VFS Camera Tricks and Traps
Vertical formation skydiving (VFS) is an emerging discipline that combines the body-flight skills of freeflying with the mental skills of formation skydiving. In the past, very few skydivers had the ability to take part in this discipline because of its complexity. That has changed now that wind tunnels are springing up all over the globe, assisting skydivers in their quest for awesomeness.
Just like a traditional 4-way team, a 4-way VFS team has a slot system designed to help the team engineer its jumps and a camera flyer to film the action. Though there are similarities in the responsibilities of camera flyers on the horizontal and vertical axes, the faster fall rate and added dimensions of the formations makes VFS one of the most difficult disciplines to shoot. Here we check out some tricks and traps of this fun and challenging position.
The videographer’s job on a formation team is very important. He presents a direct link between the team’s performance and the judges who score it. The judges are looking for proper grip sequence and placement. Each completed formation equals one point, but in order for the points to count, the videographer has to record them all. The clearer and easier the grips are to see in the video, the better it will be for the judges. The camera must be at the proper distance and angle and should be steady throughout the entire jump to accomplish this.
Flying formation camera is like playing the board game “Operation”—you shouldn’t let an object touch the sides. If a grip touches the edge of the frame, or worse, leaves the view of the camera, the team will not receive a score for that point. Before immediately jumping into filming VFS, film some traditional 4-way to become familiar with sight pictures, framing and grip anticipation.
Honing Your Skills
Before you can strap on a camera helmet and follow a VFS team out the door of a plane, you must ensure that your flying skills are up to par. Participate in freefly and VFS jumps, spend time in a wind tunnel and receive coaching. You must be able to fly head down and remain consistently level in relation to the rest of the group (not high and looking down at them or extremely low and looking up).
It is best to film VFS while flying entirely in a head-down position. Transitioning to your feet may cost the team valuable points, because the video may become blurry or you may miss capturing a grip. Another good reason to remain on your head is that the picture will most likely be steadier. It is easier to fly in a head-down position without moving or shaking your head than in a head-up position. For this reason, you’ll need to be able to exit on your head and remain there until breakoff.
Due to the high freefall speeds on VFS jumps, you will need a “freefly-friendly” rig, one that has adequate riser, bridle and pin protection. You also want to be particularly careful to double check your pilot chute before exiting to ensure that no fabric is working its way out of the pouch. Since the camera flyer is often below the formation, a premature deployment could be devastating to both you and your teammates. You can avoid this scenario by making sure your pouch is snug and your pilot chute packed in such a way that it is held securely in place.
VFS camera flyers need to make significant fall rate changes quickly. But rather than accomplishing this by wearing a suit with arm wings, as traditional 4-way camera flyers do, the VFS camera flyer will find it helpful to have additional drag on his legs. A regular freefly suit that is baggier than normal from the knees down should do the trick. If you are big and struggle with slower fall rates, add more drag to your arms as well. It’s also helpful if your suit has additional pockets for extra batteries, memory cards and a lens cleaning cloth.
Cameras and Lenses
Even though small-format cameras such as GoPros® can be very useful for many purposes, they do not allow for the instant playback that a VFS team may want when making back-to-back jumps. GoPros® can also be difficult to sight and don’t allow lens changes for different framing, making them less desirable for competition use. However, since it has a wide angle of view, a GoPro® makes a good back-up camera to catch points a primary camera may miss.
Whatever primary camera you choose, you’ll want to be able to attach different lenses to it. The distance you’ll need to fly from your team will depend on what type of lens you use. A great lens to start with would be a .5x wide-angle. This lens increases your angle of view, but its focal length allows you to stay 15 to 20 feet away from your team so as not to interrupt the jump. Once you gain more skill and are comfortable flying closer to the group, you can advance to a .3x lens. This lens requires you to stay within a minimum of 15 feet of the formation, since the team will be very small on screen and the grips impossible to see if you are outside of this range.
Helmet and Mounts
There are many choices when it comes to camera helmets, and what you use will depend mostly on personal preference. With cameras becoming smaller all the time, videographers are starting to use helmets that were not originally designed for this purpose, including full-face helmets (which are great to have if you accidentally get kicked in the face on exit).
As you progress as a camera flyer, you’ll start to fly lower than the team, shooting them at a steeper angle. This will make your head position somewhat awkward and can put excess stress on your neck. To remedy this, you can tilt your camera down slightly to compensate. If you are using a side-mounted camera, you can simply rotate the bracket a couple of degrees. However, if your camera is top mounted, you’ll want to create a custom wedge for it to rest on, since no one yet offers them for sale. You can make the wedge out of metal, fiberglass or even wood. Be careful here, as it is easy to go overboard with the angle of the wedge—you don’t want it too tall. If you make the wedge so steep that when you’re on the ground looking straight ahead and the camera is pointed at your feet, you will not be able to look at the formation comfortably in the air.
As you become more proficient and start to fly below the formation, you’ll always be looking up and will probably find that no matter on what side of the formation you fly, the sun will be shining in your eyes. Make sure to use eyewear that not only protects you from the wind but also from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. Invest in a good pair of sunglasses or goggles that offer UV protection, and if you are flying in a full-face helmet, consider purchasing a tinted visor.
In addition, you will need a ring sight to help you center your camera on the subject you are filming. A concentric ring sight (one with a circular pattern in the optics) work best for filming VFS, because the concentric rings glow when the flyer looks directly into the sun or is experiencing glare. This glow will allow you to continue to keep the team in frame even if you can’t see the team well.
Step One: Relative Positioning
Don’t immediately try to emulate VFS camera flyers who have been practicing their craft for thousands of jumps. Being able to fly underneath a formation is a skill that will come with time. If a videographer is not able to fly relative to or on level with a group, going underneath can be disastrous. Even when you are on level, it is still possible to view most of the points and receive a scoring round. Your first goal should be to “fly still.” In other words, don’t move excessively (carve, make level changes or drive back and forth). By doing this, you’ll be better able to debrief your video footage. Learning to fly relative may take an entire season to perfect. You can make adjustments to your framing by adding movement later in your career.
A word of caution: If you are not able to perform Step One (above), don’t proceed to Step Two.
Step Two: Getting Steep and Other Tricks
In order to start flying beneath the formation, inch your way down one jump at a time while consistently keeping the jumpers fully in frame. Given the awkward head position, it is easy to cork or even drive into the formation accidentally—take your time!
Now is the time to start becoming aware of the jumpers’ individual grips. If a single grip leaves the frame during competition, the judges will not award the team that point. For the most part, you will find it best to stay behind the person flying the point slot. The point flyer remains on his head for the majority of the time, and it’s easier to view the inside of the formation over the point flyer’s head (well, it’s actually “under,” but feels like “over” to the head-down camera flyer).
Certain formations will have different ideal vantage points, and you’ll discover these with your team when you engineer the jumps. By participating in every dirt dive, walk through and mock-up exit with your team, you will notice the patterns emerge and learn to anticipate how the next formation is going to build. Also, by doing a little VFS yourself, you can educate yourself on how the formations fly. By visualizing the formation, being able to film it from the best vantage point comes naturally.
In most cases, a front-float exit will prove to be the best way to capture all the grips in frame as the team exits. Since camera flyers in the front-float position leave slightly earlier than the rest of the group, you will already be slightly low on the formation as you leave the plane. Guard your altitude (fall slowly) as you travel down the hill, and do your best to stay on level with the team. However, don’t be afraid to play with other exits, such as jumping from the camera step, from within the plane or even as part of the formation for the first point. There are no set rules for the VFS camera flyer’s exit as long as all the grips are visible.
In order to avoid a collision with the camera flyer, the inside flyers of a VFS team should turn 180 degrees to check their airspace before tracking off on their backs, then barrel rolling or flipping to their bellies to pull. Simply peeling out on their bellies could cause them to collide with the camera flyer if he happens to be on level with the team at that moment. To increase the level of safety and ensure that his teammates have the space to leave, a camera flyer should increase his fall rate slightly to fall farther beneath his team just prior to breakoff. The camera flyer can then take the center position and clear his air on his back or in a sit, transition to his belly and pull. Or, if you plan it in advance, another fun option is to track off with one of the inside flyers, then stage your pull times.
VFS is a young and popular discipline that is still going through some growing pains. As teams experiment with new ways to engineer their dives, the camera flyers play important roles in documenting the sport’s progress. Even though videographers don’t take grips, their jobs capturing points in competition is as important as the rest of the flyers’ and should never be taken for granted.
This article was originally published in issue 54 of Australian Skydiver Magazine. It was edited for an American audience by USPA.
About the Author
Niklas Daniel, D-28906, and Sara Curtis, D-28147, are teammates on VFS team Arizona Arsenal. Both are professional skydivers with backgrounds in coaching and competing at world-class levels and can be found year-round at Skydive Arizona in Eloy.