A hobbyist merges freefall and video into a thrilling career.
Imagine shooting a video while you are falling at a rate of 120 miles per
hour. A wrong move could send you spinning out of control and cause you
to lose sight of your subject completely. On top of all of this, you have
less than a minute to record quality footage before paying attention to
saving your own life.
Mauricio "Maui" Rivera is no stranger to these and many other
hazards. As a skydiving videographer, he is one of the few people who combines
his love of skydiving with his passion for videography every day. Shortly
after he learned the sport in 1989, Maui realized that he also wanted to
learn how to shoot freefall videos. He began the difficult process by borrowing
a helmet with a Sony Handycam mounted on it. The first video impressed the
owner of the parachute center, who offered him a position as a full-time
The Helmet/Camcorder Alliance
The first thing that Maui did was to buy his own video camera. On the
advice of other skydiving videographers and because he lacked proper editing
equipment, he searched for a Hi8 camera with slow-motion capabilities and
manual focus. The camcorder which met his needs was the Sony Handycam CCD-V701.
The next step was to find a helmet. Many skydivers buy factory-made helmets,
but Maui decided to build his own using other helmets as models. He bought
a moto-cross helmet with unobstructed vision and cut the top off to make
a flat platform. To this, he fitted a flat metal plate using four screws
spaced evenly around it. After figuring out which position was best for
mounting his video camera, he drilled a hole for a tripod mount and secured
his camera onto the helmet.
In addition to the tripod mount, he used industrial strength Velcro (found
in many camera shops) and glued one half to the metal plate and the other
half to the camcorder. Finally, because freefall and the opening of the
parachute can be very hard on video cameras, Maui also fashioned a strap
with Velcro that attaches to the helmet and hugs the camera.
To protect the camcorder from further harm and to insure its effectiveness
in freefall, skydiving videographers use gaffer’s tape to seal any openings
where air could get into the camera and cause the tape to vibrate, thus
ruining the video.
Next, Maui mounted a ring sight to his helmet. A ring sight is an apparatus
that works like the scope on a rifle; it gives the skydiver a rough view
of what the camcorder is recording. To sight it in correctly, he places
the helmet on his head while someone stands directly behind him. With both
of them using an agreed-upon reference point, Maui adjusts the ring sight
according to what the person behind him sees in the camera.
To finish his camera helmet, Maui added a mount for his still camera on
the front. Then he attached a special chinstrap and extra padding to keep
the helmet snug and secure on his head. If the helmet shakes during freefall,
the quality of the video will suffer. Thus, Maui claims that "if the
helmet fits comfortably, it’s not right." After completion, his helmet
provided a snug fit with unobstructed vision, yet remained lightweight and
"It was like learning how to skydive all over again," Maui said
after his first jump with the new camera-helmet. Suddenly, with the addition
of his heavy helmet and video camera, he had more things to deal with during
the parachute jump. He had become a human tripod; no matter what way his
body went, his head had to constantly face the subject. Though it took him
a few awkward jumps, he eventually felt comfortable with a camera-helmet
on his head in freefall and under-canopy.
Freefall Camcorder II
After a couple of years, freefall began to take its toll on Maui’s video
camera so he searched for a second one. He limited his search to Sony models
due to his satisfaction with his first camcorder; but Sony no longer made
the CCD-V701. He instead bought a Sony Handycam CCD-TR100. This Hi8 camcorder
has manual focus, but Maui found that the slow-motion capabilities were
not as high in quality as the CCD-V701.
On both cameras, Maui uses a 0.5x wide-angle lens adapter. It captures more
of the subject without requiring critical sighting on the camera, a plus
while in freefall. The wide-angle lens also smoothes out the bumpiness encountered
For all of Maui’s videos, he uses the Sony Nickel-Cadmium rechargeable batteries.
He has found that he can record up to ten freefalls of one to two minutes
each using the larger batteries, such as models NP-80 and NP-66H; but to
be on the safe side he carries a smaller model NP-55 with him during each
Down to Earth Editing
When Maui started his videography career, his sole means of editing
his videos was through a standard VHS VCR, the Sony SLV420, with the camera
as its only source. He edited by simply releasing both pause buttons simultaneously,
recording only the necessary shots for each video onto the master tape.
To enhance the video, he would occasionally use the slow-motion feature
of the camcorder.
Eventually, however, Maui wanted to increase his production capabilities,
so he bought the Videonics MX-1 Digital Video Mixer and the TitleMaker 2000.
These editing units provide him with special effects such as picture-in-picture,
fades and wipes, as well as titles with eye-catching fonts, borders and
To obtain A/B-roll editing capabilities, Maui bought a second VCR, the Panasonic
AG-2530. This four-head editing VCR allows him to make clean cuts without
any glitches in the video, and includes audio dub and video insert capabilities.
Finishing the list of his editing equipment are two monitors, one used as
a preview monitor and the other used as an output monitor. To add music
to his videos, he uses a Fisher portable CD player and a Radio Shack audio
mixer. Finally, because he records hundreds of skydiving videos each year,
Maui now uses a Kinyo Rewinder to extend the life of his VCRs.
After five years of shooting skydiving videos, Maui still finds satisfaction
and happiness in his work. Each jump offers new challenges, and he constantly
searches for original shots such as circling his subject during freefall
or following another jumper during the canopy ride. He takes pride in the
quality of his productions and has developed a reputation for producing
some of the most entertaining skydiving videos around, especially for first-time
Though he tries to plan each skydive with his subjects before the actual
jump, he often shoots video of something completely unexpected, usually
when he is recording skydives with several jumpers. He has watched decent
formations suddenly crumble when one of the parachutists slams into another
person or misses his place, thereby taking everyone else with him. One of
the most heart-stopping videos he shot was when he looked up to find his
own parachute tied up like a bowtie. He shows this video now with the pride
of knowing he successfully completed his emergency skydiving procedures
while simultaneously managing to capture the excitement on videotape.
His hobby has progressed into a full-fledged career. Maui now owns Video
Magic Productions, a video business currently specializing in skydiving
videos. Someday, he would like to expand his services to include weddings,
birthdays and similar events. He is also interested in studying cinematography
and has looked into evening classes offered at a local college. For now,
though, one can find him at the parachute center looking for new shots and
new ways to edit his fast-paced, thrilling videos.