Forming a team for artistic freefly competitions can be immensely rewarding and productive. Structured training and commitment to a competition deadline can keep you focused and push your skills farther than casual skydiving. However, putting together a competent and coherent routine and flying it consistently is not easy. In fact, it is so hard that it can put people off to the point that they do something rash and irresponsible like join a belly-flying team.
A freestyle or freefly team's camera flyer may be the member of the team with the most work to do. A little insight may help you get started off right and enable you to achieve as much as possible during your training.
Where We Are
Flying is evolving quickly. The ways we learn and the ways we share what we learn are becoming more streamlined and efficient with the passing of every season. Brand-new skill sets learned and perfected in the tunnel are changing artistic skydiving. Freefly teams now fly with jaw-dropping proximity and precision, and freestyle is seeing a resurgence in popularity (cool again and no longer the province of tie-die wearing weirdos).
You wouldn't be the first to think your brand-new team's collective tunnel skills will make competition a cinch, though. While tunnel flying is an undeniable asset in terms of your ability, when it comes to actually putting together a workable routine, the tube is of only limited use. The precision required once you get up in the air will take you by surprise, as will the number of jumps you'll need to get things right. If you want to be good in the sky, you have to do the jumps and make every single one worth as much as you can.
The single most important lesson a team needs to learn is that the camera person is a part of the routine. This is a simple concept to understand but a more difficult one to practice, especially at the beginning. Early on, the camera flyer will have to chase the action until the team learns to fly together as a unit, so try as best you can from the very start to think of the flying as an even split in terms of responsibility and difficulty. The sooner you apply this to your planning and flying, the sooner the frustration will break and it will start to work. Every beat and nuance of your routine should include the exact position of the camera, including proper reference points and keys.
One way to think about freefly is that each person has a different role to perform (despite having two performers who do more or less the same thing). One performer leads the moves while the other follows.The leader references the camera flyer for position and timing, while the follower takes cues from the leader. This allows the follower to pay attention to levels and proximity.
Although closely related, there are some clear differences between freefly and freestyle. Freestyle has just one person to focus on, so the flyer and the camera flyer directly reference each other. Keeping the subject in frame is therefore easier. The telling factor is the background: The performer may well be in the center of the screen the whole time, but if the background is moving every which way, it is clear that a lot of chasing is going on.
The current weapon of choice for serious competition camera business is the Sony Something. (Every couple of years, Sony releases a new model that gets the nerds all giggly, and this time around it was for some nifty image stabilization.) GoPros are lovely, but their lenses are too wide even on the narrowest settings. A wide angle means you capture a lot of space, but as soon as you get a short distance away your subject becomes very small very quickly. This is bad when you are trying to fill up the screen with more awesomeness and less sky. Many teams utilize a GoPro or a Whatever as a backup camera in case of main-camera failure or a framing catastrophe, which is indeed a pretty good idea.
On a side note, some camera flyers wear several GoPros with different capture settings and simply submit whichever one looks best. Whether or not this is cheating is for someone else to care about… you should be aiming higher. Your camera with its particular qualities (such as the wideness of the image and focal length) is an integral part of everything you are doing, and you should treat it as such during your planning and training. The camera is not a passive element; it and its movement are at the very center of the whole business. You should tailor your routine to correspond with the particular characteristics of that single piece of technology. If you fluff it and get miles apart or your primary camera dies, then a GoPro back up will do the job and save you, but it doesn't really walk the walk. It's too wide.
There are many lenses available out there for your needs. You will be trading off how good the image looks when you are super close with a margin of error when you have a wider view. Judging for the artistic events is subjective, and each judge always injects an element of personal preference, but as a general rule the tighter the camera is and the narrower the field of view, the prettier things look on the judge's screen.
Your ring sight is sacred. Guard it and worship it. Keeping the action confined within it is the bacon and the birthday cake, and you will fly your body in ways you did not think possible to keep your target in its boundaries. Get up early enough in the morning to check its alignment. Wiggle your head around so your helmet sits naturally, then check it again. Use your actual teammates as a visual reference when setting it up so you get used to how close they need to be from the very beginning. You want your subjects to be in the middle of the screen, so aim for the crotch. It is natural to visually fix on head level, but if you do you might cut off the feet. A small amount of inaccuracy between your lens and your ring sight will grow quickly with distance; this is called the parallax effect. You don't need to remember what it is called, but you do need to remember what it does. Be precise. Aim small, miss small.
Work out a way to keep your helmet out of the way of whichever category of lummox will try to sit on you without looking when climbing into the plane. Every. Single. Time. It is really easy to bump a ring sight out of alignment. You will get so used to how it feels when it's lined up correctly that if it is wrong, you will know automatically. (But if it does happen, there is nothing you can do about it.)
An indicator light is a worthwhile investment; it will give you the confidence to hit "record" right when you are climbing out. If there are 45 seconds of aircraft roof before you get going with every training jump, it becomes very easy to get frustrated with it at the end of the day and dismiss the debrief session after a few watches instead of seeing it through to the end and learning everything you can from the videos. Also, do you think that same 45 seconds doesn't affect your score when the judges are watching just because the jump officially starts from when you exit? You may be wrong. Everything that happens between you and the judging panel that makes them either like or dislike you could count. If there is too much nothing at the start of every round, it may have an effect, so make it slick. Practice every time as if you are doing it for real.
A very important consideration is how movements actually appear on camera. The most difficult move you are able to pull off simply might not look that flash when you review the footage. This has a lot to do with the way movement works in wide-open space. The faster the collective total of your moving elements, the smaller the margins are for error and the bigger the mess once those margins are compromised. Why move a lot if you can achieve the same effect with much less effort and risk?
Back to comparing the sky with the tunnel for a second: Indoors, the reference points are very close and very clear to everyone flying and everyone watching. For example, overtaking one another looks great because the line through space is very apparent. In the sky, having the performers move past one another can often look like they are simply turning in place. Conversely, when performers turn on the spot while the camera moves, it can appear as if they are zooming through the sky.
Similar concepts apply to other movement sequences. For an eagle move (going over and under each other), when all parties (the performers and the camera flyer) move at the same time, the risk of overcooking it and ending up miles apart becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. Conversely, when one party moves and the other remains in place, the effect through the lens can be the same, but the whole process is much more manageable. It also frees up one half of the affair to work on keeping close or pulling off pretty flips and such.
More things to do… always more things. Turn your cameras off as soon as possible after freefall. You can do this without interfering with any of your normal safety, orientation and getting-back-and-not-landing-off procedures while your canopy is still deploying, while you are looking around your airspace or while you are harness turning back to the DZ. If you forget and leave it on until you land or are back in the hangar, you will have lots of useless footage, which is—as previously mentioned—a pain in the ass.
End of the Day
Recharge your batteries. Plug your equipment in before you go out for dinner or whatever you like to do. Never assume it will have enough juice left for tomorrow—it won't, because the universe is messing with you. It is very stressful to have to continually plug in during every break to keep you limping through the next cycle of jumps worrying that the battery might have gone out halfway through each descent. It will inevitably run out right when you have some sort of breakthrough and desperately want to see the footage. For that matter, get a spare battery. (If you have one, you will never need it. If you don't, you will.)
The same idea—be organized—holds for memory cards. Transfer everything at the end of the day, every day. Date the folders and number the jumps so you can find them on short notice. If you crash into each other and the camera gets broken or flies off into the big empty and you have got no footage, it can be a major setback. (Also try not to track into each other and crash.)
Don't be too proud to let it be known how much extra stuff you are doing all the time. While the others are kicking back and thinking about how cool they look, you are the one still trawling through the footage to find screen grabs to send home to their moms. You deserve a little consideration for making them look good, and they should be looking after you by presenting you with drinks or carrying your stuff to the car or something like that.
There are few circumstances that allow you to train to the very edges of your physical skill, so getting the most out of the jumps you have available is vital. Unless you have the rare luxury of an enormous sponsorship or are independently wealthy, your training must be designed specifically around what is achievable with the resources you can bring. Each little thing that you can do to maximize the efficiency of every single jump counts toward the success of the whole team. For the performers, it means knowing the inside and out of exactly what it is they need to do. When flying camera, you need to know all that plus a long checklist including much of the above to really kill it.
Go get 'em.
About the Author
Joel Strickland, BPA #1130306, is a member of Varial Freefly, British national champion in both the free-fly and freestyle disciplines. More information about the team is available on its website, varialfreefly.com.