The Art of Flight: Cutting-Edge Camera Systems Make This Documentary Soar

The Art of Flight, perhaps the most dangerous and ambitious action-sports film ever captured on digital media and film, premiered in early September at several specially equipped theaters and art centers from Manhattan to Seattle. Screenings in the U.S., Canada and Europe have been scheduled through at least November.

Travis Rice, Snowboard Big Mountain/Freeride, in British Columbia. Photo by Mark Gallup/Red Bull Content Pool

Within 24 hours of its world premiere at the Beacon Theater in New York City (Sept. 7), the movie also became available for sale on iTunes, Blu-ray Disc and DVD.

The film follows the global travels of prominent American snowboarder Travis Rice—who also serves as narrator—to such exotic locales as Patagonia, Colorado, Wyoming, Alaska and British Columbia. The project is a first-of-its kind collaboration between Brain Farm Digital Cinema and Red Bull Media House—with audio implemented by Dolby Labs and George Lucas'' Skywalker Ranch (another “first” for sports-action cinema). Color-correction was handled by Spy Post in San Francisco.

The Art of Flight production crew in Jackson Hole, Wy. Photo by Danny Zapalac/Red Bull Content Pool

“Snowboard films have always had a lot of emphasis on the action, but never as much on production value and the actual filmmaking skills behind it,” says producer Chad Jackson. “This was different. This was a nearly two-year project and a hybrid between a true documentary and a so-called ‘action sports'' film. We really wanted to add in the story along with the adventure. It''s a bigger budget film compared to other snowboard films, but we''re still doing the work of 50 Hollywood filmmakers with a small, tight crew,” Jackson adds.

“September is best for distribution because ‘snowboard'' is kind of an industry unto itself, where you want to take it straight to DVD and Blu-ray because consumers buy these films in the fall before ski season. And then we go right into the holiday season,” Jackson continues. We''re doing a limited ‘four-walling'' theatrical run where we premiere in various venues—not movie theaters, necessarily, but in opera houses, art centers and such—using [digital] projectors.” Most of these brick-and-mortar venues feature a Dolby cinema server playing a 1920x1080 DCP file. Dolby is providing 7.1 and 5.1 audio mixes.

Travis Rice, Snowboard Big Mountain/Freeride, in British Columbia. Photo by Mark Gallup/Red Bull Content Pool

Brain Farm''s owner, Curt Morgan, directed the film. The greatest obstacle with such an ambitious undertaking, he says, is logistical. “In our order to capture such highly unusual locations with such unique camera systems, we had to find a way to get all the gear there to begin with!”

Each location trek would typically start at Brain Farm''s base in Wyoming. “From Jackson, we would take the equipment—sometimes as many as 75 cases—and leapfrog from place to place. We followed weather patterns, which can make our job very difficult,” Morgan explains. “This was the most logistically challenging set of shoots I ever signed up for.”

Morgan''s crew shot with a wide array of equipment: a couple of Panasonic AJ-HPX3700 VariCams, a Vision Research Phantom HD Gold and Phantom Flex, a RED Epic, and Panasonic helmet cams. They also deployed a Sony PMW-F3 CineAlta, a Canon EOS 7D DSLR and, to shoot 35mm film, an ARRIFLEX 235.

Curtis Morgan films for The Art of Flight in Jackson Hole, Wy., in January 2011. Photo by Danny Zapalac/Red Bull Content Pool

“A very busy unit was the Cineflex V14—a gyro-stabilized gimbal from Axsys Technologies that houses Sony''s HDC-1500 studio camera system,” says Morgan. “After using it quite a bit on our last film—That''s It, That''s All—I fell in in love with the Cineflex. It has the ability to stay perfectly stable at the end of a 42x lens flying in a helicopter going over 100 mph in high winds.” Brain Farm''s Cineflex system records to a Sony SRW-1 deck.

Morgan explains that the crew started shooting everything at 1,052 fps, but quickly realized that, although the high-speed slow-motion images looked cool, “overdoing it can lead to an almost boring image, so we ended up shooting most of our action at 400 fps and then ramping in post.”

Post supervisor Eric Hansen oversees an Apple Final Cut Pro facility with four main editing stations—and a few Mac Mini and laptop stations—all tied into an Ethernet-based SAN with a capacity of 56TB. “It became obvious almost two years ago that we wouldn''t be able to work on this movie at ProRes HQ and still keep everything on the SAN. Instead, we switched to ProRes proxy for the offline,” Hansen says. “Then we could use different bit rate files such as proxy, LT, standard and HQ that all have the same 1920x1080 resolution.”