So I discovered snowboarder and extreme winter sports filmmaker Parker Cross through a mutual friend, (thanks Aaron ). He gets into the Utah back country with his pals to produce awesome snowboard podcasts. His latest “Down to Earth” is the one we’re featuring today. More can be found at parkercrossroadstudios.blogspot.com. You can also subscribe to them on iTunes. In Parker’s write-up he shares with us what tools and techniques are needed to film extreme winter sports in the back country. If you also share the two passions of extreme winter sports and cinematography, then you’ll find that Parker is the perfect inspiration.
BW photo credit: Kristopher Orr
Here is his write-up:
Growing up in Utah, it’s natural that I would eventually turn my attention to the mountains. Many people in surrounding states don’t realize how accessible the mountains actually are for folks living on the Wasatch front metropolitan area of Salt Lake City. I can be at a ski resort within about a half-hour from almost any city along the front.
I took a TV/Video Production class when I was a senior in high school because I heard that it was an easy A, and I started throwing together my first DV iMovie edits partway through the first semester. It was then that I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Last year, while sitting in my Authoring for Digital Devices and Podcasting class at Utah Valley University, my teacher showed us Vincent Laforet’s first short film shot with a prototype Canon 5D Mark II, and my jaw dropped. We watched it maybe five or six times that day in class, and I immediately left school, went to my local Canon dealer, and put down a deposit on an advanced purchase. I produced a little snowboarding edit for the final project in my course that semester, and started thinking that perhaps doing a snowboard video podcast was a viable way to make an income.
I invested in some glass and some server space, started posting to YouTube and Vimeo, as well as on my server so subscribers could download through iTunes, and now just over a year later, I have one of the most successful viral media campaigns in the state. More and more people are flocking to the project and following the blog and subscribing in iTunes and on Vimeo, and it stokes me out for sure.
But I came into this game with basically no prior knowledge of how to work with an HDDSLR. First, it was new technology, and second, I had only previously worked with footage captured on DV tape, so the 5DMKII’s seemingly tedious workflow from the H.264 native CODEC was an environment that I’d never even ventured near. There was also a crazy learning curve for me trying to simultaneously wrap my head around exposure. My dreams were filled with thoughts of compression algorithms, aperture settings, system workarounds, firmware updates, rendering speeds, and CODEC advantages and disadvantages. If that’s not enough to bamboozle a guy, I don’t know what is. However, despite all the stress and the fact that I’m broke most of the time, the 5D Mark II is the best thing that has happened to me in my life. Ever ever. So if any of you people reading this are going crazy with all the different amounts of knowledge that you’re required to glean in order to make it in this business, you either need to study harder, or pick a new line of work, because it’s never going to end.
Capturing actions sports is a different animal than most other types of cinematography, and having the right tools for the trade is a must. This season I’ve been trying to up the ante of my production value, and part of that is spending more time in the backcountry. There’s just something a lot more raw and riveting about footage that was shot away from the resorts. But shooting in the backcountry has its price: there’s no camera man in the world who wants to carry their RedRock Micro rig on a four hour hike. You need to pack light, and you also can’t sacrifice backcountry safety for camera gear. My advice: either learn how to pack light, or hire a sherpa or two to carry all your cinematography gear. If you can afford to do that, your stuff is going to look a whole lot better than mine. It all starts with your pack, though. Burton Snowboards has listened to the feedback of its photographers for decades, and has resulted in the best backcountry camera pack money can buy. It’s called the F-Stop, and if you’re serious about shooting in the backcountry, that’s the pack you need. It’s huge, and has all the essentials that a photographer who is also a snowboarder will need.
My pack weighs pretty close to a million pounds. In addition to my snowboarding gear, first aid kit, shovel, probe, avalanche transceiver, extra firstlayer, showshoes, poles, goggles, sunglasses, radios, knife, screwdriver, and gaffers tape, I have my camera body, and the three lenses that I’ve selected as my favorites for backcountry shredding. I bring my 70-200 f/2.8 IS USM, 24-70 f/2.8 USM, and 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye. You could probably do with a longer lens too, but I’m much too poor for that. Something in the 300 or 400 mm range would allow you to get some pretty dynamic images from adjacent ridge lines. If it’s a single day trip, I’ve found I only need to bring two batteries. Most shots in the backcountry have at least a 20 minute rest time for the athlete to hike back up the hill, so there’s a lot of down time. Dress warmly, but be prepared to shed layers if the sun is out, because at those higher altitudes you’ll bake. Also make sure you have a lot of sunblock lotion. I usually bring about 48 GB of storage space, but honestly I’m hard pressed to move through 24 GB in one day of shooting unless I’m capturing long sequences for the sake of time-lapse (since the 5D Mark II doesn’t have untethered interval shooting modes…grrrrr. I guess for $2700 you can’t get everything).
One of the first things you need to remember about shooting actions sports is that it’s FAST. Really fast. And because it’s so fast, you can’t really get away with shooting anything slower than like 1/200 or 1/250 shutter speed if you want your subject to be sharp. Panning with the subject will always increase your odds of having a sharper image. Anything faster than 1/250 starts to lose the motion blur that gives it its film-like look, but if you’re shooting skateboarding up close, you need to be at 1/500 most of the time. The second thing that you need to remember is that snow is very bright when the sun is out, which makes ND filters your best friend in the whole world. I primarily shoot with a Promaster 77mm ND4 filter that works on both my 70-200 and my 24-70. The ND4 gives me two additional stops of darkness, and makes me able to shoot somewhere between f/5.6 and f/11 during the day, out in the snow, depending on the actual feature that we’re shooting. And the third thing you need to remember is that you need to be able to follow focus. If you have a third party focus pulling attachment for you HDDSLR, then you’re going to love your live, but you can totally get by with just pulling focus on your stock lens. I would go out on a busy street by your house and practice panning and pulling focus simultaneously with fast moving objects. Backcountry snowboarding is somewhere between 35 and 50 mph in speed, so you need to be able to keep that subject tacky sharp at all times. And since we’re talking about panning, you need a fluid video head on your tripod. The legs aren’t as important because you can bury the legs with snow and make the most stable tripod in the world, but you need a fluid head that is going to give a very smooth pan. I use the Manfrotto 501HDV head, which isn’t the nicest thing in the world, but it’s relatively light, and gives me a lot of control. Most of my backcountry shooting is at 200mm, and any little wiggles of the tripod are going to be noticeable when you take it to print.
My post-production workflow is pretty similar to a lot of guys in the industry these days, but here’s how I do it: Every single night after shooting I dump the footage from my cards. I have a slick little firewire card reader, and since I’m editing on the Final Cut Studio, I have an automator folder that exports out my footage using Compressor to the Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) 1920×1080 30p CODEC. I back it up and store my assets appropriately. Once I’ve finished my fine cut, I’ll send all my footage out to Color, and do my color correction shot by shot, then send the fully colored sequence to Soundtrack Pro, where I’ll monitor all my levels for the Audio. Then once everything is done and I’ve brought the sequence back into FCP, I export using Compressor. I always do a full-res version, an AppleTV 720p version for Vimeo, and an iPod/iPhone version, all using H.264 .m4v files (except the full-res, of course).
And that’s about it. If you have any questions about how I work, or specific questions regarding Wasatch: The Official Production Podcast, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for watching!