A skateboarder gets big air during a half-pipe run, while a skydiver gets bigger air when an airplane hatch opens. A surfer shoots the tube at the North Shore and a BMX biker takes on a full-pipe at a custom made park. These are just a few scenarios from the diverse and exciting world of action sports. All the cool clothes, gear and tricks mean nothing without those beautiful slow-motion shots made by dedicated videographers. Think this could be the gig for you? It could well be!
Why action sports? Simple answer: because it’s cool! You know how you test your camera’s capabilities just to try it out, or apply every transition or filter in your new editing program? Video and action sports are buddies that share the mentality that will climb mountains just because it’s there.
What makes this type of work so much more possible today is the gear. Video cameras are now smaller and of higher quality than ever before. With small camera mounts, it’s possible to get camera angles which were impossible ten years ago. Now videographers can send viewers along with the action sport’s enthusiast as they defy gravity!
First Things First
Before you start picking out camera gear, it’s a good idea to first learn what options are available within the surprisingly vast industry. Underwater video, aerial cinematography, BMX bike video in addition to the sports mentioned earlier are specific types of video work you can jump into. However, in order to do this kind of work for profit, you’ll need learn the basics of how to start a video production company or start a video production business, as the two are different in their size and scope of services offered. Prior to learning those business aspects, you should already have a firm grasp on how to shoot and edit videos. Knowing how to shoot and edit will make the work easier for you to pick up assignments shooting sports videography and sports stock footage or selling stock footage clips.
When you’ve got a handle on the basics of shooting, editing and compiling a good story, look into what area of action sports video shooting you’d like to get started with. Much as you’d like to cover everything, that is unlikely. It’s tough to get started covering big wave surfing when you’re land-locked. Covering sky diving or underwater diving requires specialized training and a willingness to put yourself in dangerous situations. Other sports won’t require such personal commitment, but you’ll need to be near the action. Once you pick a likely sport, take time to learn the lingo of the sport. Another rite of passage that action sports and video have in common is the knowledge of exclusive terms, even when their common meaning is said by average people everyday. A word like cutback may have financial implications when used in offices worldwide, but on the water it’s a reversal of direction; then there’s grip which might be used as a verb by construction workers the world over, but to videographers, it’s title and occupation! Do you know what a ‘Flair’, ‘Abubaca’, ‘Quarter-pipe’, ‘Amoeba Bowl’, ‘A-Frame’, ‘Cutback’, ‘Angle of Attack’, ‘B.A.S.E.’ or ‘Ride it in’ mean? You better if you want action sports participants to let you gain access and get those awesome shots! (See Talking the Talk sidebar.)
Understand The Gear
After picking out your sport, start looking at camera gear next. As always, your initial budget will determine what you start with. The other factor will be the sport you’ve chosen to cover. The thing to remember about shooting action sports is; they are uncontrolled events. Often you’ll only get one chance to get your shots, so that will mean extra coverage. Having two or more cameras should be planned for in your budget. One main camera which will be operated directly by you and one or more small crash cameras which will operate independently. Your main camera should be relatively lightweight with a reasonable amount of control over focus, exposure and framerates. Look into finding cameras that have a fast boot up time, going from resting mode to shooting mode in seconds or less. Crash cameras are usually small inexpensive cameras which get placed or mounted where potential damage may occur. Numerous choices are available for your cameras, but keep in mind you’ll want more control over your main camera. The main cam should have a zoom lens with a good range for wide and tight shots. It should also allow you some control over scene exposure and color. Your main cam will also be your primary source for natural sound and interviews.
Crashcams should be small enough to be mounted in places where they won’t interfere with your subject’s activity. Again, there are many options available from tiny Point-of-View cameras (POV), dedicated sport cameras (sportcams) to your everyday Point-and-Shoot, or pocket cameras. Each option has its advantages and weaknesses. For example, POVs are very small and can be placed in many places to get unique camera angles. Yet, POVs can be expensive and the professional-grade versions often have wires attached to the recording unit. Sportcams are larger than POVs yet small enough to be mounted almost anywhere. They are less expensive than POVs and often come with water-resistant capability or housings. Accessories are where sportcam’s tack on the expense. Though some brands of sportcams come with basic mounting kits, additional mountings and functional add-ons will add to the overall cost. Both types have wide-angle fixed focused lenses that allow only wide shots which create the ‘fisheye’ effect.
Pocket cameras are often an overlooked option as they are the least expensive potential crashcams. Most pocket cam models allow for more control over the image than POVs or sportcams. Unlike the other types, a pocket cam typically has a built-in zoom lens which allows control over focus and depth of field. Pocket cams are also compatible with standard consumer-grade camera mounts and inexpensive generic batteries are available. Their primary advantage is being able to view the scene and clips on location with a built-in LCD monitor. The main disadvantage of a pocket cam is that it’s not designed for strenuous work, though some models have surprisingly durable bodies. You’ll also need to purchase a specific waterproof housing which may cost more than the camera and protection for the LCD screen. The most important factor for crashcams is to absorb enough damage to protect your recording media. crashcams are replaceable. Valuable video footage isn’t.
Now who exactly will pay you the most for your action sports video? Take a look at GoPro, they sponsored the Winter X Games 2012, so we figure their cameras are doing something right. They accept video shot by their customers to use in commercials, so that sets a benchmark. The question is, how do you want to emulate their success? The easiest trick to pull is the perspective you take on action sports, GoPro goes prone – getting low angles, above-the-athlete angles and all with a little fisheye twist at the edges. The key here, is being able to get the same variation of shots that you would conventionally use in a shoot. Except that for your medium to close shots, your camera operator will need to be able to keep pace with the athlete. Another trick is the right gear, yes you might want to fasten a sport camera to the athlete, but many shots would do well to use a handheld device such as a boom pole or cage.
Before you get into your safe and climate controlled studio, it is important to note, a sense of documentarian-ism in your storytelling. Think access, character and story. The right combination of legality, gear and swagger you carry to an event can provide the access. The audience that is willing to go surfing or skiing but can’t is substantial. Your goal is to give them access. If you have any means of getting good shots don’t be afraid to go guerilla style. If you have pull with the organizers, you’ll be allowed on the course in a tucked-away place.
The athletes often times provide plenty of character since they risk their well being for fun. Getting such unique individuals to sit still for an interview may be impossible, so don’t bring them into a studio; interview them on location, it’ll remind your audience exactly why they want to watch this person. Meeting the athletes at their level also can gain you some respect, after all, if you know what it’s like to hang five – the one who can hang ten is more likely to cooperate with you. It is also very likely that action sports athletes will have other interests or occupations because few will get featured in commercials like Shaun White, and that means affording such a demanding hobby is another factor.
Another similarity of action sports and videography is contests, though the fierceness in a skateboard competition often far outweighs what you’ll see during a 24-hour video challenge. Telling that story in a compelling way should be close to chronological. Follow a team, whether their points count together or act as a pit crew for one individual. Having those people to interact with on the sidelines will be invaluable. If you are fortunate enough to locate a winner, showing the behind the scenes of each step it took to get there can be a great joy, then arrange your scenes in a way that builds up to the awards ceremony or celebration.
Now let’s say you bought in with the team that finished second, you’ll need to build your storytelling skills by finding what will draw an audience in. Knowing that the team had an undying spirit might be one storyline, or there could be less sporty conventions, like the demographic of your competitor or another social message, as this commercial demonstrates. It has become more and more apparent that sponsors play a big role in the sports industry as a whole, so expect it here with action sports too (another story to tell all together.)
Once you have those great shots recorded, editing (post-production) will be your next challenge. Whether you decide to edit or not (raw video is more appreciated than usual by the action sports crowd,) figuring out the pace for your edited videos will determine their impact. In case you couldn’t catch the best part of the trick, it’s common to see the climax of a run on the half pipe slowed down for both drama and clarity. Consider your interviews, will you be able to get the athlete while they’re both excited but calm enough to speak coherently? For those who are unfamiliar with the tricks being performed, slow motion or even freeze frames can really emphasize the impact of an act that takes one second. You’ll need to build up to these points, and it may benefit you to use B-roll of the space in which the action sport will take place, you’re sure to have an eye-catching visual here, be it a dirt bike course, street course, snowy mountain, or beach. Then in the editing stage, you may find the practice runs very valuable in the way of spills and goofs. Don’t worry about slow-motion here, it’d be too painful. Instead focus on the reaction in the aftermath – it is quite a redeeming quality to carry on after a big fall. Music, stock video and graphics will help you create the look and feel of your projects. The graphics will be one avenue to channel more information to your audience, such as which run the athlete is on, time, name and more that will play into your story. Having heart-pumping music doesn’t seem to hurt either, and even free stock music should fill the bill nicely. There are many sources for stock music, video and graphics be they free, pay-per-use or royalty-free. These are valuable tools for your editing toolkit and can save you time and money during post-production.
The Business and Legal Stuff
Finally, be knowledgeable about the legal side of the video business and video production. Yeah it’s boring, but the alternative of not paying attention to the legal stuff can cause you to ‘wipe out’ in an instant. Get up to speed on legal forms like model/talent agreements, location releases, work-for-hire agreements and so on. Consulting with an attorney about these things and how to start your company may sound like an extra expense, but knowing what’s up will keep you in business! Speaking of covering one’s assets, insurance… you’re going to need it. Even if you don’t plan on going into the water or jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft, your gear always has a chance of finding itself in harm’s way. Accidents happen, gear gets broken, camera mounts fail and incidental damage occurs. What if your gear causes an injury? At the minimum you’ll need to cover your gear with basic liability. If you don’t want a long-term policy, short-term policies are available to cover the duration of a project. Some standards are outlined for general liability with Nationwide, namely the amount of people in attendance, duration of the event and location. (www.videomaker.com/r/604).
Shooting action sports can be an adventure-filled way to make a living. You’ll need to learn the lingo of the sport, network with action sports participants and then pick out your gear according to the environment you’ll be working in. Next, decide whether to bring on an editor or do your own editing along with finding stock music, video and graphic resources. Last and absolutely not least, become familiar with the legal side of the video business to learn about what you’ll need to operate and whether you actually want to start up a company. Though there will be quite a bit of work to accomplish before and after you get those fantastic shots of extreme daredevils, it’s worth the effort for the ability to make a living shooting action sports for profit.
Sidebar: Talking the Talk
Whether it’s shooting terms for a video producer or jump terminology for a skateboarder, you need to know the lingo to capture the action. Here’s the answers to terms posed in this story (some may apply to multiple sports):
Flair – BMX term for a back flip with a 180-degree turn.
Abubaca – BMX term for when a rider goes up a ramp, touches the back tire to the coping (edge) and then rides back down fakie.
Quarter-Pipe – Skateboarding term for a ramp or pool that has a horizontal deck, a cement or steel coping (edge) and a curved transition with a flat-bottom.
Amoeba Bowl – Skateboarding term for a non-symmetrical pool with curved edges.
A-frame – Surfing term for the cross-section of a wave that creates waves perfect for barrel surfing.
Cutback – Surfing term for reversing your direction in one fluid movement.
Angle-of-Attack – Skydiving term for the angle with the parachute or ‘wing’ is presented to the apparent wind.
BASE – Acronym used by Base Jumpers which stands for Building, Antenna, Spans and Earth which are the means to jump from a fixed object instead of an aircraft.
Ride-it-in – Term used by pilots and parachutists meaning crash or unsuccessfully deploy a parachute.
Writer-producer-director H. Wolfgang Porter is a former U.S. Naval Combat Cameraman who now produces independent film and shoots a lot of extreme video. Jackson Wong is an associate editor for Videomaker.