‘You have to be dead certain’ | AspenTimes.com
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‘You have to be dead certain’

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times

Think skiing alone is tough? Try barreling down the hill carrying a 15-pound rig crafted of unforgiving bicycle aluminum, with a camera mounted to the front.

Next, try to follow one of the world’s premier extreme athletes down a course lined with obstacles, while constantly alternating glances between the rider, the path ahead, and the view finder. Don’t let that athlete out of your frame, and don’t forget to dodge the gap jump.

Sound difficult? The cameraman who wield FollowCams during Winter X Games 10 do it 20-30 times each competition day.

“I like to think I have the best seat in the house,” cameraman Reid Nelson said.

When all goes well, this freelance crew of six skiers go unnoticed ” their equipment casting only momentary shadows on the venue’s Jumbotron. But these cameramen, all accomplished athletes in their own right, deliver one of the most compelling perspectives in sport.

Their feats of athleticism rival those of Winter X’s most accomplished riders and skiers.

Nelson, 43, skied competitively at CU Boulder. Nelson and Tim Stevens, a former Aspen resident, are heading to Turin, Italy, to cover alpine skiing this February at the Olympics. Bill Real, who also covers the Tour de France, had a coaching stint with the Canadian Ski Team.

Nelson caught his first break when he got a job as a utility worker for ESPN. “I ran off with the circus,” Nelson says. He ascended through the ranks, leaning on his background in ski filmmaking, and enlisted the help of his friends along the way.

Real used to hang out with television crews during competitions, he remembers. Combining his skiing prowess with camera work seemed like a natural fit.

“They took me under their wing,” Real said. “Mostly because of the skiing ability I did have, and they didn’t. Skiing in this job is the easy part.”

The other tasks are daunting. These videographers are always at the mercy of the athletes and the conditions. Trying to frame riders in a viewfinder while following them down during peak sun hours is like watching your television outside, said Bob Real, Bill’s brother. It comes down to relying on instinct and a little luck.

The task becomes even more challenging during faster events, like boardercorss and skiercross. Add constant speed changes and the risk of unforseen crashes to the equation, and real problems can arise.

“When you’re going so fast, you have to make all these decisions,” Nelson said. “Do you follow the battle for second or try and catch up with the leader? You’re always on edge. You have to be dead certain about your skiing.”

To prepare, the cameramen maintain a regimen similar to competitors. They shadow athletes during practice runs, finding the safest trailing distance and identifying tendencies they can relay to the rest of the team. They watch tape in an attempt to clean up mistakes. And some good-natured competition drives them to capture the best shot.

Working the X Games is a treat, they say, because the athletes ” among the best in the world in their respective disciplines ” deliver fluid and consistent runs. Snow cat drivers are accessible and receptive. Course design and snow conditions are renowned. Such variables make their job easier, Nelson said.

However, it’s a world where there is plenty to worry about, Bill Real said. In addition to dealing with course features, cameramen with FollowCams have to battle nerves and pressure. There are no second runs here. They either capture the shot, or they miss it.

The hardest part, Bob Real said, is trying to keep athletes in frame while skiing over or on the side of jumps. In order to avoid a blurry picture, the cameramen have perfected the art of sucking their knees into their chests. Falling softly, instead of landing hard, is key.

Don’t screw up, Stevens said he tells himself repeatedly. After all, a large chunk of the coverage rests on his lens.

Engineers work behind the scenes to sharpen the color and other visual details, said Jon Montigny, the man in charge of ESPN’s Radio Frequency cameras this week. But without a well-framed shot, which is transmitted from an antenna that cameramen wear on the top of their helmets, all would be lost.

Cameramen are charged with the tall-task of being close enough to capture the moment, but far enough to not interfere with potential. There have been close calls, Nelson said, but also some rewarding experiences.

“When you come over that final jump and the crowd erupts, it’s an amazing feeling,” Nelson said. “I admire these guys’ skiing and riding.

They are freaking amazing. I don’t want to be the one that plows them over. It’s their venue and I wanna see every one of them have a good ride.”

The crew lost Bo McWilliams Friday; he fell awkwardly and broke his tibia. McWilliams was slated to cover the Olympics.

“The funny thing is I used to ski jump. I would go 60 mph and fly hundreds of feet in the air, but I never got hurt,” said McWilliams, 53, one of the few cameramen to work in every Winter X Games. “It’s part of the job.”

Bill Real says he’s been fortunate to walk away from every fall. But while every safety precaution is taken, the risks never dissipate. The binding on his ski came loose on the final jump of a slopestyle event at the Winter X Games IV in Mount Snow, Vt. He carefully laid down the rig as he slid harmlessly into a photographer.

Stevens was not at lucky. In a boardercorss race at Mount Bachelor in Oregon, one athlete came off course and the two collided.

Head. Feet. Head. Feet. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. That is all Stevens remembered from the accident. Stevens said he couldn’t change direction quickly enough. There was’t much he could do.

Bob Real said the most unnappealing part of the job isn’t the ride down, but the ride up. Hampered by the size and restriction of the rig and skis, the cameramen have to ride on the front of snowmobile on the way up. And the hood gets hot.

“One time I got off and realized there was a hole in my ass,'” he said. “See the patch?” he said, pointing to the seat of his snowpants.

The occupational hazards are substantial, but everyone on the team has translated their love of skiing into a rewarding occupation, Bob Real said. “It sure beats sitting in a tower,” he said.

And every so often, this group of men working behind the scenes garners some well-deserved recognition. It seems they have a group of appreciative fans, too.

“I’ve had athletes come up and say thanks,” Nelson said. “They watch the replay and say ‘damn good follow, man.’ That makes everything worth it.”

Jon Maletz’s e-mail is jmaletz@aspentimes.com

Aspen, Colorado


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