Do you have any previous sailing experience?
I grew up in New York City and my mom enrolled me at a sailing camp one summer when I was 8 as a way to get some time on the water. I was hooked instantly. I was fortunate enough to race dinghies and larger sailboats throughout my childhood. I stuck with it and worked on charter boats in New York Harbor all through highschool, then eventually became a sailing instructor. When I got to college at NYU, my focus shifted for a few years and I decided to pursue cinematography. In 2015, I got a phone call from a friend of mine who was working for the US Olympic Sailing Team, asking if I might be interested in making some branded content for the team in Rio de Janeiro. I jumped at the opportunity and we continued working together over the years. In 2017 I was invited back to shoot for their Tokyo 2020 campaign. These experiences culminated into a job offer to shoot commercial and branded content work for American Magic, one of the challengers in the 36th America’s Cup. I also own a small sailboat and my wife and I go out cruising in our free time.
What was the goal of each shoot day? What were you trying to get from the footage?
When we first got the call to start working with American Magic, we knew it was going to be a challenging project. The America’s Cup is all about technology and innovation, so there’s a tremendous amount of secrecy within the teams. They are all given the same set of design parameters they have to work within, but how the teams choose to interpret those parameters is totally up to them. Basically, they are inventing technologies as they progress. So teams are constantly spying on one another, trying to figure out who’s got the faster, more innovative boat. Every day we were on the water there were spies following our boat. It’s as much a design competition as a sailing competition. We knew we weren’t going to be able to get a full crew on the team’s base. My wife and I have a small production company together, she’s a director, and we knew it was going to be just the two of us for most of the project.
It isn’t standard practice to have cameras in these high-security design areas, so it took over a year of shooting to build up the team’s trust in us to tell their story. Ultimately, we needed that level of trust to achieve our goals each day. Keeping the rapport with the team very open and getting access to the behind-the-scenes moments were key. We eventually got to a comfort level with the team that we could be in those closed-door meetings or private gym sessions without anyone blinking an eye.
Every day we went out on the water, it felt like we were pushing our camera systems to their limits, and pushing our own skills and stamina as such a small crew.
We had to be very flexible, it’s a 175+ person team composed of sailors, shore team, and support staff. The operations to maintain the boat ran 24 hours a day, six or seven days a week. There was so much going on in a day, we had to really focus on key moments that we knew were going to push our story along. Some days we might have set out to achieve a certain shot, thinking the boat would be sailing, but instead the boat might malfunction or some sort of drama would unfold on the base that would require us to switch gears very quickly.
The America’s Cup is kind of like the World Cup of sailing, and it’s the oldest trophy in modern sports history, so we felt like the project needed to be shot in a way that matched that level of competition and pedigree. From the outset, the goal was to push the boundaries with our shooting style.
What was the toughest part of the shoot?
The sailing environment is incredibly taxing on gear. Saltwater just destroys everything. Underwater housings can be quite bulky, and stabilization systems can get expensive really quickly when using them on a daily basis. The type of rig we needed to shoot with every day was really specific. While your average sailboat might only go 5-10mph, but these AC75’s were capable of hitting speeds in excess of 60mph. So just being able to keep up with the boats was a tremendous challenge. The boats are on hydrofoils, so they would go through maneuvers extremely fast to maintain their momentum, often turning suddenly and forcing the chase boats to alter course at a moment's notice. Course changing on the water at those speeds puts a tremendous amount of strain on any type of camera rig attached to the boat. It made keeping the camera dry, in focus, and rolling all the more challenging. We were asking a lot of our equipment.
The America’s Cup is all about technology and innovation, so there’s a tremendous amount of secrecy within the teams.
With a sport like sailing, you’re at the mercy of the weather. The team had some great meteorological technology that would help predict Auckland’s fickle weather and would help us schedule our days. Then add a large open body of water with 3-4ft swells, a significant amount of boat traffic, Auckland’s tendency to see "four seasons in a day," and an average daily UV index of 12. We might go out with the boats in the morning and the wind could die and we’d end up sitting there for hours in the heat, waiting for the wind to fill in. Or it could be rough seas and something would break onboard the AC75, resulting in the day finishing sooner than anticipated.
What kind of technology did you use?
It took some planning to find the best tools for the job. When we first got the call in 2019 to work with American Magic, there was still a huge amount of mystery behind the new design and we weren’t sure how close we’d be able to get to the boat during testing. We needed high frame rates and high resolution to potentially reframe or crop in post in case the boat got away from us, but it also had to fit into a backpack and be able to take some abuse. Ultimately the RED Helium 8K was the best option for us. Right before we left for Auckland, we were fortunate enough to get our hands on one of RED’s first Komodo 6K cameras. I was really impressed by what the camera was able to do with such a small form factor. It allowed us to achieve some action shots that might not have been possible a few years ago before it was developed.
It isn’t standard practice to have cameras in these high-security design areas, so it took over a year of shooting to build up the team’s trust in us to tell their story.
Camera technology has evolved leaps and bounds since I started shooting sailing in 2015. Gimbal technology was still in its early stages, but now there are some really rock-solid rigs to choose from. There was already a huge amount of drone photography and filming being done of the AC75 in its development and during training. Filming these boats with a drone is probably the most practical way to get dynamic shots by hand launching/catching on the water, but we also wanted the option to chase the boat and run alongside it while underway at speed. I ended up mounting the gimbal to a stabilization arm that was mounted to one of the team’s chase boats. After a few days of testing, I’d modified the rig in a way that best suited what we needed to do, wrapped everything in plastic, and went for it. The rig really exceeded my expectations and managed to make it through the whole six months we were down there.
What did you focus on during prep?
Compared to running track or playing a field sport, where you can pick up a pair of cleats and a ball and play the game, sailing isn’t the most approachable sport. Boats and time on the water can be cost prohibitive and it can be a logistical challenge to transport the boats around the world. We really wanted to highlight the sense of adventure in the sport and the human spirit as they battle the natural elements. When the team wasn’t on the water, they were in the gym, or in the shed working on the boat.
When we first got the call in 2019 to work with American Magic, there was still a huge amount of mystery behind the new design and we weren’t sure how close we’d be able to get to the boat during testing.
There were so many moving parts and people required to keep the boat performing, there was never a shortage of things to shoot. When we first landed in New Zealand, we had to do a government mandated two week isolation. I had most of the equipment with me in the hotel room, so it was a great time to work on shooting camera tests and getting the gear ready to shoot.
How did the Corinthian Spirit of the American team affect the production crew?
The members of the team - and all of the America’s Cup teams for that matter - really exhibited the highest levels of sportsmanlike conduct. In January, American Magic’s yacht suffered some serious damage after a capsize, and almost sunk to the bottom of the Hauraki Gulf. All of the other teams (Italy, New Zealand, and Great Britain) rushed out to the aid of the Americans and managed to save the boat together. In the days that followed, American Magic had to repair a hole in the boat and replace the entire inner workings of the boat...something that had taken six weeks initially, had to be completed in less than 12 days.
While the sailboats are beautiful to watch, it’s the humans who make the story.
The team worked for 24 hours a day and managed to get the boat back on the water in 9 days. It was an incredible feat of human ingenuity. It was pretty incredible to watch the entire city of Auckland rally around the American team, supporting them to get back out on the water. No one wants to win by default, so I think all the other teams were pushing to settle the score on the racecourse.
How do you highlight athletes when they’re surrounded by these massive Baseball-diamond sized ships?
While the sailboats are beautiful to watch, it’s the humans who make the story. The goal from the get go was to connect with our audiences on a human level, so we spent a ton of time interviewing sailors and team members to really understand the inner workings of the whole operation. One sailor we profiled specifically was Mac Agnese, a mainsail trimmer and grinder. It was his first America’s Cup and he was the youngest sailor on the team. He was so generous with his time and his story.
Every day we were on the water there were spies following our boat.
GoPros were also our friend. I was only able to shoot on the AC75 while it was sailing one time, and even so, it was very difficult to line up shots while the boat was underway. To get those more intimate close ups, we mounted GoPros throughout the sailboat and chase boats to capture the drama and the action of the day. My director [Chelsea Slayter] would make notes throughout the day for our editor so he could find those moments efficiently. Seeing the sailors’ facial expressions puts into perspective that despite all the technology, it’s still sailing. The boat can’t go without the grinders muscling the power, or the helmsman making the right decisions, for example. The humans are at the core of it all.
What part of this experience on the water can you take forward into your other shoots?
This shoot took a huge amount of patience and planning. I think as filmmakers we are constantly trying to push our boundaries. Every day we went out on the water, it felt like we were pushing our camera systems to their limits, and pushing our own skills and stamina as such a small crew. I tested a ton of IR filters over the six-month period, a good polarizer and IR ND’s were mission-critical when shooting in full sun on the water all day. The turnaround times were extremely tight. In some cases, we were shooting, editing, sound mixing, and color grading most of our pieces all in the same day, so this job was a tremendous exercise in being efficient and getting exactly the shots we needed to tell our story.