Three Sports Movies that Changed the POV Rules


How do you replicate the excitement and immersion of sport in movies? We look at some films that have successfully placed the audience in the midst of the action using POV camera techniques.

When the cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle was looking to shoot the movie Rush, he understood the allure of Formula One racing. It was glamorous, sensual even, and attractive for sure. But, at the same time it was diabolical and dangerous; he wanted the audience to feel all those things.

He also knew that there’s no better way to get your audience to feel what your characters are feeling than a POV shot.

Rush is the story of the 1976 Formula One season that pitted the methodical Austrian Niki Lauda against the cavalier Brit James Hunt. Dod Mantle would shoot the drama of their relationship, but fought to represent the danger of the racing. “You’re basically lying on a bomb, and there is something about that I found really interesting.”

The film managed to get hold of some replica cars and either built or borrowed the Hesketh, Ferrari, and McLaren that featured heavily in the racing.


Sliders on Cars

Having their own builds permitted, Dod Mantle and his crew started rigging cameras in and around the cars, including all the cabling. They used about thirty different cameras to capture the racing, including a camera for those unique close-up eyeball moments in the cockpit.

Rush Camera - Three Sports Movies that Changed the POV Rules
One of the sliders on the Ferrari allowed Anthony Dod Mantle to control movement from a follow vehicle. Image courtesy of www.indiecam.com.

He would have his “mule” cars, as he called his build vehicles, do the racing shots at around 150mph with cameras rigged front and back. Mantle would then bring in the more realistic cars for the ground cameras and helicopter to shoot. His small locked-in cameras he then used for closeups and other reasons. As for the controllable cameras, which he rigged on sliders, he was out on the track itself.

He would be strapped into an action car and try to make action moves at speed while looking at the vehicle in the situation. Mantle mainly shot on the ARRI cameras in RAW, but those smaller Indiecam (POV) cameras were limited to a 2K resolution. As they were the only way to capture the in-car footage, they would be blended in later as part of the grade.

Rush Slider Camera - Three Sports Movies that Changed the POV Rules
A locked Indiecam on the side of James Hunt’s car. Image courtesy of www.indiecam.com.

There are plenty of examples of motorsport in the movies. Recall The Fast and Furious franchise, Ford versus Ferrari, Speed Racer, and Need for Speed. All had their own ideas about how to capture the speed and the thrills. However, Dod Mantle only referenced one film while in pre-production for Rush, and that was 1966’s Grand Prix.

There were considerable differences in those days of production. For instance, movie stars drove cars rigged with huge film cameras. “For many years, that film has been seen as one of the milestones,” says Dod Mantle, but he realized that because of current health and safety regulations, he could never better it. “What the director John Frankenheimer did was incredible, but you can’t do that anymore.”


Hustle

PremiumBeat’s Daniel Cooper has written about basketball movies as a genre. However, I wanted to look at one recent movie which pushed farther than most to get us closer to the action, Netflix’s Hustle.

Director Jeremiah Zagar was initially unsure of taking on this movie, but star and producer Adam Sandler eventually persuaded him. Zagar was used to making provocative coming-of-age dramas and couldn’t find such undercurrents in Hustle until he looked at a different way to shoot it.

“You usually film basketball from the outside in, in the way you would watch it on TV,” Zagar commented, with the obvious conclusion being that he was going for inside out, so actually from the court. He compared his idea to boxing movies, usually shot inside the ring.

Actors Adam Sandler and Juancho Hernangomez in Netflix’s Hustle. Image courtesy Netflix

Raging Bull particularly moved Zagar by the way Scorcese shot it. “It’s fighting is stylistically different. Raging Bull had four fights, all of which were shot differently—we had four games in Hustle and wanted to do the same.”


Keeping it Close

To ramp up the differences, Zagar and his cinematographer Zak Mulligan built arms stretched out from the player’s stomachs. The camera rested on the ends so the operator could move with the actors. For their POV shots, they used tiny remote cars, the Tero from Freefly, with MoVI gimbaled cameras on board to drive through players’ legs from a knee perspective. They also shot from underneath Plexiglass floors and put cameras in balls. “We were trying to figure out different and fun ways to shoot the games.”

How do you replicate the excitement and immersion of sport in movies? We look at some films that have successfully placed the audience in the midst of the action using POV camera techniques.
Freefly’s Tero robotic vehicle was used for some low-down court shots. Image courtesy Freefly.

The main camera was the Sony Venice 6K. Zagar and Mulligan also used the Rialto, which is a sensor block-only remote camera with all the processing cabled to somewhere else, usually a camera assistant’s backpack to get very close to the play. During games they used a long lens on Adam Sandler’s character to emphasize the close focus tricks happening on the court.


Free Solo

Before mountaineer Alex Honnold was a VR star, he was an Oscar winner for his documentary film Free Solo. This isn’t a narrative tale, but an eyewitness doc about how Honnold climbed the rock face El Capitan without ropes.

Even though Free Solo is a documentary, cinematographer Jimmy Chin wanted to give it a cinematic look. This meant bigger 4K cameras and lenses and not small mirrorless or DSLR models, and no GoPros. This in itself was a considerable rigging challenge.

Free Solo - Three Sports Movies that Changed the POV Rules
The remarkable Alex Honnold in Free Solo climbs El Capitan without ropes. Image National Geographic.

The camera crew for the film had to be specialized, but thankfully such people are well-known in the small world of high-end mountaineering. For Free Solo, it included Jimmy himself alongside cinematographers Mikey Schaefer and Clair Popkin.

There were some hard-and-fast rules for Free Solo. The main one was that there weren’t to be any retakes, for obvious reasons. They had cameras with the crew but also on the ground with zooms and some remote cameras already set up on the route. This shot-by-shot basis pretty much made sure that all shots made the final cut.


Zooms and Close-ups

Jimmy was directing but also filming on his Canon EOS-1Dx. He handheld the camera for photo and video shooting as when you’re up there, you don’t need the extra weight of accessories. Just food for the day’s shooting, spare batteries, and suitable clothing if the weather changes.

They also couldn’t use drones as Yosemite had a rule against their use. Equally, they didn’t want the drone buzz bothering Alex as he climbed. Having said that, there was a helicopter shooting with a RED Epic Dragon 6k with a Canon 50-1000mm. They also used a Canon C300 MkII with primes for closer shooting.

Although he concentrated on getting the look of Free Solo as cinematic as possible, Chin admitted to one GoPro shot. Getting the bigger cameras up on the face paid off eventually when he collected the Oscar in 2019.


Cover image via Rush.

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