But through his star-studded new series, the Natural Selection Tour, legendary big mountain freerider Travis Rice believes he’s finally brought the two worlds together.
The series takes place in North America over three separate weeks at three major terrain venues, bringing competitive freeriding to wide-open natural terrain. But the main innovation lies in the way it is filmed, combining sports drama and cinematic ingenuity.
Custom-built high-speed racing drones cast a dynamic lens on racers – the first time this level of technology has been used in a live broadcast.
The sheer size of the locations makes drone filming not only aesthetically desirable, but also a logistical necessity.
“Even here at the smallest event on the tour, there’s about a thousand feet of elevation,” Rice told CNN, at the first event of the season in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “That’s about 18 to 20 acres, with over 60 features that we’ve designed and built over the past three to four years.”
The breadth and variety of routes available with this type of scale make more traditional forms of dissemination inadequate; static cameras placed at strategic positions on a course, trackers sporting wearable GoPros behind competitors, or cable systems suspended over the mountain all lack the range and adaptability provided by racing drones.
“Through years of trial and error with filmmaking, we realized quite early on that the nature of this event, and the size and complexity of the locations of the event, meant it had to be captured from a special way,” Rice said.
Drawing on his experiences working on more than 20 snowboard films, the 39-year-old saw this new series as a chance to deliver “an immersive experience” closer to a video game than a traditional sports broadcast.
“People are used to looking at this third-person shooting angle (following a close rear viewpoint) – that’s what video games look like,” he explained. “So to be able to provide a really familiar way to experience and watch something, I feel like lowering that barrier to entry.”
The man who helped realize that vision was Gabriel Kocher, a Swiss aerial cinematographer who doubles as a professional drone pilot, twice finishing second in the world drone racing championships.
When Rice first approached him, Kocher explained the challenges they would face. “You can’t just buy a drone to do this, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time building it,” he recalled telling Rice. “But by the time it was time to go, I had a system together and it all worked.”
The system he created uses an X8 drone platform, designed for cinematography, with eight motors, a custom gimbal (a rotating camera mount), a complete broadcast system and a stabilization platform, to allow for extreme agility and speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.
Controlling such a system takes more than your average drone cameraman, and Kocher had to tap into his seven years of drone racing experience just to keep up with the racers as they descend the mountain.
“It takes athlete performance to capture athlete performance,” he explains.
“When they run the easiest line and they go smooth, I try to tap into my cinematic experience, but sometimes they just shoot through the trees and I just need to throw the drone at through a few turns just to catch them.
“It’s definitely the culmination of drone racing skills and a love for driving and snowboarding, seeing them and being able to anticipate what’s to come.”
While more basic drone filming has been used in the sport for many years, the speed and agility of Kocher’s bespoke models have already inspired other competitions to follow suit, such as the legendary Kitzbuhel.
Attracting the best in the world
The opportunity to compete in these unique venues has attracted some of the world’s best freeriders, from X Games champions to Olympic gold medalists, with more stars set to join the tour’s second event at Baldface Lodge in Columbia. British after the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
In the first event at Jackson Hole, it was Olympic slopestyle champion Sage Kotsenburg and halfpipe specialist Elena Hight who took the victories, both of whom have extensive experience not only in competitive snowboarding. , but also in the cinema. In 2020, Hight shot his first feature film in the backcountry, “Blank Canvas”, with Rice, while Kotsenburg shot his own film, “Halcyon”, in Jackson Hole, with fellow Natural Selection Tour finalist. Jared Elston.
Rice thinks high-caliber athletes have been drawn to the difficulty of the competition, with runners having to interpret the mountainous terrain and set their routes in real time, something they don’t do when racing park events. Olympic style.
“It’s not a park, you don’t have any training. It’s really difficult,” he explains.
With no opportunity to train on the course, athletes prepare by using VR headsets to watch Kocher’s drone races, to decide how best to tackle the mountain competitively.
The future of action sports broadcasting?
While spider cameras suspended from cables make sense for aerial shots of smaller stadium sports, Kocher’s technology and shooting style could become the norm for more “open” competitions.
“It lends itself very well to all the action sports that there are, extreme sports,” says Kocher. “It belongs in large outdoor venues where it’s impossible to install cameras everywhere,” he adds, citing motor racing, mountain biking and skiing. “I can see a lot of applications for this.”