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Making TV: The Sport of Shooting Adventure-Sports Stories

A four-day, long-distance race to get the shots that told the best stories at the 2010 Teva Mountain Games

By Michael Fickes

The 2010 Teva Mountain Games aired in 31 major markets nationwide.

Last May, a veteran team comprised of a DP and 11 camera operators, many with pedigrees from NFL Films, descended on Vail, Colorado to make final preparations for an intense, four-day shoot of the 2010 Teva Mountain Games, an annual adventure-sports competition. Like the athletes, they had to loosen up.

Leading the effort was Jay Jalbert, vice president of production services and a director with Jalbert Productions International, a television and film production company with offices in Manhattan and Huntington, New York that specializes in sports.

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Jay Jalbert directed the syndicated 2010 Teva Mountain Games showcasing the adventure-sports competition in Vail, Colorado.

Jalbert’s goal was to create a one-hour, one-time-only (OTO) program for network syndication. The games were held from June 3 to June 6, and the show aired between July 10 and August 29 in 31 major markets on ABC, CBS and NBC network affiliates. The FOX affiliate carried the show in Nashville and an independent brought the program to Washington, D.C.

The shoot followed the stories, some in full, some in part, of nearly two dozen of the 2,000 competitors battling for $100,000 in prize money. There were 24 competitions drawn from eight outdoor sports, including white-water kayak racing, rafting, mountain biking, World Cup Bouldering amateur climbing, fly fishing, trail and road running, and stand-up paddling.

Adventure-sports programs aim to make viewers feel like they are in the thick of the action with the athletes. “We are [their] eyeballs,” Jalbert says. “Our job is getting dramatic shots. We have to provide standard coverage for perspective, but the most important shots are dramatic and tight — tight on the eyes, on the arms and on the faces.”

Shooters got up close and personal with kayakers during the competition.

Suiting Up
Jalbert brought one jib and a couple of cable rigs that could move remotely-controlled cameras along the courses. There were no dollies, cranes or other cumbersome equipment. Most of all, the shooters needed lots of cameras, and Jalbert provided 13.

A RED Digital Cinema RED One camera, with Angenieux zoom lens, was selected for its ability to shoot up to 120 fps; it was used primarily for very tight shots and dramatic hero looks, says Jalbert. Two Sony F900 HD cameras with 4.7mm wide-angle lenses were used with sync audio units and had stable shoulder mounts that made it easy to follow action shots. A third F900 was often mounted on the jib.

Jalbert chose four Sony PMW-EX3 XCDAM EX camcorders with built-in lenses for their easy maneuvering and ability to shoot up to 60 fps for slow motion. A Panasonic VariCam was on hand for its variable frame rate feature; it was used most often at 60 fps. A Panasonic AG-HVX200 P2 HD camcorder provided an option when camera size and weight became an issue.

Three GoPro HD cameras were deployed for hero action shots. They were mounted on rock outcroppings, along white-water rapids and on trees next to steep mountain trails for mountain bike and running competitions. Helmets worn by competitors were sometimes outfitted with GoPro cameras, and cable rigs carried remotely-operated cameras along both sides of the mountain-bike skill competitions.

During the shoot, Jalbert spun a web of stories, dispatching shooters by radio to events and filling out the stories as producers called in to report which stories were panning out and which weren’t. Jalbert picked the best story angles and redeployed camera operators as needed. Shooters over-cranked and under-cranked to follow the action, as the stories warranted.

Ready, Set, Go
The toughest shots involved racers flying down mountain paths or navigating between rocks on white water at breakneck speeds. Shooters had to determine where to set up to get the best, tightest action shots. “There are always a couple of spots where you have to choose the left or right side of a rock,” Jalbert chuckles. “Inevitably, some racers will go by on the other side.”

The kayak race posed difficulties, too. The course moved through a steep drop in the riverbed. “First, it was tough for the shooters to get down there,” Jalbert says. “Second it was difficult to figure out where to position the camera. We ended up sending two shooters. One set up on a rock and the other, wearing a full wetsuit, was in the water with his camera, which was protected by an underwater housing.”

In addition to the action shots, Jalbert arranged for crowd scenes — 40,000 spectators attended the event — shots of Vail, and interviews with athletes to help make the stories personal.

Jalbert and the shooters also documented the lifestyle events and concerts between the sports competition.

In one interview, competitor and former champion Mike Kloser spoke to camera and voiced over footage of the Ultimate Mountain Challenge, a physically-grueling competition with four races. “I’m 50 years old now and not the best at any given sport. But this is a true test of one’s ultimate skills,” he remarks. “You take the cumulative times and the fastest man or woman wins.” Although Kloser didn’t win, he did finish a very respectable third.

Jalbert also assigned camera operators to cover lifestyle events between contests. These included concerts and spectators mingling with athletes. One example was the “Mud Run,” a race in which everyone — competitors and spectators alike — raced and trotted through Vail. The end of the race featured a section of track filled with knee-deep mud, and just about everyone jumped in.

Sprint To The Finish
After the shoot, Jalbert had three weeks to organize and edit several hundred hours of tapeless footage stored on disk drives. Using the company’s Apple Final Cut Pro system he and the editorial team pulled selects, assembled stories and enhanced them with speed changes. Production audio recorded at the events worked well, but Jalbert added sound design for more punch.

There was no on-camera talent for the show. So Jalbert put together a voiceover track to tell individual stories and knit the show together.

When the final cut of the show crossed the finish line, Jalbert and his team had more than an adventure-sports program. “The show is not just about sports,” he says. “Adventure sports are part of a lifestyle, and this program is about that lifestyle.”

Still, behind the scenes the 2010 Teva Mountain Games was all about sports. It required athletic strength and agility to wield the cameras as well as the intense desire of athletes to pull off winning shots.

December 7, 2012