“I love nonfiction and people doing real things. It just happened that I came across a story of a guy breaking into the most secure buildings in London and jumping off them. I’ve never seen anything like that, so of course I want to go tell that story no matter what.”
It was bound to happen. Here on World of Echo I like to include a prelude to each article with a little innocent banter once the phone call begins. I think it adds a sense of normality to each subject and helps ground the articles in reality. I would hope these feel like conversations and not mindless droning of facts and off-hand comments… if I’m doing this right, anyway. Who knows? I forgot to hit the record button so we missed out on some banter with this week’s guest: Wes Coughlin.
Wes is an action sports videographer from Oregon, specializing in aerial sports like skydiving and BASE jumping. Wes was in the middle of editing his first full-length documentary when I called him up. It’s about BASE jumping in urban London. He also shot and co-directed it. I know we tend to stick to motocross here, but once I caught wind of Wes and did some research I couldn’t pass up getting a chance to talk with him. I was surprised to find out he actually knew quite a bit about moto (he grew up on Crusty Demons and Terrafirma). He even rode when he was younger! Being an Oregon native though, he couldn’t take his mind off the slopes and eventually found himself trading two wheels for a board with bindings. Along the way his passion for filmmaking never wavered, where he now finds himself in a director’s position at Delve Media. In speaking with him though, I don’t think there was ever any other choice for Wes.
Discussion includes: The in’s and out’s of BASE jumping and its community, discovering the magic of editing, pioneering drone technology with Hans Skjersaa at XProHeli, filming for his first full-length documentary, and his advice to aspiring action sports filmmakers, among other things…
Wes: … -ere’s a pretty huge mountain bike scene, I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of a kid named Carson Storch?
World of Echo: Hmm… I don’t think so.
He’s a freestyle mountain bike rider, like RedBull Rampage style. They built this thing called the Oregon Dirt Park. It’s for mountain biking but they also built a motocross track as well that’s pretty dope.
It’d be awesome to get into mountain biking. I know a friend of a friend who moved out to Colorado, actually. He’s really big into mountain biking and they have a healthy scene there. In Indiana, though… no mountains in Indiana!
You guys are like the birthplace of motorcycles, right? Like flat track racing?
I’m not sure about that one! I know Indiana has an extensive history in car racing with the Indianapolis 500 and all, but I’m not sure on motorcycling. I’ll have to look that up. *pause*
So you like to jump off bridges in your spare time? [laughs]
Yeah, BASE jumping is something I’ve gotten into in the last year and a half. I’ve been filming it for five years and through that I learned to skydive, and after that I learned to paraglide. Paragliding is super sweet. There’s a lot of stuff you have to figure out with how the air works and that sort of stuff. Being around BASE jumping so much I definitely knew there were things I could potentially do [with it]. The bridges and stuff are pretty rad because they’re pretty safe for the most part, so you can feel a little more confident. It’s less likely you’re going to end up smashing yourself into some gnarly shit. I’ve also done some more technical jumps that I never thought I’d be able to do.
But yeah, BASE jumping is fun! It’s really, really short. The jump is such a small part of the actual experience. There’s getting to the spot, making sure everything is packed perfectly, assessing the conditions… and then you get to do this one awesome jump! It’s almost like if you’re cliff jumping into water. It’s much more of an action sport than paragliding, it’s much more of an action sport than skydiving even. Skydiving is really mellow, BASE jumping has this really “action-y” feeling towards it because there’s so much speed and air. You get that weightlessness feeling. Then after the jump there’s usually a hike out [of where your jump is located], so you can get some exercise there. It’s cool though, when you jump off a four hundred and fifty foot bridge correctly, the overall impact is less force than if you were to jump off a picnic table. So you jump, land, and then look back up and think, “I just jumped off this four hundred and fifty foot object and it felt like feathers!” It can be surreal.
BASE jumping seems to be more about the adventure, in a way.
BASE is a very procedural thing to do, and I think people get addicted to that process. Most of the people you meet are super nice. It’s an amazing community, really fun. You get to go to some of the most beautiful places in the world. You get to do an activity with an amazing group of people in some of the best places. I don’t think people jump just to jump, I think they do it for the whole aspect of it.
How accessible is BASE jumping? Is that something you need to be certified for? Seems like you’d need a good amount of training to do it.
In the States there’s no certification for really any flying device. I think it’s anything under two hundred and twenty pounds that you don’t need a certification. You don’t need a license of any sorts to go fly an ultralight airplane, so BASE jumping and skydiving would fall under that category. But skydiving you’re jumping out of an airplane, so it’s regulated by the FAA. With skydiving you have to go through a specific procedure to get licensed. Paragliding you technically don’t need any certification or license, but there’s a group called USHPA that controls a lot of the flying sites. Some of the sites are on private property so the group helps cover insurance on those sites, so they only want people who are certified through their program and on their insurance plan. But if you’re flying BLM and stuff you don’t need any certification. It is recommend that you have one hundred or so skydives [before you start BASE jumping], mostly for the canopy work.
Setting sail on the beachfront.
The only thing similar between skydiving and BASE jumping is that you have a pack on your back, and you’re going to be flying a canopy. There’s a lot of differences in terms of where you’re jumping and where you’re landing. That’s stuff that makes BASE jumping more dangerous because you’re landing in tighter areas next to rocks and stuff, whereas with skydiving you’re landing in an open field. [Another difference is] the decision-making for whether you’re going to be skydiving or not, [which is] controlled by the skydive facility itself. If the winds are too strong, or if something is not right, they can say that they’re not going to send a load up. With skydiving, although you’re learning how to fly a canopy and about the air, it’s at the hands of instructors and people helping you make decisions. In BASE jumping, there is no one to say, “Hey, the conditions aren’t good and you shouldn’t be jumping,” because the air is crucial in a lot of factors. The air is basically like a fluid.
Imagine a river flowing with rocks in it and the water going around the rocks creating eddies and currents. The air is doing the same thing all of the time around different objects. [The air] also comes up with thermals which are like water droplets in a way, they heat off the ground and pop in the air. That happens in the summertime if you get strong gusts of wind. So in short, getting into BASE jumping is all about understanding the air as much as you can, along with canopy time. I honestly think the best way to learn would be through paragliding. You can learn all of those elements by constantly flying the canopy. Then when it comes to BASE jumping with packing, getting the gear, and jumping, I think you really need to find a mentor who is willing to take you under their wing and keep a close eye on you, or walk you through the steps. For the first couple jumps you’ll do a PCA jump, where someone holds onto your bridle and you’re not pitching at all. You’ll take a short fall and the canopy will immediately open. After that you might do some handheld jumps off a really tall bridge to work on body position while flying through the air. It’s the same as any sport, there’s a way to get into it where you’re not going full bore wingsuit proximity, flying five inches off the ground.
Do you think the need for mentoring is why the BASE jumping community is so strong? It doesn’t seem like a sport you could really get a handle of on your own. At least in a safe manner…
You’ll have to watch our documentary and learn how Lewis [Jones] learned how to jump. He basically taught himself how to jump, which is pretty sketchy. [laughs] I think he was in a unique mental state when he was doing that. But the BASE jumping community is strong. It’s small and it can be “clique-y” in its own way but overall… BASE jumping is pretty crazy to begin with so everyone who does it usually has a similar outlook on life. Life should be fun, you should be you to your fullest. You shouldn’t pretend to be someone else because that’s not what life is really about, it’s about being unique and experiencing what you want to experience. I think the BASE jumping community really likes to promote that, because they have really quirky characters and individuals. There’s so many living legends that are in the BASE jumping community, [oftentimes] you meet people in videos or heard about from friends. It’s like a weird cult of funness.
I had a Super Frenchie video pulled up of you and Matthias [Giraud] BASE jumping on your thirtieth birthday, and you guys ran into this guy who tried to BASE jump off a bridge in front of a cop.
[laughs] Yeah, [Steve] Jester.
So those are the characters you’re kind of talking about?
[nervous laughter] Jester… he’s definitely like the “troublemaker” of [the group]. He was arrested that weekend for some warrant he had out on him. So he went to prison again, or something like that. But I think one of the first people we meet in that video is Marco Poko, the guy with the braids. He’s super rad. Then there’s guys like Sean Chuma, who’s like, a legendary aerialist and BASE jumper doing quad flips and triple spins. Real gymnastic stuff off bridges and cliffs. But yeah, Matthias said, “Yeah, that’s [Jester].” How odd I got to meet that guy, you know?
What’s funny about that is, while I have pretty limited BASE knowledge, I was surprised that I even knew who that guy was! I had seen that video before… I wasn’t expecting that.
You were just as surprised as I was!
Picking up aerial sports in your late twenties, I wanted to ask you what your childhood was like. You grew up in Redmond, Oregon, right?
Yeah, I was just always into action sports [as a kid]. We would build ramps at our house to skate on… I grew up on five acres in the high desert, my family was middle class so we had a decent house and decent land. My Dad built houses for a living so we always had tons of tools everywhere. We’d just build stuff. We built ramps, dirt jumps for our bikes. We had a whole motocross track in front of our house for a long time, because early on I really wanted to race motocross. I don’t know how it happened, but once I saw [the Crusty videos], I was like, “That’s what I want to do.”
I was probably seven years old and I begged my Dad to buy me a motorcycle, so he bought me a PW80. I started riding that around and then my brother got really jealous, asking for a bike. So he got a CR80 and then my Dad ended up getting a Kubota tractor for work, so we used that to build the motocross track. It was a decent size for our piece of property, maybe two acres. We’d just ride that and build jumps. I got a KX60 and started racing the 60 class and then raced the 80 class. I never raced above that, by seventh or eighth grade I got really into snow sports like snowboarding. We grew up looking toward the mountains every single day, for whatever reason the snow grabbed my attention and that’s all I wanted to do was snowboard.
Through all of this time of riding dirt bikes and snowboarding, I’ve always loved photography and making weird videos. I think I was fourteen when I found this MiniDV camera that my Dad had. We also had a computer that came with editing software. My Dad offered, “Yeah, there’s some software on the computer that you can transfer the video from the camera to the computer.” I spent hours trying to figure out how to do it, there was no instructions or anything. Once I figured out how to get the footage from the camera onto the computer and change the order of the clips I was like, “Holy shit! This is crazy!”
We would just make skate videos, or paintball videos, or [videos of us] jumping bikes off dirt jumps. Just all of the random fun stuff you do with your friends.
You had that attitude of “film everything.”
Mmhmm, yeah. I just thought that was the sweetest thing ever, and so through high school I just continued making videos, skating, and snowboarding. I wanted to go to film school, but I was looking at all of the different universities before I finished high school, and if you wanted to go to a legit film school you had to go to UCLA, USC, New York, or Vancouver B.C. I really wanted to be close to the outdoors so Vancouver was probably the most logical choice, but it being an international school it was just so expensive. Luckily, after looking all over Colorado and California, I found a satellite campus for Oregon State University at SCUC. Basically you could get a four year degree with Oregon State, but live in Bend, which is only twenty-five minutes away from the mountains. It’s more well known now, but it was sort of a secret thing back then. I chose [a business major], because that was the best program that they had, and I just used it as an excuse to snowboard basically. That was really fun. I really wanted to snowboard more, I was on a freeride team doing contests and stuff, but it was a weird time.
Wes with a tweaked-out method air on fresh powder.
2008 was when everything crashed here really bad [economically]. All of the ski films and snowboard films were going away. RAGE Productions were making some of the best ski films every year in Bend, and after 2008 they had to stop because there was no money in it. If you wanted to be a part of the film world you had to be in with TGR [Teton Gravity Research] or Brain Farm, out in Jackson Hole. I reached out to both of them as an aspiring filmmaker at that point and they both offered unpaid internships, but I didn’t really have the financial means to go all the way to Jackson Hole for sixth months of unpaid work. It would’ve been so cool to work with those guys, but it just wasn’t feasible. I was already making videos and commercials for a bunch of different companies in my spare time, along with going to school and snowboarding, so I just decided to keep doing that.
Once I got done with school I decided to just do filming full time. I definitely got pushed in a bunch of different directions here and there. It took me a little bit to figure out exactly what I wanted to do and how to do it. I think this was also around the time drones were becoming super popular, a time where everyone was trying to get aerial shots before anyone really knew how to do it. I started this company, XProHeli, with one of my old mentors Hans Skjersaa. He was a filmmaker in town who did local commercials. He was really into RC technology and stuff, so before DJI came out with their Phantom line and all that stuff, we had a drone manufacturing company where we’d make drones that could carry GoPro’s without gimbals or anything. We figured out something that no one else did at that time. I remember one month we sold eighty thousand dollars worth of product. It was crazy, but as soon as DJI and all of those companies started to put more money into their products we started to turn into the “small shop” specialty people. I wasn’t really that into making drones anyway, I was more into filming and flying them. I got back into commercial filmmaking after that and made as much money as I possibly could to buy more camera gear to make more outdoor videos. I did that for probably like six years straight, taking everything I earned and putting it back into camera gear, trips, and filming…
Drone for one, please.
But because of the XProHeli stuff we did, we got a lot of attention through that at the time. There was a BASE jumper from Alaska who moved to Bend named James Scott. He came in wondering what this drone stuff was and asked me if I wanted to go film a BASE jump at Smith Rock. This was like, five years ago. When someone comes in and they say, “You want to go film a BASE jump?” And you’ve never seen a BASE jump, you’re like, “Yeah, of course I want to!”
I remember hiking up there with him and flying the drone as he’s getting ready to jump, and he was new to BASE jumping at the time so he was super nervous. His nervousness made me super nervous. I just thought this was the gnarliest thing ever, freaking out. I could barely fly the drone because all I could think was, “What’s going to happen?” [laughs]
You’re both looking at each other going, “You think I got this?”
No, it was more like him quadruple-checking his stuff, him being really nervous. Saying things like, “The keys are in the car if anything happens…” Real silent nervousness. When someone doesn’t look confident in what they’re doing that sort of rubs off on you, I guess.
So he ended up jumping and, looking back on it, it was really bad. [laughs] He did a really bad jump. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was pretty sloppy in the air. His canopy opened up perfectly fine so he landed and I thought it was so crazy. He was friends with Matthias [Giruad]. I didn’t know he had moved to Bend, and he goes, “Yeah my buddy Matthias, he’s a ski-BASE jumper from France. He just moved here with his wife Joanne. I’ll connect you two.”
I’m not sure if I knew much about Matthias before that, but I think James mentioned the avalanche ski-BASE jump he did for GoPro. Matthias did that a year before I met him. At that time that video was super hot, and I thought there was no fucking way this guy just moved to Bend. He was a GoPro athlete right when GoPro was starting to blow up. At that time that was the coolest thing to be was a GoPro athlete, getting all of these POV angles that had never been done before. So I met Matthias, and he said he was going to go out to this other cliff and BASE jump and asked if I wanted to film it with the drone. So I said, “Of course!”
It was Matthias, Kyle Olson who worked at GoPro, and myself, we went out to this cliff that was super low. It was only two hundred and forty feet tall. I got to see Matthias do that, and he was completely different than James was. Just totally confident. He seemed a little more professional with what he was doing. Matthias and I at the time were only acquaintances, but every once in a while he would ask me if I wanted to go do a project or film. I never turned him down. I was making all these commercials for this ad agency making pretty decent money doing stuff for regional banks and broadband internet companies. I think I had twenty thousand dollars in my bank account and I spent it all in one day on a RED Scarlet and a bunch of other stuff. I put all my chips into camera gear. I had the RED camera, the drones, an editing station. I just wanted to go out and make sick videos, just down for whatever. Matthias had this idea to do this paraglide rope-swing. I was making some short films under the name “The Bivy” with some friends, so I thought we could make a video about that and put it on The Bivy YouTube channel.
I think that project was the first time Matthias realized that we had a good group of people capable of going out and making films from start to finish. After that we became really good friends and just kept on working together. That shoot was also the first time I met my really good friend Daniel, who is a paragliding instructor. That was my first time being involved in anything with paragliding. If it wasn’t for that day I definitely wouldn’t be where I’m at today, because that day I met Daniel and he taught me how to paraglide. But once we did that and a couple of other videos, some of Matthias’ sponsors like Thule and Superdry started to offer up some paid gigs doing the stuff we were just doing for fun. Once they had gotten word of all the videos we were making, they all wanted that done for them. I was happy doing the commercials, but it wasn’t the reason I got into filmmaking, you know what I mean?
Yeah. You don’t pick up a camera and beeline for the nearest bank to do advertisements for them. You want to film your buddies doing awesome shit.
It was great to finally have that transition point of getting paid to do commercials, to getting paid to do outdoor shorts and outdoor commercials. Things that involve really cool trips, like paragliding or BASE jumping, or skiing. Just by having those passion projects done people started asking me for lots of help. This guy Sky Pinnick from RAGE, I mentioned earlier how they used to make some of the best ski videos in town, he was a phenomenal commercial filmmaker who worked with brands like Triumph and Garmin. He asked me if I could get some wingsuit pilots to go to Alaska for this Garmin shoot. I knew a bunch of wingsuit pilots just from learning how to skydive at Skydive Kapowsin in Washington. This is the great thing about the air sports world, once you get into it, it’s so small and connected that you meet everyone really quickly. I convinced three pilots to come for free on the shoot so they could get some more jumps in. It’s so expensive to do jumps [normally].
So Garmin ended up flying them to Alaska. We had a Heli and they did some jumps out of the Heli and proximity flew some mountain lines. We also did some snowboarding stuff with this Norwegian X Games Gold Medalist and a couple pro skiers. So that was the first time we got to just go out and film something rad for [the Garmin Virb camera]. And through the drone stuff I was doing before, XProHeli, I had my brother working there and he made custom gimbals for Garmin’s new camera. It all was just a really good fit of outdoor expertise meets technology. You couldn’t even buy those gimbals for a GoPro at the time. That Garmin Virb commercial was the first big outdoor adventure shoot that I really got to be a part of.
What do you think it takes to properly capture aerial sports? What are key elements needed to present these sports the way you believe they should be presented?
That’s a really good question. I think the easiest answer is, and it might just sound like common sense because I’ll bet you do it with motocross, but if you understand the sport and all its aspects really well you’re able to tell the stories and shoot it in a way that makes sense. You could just picture sending a TV filmer from LA or Florida to film motocross, he’d probably just shoot some super cheeseball stuff. I think being connected with the sports as much as possible, and being used to being in those environments, means you will be able to capture the story that you see in the best way possible… if that makes any sense.
Totally. I definitely agree in that sense that I think it’s more important that the person capturing [these sports] has more knowledge in what they’re capturing, than knowledge in film terms and camera specs. You need to know how a camera works, but as long as you can make an image presentable I think it’s more important that you have knowledge of what your subject is.
And I think you want to collect as much stuff as you possibly can [while filming]. Even though shooting is probably the most glorified part of being a filmmaker, going to cool places and filming crazy things, you’re really just collecting as much as you possibly can. That way when you go into editing you can put it together. It’s kind of like if you were going to go out to forage to bake a pie or something, and you know you’re going to make a blueberry pie…
… I’m definitely going to be looking for blueberries when I go out. But when you go out you go, “Oh shit! There’s raspberries too.” Or some other cool thing. Then you start thinking about grabbing everything and when you come back, maybe you don’t even make a blueberry pie. Maybe you found something way better, or a combination of things you didn’t even think was possible. That’s my mentality for shooting. You want to shoot efficiently, but you want to also shoot a variety of things. Look around as much as possible for how to set up the emotional value for the viewer. With action sports it’s commonly beautiful shots of cool people doing cool things. Other times if you’re developing more of a story or narrative, there’s other things that you have to try to capture, like stressful or unexpected moments.
When you go and film most of the time you have an idea of what you’re trying to do. It’s almost always different once you’re there, though. You have to do your best to pick up on certain things that you may have not planned, spontaneous events that present themselves. You have to be ready to go and get that.
That’s why it helps to be an editor [as well], because you can kind of start editing in your head while you’re out shooting. You can pick out different things that might work and put them together to see if they do. I should’ve sent you this video, this new video that’s not out yet. We did some videos for Superdry and there’s this one that turned out to be a really cool short film, Matthias BASE jumping this thing called “Ancient Art” in Moab [Utah]. I think Marshall Miller and Hayley Ashburn did a GoPro video of them jumping Ancient Art that got posted awhile ago. It’s like this really tall, narrow pillar. Our friend Lizzie Van Patson, she’s a rock climber, leads Matthias up the route to get to the top. We knew we wanted to get all of these different angles and shots to tell the story, but our resources were super low.
[If you’ve never been], Ancient Art is in this group of rocks called Fisher Towers, and the Fisher Towers are these beautiful, weird, narrow ridge lines that are four hundred feet tall. It has shark-fin like ridges along the top. We had a para-motor there with a tandem wing and tandem set up. Our plan was to have him fly me with the RED camera and Lizzie and Matthias would have GoPros on them. Lizzie’s boyfriend also was there, and he’s never filmed anything before, but I needed more angles so I gave him a [Sony] a7S and a five minute filmmaking tutorial. Matthias kind of knows the process a little bit so he can direct certain things, and Lizzie was fine. Sometimes when you get into a project where you’re not the only main camera guy (but the person who sees the overall vision), you kind of have to facilitate a little bit by handing tools out to people and hoping it just works. You need to direct in a way that isn’t information overload, but enough for them to get some pieces for you along the way. I feel like that’s the next level in a way, going outside of being the main person on a project. Instead of being the sole person to have an idea and execute it, it’s more about having an idea so big that you couldn’t possibly do it on your own. So then it becomes a thing of how you use your resources and people to make that idea reality.
I feel like as ideas grow you will eventually just need help, on any level. It can’t be done completely solo forever.
I need to send you a preview for our documentary. We tried for six months to get into this building [in London], us and our buddy Lewis Jones. It was so hard to get a jump in, the weather in London being so shitty. All of these logistics… how to time it right getting into the building, when the doors open, how to get to this balcony. We tried for a really long time to figure out how to get to London to shoot this thing on a day that was good, but no one could predict the weather accurately enough to make it happen. Some days it looked like it was going to be really good but ended up bad, some days that looked bad ended up being good, but because of the distance we couldn’t coordinate that well. I remember the first trip we were there for about two weeks and we couldn’t get the jump, so we were trying to figure out how to go back. The solution was to just send myself there, and have me chill with Lewis until the jump could happen. But as you know, you need different angles and footage to cover this sort of thing.
I was there for like six or seven days and the weather was so crappy, until finally we went out scouting the city and saw the forecast would be perfect the next day. We had so many problems to overcome that you could see in the documentary, with Lewis getting the parachute into the building being one of them. Filming-wise, the problem was that I had no crew there and no good connections with people to help out with such an “illegal-ish” activity. [laughs] We decided if we could get the parachute and the film crew figured out that night, we’d be on to hit the weather window the next day. I just started making phone calls and connecting with other filmers and finally found two awesome filmers who were in town and down to do it. I had never met them before, we met at a park in the morning and I just started handing out a bunch of camera gear and equipment. It was just a couple guys tossing around thousands of dollars worth of equipment and explaining, “Alright, he’s gonna be jumping from this building at this time, and I need you on this balcony pretending you’re a tourist.” [laughs] I would show them tricks to make sure the camera was rolling but the monitor wasn’t turned on and how to shoot from the hip. We wanted to film the security guards without them knowing.
Wes scoping out potential escape routes in London, England.
It sounds more like you’re planning a heist or something.
Yeah. [laughs] I’ll send you the link to the doc. We can’t really talk about it publicly yet, but I think you’ll like it from a filming standpoint. I’ve said before that filming [aerial sports] isn’t in itself extreme, but filming this documentary felt like real “extreme” filmmaking. Climbing over fences, sneaking past security guards in the middle of the night, breaking into stuff. This is super extreme filmmaking because you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing and filming all of it.
I’m sure it was instinctively nerve-wracking.
I think the most extreme thing I’ve done in filmmaking is this stuff in London. I’ll send you the documentary. There’s no title sequence yet, or intro, but the first scene is at this cathedral and Lewis says, “Let’s just go have a look around.” We’re scaling all of these fences and breaking into these scaffolding systems. They’re doing construction on the cathedral so there’s scaffolding on the outside, with some parts of it being completely dark. No one could be able to see you that well, but once you get to the top of the dome there’s spotlights everywhere and your shadow is up against the wall standing twenty feet high with security guards below. I’m thinking, “What are we gonna do about the lights?”
Lewis goes, “We just hope they don’t look up.” [laughs]
I didn’t film this, but on our way down one of the security guards heard us coming through the scaffolding system. This is the part where we’re in the shadows, and the scaffolding went up in a column comprised of stair set after stair set. There’s a door at the bottom to get into it. The security guard goes in the door and we think, “Oh, fuck!”
We all start laying down dressed in head-to-toe black and he starts shining his flashlight at us. I didn’t film it because I was afraid that the lens would reflect the light back towards him, and so I was afraid to point the camera at him. I wasn’t rolling on that but I wish I was now. He stood there for five minutes looking around trying to figure out where the noise we were making was coming from. I don’t really know what the plan would’ve been, because at that point I was just following Lewis. Maybe we would’ve run for it, because security guards can’t actually touch you or detain you, they can call the police though. I remember trying to do breathing exercises, because it’s like, “You’re in London, trespassing on this prominent building with a security guard actively looking for us.”
I was just trying to breathe and not freak out. I remember one of my legs was uncontrollably shaking from being so nervous. It may sound way less intense than BASE jumping, but that was probably one of the most intense moments I’ve ever had.
I could imagine it was! You’re trespassing a tourist attraction in a foreign country, and if you get caught by police you’re in trouble and the documentary is ruined. There’s so much at stake and the only objective in that moment is to be as still as possible. I’d be freaking out too!
That was a fun, fun film trip.
This dude sounds nuts.
Yeah man. Lewis is a freak. [laughs] He’s beyond the freak level of action sports. He’s an insane person. Really special. I won’t spoil it but there’s some amazing stuff in the documentary.
Who’s this guy? Lewis “something?”
Lewis Jones. His Instagram is @lemmingsbase. He posts some crazy stuff.
Do you ever get requests within the BASE jumping community to make Instagram edits for people?
Like, just a video for Instagram?
No, not really. I usually link up with people that will connect with sponsors if they want to do a video. If it’s something I’m passionate about I’ll make it happen no matter what, but if not there needs to be money involved.
Money talks, yeah.
Are you looking for advice on your blog on how to be an action sports filmmaker, or how to get into it and make a living?
I would hope that if there’s someone out there aspiring to make this their living that they’d find some help from these interviews, so sure!
I’ve tried a lot of different methods and I think I’ve found one of the better ones. It kind of depends on luck because I think it helps that you’re around the right people at the right time, but if I were to start over I’d find the best pro athletes in my sport and approach them to work on stuff. They need filmmakers really bad and video projects stand out the most for those type of people, compared to photography. A lot of times they’ll cover your costs in terms of lodging and travel if they have a project going on. They’re still trying to figure out how to make video stuff happen too, they don’t really understand how to approach a company or their own sponsors for money. Teaming up with an athlete will pave the way for them and pave the way for you as well, because they already have established sponsors and those sponsors want stuff made. Neither of them may have a project in mind, or they might have one in mind but no filmmaker with the motivation to say, “Look, this is what we can do! This is the style we can work in.”
I’m not sure in motocross who you’d want to work with. If you could pick a rider and become friends with them to start doing passion projects where it’s not even about the money, it’s just about making something cool together, you could make some great videos. I’d imagine if someone did that and made a couple videos with a popular athlete who has sponsors, [more companies will] see those video projects. Hopefully they’re good because they’re passion projects. Those companies would want to use you for projects when they do come around, license your footage, etc.
People only want to work with their friends in this industry, too. It’s not really like you’re going to get this call out of the blue from “X” person, “Hey, let’s go make this video.” It’s going to be about establishing the friendships and the relationships to be a part of the community as much as possible.
It’s an interesting relationship that filmmakers and athletes have, almost like a “help me, help you” scenario. Like you said, athletes need filmers and filmers need athletes to film. To me it’s kind of interesting sometimes that you’re building a career off of friendship, in a way.
You’re twenty-one now, so if you did seven, eight, or nine years of crushing it, by the end of that you’re going to be untouchable. That’s kind of how the time frames work in almost any industry, you have to put in six to ten years to be really proficient at it full-time. It’s hard for people to want to do that, I think you have to sort of be a freak. You have to enjoy pain and be masochistic in a way. [laughs] Like you mentioned Ricky Carmichael and his training strategy, he came into the game with a different attitude and mindset towards racing and knocked Jeremy McGrath off the podium.
I don’t think your job as a filmmaker has to dominate every aspect of your life, though. You don’t have to choose between being a motocross rider or a filmmaker, I really don’t think that’s true at all. I believe you can be both. People who are being rewarded right now in action sports aren’t necessarily the people who are doing the most extreme things, because so many crazy things have already been done. Creativity is now being rewarded. You’ve probably seen the Candide ski films with Audi, the continuous ski line. It’s not the gnarliest skiing by any means, it’s cool, but it’s really creative and that’s what drives it. I feel like that’s going to be the next level in action sports that everybody is going to be competing for. To be really good at that is to be a good creative and to know how to tell stories visually. You need to have really good pacing and timing, rhythms, and good overall visual sense.
All of that takes so long to develop, even now I’m learning every single day how to edit and make things better. Sometimes you have to turn the dial all the way up to make stuff happen, and sometimes you have to keep it simple and turn the dial down. We’re in a day and an age too where, even with something like the old Nitro Circus DVD’s, everything is on social media now. Facebook, YouTube. There’s some successful action sports people doing vlogs, which is cool. It’s no longer just about filming the tricks, it’s about the lifestyle.
I guess what I’m trying to say is you have to be aware of the formats, especially in action sports, and what you would have to do to be successful in each format. Vlogging is its own format, whereas creative videos like Candide is another format. Raw Instagram videos, or whatever, is a format. There’s the short film format, which is something I’ve been doing a lot. The devinsupertramp, “good looking people doing cool looking things in beautiful looking places set to a montage” is another format. You have to identify those different formats on the board, identify the audience in each one, and how you can best execute those formats. Sponsors and businesses that want to pay for stuff like that are honestly really confused and don’t know how to be a part of it. It’s really hard to get any sort of funding from those people because a lot of them come from a perspective of, “We just want people wearing our products so we can use it for a number of different things.” Something adventurous like YouTube videos or social media edits are sometimes out of their grasp. No one wants to pay for anything that isn’t already popular.
They don’t want to pave the way, they only want results.
One of my biggest goals ever was to make a feature-length action sports film. So that’s the documentary… I love nonfiction and people doing real things. It just happened that I came across a story of a guy breaking into the most secure buildings in London and jumping off them. I’ve never seen anything like that, so of course I want to go tell that story no matter what. In order for us to do that we’ve had to make commercials for tech brands. You’re working really long hours, and it’s cool work, but it’s not necessarily the work that you’re most passionate about. It’s like the only way to really make that happen, is to use the money we’ve made from commercials to shoot the passion stuff, and hopefully get the passion stuff sold. It’ll continually get a little bit easier.
Until it’s hopefully just passion…
[laughs] I doubt that would ever happen but, yeah. Even editing the documentary I was thinking, “Why did I even do this? It’s so much work!”
It can get a little dark at times, I’d think.
Yeah, definitely. But at the same time, if you’re the only person who can do what you’re doing… you’re all gonna die really soon so what else do you really have to do?
*pause* …Damn that did get dark. [laughs]
I’m just playing. I think that needs to be said.
Would you want to die regretting that you didn’t really go all out?
You want to at least know that you tried.
Yeah. And honestly, this may sound really sick, but when I got out of college I remember telling myself, “If you want to do this and film action sports. You’re either going to do it or die trying to do it.”
“Not dead yet!” -Wes, probably
I still feel like I’m in the stage of dying trying to do it. [laughs] I think that’s why it was so easy for me to spend all of my money on camera equipment and my time making videos and stuff. It’s been amazing because I’ve been all over the world. Europe, Australia, Alaska, South America… flying in helicopters, skydiving, paragliding, snowboarding, skateboarding, hanging out with really cool people, meeting some of my heroes. That’s a really weird feeling, that feeling that you’re still trying to make it while you get your first show funded by GoPro. You do these things that are pretty cool… maybe that is already doing really good.
In a way I feel like you’re always trying to make it, and I think if you try for so long, your craft improves and you never will feel like you make it. The next level will always be higher than where you’re currently at, but once you stop and look back you can realize that you did some amazing things.
You kind of said there that you’re unsure if you’ve made it. To someone like myself I’m thinking, “Hell yeah this guy made it!” But you’re saying it doesn’t feel like it?
It just feels like a constant uphill struggle, all the time. Even after I premiere something, or watch something I made on TV with people around, I never feel great. I always think I could’ve done better, either that or I’m already working on something else. Even after this documentary I already have a plan of what I want to do next. I think the ultimate plan was just doing exactly what I was doing when I was fifteen years old, having fun making videos with my friends… and getting paid a lot of money to do that! [laughs]
It’s like the ultimate scam. Do they even know who I am?