Cameras on the Course

I love trail films. Documentaries, life stories, action shots, drone footage, long race recaps. I love them.  The Miller v Hawks film from North Face? I’m sure I’ve seen it 100 times, and that’s not an exaggeration.

The trail films of the last few years remind me of Warren Miller ski films and indie surf and skate films from the 80s that really put the viewer in action and allowed to live the life of a stud athlete through the lens of a camera. I love them and don’t want them to stop.

I’m also a strident Libertarian and believe in freedom of the press.  Public lands belong to us, and our right to use them shall not be abridged. Tell me that cameras aren’t allowed at a public facility, police activity (from a safe distance), or in open space, and I’ll lose my mind.

But. I’ve also got to be honest and clear about how the number of cameras are distracting from the spirit of the sport and jeopardizing fair outcomes. So, does this make me a hypocrite by consuming (and promoting) a product I want to see limited and regulated? It might, but for the good of the sport, follow along and let’s hash this out together.

The Current Problem

This is perhaps the least important–not to mention the most subjective–of my points, but for a sport that’s inextricably tied to nature, it’s important: The number of camera people and film crews is a distraction from the natural aspects and beauty of this sport. There’s something serene and majestic about seeing a human prance over single track or down a street during a race. The fluidity of stride and the loneliness of the runner–there she is, alone, ready for another 40 miles–is something most of us appreciate about this silly sport. The problem? That environment and scene is abruptly disrupted by groups of cameras surrounding the athletes. Again, this is a subjective problem and often understandably ignored by people not at the race themselves.

Real Potential Problems

With the increase of camera crews comes some potential problems. I assume some of these have occurred already and been dealt with, but I couldn’t find any examples during my cursory search.  Any insights or examples would be great.

  • Tripping up. With so many camera people out there (again, it’s relative, but the potential for error in our sport is higher than road running), someone’s gonna get hurt. A cameraperson is going to trip up the athlete they’re shooting, trip up another athlete in the race, or wipe out because of a collision with a spectator, volunteers, crew, or amateur photographer and cause all sorts of hell. How will race management handle the situation? How would the news today be different if a videographer tripped up Jim at Michigan Bluff and took him out of the race?  What if someone shooting the YiOu/Cat battle through Foresthill had tripped up one of the women while the other ran off to Cal Street?
  • Aggression and Entitlement. This bothered me a tremendous amount: I overheard a group of videographers/photographers in Squaw talking about “smacking them (amateur photographers) out of the way” because “they weren’t shooting for anyone.”  This sort of attitude is exactly what we don’t need in this sport and will lead to fights and violence. Come on, people.  I know most of the videographers in the industry (Billy, Jamil, Myke, Ethan, Derrick, Matt, JB) and it wasn’t any of them making the threatening statements.
  • Pacing. When a team of camerapeople are shooting a runner for nearly the entirety of the race, there’s an awfully good argument that that partnership constitutes pacing. Having someone there for encouragement or for course directions is not allowed outside of official pacing duties, and when there’s money, prestige, and win bonuses on the line, rules have gotta be followed. Press credentials state that media can’t assist, mule, or help the runner, but there’s a lot of gray area that’s often inadvertently abused.

Saturation

This has to be a talking point, as since JB Benna’s Unbreakable in 2010, the number of trail films has increased exponentially. I’ll say it again: I watch them, I love them, and I don’t want them to stop, but multiple outfits shooting the same footage about the same runner (in this example, Jim Walmsley) seems ridiculous. As Nick D. pointed out in the URP comment section,

What’s annoying about film crews is now anytime we see a film…we see other guys filming in it…and vice versa, which just looks ridiculous at some point.

We’ll get to the “should they be allowed to?” question in just a sec.  

Drone Annoyance

Again, drone footage is an awesome advancement in film footage. What a cool perspective to have a shot of the runner close up, then pulled way back overhead to see the terrain and the other competitor in hot pursuit. Love it.

Only problem is, I hate the drones themselves, and I know I’m not alone. Whether it’s the obnoxious buzzzzzzzzzzzing of the rotors or the thought of getting filmed without my knowledge, I really wish they weren’t there at our events. If a pistol were handy and I was a better shot, shooting drones out of the sky would take over as my number one hobby. Again, another issue that’s only bothersome to those actually at the events.

Drone Safety

Laws for drones differ between recreational and commercial users, and when we’re dealing with MUT films and their huge budgets (sarcasm alert), those lines are often blurred. Some pilots are allowed to fly over crowds, some are not, all depending on the license (or lack thereof) and the size of the aircraft. I’ve seen in person an octocopter with a large DSLR fall out of the sky and smack down on the beach–it didn’t land, it fell and burst into a thousand pieces. Luckily no one was injured, but that was sheer luck–it was a summer day and kids were running around all over the place.  Imagine standing on Placer High infield, waiting for you runner to finish Western and a 50 pound spinning weight fell from 400′ up in the air and knocked you out. Not good.

What To Do About It and Why These Ideas Will Not Work

Well, there’s not much we can do, but I’ve done my best to come up with some scenarios:

  • Race directors can write rules and SOPs for media coverage.  You can’t be on this section of trail, you have to keep X distance, only one cameraperson allowed per runner…but the huge majority of those will be trumped by the 1st Amendment and the fact we’re on public lands. Again, major feelings of hypocrisy here.
  • Permitting agencies: The National Park Service has enacted rules about commercial photography within park bounds, but since competitive races aren’t allowed in National Parks, this is not an issue with our races. I’d assume–and hope–that local agencies have no jurisdiction over whether photographers can shoot during a permitted event and would love to hear from anyone who’s dealt with this.
  • If a cameraperson trips up another athlete while shooting his/her subject, that subject could be disqualified. Fair? Not exactly. The problem is is that many of the videographers are shooting multiple runners at a time and it would be wildly inappropriate and unfair to DQ the lot of them.
  • RDs enact rules that state if a cameraperson is running with a competitor for X amount of time, then that would constitute pacing and then the athlete would be DQed.  But then we wouldn’t get great videos (sometimes paid for by race sponsors) and besides, the athlete may not even want the camera there in the first place.
  • Athletes tune down the action by asking friends/filmmakers to coordinate so 4 people aren’t shooting the same footage. Problem with that is that it may jeopardize films from being made, which are often part of the marketing (and pay) for the athlete.
  • Create barriers and ask media to follow them. Media is kept behind red ropes during movie premieres, why couldn’t we have areas during races that are for runners only? No media, no crew, just the runner.  The problem? See the entitled group mentioned above and guess whether or not they’d follow the rules.

Conclusion (There Aren’t Any)

So are you like me? Do you feel like a hypocrite for loving the videos, but disliking the process and the distractions caused by the cameras and drones? Is there a solution to all of this?

What will happen—what should happen–if there are collisions and accidents on the course caused by media, either pro or amateur?

Can Race Directors influence or enact some sort of rules to curtail the amount of cameras on the course? 

Again, a plea to my filmmaker brothers and sisters and the scores of amateur videographers making videos of these races on shoestring budgets: Please keep making your films. Their popularity is testament to the awesome storytellng and technicality of what you all do, but let’s find a way to make the cameras less distracting while also working to make sure we don’t have problems with safety and rules in the future. Is this possible? I have no idea but maybe an open discussion will gin up some ideas.

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