Inside Look: The Crash Reel

A Comeback Story with a Difference.

Published on in Miscellaneous

This visually stunning film combines twenty years of stunning action footage with new specially-shot verité footage and interviews as it follows U.S. champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce and exposes the irresistible but potentially fatal appeal of extreme sports. 

An escalating rivalry between Kevin and his nemesis Shaun White in the run-up to the Olympics leaves Shaun on top of the Olympic podium and Kevin in a coma following a training accident. Kevin's family flies to his side and helps him rebuild his life as a brain injury survivor. But when he insists he wants to return to the sport he still loves, doctors caution him that even a small blow to the head could be enough to kill him. How much risk is too much? 

Get an inside look on the creation of this awe-inspiring documentary from DP, Nick Higgins.

Q: What was it like being part of such an amazing production? Who came up with the idea of creating this documentary, and what was it about the doc that made you want to take part?
Lucy Walker met Kevin Pearce at a Nike retreat that was set up to find mentors for young athletes. She saw his charisma, and as soon as she described the tip of the story to me, I knew I was in. 

Being part of this production was a thoroughly satiating filmmaking experience, as we definitely did not know how this story would pan out. On a personal level, I know I took home many lessons about how to be in a functional family from spending time with the Pearces. I channel them at home often. 

The camera isn't heavy when you know that you are shooting a scene that will definitely make the cut and we shot many scenes that were so rich that you just knew they'd make it to the big screen. There were many occasions during filming when I looked across the room at Lucy to say "wow" without using any words. The stakes for Kevin were very high, as we knew he wanted to get back on the slopes as soon as humanly possible and we knew from research that that was a risky business. After bonding with Kevin and meeting his wonderful family, we all felt the tension of the situation. We understood why he wanted to get back on his proverbial horse and why his family wanted him to proceed with caution. The drama was palpable, and we were along for the ride. 

Q: What was your go-to piece of equipment, and what were a few challenging aspects of creating and getting the shots needed?
I'm always hoping that no one is thinking about the camera being hand-held when they are watching the scenes I shoot, they are hopefully just watching the scenes and not getting seasick. My go-to piece of equipment to achieve this is my DVTEC ENG support rig. It's akin to what a flag bearer uses in a procession, a belt that you slot a rod into that takes the weight of the equipment you want to carry. It means I'm not relying on the brute strength of my arms to hold the camera. In the case of THE CRASH REEL, I started the production with my Panasonic HDX900 and switched midway through to the Canon C300. For both cameras I employed the DVTEC belt to take the weight off the camera for the veritè scenes. For the HDX900, I used the spring-loaded ENG support rod that comes with the belt. When I switched to the C300, I couldn't work out a good way to use the same rod, so I used a Gitzo monopod that’s screwed into the bottom of the camera and slotted the bottom of the monopod into the DVTEC belt. This system is important enough to me that I usually take two and split them in my cases so if one gets lost I have the other.  

Q: What was it about the Canon C300 that makes it an optimal choice to shoot with?
I really do enjoy shooting with the C300. It's optimal because it's so light, it works incredibly well with available light, and because it meant I would never again have the fear of being asked to shoot an active veritè scene on a 5D/7D. I never liked having to sweat both focus and exposure, preferring at the end of a scene to look at the director with confidence and say "we got it" as opposed to "I think we have it, but you know focus and exposure are incredibly hard to judge, etc etc."

The truth is, an ENG lens is the ideal tool for shooting veritè as they are fast, lightweight, smooth to operate and both incredibly wide and also long. The lens on my Panasonic HDX900 was the Fujinon 10x5 and I do miss its versatility. Unfortunately, due to the physics of a Super 35 chip, that type of lens is no longer an option so you either make do with EF lenses or lug a manual PL mount lens that’s much heavier than an ENG lens, but it’s neither as wide, long or fast. I've done it both ways on a C300 and can definitely shoot a scene effectively with either, but it’s not as easy or as smooth as it was on an ENG lens. All said, you could certainly argue that the images from a C300 are in fact more cinematic but from an operators perspective, I do dream about having both a Super 35 chip and an ENG lens, even if its not physically possible. I'm allowed to dream right?

Q: What has it been like following the career of Kevin Pearce? What is it about him that you find most inspiring?
Kevin Pearce always keeps moving forward. His work ethic while he was snowboarding was exceptional, and he continues to work hard at whatever he sets his mind to. Even with this film, he shows up at every Q&A he possibly can, worldwide. He could easily tap out and say he's done but he doesn't. Once Kevin commits to something, he has a determination and work ethic that will not be shaken. Despite the set backs and challenges his injury has dealt him, this is a guy who will succeed at whatever he puts his mind to because he wont stop until he has. 

Q: What piece of advice were you given early in your career that you still follow to this day?
When our class graduated from AFI's cinematography program in 2002, we were all floundering as we tried to work out what to do to get our wheels going and start building a career. At that stage the primary step took the form of making a reel on those dreaded VHS tapes. 

I read something that said if you were in Hollywood and you were over 18 you should consider specializing in something. The article said it was great to be well rounded, but if you came across as a jack of all trades then whatever job you went up for, you would eventually be up against a specialist and more often than not they'd pip you at the post. After reading that, I decided to make a play to become known as a documentary cinematographer as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades DP that shoots it all. It meant when a documentary job came up, I was up against lots of DP's whose reels reflected all the types of shooting they did e.g. scripted, music videos and occasionally even some of the filmmaking stepchild known as documentaries.  I made a reel that was 100% documentary and positioned myself as being committed to the art of documentary storytelling, period. Fortunately this strategy seemed to work well almost immediately and I started making decent headway very quickly thereafter.  For the record, I'm now a documentary DP that also shoots documentary-style commercials as Lucy and I just wrapped shooting a series of 8 doc-style commercials for TARGET. 

Q: What's something about this documentary that most people might not know?
Most people probably don't know that the ending of the film was very unclear right up until it was crafted in the edit by Lucy and our most talented editor Pedro Kos. This production really sailed into the great unknown and just kept going until it reached a place where the film actually landed at a satisfying place. It was truly an artistic leap of faith so kudos goes to Lucy for both identifying its potential and for shepherding the production all the way to its end. Indie documentary filmmaking at its best. 

Q: What was it like working with Lucy Walker on this doc? What did you learn from her?
I learned from Lucy that a small crew with a single camera is a really effective way to make people get over the fact that you are the elephant in the room by filming them. The smaller the footprint, the quicker people get back to some semblance of what it would be like if the elephant wasn't there. Lucy likes a crew of 2 or 3 people maximum as that way the filmmaking scene doesn't overwhelm the scene that you are there to capture. 

Lucy and I have now worked on more than a dozen productions in a half dozen countries so a lot of how we work now is based on a shared history. One really great working practice we have developed is that we can very efficiently check in during a scene to either confirm we are being "wowed,” which really only requires an eyebrow to be raised, or we can have a quick reality check if things seem to be panning out differently than expected. Of course, the unexpected can be cinema gold but some unexpecteds are not, e.g. the reluctant sun has now burst through the marine layer and it's now blowing out the scene, a subject seems uncomfortable and needs reassuring, someone new comes into the scene and is in an awkward blocking, etc. Sometimes there are minor interventions that Lucy can do to easily steer the scene back toward greener pastures without bursting the bubble of the moment, but this can only really happen if it's done quickly and without a lot of fuss. Over the years, we have gotten very fast at identifying filmmaking obstacles and determining which ones can be overcome and which ones we just need to roll with. From my perspective, the key is to have a light directorial hand that’s applied quickly and efficiently to the things it can affect. This Lucy has down. 

Q: What’s next for you? Do you have any projects/events on the horizon you are especially excited about?
I'm most excited about a filmmaking venture called the DEPARTMENT OF EXPANSION. With my partners KRISTINA ROBBINS (who is also my wife) and MARJ SAFINIA (who is also the President of the Board of Directors for the IDA), we are making films for people that are trying to affect positive change. Most recently we have been working with Sergey Brin's foundation to make films about the issues he has identified as being important e.g. the worlds looming feeding crisis and the juvenile justice system are two recent ventures. It makes me very proud to work on films that I can explain to my children as being important issues that society needs to deal with. With luck they'll be taking over our mantle soon enough. 

images & content courtesy of The Crash Reel & Nick Higgins

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