Action Stations

Having built a career as a top action photographer David Spurdens changed tack and moved sideways into filmmaking. It meant refocusing his entire approach and learning fresh motion capture skills.

 

The vast majority of my professional life has been spent capturing sports and action, but over the 38 years I’ve been involved I’ve had to reinvent myself a few times. I started out working as a stills photographer on a football magazine and worked my way up to national newspapers via a sports agency, shooting editorial images of top-flight events for publication and picking up a couple of international awards along the way. 

I’ve always loved the challenge that action provides. If you’ve done well then you can take pride in your achievements, but if your imagery isn’t up to scratch then you’ll know it and so will your client, and your relationship will sour quicker than a bottle of milk left in the sun. I like this state of being, the pressure of having to perform and produce when it matters, and even if clients now expect more for less it’s still an edgy, fun and very fulfilling business to be in.
It’s important in any career to know when the time is right to move on and, for me, this ultimately meant leaving editorial work behind and looking for commercial clients as well as shooting stock, while over the past ten years I’ve slowly but surely been building up my filmmaking skills. 

Now the moving image accounts for around 90% of my working life, and I’ve been able to make this journey thanks to the tools that have become available and the advances in such things as bandwidth, which has made it possible to transfer gigabytes globally in minutes or even seconds. It’s meant that I can work and communicate with my clients from anywhere in the world, and produce my footage using a small and lean team and without having to take the kitchen sink on location with me. 

IMAGE: Shooting winter sports is challenging when you need to  capture moving footage, as a film camera and all the other equipment can be heavy and difficult to transport.

 

Filming action

Many of the skills I relied on as an action photographer have transferred over to filmmaking, but there’s still been a steep learning curve involved, both in terms of acquiring the skills necessary to capture moving sequences and subsequently editing them together into a cohesive and watchable production. Timing is still of the essence, and it’s important to be able to instinctively know how action will pan out and where the best vantage points may be, while the fact that I started out long enough ago to have had to master the art of focusing manually rather than relying on autofocus has paid dividends now that I’m a filmmaker and back to using manual focus on a regular basis. 

As a stills photographer I often felt a situation effectively slow down in my mind as I focused within the very small depth-of-field provided by a 400mm f/2.8 Nikkor shooting wide open at a floodlit football match. For me it was a gift I never really questioned, but it enabled me to thrive and survive in a competitive business, and it’s now giving me an edge as an action filmmaker.  

These days AF solutions are becoming increasingly sophisticated and I’m coming across more and more filmmakers who are choosing to rely on it, but there are still many circumstances where I’ll prefer to trust my own instincts. For example, six years ago I was asked by the Darley/Godolphin horse racing empire to film, in slow motion, their most special stud stallions. These stallions are worth a fortune so they need to be treated with the utmost respect and you can’t take chances with them because it doesn’t bear thinking about that they could get hurt.

I knew that the stallions would be led from their stables each morning and then given some time in the paddock to run fast and free for a minute before settling down to feed. I observed this to find out which path, if any, they might run and found out that one particular stallion ran a certain course so decided to set up my sticks on that path. I could have made it easy and just stood outside the paddock but I wanted this to look amazing and not be just another distance shot consigned to the bin after its first use. However, these are powerful and flighty animals that like to do their own thing and so I knew nothing was guaranteed. 

So the stallion was released and he just ran straight towards me and I had to make an instant judgement that he would run around me rather than straight through me. In this brief moment I was shooting at Full HD at 240fps, focusing manually, and the stallion, running at full speed, arced around me when just five feet or so away. He was so close I could feel the power and the rumble through the soles of my shoes. These are the situations where your reputation is on the line, since the stallion won’t likely ever run past me again in such a perfect way.  

It wasn’t an easy shot since I had to pan a long way as he arced around me, while zooming with the rocker and using manual focus to keep him sharp. I had one chance and one chance only, and when the client came over and asked to review the shot, expecting it to be a shaky pan – that stallion was close – instead they couldn’t stop watching it, marvelling at the new shot they now owned. Ultimately this piece of footage went on to play on racing programmes worldwide and it’s still being used today. 

There are also accessories that are designed to help you achieve accurate manual focus under even the most trying of circumstances. I work with an Alphratron follow focus, which features two hard stops that can be set to limit the amount of focus travel. This enables you to change the point of focus very quickly in an action situation: a recent example saw me filming clay pigeon shooters on a commercial shoot. I started off with a shot of the back of the shooter’s head and then pulled focus quickly to the clay as it exploded, with the stop enabling me to achieve sharp focus in both areas.

 

“This piece of footage went on to play on racing programmes worldwide and is still used today.”

 

 

Planning pays dividends

All of this is very different to the action photograph, maybe a mere 1/2000sec that encapsulates the high drama of a particular moment. That’s tough to achieve, but it can be equally challenging to produce an action sequence, particularly one being produced for a commercial client that has been set up rather than recorded from real life. 

We need to plan everything in the finest detail, creating a story, casting an actor or a sportsperson that can play a role and maybe writing a script as well. The venue must be found, permissions sought and granted and the shoot storyboarded. The aim is to
create a believable scene that will look natural; that’s not an easy thing to achieve.  

It’s important that the crew believes that you know what you’re doing, otherwise things can swiftly unravel. Your talent will lose their enthusiasm if all their efforts and sweat are amounting to nothing. Then the rest of the team will start giving a few telling sideways glances, people will go off the boil, their adrenaline levels will dip and the high intensity energy and enthusiasm that’s needed to achieve action filming wanes.  

There’s also the fact that there’s inevitably a lack of atmosphere around a manufactured event. There’s no adoring crowd singing an athlete’s name or a cup final to be won, so our job is to create the believable out of nothing. Without creative and thoughtful direction it’s difficult for someone (who isn’t a top flight model/actor) to find these depths of emotion; one giggle from the crew as the sports model celebrates to an empty stand or one cross or disappointed word from the director when something goes wrong, and the whole scene can come crashing down. Once your model feels this way, about a situation that should be under your control, you’ll not get the best out of them that day or maybe ever. 

Let’s take a sport such as tennis to see how the logistics work out. You’re up against it from the start since no tennis court will ever look as wonderful as Wimbledon in the summer. There’s no crowd to enliven the set and no grass court anywhere else in the world will be as well manicured, so straightaway there are many ‘scene’ issues to overcome. 

I happen to have been privileged to photograph some of the world’s greatest tennis players in my time so I know what I’m looking for. Much of the battle is in finding the right models, who will have to work hard to build up the sweat and to look as though they’re really playing their hearts out. 

Sometimes they swear, sometimes I do, rigs get hit hard by balls and sometimes it’s me in the firing line. Just last week a powerful tennis player performing a running backwards smash that I had served up hit me square in the forehead at 65mph+ from five metres away, which stung a bit! It all goes with the territory: I’ve lost a kneecap while filming snowboarding, have crashed into a car in a paraglider and display many scars and other injuries all in the pursuit of high-end action footage. Let’s not even get started on how many teeth I have left!

So what happens when perhaps things occur that you can’t plan for? A recent shoot with a polo team serves as a good example of how things can go wrong if someone doesn’t perform their role to a high enough level. I had the idea of sitting in the back of a 4X4 with a climbing harness on, speeding across the pitch with all the ponies riding behind me and one of the players swinging and hitting the ball. You can imagine this was met with a slightly stony silence, but everyone agreed to give it a go.

I explained the shot and when the day arrived briefed the driver and he duly tried to keep the ponies in the sweet spot for filming. Except that it turns out he hadn’t really been listening – he even ran his tyres over the ball on one run, burying it below the pitch – and four live runs later the ponies were foaming up on a very hot day and the riders were getting pretty angry. 

We had no choice but to abandon and I left with nothing. Luckily I was able to reschedule with a better driver, but was told I would get one run only. This is when the heat is on, and I had one chance only to keep the gimbal smooth whilst accelerating and getting the transition and flow right. In these moments you have no choice but to remain calm, any nerves, any heart rate, anything other than calm on the inside will start decreasing the success level in incremental percentage terms. Thankfully with the extra planning it all came together like a dream and the day was saved. 

 

“I’ve been on 12,000ft north face glaciers that have avalanched and killed many people”

 

Winter sports

Another big strand of what I do is winter sports, which is about as high octane as you can get and is full of perils for the unprepared. I’ve got a lot of experience in the area having once lived in the Alps for ten years, and I’m aware of the risk and opportunities it presents. Stills photography kit is easily transportable in a backpack, one body, three lenses, but once you add a filming camera, monitor, bigger batteries and a heavy duty tripod the shooting day gets tougher and help transporting all that kit becomes essential.

If you forget something – it will take the best part of the day to go back to the hotel to retrieve it, so have a checklist and go through it in the morning and again when you return at the end of the day. Have a meeting the night before to assess everyone’s needs, hopes and dreams, so you know what they would like to achieve from the day’s filming.

I shoot a lot of snowboarding and the athletes I work with are tough, as you need to be if you spend most of your life sliding down mountains on planks of wood at high speed, often purposely upside down in the air, spinning with great skill, with style and at great risk to yourself. They’re consummate professionals so you’re unlikely to hear any moaning, but on the flip side they expect the same of you and for them to get great footage to please their sponsors.

They will fly off the mountain sides sometimes with vertical drops of 100ft spinning through the air and pulling off a perfect landing, so you’d better be ready, be in focus and nail the shot. You have to have equipment that can perform and you need to protect it from the elements too. If one of them rides a powder field past you, throwing up a rooster – a large overhead plume of snow – it looks great, but if your camera’s not properly protected the snow will melt and swiftly put lenses, cameras and monitors out of action for the day.  

Safety is the biggest issue you’ll encounter. I’ve been on 12,000ft north face glaciers that have avalanched and killed many people and have been saved only by reading the conditions and making decisions that saved my life. Death or injury can be waiting around every corner, so you need to be aware or employ a mountain guide who is. 

 

Action gear

My preferred camera at the moment is the Sony FS5, which features Super Slow Motion mode that can be used in combination with End Trigger to ensure I don’t miss anything, in-camera variable NDs and Raw SDI that can be output to my Convergent Design 7Q+. The camera is paired with my current favourite lens, the Zeiss Batis 18mm, which can fit into a rig that can be taken from the tripod and put into a DJI Ronin M. In this configuration it’s light enough for me to manage all day and even ski with it, tough enough to stand up to the knocks and cheap enough to be considered replaceable should the worst happen. 

I can pop the FS5 into a housing and swim out to surf, while when I’m on the beach filming in sea mist it will keep ploughing on. Should I need something smaller I can use my Sony A7RII; the two cameras grade well together. While I will always opt for the FS5 Raw to the 7Q+ for preference, the 4K results from the A7RII are pretty amazing from a package this small. Being used to shooting Raw in stills cameras and editing through Bridge, I love the extra control this gives me.  

For sticks I use Vinten (who I represent) and Sachtler as well, and if I need some extra continuous light I work with two Lightpanels Astras powered by Anton Bauer Digital Series 90 batteries. I also work with a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone, and as I look around the office I can see that I’ve also got just about every Apple product going! I genuinely need all this kit for the diverse range of shots I come up against on a daily basis. Rental’s not an option: I can’t drive the 800 miles to the Alps, get all the way up a mountain to pull the camera out on a glacier on the only sunny day of the week to have it fail because it was dropped on a previous rental. With my fully owned kit I know its history and therefore can have greater trust in remote areas.  

I occasionally cast an eye at the bigger camera offerings and nearly pull the trigger but they can be cumbersome in extreme situations and the small gain in quality can mean missing the shot because of the extra issues involved in set-up times, getting the camera on location and operating it in tough conditions as a one man band. 

In terms of tips for working in wintry conditions, I suggest you go for a quality zoom so that you’re not constantly changing lenses in deep powder, and you should put the camera in a sealed plastic bag when entering or exiting a warm building so that the condensation forms on the outside of the bag not on the surface of the camera/lens/monitor. Invest in a cover if there’s a chance your rig will be sprayed in snow.

When it’s cold take extra batteries and leave more somewhere you can easily access at the bottom of the lift system. At times like this your rig will chew through batteries at a frightening rate. After February the Alps will get quite hot in direct sun, so your black cameras will too. This means a spray of snow instantly converts to water and will ruin cameras in seconds. Then when the temperature dips later in the day that water will freeze on to your camera, so it can be a real problem. Take a chamois leather with you since nothing soaks up water as well. 

Always zip up your bag; any kit falling into the snow will be gone for the day or possibly forever, while snow falling into bags will turn to water and then ice as the evening freezes everything again. Make sure the equipment in your backpack and all the other equipment your crew are skiing with is also well packed. A lumpy camera bag will hurt you if you fall, so pad the bag with extra fleeces that could also come in handy if the weather turns unexpectedly.  

Carry two-way radios for safety and communicating with the snowboarder about to ride down, since shouting won’t be heard in that vast mountain scape. Also be aware that riders will get tired; don’t push them too hard and always enquire as to their energy levels. Do they need a rest, a coffee or to go home if they’ve tweaked or slightly injured something? Keep them safe and don’t ask them to do anything beyond their own ability. 

For me filmmaking has been a natural progression from stills, but it wasn’t easy to make the move. I’ve had to work hard, burn a lot of midnight oil and have a very understanding and supportive wife! It’s a different thought process, but if you’ve got an eye for action you’ve got a head start and hopefully the reactions you need to make it all work. Think in moving sequences, plan how you’re going to execute everything and consider carefully the gear you need. 

Think also about your end markets and who you might sell to: action might be a niche, but it’s a popular one with plenty of potential clients, so see who’s out there and tailor your work to suit. No one would suggest this is an easy way to earn a living but if you can make it work it’s certainly one of the most exciting! 

 

SHOOTING SLOW MOTION

One of the most useful techniques to master for any action photographer is the slow motion sequence. However, it’s not just a case of setting up your camera and hitting the slo-mo button: you need to be able to think in slow motion and anticipate what a scene will look like, and you have to have the right subject for things to work.

For example, a skier hurtling through the snow at high speed will be throwing up a spray and moving quickly through the scene, so even on a high frame rate you’ll have plenty going on. However, more sedate subjects, such as a fielder in a cricket match getting ready as a bowler runs in, could result in a sequence that sends people to sleep. 

Obviously there are lots of choices in terms of what frame rate to select. Even 60fps, which is available on even some consumer level video cameras these days, can deliver a strong result and you can obviously speed it up or slow it down further in post to vary the effect. However, because I’m often on a snowboard myself filming other snowboards at high speeds, I often have a requirement for a far higher frame rate, which is where the Sony FS5 and Convergent Design 7Q+ combo really comes into its own. This set-up can give me a really useful 120fps in true 4K, which is usually enough, but if I do need more I’ve got the opportunity to go faster still at 240fps in 2K. 

These are great options to have in an outfit that’s still relatively affordable, and really the next step up from here would be a specialist and very cumbersome Phantom camera that could deliver up to 1000fps. I’m not likely to ever have the need for that, and my kit covers everything I need while still being compact and portable. 

 

More information

www.davidspurdens.com

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