomon’s camera operators took hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment up hills made of mud to film riders such as Chuck Carothers—who, noticing how bold the cameramen were getting one particular day, decided to give them a show. “Chuck barrels down the runway, off the jump, whips his bike perfectly flat, sideways, flying directly toward the camera,” Salomon recalls. “At what seems like an impossibly late moment, Chuck straightens the bike away from the camera and holds his hand out for a high five, landing perfectly with barely a sound.”

You won’t see that shot in Camp Chuck, Salomon explains, because cameraman Marc Levy had already “bailed down the side of the dirt mountain like a billy goat, doing everything he could to maintain the safety of the camera, while galloping, falling and rolling with his assistant, Martin DiCicco, down to a safe and hilarious heap.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were back up at their original perch. A little muddier, of course.

*     *     *

Davo Weiss says the hairiest moment of directing BoardHeads came not in the waters off South Africa, dodging sharks while shooting kiteboarders, but in the streets of Paris, where he had to talk police out of arresting him for non-permitted filming near the Eiffel Tower.

His documentary honors what Weiss calls the “global tribe of board riders”—surf, body, wake, kite, snow and skate—“who make the world a cooler place.” Bringing them to the screen involved lugging expensive gear through not only the City of Lights, but also the ghettos of South Africa, Brazil and Thailand. “Perhaps the most interesting things that we experienced in the making of the film were the cultural diversities found around the world,” Weiss says. “After long days of windsurfing, we watched locals in Brazil sandboarding down giant sand dunes and dancing their capoeira martial arts on the beach.”

The cultural diversity Weiss captured extended to Huntington Beach, where he filmed ex-gang members being treated to a free day of surfing.

*     *     *

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.”

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.

*     *     *

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.”

*     *     *

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.

BoardHeads screens at Edwards Island Cinemas. April 25, 1:30 p.m.

Freedom Riders screens at Edwards Island Cinemas. April 27, 4:45 p.m.

Black Winter screens at Edwards Island Cinemas. April 26, 5:30 p.m.

Ride the Divide screens at Edwards Island Cinemas. April 29, 5:15 p.m.

For more details and a full schedule, visit www.newportbeachfilmfest.com.

mcoker@ocweekly.com

This story appeared in print as "Going to Extremes: You think action-sports athletes push the limit? Check out the guys filming them."

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